Readings of House of Leaves

Close reading assignment for House of Leaves

“Close reading” means you should give an explication, exegesis, or exposition of a part of the text as a way of gesturing toward a reading of the whole.  The easiest way to achieve this narrow telescopic focus is to pick a passage, or a set of passages, and tell the reader what you see; what the passage, word, or phrase means on its own; and what it means in the context of the overall narrative.  From this close reading or exegesis, you will generate the thesis of your short paper.

Exegesis \Ex`e*ge”sis\, n.; pl. Exegeses. [NL., fr.Gr. ?,fr. ? to explain, interpret; ? out + ? to guide, lead, akin, to ? to lead.]
1. Exposition; explanation; especially, a critical explanation of a text or portion of Scripture.

Exposition \Ex`po*si”tion\, n. [L. expositio, fr. exponere, expositum: cf. F. exposition.]
1. The act of exposing or laying open; a setting out or displaying to public view.
2. The act of expounding or of laying open the sense or meaning of an author, or a passage; explanation; interpretation; the sense put upon a passage; a law, or the like, by an interpreter; hence, a work containing explanations or interpretations; a commentary.

–!> 500 words minimum, submitted as a comment to this discussion thread
–!> Ideally you would post before the discussion begins but you should finish this assignment by October 18 at the latest.

A short list of links

Run-out groove on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
House of Leaves Forum

16 Comments to “Readings of House of Leaves

  1. While going back and re-reading some items I made some side notes of, I found the reference to Navidson’s morning cup of coffee on the bottom of page 30 a rather interesting item upon a second glance. It is essentially a stand in for the house in several aspects. The obvious correlation is that it is black and opaque as the hallways of the house. The addition of milk brightens it up a bit, or at least makes it less black. Milk and sugar are added to make it palatable or something he can take in and accept. The interactions he has with the coffee replicate the interactions with house as well. Deeper in to the passage he begins to stir it, a circular motion. The swirling motion that mixes the milk and sugar in to the coffee creates a funnel in the liquid parallels the act of wandering around a labyrinth and reaching in to the deeper recesses of it. Most people know about how much milk and sugar they want in their morning coffee, but he puts in more. He has not tasted it, but he is unsatisfied with it nonetheless. He navigates it on feel instead of first-hand knowledge. The reader does not have first-hand knowledge of the house either. The information comes through other records, such as an unreliable narrator in Johnny, and sources that may be nonexistent such as The Navidson Record video and Zampano. We have to figure it out without direct information.

    Navidson continues to add milk and sugar until the coffee,”rises to the rim and then by a fraction exceeds even this limit.”. The inside contents exceed the supposed volume capacity of the container without spilling out. The coffee is bigger than the cup by just a little bit, but still it is bigger on the inside. Also whereas his previous action of stirring rendered the surface of the coffee concave, he is now making it convex via surface tension. As he is attempting to impose his desires on the coffee as he did with the house, the equal and opposite reaction is an echo, though an echo may not necessarily be a perfect reproduction. The house gives people what they want, such as getting closer to your family for Navidson or maybe some great mysterious adventure in to the unknown for Holloway, though not necessarily in the manner they want it.

    Surface tension, the “rhyme to some unspeakable magic”, is echoed on page 165 in Ruby Dahl’s reference to house becoming the self, “collapsing, expanding, tilting, closing, but always in perfect relation to the mental state of the individual.” All the molecules are acting on each other with cohesive force resulting in collapse and expansion at the same time, as they pull each other closer while pushing them away from other molecules. The tilting is the liquid finding the perfect angle to maintain the shape, with the dome shape coming from the lack of cohesion where the liquid ends and the air begins. The closing is the stronger cohesion of the surface molecules, which do so because they do not have other molecules acting on them at all sides, allowing denser materials to float on the outside instead of falling inside. This results in a perfect relation that appears as magic.

    And as Navidson caused the house to be “dissolved” as Karen said in her interview with the William and Mary college journalist in chapter XXII, so too did the coffee dissolve. The cup wobbles and the coffee spills on to the morning paper as a brown blot. The record of events from Zampano is covered with ink blots just as the printed record of the day is now covered in a coffee blot, although in the coffee’s case, its stain becomes fainter over time. This is not the exactly chemical dissolution, such as the coffee grounds in hot water, but the gradual fading transition of scenes in film editing. Both the house and coffee end in a similar manner with an incomplete record of what they were or how they tasted.

