House of Leaves, is more or less, a purported transcription by a guy named Johnny Truant of a manuscript he finds in a dead man’s apartment. He gradually becomes convinced the work of transcribing it is causing a malevolent supernatural presence to manifest in his life. Truant is nothing if not an unreliable narrator. He veers between confiding that he capriciously altered the dead man’s words for his own purposes to omitting individual and contextually unambiguous letters from damaged leaves. He injects himself in not the text through copious semi-autobiographical footnotes, initially on the pretext of documenting the Bad Stuff the manuscript is bringing him. His life mostly follows a familiar millennial seedy LA pattern of drink, drugs, and womanizing, but sometimes Truant spins off on weird tangents. Many of these are barely (or just plain not) lucid, but some evoke other texts, with instructions for pronouncing the ‘f’-word a la the opening of Nabokov’s most famous creepfest perhaps the most blatant allusion. (There’s also another footnote voice which at least pretends editorial objectivity and knows things Truant doesn’t know; and finally there are a few quirks of diction that undermine the notion that Truant and the dead man are really distinct authorial voices.)
(Still with me? Onward.)
The manuscript, meanwhile, is a sort of (incomplete and perhaps deliberately damaged and/or censored) faux academic treatise on a film. It cites an extensive body of scholarship about this film and the personages involved as well as more general topics. (Like the film itself, many of the referenced works don’t exist either in Truant’s reality or ours, but some you can readily find in a real-world library.)
The film itself documents what initially seems to be a distinctly Amityvillish haunting, but the occurrences quickly become more like the manifestation of some ideal of a labyrinth in/around the house (not a Platonic ideal: more Derrida-inspired – Danielewski’s involvement in a film about the philosopher is clearly no coincidence). The haunted family actually includes the filmmaker, a noted photojournalist, and the family structure has at least superficial points of commonality with Danielewski’s own family. (The book also references the lyrics of Danielewski’s sister who records as the musician Poe; her album Haunted likewise references House of Leaves.)
Since Truant’s word is all we have for anything that transpires in the book, it’s at least theoretically possible to read it as a supernatural novel in which everything Truant describes literally happens, or as a naturalistic novel chronicling Truant’s descent into madness, but I think the structure of the book — in every sense of the word “structure” — rails against the idea that any single interpretation could ever be valid. Reading it is a bit like following threads through a labyrinth of plot and narrative layers. But beyond that, the book as a physical object is itself labyrinthine. The reader must literally turn it from side to side, flip pages back and forward, and parse acrostics. It’s the most extreme example of ergodic literature I’ve yet encountered.
There’s no doubt it’s an impressive feat, and I’m glad I finally read it, but it didn’t engage me on all levels. It made me realize that I generally prefer literature that makes me wonder after the fact his the trick was accomplished to books that call attention to the trick as it is executed. But Infinite Jest is pretty showy too, and many superficial commonalities kept calling it to mind (footnotes critical to the plot, elaborate history of an imaginary filmmaker, clinical depression). I felt House of Leaves suffered by comparison; its are-you-inside-or-are-you-outside? games engaged my head but ultimately not my heart.