Title: House of Leaves
Rating: 5 Stars
Where do I even start? How do I sum up what I just went through? How do I contain this?
I guess I’ll start with the plot. My struggle summarizing the plot will probably go a long way towards explaining my struggles describing the novel itself.
There’s a famous war photographer named Will Navidson (known by all as Navy). He has a wife (Karen) and two children (Chad and Daisy). Because he’s always on the road for his work, he has not been a great husband or father.
Acknowledging that, he buys a house in a quiet neighborhood somewhere in Virginia. He intends to focus on his family. Because he is a photographer, he positions cameras throughout the house, with a goal of somehow producing a work demonstrating the normalcy of living a domestic life.
The domesticity starts to fray when suddenly a new room appears in the house. Navy and Karen are understandably confused. How did they never notice the room before? Navy investigates and comes to a stunning conclusion. The house is 1/4″ larger inside then it is outside.
Of course, this is impossible. He calls in his twin brother (Tom), a housing contractor, and an engineer friend, Billy Reston, to investigate. They all come together convinced that this is just a measurement problem and that they’ll quickly get to the bottom of it.
As they start investigating, they discover yet another door that previously never existed. This door leads to an entire labyrinth of nearly infinite size and complexity. Not only that, but it’s ever shifting (eg like a house made of leaves).
Not only that, but when they go into the labyrinth, which appears to be completely featureless, they occasionally hear something akin to a growl or a roar. Is there a monster down there? Could it be a Minotaur?
Eventually, several expeditions are made to investigate, to plumb the depths of the labyrinth. The limits are never reached and several people die in the attempt. Navy himself nearly dies.
All this time, extensive film footage is being collected. Navy, with the help of Karen, edits the film into a movie length documentary (The Navidson Record). The film is released by Miramax and is championed by the Weinstein brothers. Many celebrities and intellectuals comment upon it, including Stephen King, Harold Bloom, Hunter S Thompson, and Camille Paglia. It becomes fairly well known and becomes the subject of many celebrity and academic books and articles.
That’s the inner plot. The next layer plot features a blind writer named Zampano. He has made it his life’s work to perform an analysis of The Navidson Record. He obsessively compiles every note and comment that he can find on it. Ultimately, this drives him to isolation and probable madness.
One day, he is found dead. It appears to be natural causes, but huge scratch marks are dug out of the floor near him (perhaps the work of the monster Minotaur?) Another man, Johnny Truant, looking for an apartment, checks out Zampano’s apartment. He does not choose the apartment, but interested in all of the notes that Zampano took regarding The Navidson Record, takes the chest of notes back to his place.
Johnny spends many months arranging and rearranging Zampano’s notes into some semblance of order. As he does so, he himself begins to descend into isolation and madness, at several points he is sure that he is being stalked and about to be attacked by some kind of monster as well.
So, House of Leaves is Zampano’s analysis of The Navidson Report (complete with his copious footnotes); which in turn is annotated by Truant’s own copious footnotes concerning his analysis of The Navidson Report, his comments on Zampano’s notes, as well as notes about his ongoing descent into madness; which in turn is annotated by an anonymous editor, who footnotes the Navidson Report, Zampano’s footnotes, and Truant’s footnotes.
Got all of that? Usually, I can do a plot description in 100 words or less. I’m already almost up to 700.
Let’s talk about the complexity of the book. The text is formatted to match the action. Therefore, when Navy is stuck in a narrow crevice, the entire page only consists of two lines. When a character is in the crazy structure of the labyrinth, the text is sometimes angled off to the side, sometimes it’s upside some down, sometimes it’s mirror writing.
The book communicates in many languages. There are quotes in French, German, Russian, and Spanish. Part of the text is in braille. Part of the text is in Morse code.
Although Zampano and Truant both appear to be writing the truth, the truth itself is elusive. Zampano heavily quotes from The Navidson Report, quotes intellectuals for their comments, and references literally hundreds of critical articles and books concerning the documentary. However, Truant can’t find the film anywhere. The few celebrities that respond to him deny all knowledge of The Navidson Report. He travels to Virginia and can find no evidence that the house ever existed (although does come across a 17th century first person diary that appears to reference the labyrinth).
So, in the universe of House Of Leaves, does The Navidson Report exist? Does the house exist? Does the labyrinth exist? What does the labyrinth represent? Does the monster exist?
Or is this all just from the fertile mind of Johnny Truant? We learn from an appendix of his mom’s letters that she has a serious mental illness and that Johnny had a truly horrible upbringing that included his mom trying to strangle him as a child. Is the empty, sterile, yet dangerous labyrinth Johnny’s relationship to his mother?
All the time that Danielewski is weaving this magic he is also making tip of the hat references to David Foster Wallace (committing suicide by microwave), Borges (seriously, Pierre Menard joke? what the serious fuck?) and to Thomas Pynchon, and probably many others that I’m simply not smart enough to catch.
And oh yeah, you want a little more meta in your literature? How about Navy, stuck in the labyrinth, knowing that he’s about to die, and is running out of light. He decides to read a book. He has one match left. He lights it, quickly reads a page, tears it out, lights it, reads the next page, tears that out, lights it, etc. The book he’s reading? House of Leaves!
Not quite enough? Later, Johnny is listening to a band. They play a song that reminds him of what he just went through. He goes up to them to talk about it. They excitedly tell him that they were inspired by a book that they’d just read. They show the book to him. House of Leaves!
So, yeah, this is one bad-ass motherfucker of a book.
But here’s the thing, believe it or not, it was a sheer joy to read. There were times where I quite simply couldn’t put it down. I was expecting to take a month to read it, but I had some time during a break and I finished it in three days.
Not only was I intellectually challenged, but there were times when I legit laughed out loud. I’ve haven’t done that with such a serious piece of literature since Infinite Jest.
Infinite Jest is the work that I kept coming back to. House of Leaves suffers from much of the same flaws as Infinite Jest, in that Danielewski is clearly brilliant and extremely well-learned and so he just throws everything into the work in a ‘look ma no hands’ kind of show-offy way, very reminiscent of Foster Wallace. However, the fact that they both can and do back it up with what can only be described as a literary masterpiece makes it all worth it.
So, yeah, if what I just wrote here sounds fun, go out and read it now.
If you’re sitting here and are thinking WTF, well maybe you should heed the book’s dedication:
This is not for you