Too often, reading a novel is a bit like strolling along a safe and familiar path. Then a book such as House of Leaves arrives and you feel the exhilaration of entering the fictional equivalent of an earthquake zone. Ten years in the making, this debut by a young American should delight literary theorists and story-lovers alike. In the United States, a cult readership evolved as sections of the script were circulated privately, or posted on the internet. When it finally appeared, complete and in book form, the reviews were exceptional: Bret Easton Ellis said that it "renders most other fiction meaningless".
The plot centres on an old house in Virginia. The new owner - Will Navidson, a prominent photojournalist - fixes motion-sensitive cameras in every room to produce a documentary of his family as they settle in. But their home, true to haunted-house formula, is not all that it seems. For a start, it is bigger on the inside than on the outside. There is a bookshelf that fits snugly, then doesn't. There is a hallway that changes length: sometimes, it is no deeper than a cupboard; at other times, it extends to impossible, labyrinthine dimensions.
Soon, Navidson has an altogether different film project on his hands, one that obsesses him and pushes his marriage to the edge. Recruiting his brother, a friend and a team of explorers, he conducts expeditions into the dark, cold and seemingly infinite maze of featureless corridors and chambers leading from the hallway. One by one, the men fail to return. So succinctly does Mark Danielewski crank up the suspense that there is almost a stench of paranoia rising from the pages.
This, then, is the core of the novel. But the author envelops it in other tales. The surface story is told by Johnny Truant - drifter, tattoo-parlour assistant and inheritor of the Navidson curse. His troubles begin when a blind man, Zampano, is found dead in his apartment with unexplained claw-marks in the floor. Among the deceased's effects is a pile of sheets, notebooks and odd scraps of barely legible scribblings. Truant takes the papers and begins the huge task of editing them into a coherent manuscript. Idle curiosity develops into a fixation, threatening his job, health, friendships, sex life, sanity and, ultimately, his existence. The result of Truant's work is "The Navidson Record" - Zampano's account of the horrific events in that house in Virginia, as captured on camera. The problem is that nobody has heard of Navidson's film, or of Navidson himself. And checking out Zampano's sources, Truant finds them to be mostly bogus. But, as he says, "what's real or isn't real doesn't matter here".
Authenticity is an important word in Danielew-ski's lexicon. (Every word in the book, however mundane, is listed with page references in an index.) He is the latest, and perhaps most audacious, in a long line of modern novelists to consider how we arrive at "truth" - definitions of fact/fiction, representation/artifice, document/hoax interest him less than grey areas of interpretation.
The literary devices may irritate some readers. Pages are fragmented to form a patchwork of different chunks of text. There are exhaustive lists, sequences of pages containing only one word or with the text printed diagonally or upside down, copious use of footnotes (even the footnotes have footnotes) and appendices of varying relevance. However, these are not mere gimmicks, but are integral to this compelling novel's ambition and themes.