House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski, might be the most layered book I have ever read. With its harsh criticism of much of the futility of academia, while still embracing the importance and insight within it; its nightmarish horror of how our spaces interact with our state of mind, an endless loop of one reflecting the other; and the love story of two deeply flawed people, both individuals struggling to love and save each other and themselves. There's so much to take away from this all consuming novel, that not only could I not cover it in this one review, but I couldn't possibly absorb it all in one reading.
Just flipping idly through House of Leaves tells you what kind of journey you're endeavoring upon. I'll admit right off, that the first 100 pages were the most difficult for me, though. I found our opening narrator, Johnny Truant, borderline intolerable at first. He comes off as misogynistic and self-pitying. But as he falls more into his discovery of a manuscript by a blind man's pseudo academic account of the film The Navidson Record, his present and his past instabilities begin to consume him and you understand the depth and intelligence of an extremely troubled young man.
The book as a whole is based around the story of nobel-prize winning documentarian Will Navidson, and the house he bought on Ash Tree Lane in Virginia for his partner and children. Among the many themes explored in this book, is the question of what drives man into the unknown? And does that instinct drive us away from ourselves and the people who love us?
Navidson moved his family into this house for what feels like a way of trapping himself with them. To force himself into seeing his family the next documentary adventure of his life, tethering himself to them, but still placing his camera between him and the vulnerability of love and potential for real loss. As the days go by, the house begins to morph and a disturbing darkness creeps into both their physical and psychic spaces. A cadre of experts and explorers, one of them being a central character of the novel, Will Navidson's twin brother Tom, are called in to explore the expanding darkness. The deeper they delve into the house, the more they discover that they are no more able to escape its haunted hallways than they are themselves.
The most obvious and notable aspect of House of Leaves is, of course, its maddening and consuming structure. Its pages of spiraling passages and blank spaces in between crowding and overlapping words, serve as an obvious but affecting metaphor for the house and the state we reciprocally create within it and within ourselves when we're fully engaged with the novel. To read House of Leaves, we need to let go of our preconceptions about form and structure, and let the madness twist and turn on the page as much as in our mind.
All in all, House of Leaves is a sexy, terrifying, and wonderfully arresting book that is endlessly re-readable. If you're anything like me, you'll struggle with the first portion of the book, but helplessly get lost in it the more you adventure in. As I write this, I realize that I want to go back and find every turn and corridor I missed, which is truly the sign of a great work of art.