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Onyx reviews: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

Just when it seems that the Internet is going to revolutionize the publishing industry, along comes a book like House of Leaves to show that there are still fresh ideas left in conventional publishing.

House of Leaves defies easy description. At the core is a Blair Witch-type documentary called The Navidson Record, filmed by award winning photojournalist Will Navidson, who has discovered that the inside of his house is bigger than the outside. Filled bookshelves somehow expand to provide new space. The ultimate discovery is a new door that leads into a realm of incomprehensible magnitude: hallways, doors and spiral staircases, all of which shrink and expand unpredictably. A staircase that can be descended in minutes may take days to ascend. Navidson brings in a team of explorers to map out this uncharted territory, filming the entire expedition. At one point, Navidson, on his own, ventures several hundred miles on his bicycle down a seemingly endless corridor.

Wrapped around this documentary is the main text of House of Leaves, a manuscript written by blind Zampanò, who has constructed a detailed, annotated analysis of The Navidson Record. After Zampanò's death, the disorganized pages fall into the hands of Johnny Truant, a disturbed young man who prepares the book for publication.

Truant, who works in a tattoo shop, bears the scars of childhood trauma. His mother was institutionalized shortly before his father died. He was passed from one foster home to another, where he often suffered physical abuse. Truant becomes obsessed with House of Leaves, especially when he considers the irony of a blind man writing about a film that he could never have seen.

Insofar as Truant can tell, no one has ever seen The Navidson Record. He can find no proof that any of the events that are documented in Zampanò's book happened, even though it is replete with footnotes to seemingly legitimate sources. Truant adds his own layer of annotation, documenting facts pertaining to the source material, but also injecting lengthy passages that have no bearing on the film or the manuscript. Truant's life is a shambles and his work on House of Leaves is leading to an emotional breakdown.

As Zampanò's story describes the amazing expedition into the inner chamber of the Navidson home, the typescript reflects the bending of space that the explorers discover. Words are printed upside down, backwards or diagonally across pages. When a room expands suddenly, the text spreads out such that only a single word appears on a page. When the team is trapped at the foot of a seemingly unmountable staircase, only a few lines are printed at the bottom of each page, with the weight of all of that empty space above them.

The footnotes, too, take on a creative design. On occasion, a single footnote will go on for pages, limited to a square box in the middle of a page, like a column of text through the book. Annotations often refer to appendices and exhibits that the reader will find are missing from the manuscript.

The challenge for the reader is to keep track of the two diverging threads in the book—Zampanò's exegesis and Truant's increasingly intrusive annotations. Readers will also begin to discover what parts of the book can be safely ignored (e.g. footnotes containing lengthy listings of architectural styles) and what is crucial to understanding the tale. House of Leaves is probably not for everyone, but those who persevere will be rewarded with an experience that will not soon be forgotten.

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