When Will Navidson and his family return to their recently-acquired house in Virginia, after a short trip to Seattle, a few things have changed. The dimensions of the house for one thing: it is now larger on the inside than the outside. And there are some doors there which weren't there before. One of them, which from its position should lead into the garden, opens into a vast, dark labyrinth.
Navidson, a photojournalist by trade, is determined to explore the cavernous depths of the house and begins filming his explorations. The film, eventually released as The Navidson Record, is the subject of House of Leaves, a book written by blind author Zampanos and discovered, in disordered fragments, after his death by our narrator Johnny Truant.
With me so far?
Truant pieces the manuscript together and adds comments, in vast footnotes, on the anomalies and discrepancies in Zampanos's narrative, the most notable of which is that The Navidson Record doesn't exist. Zampanos's work, a retelling of the film together with a rigorous review of the academic analysis of it, is made up. So are most of the academic reference works.
Nevertheless, working on the book slowly sends Truant mad and it becomes clear that he is none too reliable as a narrator himself, a fact highlighted by the unnamed 'editors' who frequently chip in, via footnotes of their own, with corrections of clarifications of Truant's work.
Truant tells more and more of his own story in the footnotes. He works in a tattoo parlour (until his work on the manuscript takes such a hold that he forgets to go to work for weeks) and lusts after a stripper called Thumper. We also learn about Truant's childhood, including his institutionalised mother, whose letters to her son form one of the book's appendices.
Amid this confusing mass of narrators, Danielewski plays numerous typographical tricks. When a team of explorers are lost within the labyrinth the text becomes bafflingly complex, with footnotes sending the reader forward or back several pages and assorted strands of the novel tumbling over each other on the page. Later, as rescuers hurry in to search for the explorers, Danielewski offers us just a line or two per page, forcing the reader to flip through the pages at a pace resembling the actions on the page.
All of which sounds painstakingly post-modern and it is, though not in such a way that the story is buried under all the trickery. The Navidson Record is intriguing and compelling throughout and Zampanos's academic asides serve to deepen the narrative while at the same time lightly satirising academia.
The Truant tale is less successful. Danielewski hints heavily at a deeper connection between Truant and Zampanos (and, for that matter, between Zampanos and Navidson) but that remains obscure, to me at least, by the end of the book. It's also not clear what purpose Truant's story serves, other than to lend a little underworld cool - something that it doesn't really pull off.
There are lots of ideas here about authorship, the documentary process and academic analysis. However, it all serves to distance us emotionally from the story.
House of Leaves (which incidentally describes a book - a house of leaves/pages) is an enjoyable intellectual exercise but sadly not much more than that. I was left wanting to get more out of it than I did.