I read House of Leaves a few months ago and a decade late. It’s a heavy, self-indulgent masterpiece that pursues weirdness for its own sake, revels in its own cleverness as it drags only for hundreds of pages it doesn’t need.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s very, very clever. The lies and references connect in all sorts of ways and I’m pretty sure that to the ordinary reader—hi, that’d be me—most of it hardly makes a whooshing sound when it goes by.
And yet people really like this book. I kind of liked it.
What’s going on here?
I rarely write about books because most of the time I’m like a golden retriever fetching a ball. Everything is awesome and the best thing ever. But I only want to write publicly when I have something to say, and preferably something that’s unique.
I’ll be brief, and avoid spoilers.
House of Leaves presents itself as a manuscript written by a blind man describing a documentary film about a house that’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. A tattoo artist found the manuscript, parses it and tells his own story in the footnotes, which go on for entire chapters, as the manuscript and its inner demons slowly drive him insane.
The A story, the contents of the documentary, works. The B story, about the adventures of Mr. Footnotes1 also mostly works.
And then the blind man goes on a twenty-page aside describing various mythologies that may or may not relate to the house, academic criticism on the documentary, which are themselves littered with footnotes about sources.
The layout is unconventional. Some pages have only a handful of words on them. Others twist and turn into spiraling columns. The word house is always printed in blue but we have no idea why.
I suspect all of it happens for a reason. I suspect everything connects. It took the author a decade to write, and Mr. Footnotes even explicitly refers to an obscure detail in his own story several hundred pages after it happened, with a hat tip to what the astute reader might have noticed.
I am not an astute reader.
There are no true astute readers except for the author himself.
I’ve made that mistake before.
Seemingly everyone who tries their hand at writing fiction goes through a brief phase where they try to do something really deep. The earlier you get it out of your system the better. Mine got out when I was 16, and part of proto-filmmaking group working on a fantastical-ish short film. It had something to do with madness and whacky ant-people who said strange things on their journey through a dreamscape.
No, you can’t watch it. Just trust me when I say it’s a special breed of terrible.
What went wrong?
We believed in our own bullshit. Because we felt clever coming up with all this, we thought the audience would enjoy it too.
But that’s never true.
After the second test screen we gave up on the project, but I never forgot it. Mistakes, especially bad mistakes, are experience. They’re armor, a vaccine that reminds you a decade later that the audience doesn’t know or care how clever you feel, that the only thing that matters is the story.
Over the years I’d keep seeing producers make the same mistakes: delivering brilliantly executed gimmicks to a bored audience. Some were indie hobbyists on their first big project, and I don’t mean to criticize them at all; just finishing a feature film is a huge accomplishment. But then there was Synecdoche, New York, which I feel no need to elaborate on because you’ve either seen it and know what I mean, or you don’t, and nobody can explain it to you because nobody but the writer understood it.
The story is either good or it’s not.
To me, House of Leaves got away with a lot of its bullshit because the A story, the documentary-that-wasn’t, is strange and compelling. The B story, of Mr. Footnotes, was fine but mostly just a vehicle to poke at the A story.
But between the scenes that drove the story, the book would have 20 pages of analytical babble that purported to explore the meaning of the scenes. Maybe it meant something. Maybe I missed it. Maybe everyone who ever read the book missed it.
The conflict between the parts where the story happens and the parts where nothing happens has a weird effect on the reader. It leaves you satisfied with the core of the thing, that satisfaction has this hole, and the hole it filled with meaningless nonsense. It leaves you second guessing, as if to say “I think I liked it but I’m really not sure.”