What lies at the heart of House of Leaves is a labyrinth, one carefully concealed inside a seemingly benign house. Or is it? After Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Will Navidson, his estranged partner, Karen Green, and their two children move into the house on Ash Tree Lane, they discover that the place is slightly bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. What follows is a warped descent into the unseen depths of Will’s residence, a blind man’s manuscript, and a tattoo artist’s obsession with both the house and the otherworldly beast within that hungers for something elusive…
House of Leaves is Mark Z. Danielewski’s first book and a colossal work of experimental fiction. Woven together with the precision of an architect drafting a floor plan, the novel spans three narrative layers. At the surface, we are introduced to Zampanó, a blind man who holes up in his apartment after finding a manuscript regarding Will’s life, which is recorded in a series of video recordings titled The Navidson Record. After Zampanó’s sudden death, his manuscript falls into the hands of one Johnny Truant, a coked-out tattoo artist whose lust and loneliness crash into him and fuel his obsession with Zampanó’s research. But it’s the story held within those pages that tells perhaps the most sinister tale. Will Navidson is a former photojournalist who moves with his lover and their two kids into a quaint two-story home on Ash Tree Lane. As the Navidsons begin to settle into normalcy, their abode shifts and warps in unexpected ways. New doors and hallways materialize out of thin air. From somewhere deep within the endless abyss, there arises the distant cry of a single beast – The Minotaur.
Plot as a Maze
The narrative itself may be the most formidable part of House of Leaves. Intricacy after intricacy are layered with as much enigma as human consciousness. The text on certain pages twists and spirals, literally mirroring the downward descent that Will completes with his expedition team of three brave souls. Geometry and spatial awareness themselves become the true horror. Danielewski knows how to manipulate language and tap fully into our fear of the illogical; I found myself mystified and unsettled at several points throughout the book, not just by the unpredictable nature of the house, but also by the demons plaguing every single character.
Characters and Inner Demons
Every break in physical reality is closely matched by the struggles and inner turmoil of the actors on this upside-down stage. Will is haunted not only by his rocky relationship with Karen, but also by the photo that earned him his Pulitzer Prize: a starving girl crawling on the ground in a war-torn third-world country, a vulture looming just behind her skeletal figure. Similarly, Zampanó becomes increasingly reclusive and deranged as he transcribes The Navidson Record, which is the series of photos, text, and film that Will recorded while descending into the impossible spaces of his home’s belly. Johnny Truant endures multiple brushes with drugs, sex, and psychosis, all of which push him to the edge of sanity. There is no past, present, or future; all of the events within the novel’s three layers overlap and bleed into each other.
Other supporting characters include Will’s more easygoing and even-keeled brother, Tom, as well as the three members of Will’s expedition team:
Holloway Roberts, Jed Leeder, and Wax Hook. Holloway, a pragmatic and cunning hunter type, is quickly eaten away by his own insanity as their team tries to hunt down the Minotaur. Karen and the two children, Chad and Daisy, are also well-developed players whose own motives and fears arise time and time again. Absent are the tropes of heroism, sexism, and valiant family struggles. There are only very real people facing off against the absence of reason.
House of Leaves, like the works of David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon, is a serious exercise in ergodic literature, meaning that the reader has to put forth serious effort and analysis in order to fully make sense of the text. For many, this feat is simply too monumental, and who can blame them for not making it through the maze? While grand and unforgettable, this book did strike me as a bit too self-aware and even over-aggrandized at times. There is a very satisfying rebuttal against the trite nature of American literary criticism within these pages. It’s only after you accept the ever-shifting spaces that the true message becomes clearer. Come to terms with the fact that there is no absolute closure, and you may find that the infinite nature of House of Leaves is utterly surreal and unshakable, indeed.
🌟 🌟 🌟 🌟 1/2 out of 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