Jorge Luis Borges once wrote of the book that was also a labyrinth. Decades later Mark Z. Danielewski decided to write it. House of Leaves is ostensibly about a man who slowly goes mad while editing an academic work by a blind man about a film about a haunted house. But by the end, the narrative has taken on a whole new dimension as this book starts to take over the reader’s own thoughts and begins to skew one’s actual perspectives on reality. This may well be the greatest book I’ve ever read and yet such a feeling of relief washed over me once I’d finished it. Because I was finally free of its influence.
The story itself is densely layered and meticulously crafted. At the basic level there is the movie of a family called the Navidsons who discover that their house defies all spatial properties. A hallway appears that leads to a cavernous labyrinth. On a further meta-level there is the story of the writer Zampanò who may or may not have made the story of the Navidson film up: the bulk of the text consists of his academic treatise on the film. House of Leaves has been called a satire of academic criticism and it does this wonderfully: it conjures a large scholarship around this fictional film replete with footnotes, references, pretentious academic sayings. The final meta-level up from this is the story of Johnny Truant, a psychologically damaged young man living in LA who serves as the unreliable narrator for the novel. His back-story is a story unto itself. An appendix features letters from his institutionalised mother which are a pleasure to read and decrypt all on their own. Three levels of narrative layered on top of one another. And they’re all as detailed as each other. The effect is like trying to put together three puzzles at once and leaves the reader flicking through the book and the copious appendices.
It’s this level of density and having to manoeuvre around within the book that creates the sensation of getting lost. As Navidson and his family descend deeper into the labyrinth during the fateful Exploration #4, the reader finds herself getting increasingly lost. As the house begins to pervade more and more into the lives of the characters, the formatting of the novel grows more eccentric. At one point I actually got lost in the winding main text and the footnotes leading to ever-widening corridors. The effect is thoroughly disorienting and strangely intoxicating.
This is a book that is incredibly psychologically affecting. It’s terrifying in and of itself but reading it deeper and getting involved in the story produces the effect of going mad. Subtle connections between disparate parts of the book begin to appear. Little details make one wonder who the characters really are and if the story can be taken for granted at all. Was it Karen or Johnny’s mother who practiced smiling as a child? Didn’t Zampanò use that same phrase a few chapters back? It makes the reader feel as though they’re suffering from apophenia and getting increasingly paranoid.
Perhaps the book was so successful on my reading because it brought together so many themes that fascinate me. Labyrinths, ancient mythology, the insular communities of academic scholarship, descent into madness, motion picture theory, contradictions, excruciating detail, unreality, the styles of Jorge Luis Borges and Edgar Allen Poe, profound quotations, meta-fiction, unreliable narrators, experimental structure, Continental philosophy (phenomenology, existentialism, Derrida, Heidegger and Sartre), spatial anomalies, and a plethora of tertiary material in the appendices. For me it became the epitome of what a novel can be: an intricate labyrinth exploring the depths of human consciousness and the pure poetry of beautifully crafted prose.
House of Leaves is a book that is complex, deeply involving, and one that shows what fiction is capable of; how affected humans can become when reading. By the end one realises that the book itself is the house – a house of pages (leaves). The book was the labyrinth all along and getting out of it without being consumed is such a relief even though you’ll carry something of the darkness you’ve seen within you for evermore.