On page 147 of House of Leaves there’s a quote attributed to Sonny Beauregarde that reads: “Were it not for the fact that this is a supreme gothic tale, we’d have bought the whole think hook, line and sinker.”
Which is really the only way I can think of to describe this book.
House of Leaves has a complex narrative structure that makes it hard to describe what the plot is about, but here’s a rough attempt: after a lonely old man named Zampanò passes away, lowlife Johnny Truant finds a stack of notes in his apartment, along with a set of mysterious scratches in the wooden floor. He takes the notes home and begins to read them. They appear to be Zampanò’s attempt at an academic essay about a film named The Navidson Records, in which filmmaker Will Navidson documents the strange events that happen in his house: one day, a random doorway appears in the living room, leading into a dark hallway that defies the laws of physics. Before long, Johnny is obsessed. Strange shadows and sounds begin to appear from the corners of his eye, he begins having terrifying hallucinations and is constantly weighed down by a sense of unease. There is also a series of letters, the Whalestoe letters, increasingly incoherent letters sent by Johnny’s mother who resides in a mental institution, that are used to explain Johnny’s tragic childhood.
The plot, though, is more of a sidenote in an increasingly complex experiment in the way narrative shapes a story. The main text is Zampanò’s essay and it is graced with copious footnotes full of sources that, as Johnny discovers, don’t always exist; neither, in fact, does The Navidson Records itself. Johnny himself adds footnotes too to tell his own story. Aside from footnotes, the novel uses typography to indicate space in the Navidson house; there are parts in braille and parts printed upside down or mirrored. Some pages have only a few words printed on them; others are a dense mess of jumbled text.
House of Leaves leans heavily on postmodernist theory, though it knows this, casually mentioning names like Barthes and Piaget alongside tales of a stripper named Thumper. If anything, this makes interpretation of the novel impossible. Take Johnny, for example: a Millenial Bukowski, a dropout from the fosters system with a dead end job and not particularly intelligent, yet he describes his surroundings with an elegeic turn of phrase that hardly fits his character. He might be an underachiever, downtrodden by a relentlessly brutal childhood; or perhaps he’s a parody of the protagonist of many a Great American Novel. Who knows?
And then there’s the house itself, expanding and shrinking and baffling, bathing in darkness with ominous growls in the distance, tempting and luring some and unsettling and repulsing others. Because Zampanò’s text has the form of a heavily annotated essay full of quotes and explanations from literary and cinematic theorists explaining the deeper meaning of the house and the documentary, the purpose of the house in House of Leaves becomes laughably muddled, jauntily mocking academia. Or maybe it’s trying to tell me something else; I’m lost here.
So does it work? That depends on your perspective. It certainly works as an experiment in postmodernism and narrative. Simultaneously I constantly had the idea I was being toyed with; Danielewski might just have well printed the words ANALYSE THIS, BITCHES at the beginning of the novel. As a story it’s never quite as gripping; this was the first book I read after giving birth and I would have been better off picking something that didn’t quite require as much effort as this one.
Did I like it? I don’t know, but I can’t stop thinking about it. For that alone it’s worth a look. If, however, you’re interested in reading a good story, give it a miss.