(I’m writing more than a month after I’ve finished reading the book, a month after having an illuminating face-to-face discussion with my reading buddies Monique and Angus. Does that mean I’ve fully processed it and teased out its true meaning? Hell no.)
This is the kind of book that challenges you to love it. And by that I don’t simply refer to the ornery nature of its text. House of Leaves throws so many negative things your way that makes you want to qualify how much you like it–not only the brash postmodernist posturing, but also its violence, its claustrophobic dive into several unquiet minds. But it also works doubly hard to win you back over to its side, reaching for honest sentiment and often enough grasping it.
Johnny Truant throws a final, emotionally upsetting wrench into the narrative in the closing sections of the House of Leaves, driving home the ever-present idea that he is indeed the most unreliable of narrators. I won’t spoil too much and simply say that it involves some upsetting imagery, but his storytelling still lends these events a sheen of manic unreality. Thematically, I understand what the section is trying to achieve, but I found that act of reading it a chore.
And I got to be honest: the idea that the plot twist for this book is ~it was all in his/her mind all along~ would make the book profoundly less interesting for me. I may have to fall somewhere in the middle, i.e., that The Navidson Record as a document is wholly fictitious but that Johnny Truant, Zampano, and Pelafina are real—for a given value of “real.”
However, one thing that I hadn’t put together beforehand and was reinforced by the Johnny section is a thematic connection of Pelafina’s ultimate fate with Will’s actions in the The Navidson Record. Somewhere in the manuscript Zampano compares the act of Will going back into the house with Jonah entering the belly of the whale. At another point, Johnny Truant remembers how his father, upon being asked why his mother has left them, told him that Pelafina was “swallowed by the Whale[stoe].” I have a hard time believing that this echo(!) is not deliberate.
Will Navidson entering the house a final time felt a little bit anticlimactic as I was reading it, but thanks to my lunch with Monique and Angus, the significance of that chapter took a whole new dimension for me. We talked about his highly symbolic act of burning a book titled House of Leaves. Sure, that much is pretty metafictional in and of itself, but it gets even more mind-bendy once you take into account some things:
- Yggdrassil (in the very last page of the book) is an ash tree that holds up the world in Norse mythology.
- The House is in Ash Tree Lane.
- A tree is a “house of leaves.”
- A book is also a house of leaves (a leaf is the sheet of book paper, each side of it is a page).
- The Navidson was reading House of Leaves as he was burning it.
- Navidson burned a book and a house (of leaves). He also a burned a tree. A tree that holds up the sky.
The last thing I’d like to note is how important the communal aspect of the reading experience was for me. When I first tried to read HoL a long time ago, it felt like such an alienating life experience. There was this big, ungraspable thing that I was going into but I had no one to share it with. It might seem a tad overdramatic, but it really was the way I felt at the time. But talking it out with Reading Buddies, the kind of people who are going through it like you, is like that thread back to the real world that the people of enter the house on Ash Tree Lane struggle to have. I would also argue that the communal experience is as much a theme of the book as anything else, if you think about the cult status of The Navidson Record and even the putative cult status of the Zampano document later on.
I gave this book five stars on Goodreads, because the book doesn’t accept limits and neither does it accept lukewarm feelings.