How to Write a Story within a Story: Sucked into House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Danielewski House of Leaves How to Write a Complicated Story

Reposting this book review of one of the scariest books I’ve ever read in honor of the approaching Halloween/Samhain holiday! Get lost in the literary haunted house that is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and enjoy a little bit of Reading for Writers to get you spooked and in the mood!

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is a stupefying maze of a book. It is a story within a story within a story which defies the conventions of traditional page formatting and linear narrative. The strengths of this book lie in the way that its strangeness and its narratives come together to leave the reader with some very strong overall impressions.

The main text of House of Leaves is a faux-academic examination of a non-existent film entitled The Navidson Record. The film is a documentary(?) that deals with the Navidson family, who moves into a house which begins to expand, shift, and change dimensions as they live in it. The academic exploration of the film is written by Zampanò, a blind man (yes, who is writing about a film) who dies while writing this treatise. The text is then found by Johnny Truant, who takes it on to try to complete it, inserting his own life as footnotes alongside the academic footnotes of Zampanò. Truant goes insane while working on the book, which is then found, edited and published by nameless editors, who also add their own footnotes. This is presumably the status of the text when it reaches the reader.

The theoretical examination of The Navidson Record is a clear riff on academic writing. It is written formal language and is footnoted with hundreds of academic articles to back up the theories that Zampanò espouses. The problem with this is that try as Johnny Truant might, he cannot find evidence that the film being theorized about even exists. Some of the footnotes come from sources that do actually exist (thanks to the comps list, I was familiar with Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air), but most of the sources do not. Danielewski (or Zampanò?) even goes so far as to quote actual people supposedly giving their take on The Navidson Record, including such well-known people as Anne Rice and Susan Sontag. This makes The Navidson Record seem like a notable film and the reader must constantly remind herself that not only are the theories and quotes mostly made up, the film itself does not exist.

This academic writing completely falls apart as the book progresses. The text itself spins out of control, the words of Zampanò’s theories literally turn upside-down, go down staircases, and run across the page. He begins writing nonsensical footnotes that appear in boxes in the middle of the page, run on forever in lists, and bleed through to the other side so that the reader is reading the text both forward and backwards. German and French litter the pages, sometimes untranslated. There is braille, musical notation, and ASCII pictures. Each time the word “house” is mentioned in any language, it appears in blue and slightly askew.

The footnotes also refer the reader to several “Exhibits” and “Appendices” in the back of the book. These contain photographs, lists of things that Zampanò plan to include but which are never found, and collections of poetry. The most notable of these contains a series of letters to Johnny Truant from his mother. She writes these while in a mental institution and they range from traditional-seeming letters to letters with scattered text to letters in secret code. The reader is referred to these letters early on and this helps the reader understand how to read other parts of the book.

The main reason that all this is tolerable is that it fits so well with the story itself. Like the house in The Navidson Record, the book folds in on itself, containing story within story. It is a maze, just like the house is, and the reader must navigate it in the same way that Will Navidson must navigate his house. It is impossible for the reader not to get lost in it. This mirrors the experience of both the people in The Navidson Record and Zampanò and Truant, who, as they are writing about the film, get lost in the darkness that the theoretical explorations suggest. Instead of being alienating gimmicks, the nuances of the book pull the reader in, making her feel like one more layer in the maze of stories that make up the book. The only way this effect could be more effective is if the book left space for the reader to footnote her own experience of researching the film (which I will admit to attempting, even knowing it didn’t exist) and reading the text. For my own part, I was so engrossed in House of Leaves that I felt nearly compelled to add footnotes that recounted what was happening in my world, that the leaves were falling, darkness was multiplying, and my house, like the Navidson house, seemed to be emitting a low growl.

*This post is part of a series on the craft of writing called Reading for Writers.  This series examines a variety of authors to ascertain the choices they’ve made in their writing and the effects of those choices so that we as writers can make better decisions in our own writing. May contain affiliate links.

10 thoughts on “How to Write a Story within a Story: Sucked into House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski”

  1. There’s another great one like this called “S.” The physical book looks like a library book though called “The Ship of Theseus”.

    You should check it out, it even has maps and small paper props/notes between the pages.

  2. Hands-down my favorite novel ever! It’s a salient point that the experimental format reflects and enhances the thematic resonances, though; I never could get into Danielewski’s other work. Still, “House of Leaves” is the one that made me fall in love with experimental meta-writing, and led me to discover Nabokov’s “Pale Fire”, among others.

  3. This sounds fabulously intimidating! I’m totally a fan of metafiction and literary Inception, but just reading your review makes me wonder if I’ve only dipped my toes into the genre so far. This sounds like The Princess Bride drank a triple-shot espresso and said, “Now, let’s *really* do this.”

    The most recent meta novel I read was The City of Dreaming Books, by Walter Moers, and I highly recommend it if you’re in the mood for an absurdist ode/roast of the entire concept of bibliophilia.

  4. House of Leaves has been on my TBR for awhile. I need to get to it. I am super intrigued by the bizarre text layout as the book progresses. Hm, maybe I should put it on my Christmas list in case Dear Husband asks what I want for Christmas!

  5. I started reading this book last year, and for some reason put it down (I blame four hormonal teenagers and a menopausal wife), but am finding myself inspired to dust it off and begin where I left off!

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