  2. At the center of House of Leaves is darkness — both literally at the center of the the house as well as metaphorically in the reader’s being, in many ways, left in the dark: Who authored the text we’re reading, who any of the main characters are, whether or not any of the plot ever truly occurred is never explicitly revealed to the reader. This darkness symbolizes one of the novel’s central themes: knowledge. Knowledge — what the reader and the novel’s characters do or do not know and how that knowledge or lack thereof affects the reader and characters — is a major and perhaps the core concern of the book. To understand elusive and ever-shifting dark, we can perhaps look to some of the less oblique passages on knowledge, which may give us a clearer idea of what Danielewski is doing with darkness and knowledge throughout the novel.

    On page 365, Johnny Truant, at this point fairly deeply absorbed by Zampano’s work, recounts a phone call he received from Thumper. She invites him over to her house, in what Johnny calls “The closest I’ll ever come to an E ticket invite to The Happiest Place On Earth.” While the “Happiest Place” tattoo of Thumper’s is humorous in the novel, for Johnny she actually does represent his happiest place. She epitomizes the opposite of his drug-addled, isolated life. She has a child, a steady (if unusual) job. Her invitation is both to her physical home, but also to an ideological domestic environment: “I’ll even cook you dinner,” she says, “I’ve go great pumpkin pie left over from Thanksgiving.” She lives in the domestic world of home-cooked meals and holidays spent with others.

    Johnny rejects her offer though, saying Thumper “no longer has any influence over me.” His reasoning is not ideological — he has no opposition to the domestic model she’s offered him — but rather epistemological: “Any longing I should have felt vanished when I saw, and accepted, how little I knew about her.” His lacking concrete knowledge about Thumper — “I had never even asked her the name of her three year old. I had never even asked for her real name” — turns Truant away from her. Instead, he is lured by Zampano, by The Navidson Record; if he turns from Thumper due to lacking knowledge, in these works he believes that he can find some knowledge, wisdom or truth. Of course, the irony is that Zampano’s works are entirely fictional; they contain no realistic truth. His story is made-up, about a film that never existed. What his text instead presents is a facsimile of truth. By buttressing his book with academic-sounding names and references — some indeed authentic references — Zampano draws Truant in with the promise of knowledge. Like Navidson lured into the house, attempting to find something in the darkness, Truant is sucked into Zampano’s text looking for something that was never really there. Where Thumper is “A portrait never really begun,” The Navidson Record is an artwork which appears complete, clad in footnotes and explanations, redolent of authoritative knowledge. For someone like Truant, whose life has been marred with instability from the start — perhaps most symbolically in the unstable pan of oil which literally scars him for life — a search for concrete, stable knowledge is irresistible, a dense and comprehensive book like Zampano’s the holy grail.

    For a moment, though, Truant does display a desire to gain knowledge about something human: “I suddenly resolved to find out, to ask both questions right then and there.” (About Thumper’s name and her child’s name). He desires to seek truth in something actual, something physical, rather than the constructed world of Zampano. He acknowledges that for him, truth equals meaning, wanting to “See if it was possible to mean something to her, see if it was possible she could mean something to me.” But just as fast as his wish to connect with another human appears, it is taken away: “The phone company had just caught up with their oversight and finally disconnected my line.”

    Johnny does eventually gain actual knowledge about Thumper; unfortunately the information comes too late, once he has been completely consumed by the book and only a vestige of his former self remains, both physically and psychically. On page 511, Truant goes “To see my crush for the last time.” Of course, even his relation to her is not something solid which he can take for granted, because in the next line he questions Thumper’s “crush” status, asking “Is that what she is?” When they meet, Thumper gives Johnny what he would have needed earlier in the book to make a real connection: Knowledge about herself. She “told me about her child and how she’d broken off the relationship with the boxer.” She “gave me her real name.” In contrast to her personal disclosures, Truant can only talk about the inanimate. “What the fuck did I tell her? Things I guess. I told her about things.” He has been so subsumed by the novel, by a “thing,” that he cannot connect with the one person who seems to genuinely care for him. By this point in the novel he appears gaunt and harried, like a junkie in the nightlife scene which the book drew him away from. In Danielewski’s world, a novel / academia / the pursuit of absolute knowledge in academia — is like a drug; it is a “thing” which, despite a promise of offering knowledge or wisdom, actually harms us by severing real human connection.

