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House of Leaves is the debut novel by American author Mark Z. Danielewski, published in March 2000 by Pantheon Books. A bestseller, it has been translated into a number of languages, and is followed by a companion piece, The Whalestoe Letters.

The plot is centered on a (possibly fictional) documentary about a family whose house is impossibly larger on the inside than the outside. The format and structure of House of Leaves is unconventional, with unusual page layout and style, making it a prime example of ergodic literature. It contains copious footnotes, many of which contain footnotes themselves, including references to fictional books, films or articles. In contrast, some pages contain only a few words or lines of text, arranged in strange ways to mirror the events in the story, often creating both an agoraphobic and a claustrophobic effect. At points, the book must be rotated to be read. The novel is also distinctive for its multiple narrators, who interact with each other in elaborate and disorienting ways.

While some have attempted to describe the book as a horror story, many readers, as well as the author, define the book as a love story. Danielewski expands on this point in an interview: "I had one woman come up to me in a bookstore and say, 'You know, everyone told me it was a horror book, but when I finished it, I realized that it was a love story.' And she's absolutely right. In some ways, genre is a marketing tool." House of Leaves has also been described as a "satire of academic criticism."

Plot

House of Leaves begins with a first-person narrative by Johnny Truant, a Los Angeles tattoo parlor employee and professed unreliable narrator. Truant is searching for a new apartment when his friend Lude tells him about the apartment of the recently deceased Zampanò, a blind, elderly man who lived in Lude's apartment building.

In Zampanò's apartment, Truant discovers a manuscript written by Zampanò that turns out to be an academic study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record directed by an acclaimed photojournalist named Will Navidson, though Truant says he can find no evidence that the film or its subjects ever existed.

The rest of the novel incorporates several narratives, including Zampanò's report on the (possibly fictional) film; Truant's autobiographical interjections; a small transcript of part of the film from Navidson's brother, Tom; a small transcript of interviews of many people regarding The Navidson Record by Navidson's partner, Karen; and occasional brief notes by unidentified editors, all woven together by a mass of footnotes. There is also another narrator, Truant's mother, whose voice is presented through a self-contained set of letters titled The Whalestoe Letters. Each narrator's text is printed in a distinct font, making it easier for the reader to follow the occasionally challenging format of the novel (Truant in Courier New in the footnotes, and the main narrative in Times New Roman in the American version, the unnamed editors are in Bookman, and the letters from Johnny's mother are in Dante).

The Navidson Record

Zampanò's narrative deals primarily with the Navidson family: Will Navidson, a photojournalist (partly based on Kevin Carter); his partner, Karen Green, an attractive former fashion model; and their two children, Chad and Daisy. Navidson's brother, Tom, and several other characters also play a role later in the story. The Navidson family has recently moved into a new home in Virginia.

Upon returning from a trip to Seattle, the Navidson family discovers a change in their home. A closet-like space shut behind an undecorated door appears inexplicably where previously there was only a blank wall. A second door appears at the end of the closet, leading to the children's room. As Navidson investigates this phenomenon, he finds that the internal measurements of the house are somehow larger than external measurements. Initially there is less than an inch of difference, but as time passes the interior of the house seems to expand while maintaining the same exterior proportions. A third and more extreme change asserts itself: a dark, cold hallway opens in an exterior living room wall that should project outside into their yard, but does not. Navidson films the outside of the house to show where the hallway should be but clearly is not. The filming of this anomaly comes to be referred to as "The Five and a Half Minute Hallway". This hallway leads to a maze-like complex, starting with a large room (the "Anteroom"), which in turn leads to a truly enormous space (the "Great Hall"), a room primarily distinguished by an enormous spiral staircase which appears, when viewed from the landing, to spiral down without end. There is also a multitude of corridors and rooms leading off from each passage. All of these rooms and hallways are completely unlit and featureless, consisting of smooth ash-gray walls, floors, and ceilings. The only sound disturbing the perfect silence of the hallways is a periodic low growl, the source of which is never fully explained, although an academic source "quoted" in the book hypothesizes that the growl is created by the frequent re-shaping of the house.

There is some discrepancy as to where "The Five and a Half Minute Hallway" appears. It is quoted by different characters at different times to have been located in each of the cardinal directions. This first happens when Zampanò writes that the hallway is in the western wall (page 57), directly contradicting an earlier page where the hallway is mentioned to be in the northern wall (page 4); Johnny's footnotes point out the contradiction.

Navidson, along with his brother Tom and some colleagues, feel compelled to explore, photograph, and videotape the house's seemingly endless series of passages, eventually driving various characters to insanity, murder, and death. Ultimately, Will releases what has been recorded and edited as The Navidson Record.

Will and Karen purchase the house because their relationship is becoming strained with Will's work-related absences. While Karen is always adamantly against marriage (claiming that she values her freedom above anything else), she always finds herself missing and needing Will when he is gone: "And yet even though Karen keeps Chad from overfilling the mold or Daisy from cutting herself with the scissors, she still cannot resist looking out the window every couple of minutes. The sound of a passing truck causes her to glance away" (pages 11–12).

Zampanò's narrative includes references to Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Douglas Hofstadter, Ken Burns, Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia, Hunter Thompson, Anne Rice, and Jacques Derrida to indicate that the Navidsons' story achieved international notoriety.

Many of the references in Zampanò's footnotes, however, are real, existing both within his world and the world outside the novel. For example, several times Zampanò cites an actual Time-Life book, Planet Earth: Underground Worlds (page 125).

Johnny's story

An adjacent story line develops in Johnny's footnotes, detailing what is progressing in Johnny's life as he is assembling the narrative. It remains unclear if Johnny's obsession with the writings of Zampanò and subsequent delusions, paranoia, etc. are the result of drug use, insanity, or the effects of Zampanò's writing itself. Johnny recounts tales of his various sexual encounters, his lust for a tattooed dancer he calls Thumper, and his bar-hopping with Lude throughout various footnotes. The reader also slowly learns more about Johnny's childhood living with an abusive foster father, engaging in violent fights at school, and of the origin of Johnny's mysterious scars (page 505). More information about Johnny can be gleaned from the Whalestoe Letters, letters his mother Pelafina wrote from The Three Attic Whalestoe Institution. Though Pelafina's letters and Johnny's footnotes contain similar accounts of their past, their memories also differ greatly at times, due to both Pelafina's and Johnny's questionable mental states. Pelafina was placed in the mental institution after supposedly attempting to strangle Johnny, only to be stopped by her husband. She remained there after Johnny's father's death. Johnny claims that his mother meant him no harm and claimed to strangle him only to protect him from missing her. It is unclear, however, if Johnny's statements about the incident—or any of his other statements, for that matter—are factual.

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