705 pages, Doubleday
Review by Marc Nash
Right, where to start unpicking this... Johnny Truant finds the incomplete notes by an old man called Zampano when the latter dies and these notes are a critical exegesis of a documentary film called "The Navidson Record" made by photo journalist Will Navidson about his strangely mutating house. Only the film never existed and Zampano, whose notes deconstruct light, space, colour, architecture, (archi-)texture and psycho-geography amongst other things, is blind, so he never could have viewed with his own eyes this film that doesn't exist anyway... With me so far?
So apart from being a book about fictions within fictions, it is also a meta-fiction in the presentation of its text. Much of the meaning is drip fed through the copious footnotes, themselves quoting books which may or may not exist in actuality. I saw an old Tutor from my college referenced there, but I have no idea if the book attributed to him is real or not. Then there is the layout of part of the text itself. It shape-shifts much like the interior space of Navidson's house itself. I read this book on my commute to and from work. The constant need to turn the book on its side or upside down in order to read certain parts, demanded that I have a seat, not always a given on the London Underground. There are pages with one line or word on them, mirror writing, redacted passages, words as architectural features and so on and so forth.
Okay, so what is the book actually about? Well, passing over the oddity of whether the documentary film at its heart was real (within the fictional world of the book at least) or not, Navidson has bought the house to make up for time spent away from his family on his photo assignments around the world's hotspots. The house is supposed to be a domestic idyll to bring them closer together. So its nightmarish qualities mirror the dissonances within his family in the first place and then exacerbates them by feeding his obsessive nature as he determines to pin down its strange abilities to defy the laws of physics. His obsession that takes him inside the dark expanse of the house and yet further away from his wife and kids. His obsession is mirrored by that of secondary editor Johnny Truant himself as in his everyday life, increasingly dominated by the task of putting Zampano's plethora of notes together into a coherence, starts to suffer similar hallucinations of space being warped.
Apart from metaphysical musings as to what the almost infinite expanse of space within the house represents, God, the abyss or - the book really is a twin study of the two characters Truant and Navidson. Almost without noticing, you are taken back into their own childhoods, both unloved and neglected; Truant is taken into care homes as the appendix of the book reveals the litany of letters from his hospitalised paranoid-schizophrenic mother, while we learn much about Navidson's upbringing through the reconciliation with his twin brother Tom who he summons to help him solve the riddle of the house.
There is much mastery to appreciate and acknowledge in the book. These two character studies actually turn out to be very affecting each in their own way. The tracing of the relationship between Navidson and his increasingly desperate ex-model wife Karen who cannot bear his withdrawals from her into his obsessions is expertly portrayed. However I can't help feeling that these character studies are overwhelmed and buried behind all the tricks and artifices that the book also practises. On the one hand I relish the non-linearity of Daneilewski's narrative, in order perhaps to try and unlock the complexities of human psyches, yet its very artificiality cuts against this, I feel. It is a stimulating read, but you have to be in it for the long haul, so that I couldn't recommend it unreservedly, in case the reader isn't prepared to make so much investment of themselves in it. It's good, I'm glad I read it, but am unsure as to the reward in doing so. The artifice kept me just ever so slightly on the outside of everything.
"Zampano knew from the get go that what's real or isn't real doesn't matter here. The consequences are the same". Like I say, that kept me, the reader, on the outside instead of inviting me into the House of Leaves.