I managed to finish House of Leaves on Friday. More or less. What I finished was the main text of the story. I still had thirty pages of appendices to read through. And the index to scan. What, wait! An index in a novel you say? Oh yes. The index actually turned out to be rather hilarious, a sort of index parody with hardly any of the things you would expect to show up there but lots of things you never see in an index like “and” which appears on pages 3-78, 80-154, and so on. There is also “five” and “July” and “more.” And then there are entries like “canine DNE” with “DNE” meaning “Does not exist.” These are sprinkled throughout the index. There is “dolphin” and “donkey” and “lubricants.” Kind of funny.
But why? Well, it plays into the fact that the main part of the text sort of mocks academic criticism. How to explain? The main text is an academic treatise written on a movie called The Navidson Record, a movie that has been seen by many but doesn’t seem to actually exist. The criticism is written by a man of the name Zampano who is pretty much driven mad by his work on the book. This text is filled with extensive criticism and footnotes. Incredibly, a good deal of what is cited actually exists. There are also citations of “experts” talking about the film and these are completely made up but they are woven in so expertly with the non-made up stuff that they appear to be real.
In spite of all the academic babble, Zampano actually does manage to tell the story of the film of the Navidson Record. It’s about a house, but not just any house. Imagine husband, successful photojournalist who has won a Pulitzer Prize, who is away from home quite a lot because of his work and has a tendency to court danger. Imagine the wife, beautiful, a former model, who has had an affair or two while husband has been away. Or maybe she hasn’t, husband isn’t sure and he isn’t sure he wants to know the truth. They have two young children. They move to a house in the Virginia countryside, hoping to create a family, hoping to save the marriage. It seems like a normal house until they leave to visit family out of state for a few days and return home to find a hallway that wasn’t there when they left. At first they manage to rationalize it away. But then another hallway shows up, this one in the living room instead of between bedrooms. This one is dark and impossibly long, this one seems to go on forever leading into perfectly dark rooms and other hallways. It is freezing cold in the dark and the rooms and hallways are continually shifting and changing.
Wife furiously battles the house with feng shui. Husband calls in friends and experts, locates professional explorers who mount an expedition into the depths of the mysterious house. Husband doesn’t get to go because wife forbids it. Weird things happen in the dark and cold. People die. Weird things happen in the light and warmth. People die.
Along with this story is a second one told by Johnny Truant. It takes place mostly in footnotes to Zampano’s book. Johnny came into possession of Zampano’s papers after he died and is trying to assemble them into a coherent whole. He becomes obsessed, his life falls apart, he perhaps goes insane, he perhaps recovers.
There is an additional layer, other footnotes by an editor who has taken the entire manuscript, Zampano’s and Johnny’s combined which amounts to one whole book, and published it.
It is a crazy book. There were moments when I was genuinely creeped out. There were others when I was utterly bored. When I finished the main text I felt like it had bordered on a waste of time. After all the appendices I appreciated the book much more. On an intellectual level, it is clever and interesting and intriguing in how Danielewski made this book even work. The ideas, the themes, parody and mockery were well done. But other than the few times I got the creeps, I was never truly emotionally engaged with the book. I was never sure why I should care and there was nothing to hate so I was left at a distance, reading a book about a book about a movie. And maybe that is how I was supposed to feel but I like my books to be more than intellectual mind games; I like to be mentally and emotionally engaged.
So there you go, for what all that is worth. I didn’t hate the book. I didn’t love the book. I am glad I read it though so that’s something.