    The last bit of information the reader learns about Thumper is that “She was also starting laser surgery to get her tattoos removed.” This laser-removal is highly symbolic; when Thumper and Johnny finally make some sort of real human connection, she loses her inscriptions. To know another human, words had to be erased; Thumper had to be, quite literally, un-written. Human connection for the two can only exist in the absence of words, in the blank space. This narrative move echoes the remark made on page 388 as part of the Bister-Frieden-Josephson Critera, where they write “If we desire to live, we can only do so in the margins of that place.” (Italics original) They speak of Navidson’s house, but If we can take the house as a metaphor for the book, then for Danielewski, perhaps writing or the ink itself precludes human connection or meaningful knowledge. Johnny and Thumper can only really “live” together once she has gotten rid of her tattoos — once there are margins in which to live. Consider how much blank space Danielewski includes House of Leaves. In this blank space, these margins, he gives the reader a place to insert themselves, to write their own comments and interact with the text. “If we desire to live” — whether in real life or in the text — “we can only do so in the margins.”

    For Danielewskim then, words written in ink prevent the reader from actually living. Paradoxically, they appear to offer knowledge or truth; but practically, they block out the space for the reader — the margins where the reader can live. Taken to the extreme, as happens on occasion in House of Leaves, a solid mass of inking would completely block out the page, giving us a completely black box. While this box offer some sort of information, it horrifies us in its isolation; faced with a completely black box, there is no room for the reader. For Danielewski, then, the search for knowledge or truth in written information leads only to isolation of the human. Truant’s final story, on page 519, neatly exemplifies this theme. When a baby is born in poor health, the doctors attempt to measure its every move — to gain concrete, written information. “Red numbers display the exact amount of pressure needed to fill his fragile lungs … The SAT (oxygen saturation) monitor … begins to register a decline … The EKG faithfully tracks every heart beat … The entrap line and art line … records continuous blood pressure as well as blood gases.” The doctors record every bit of information they can get (Even through the “SAT” — perhaps a jab at the standardized test by Danielewski, who make similar higher-education jokes throughout the book). In contrast to the doctors who live in the world of hard information is the mother who, “Of course, sees none of this. She sees only her baby boy, barely breathing, his tiny fingers curled like sea shells still daring to clutch a world.” The shift from the scientific, numerical language of the doctors to the poetic, personal language of the mother is a final display of the concern with written knowledge and human knowledge / connection. And in the end, the doctors’ written information does nothing for them; the child dies. But the mother, with her human connection to her son, is at peace: “She leans forward and kisses him on the forehead. ‘You can go now,’ she says tenderly.” Here, by employing the mother / child image with which almost all readers can connect, Truant concludes his contributions to the book with a final statement valuing human connection over the allure of written knowledge. He shows a human living outside of the written — in the margins — and how even in the face of a tragedy such as the death of the child, by focusing on the human element, the mother can find herself at peace — the sort of peace from which Truant, consumed by the written word, is left isolated.

  3. In Chapter V of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Zampano writes about the importance of echo in The Navidson Record, citing echo’s mythological and scientific histories. When explaining Echo of myth, he says that “[Echo] possesses a quality not present in the original, revealing how a nymph can return a different and more meaningful story, in spite of telling the same story” (42). This description of Echo is in many ways pertinent to the narrative structure and psychology of House of Leaves itself, a novel that exists in a multi-dimensional space with multiple speakers. The “original” story is the set of events that occur in the Navidson house during the shooting of The Navidson Record; The Navidson Record, Zampano’s analysis, Johnny Truant’s account, and even the third-party editor’s footnotes are sequential representations of that story. However distinctive these retellings are, each casts its own sound and offers its own significance to the larger frame of the work as a whole. As a result, the collective “inside” of the novel measures bigger than the “outside,” causing each casted sound to build and reverberate in the mind of each consumer long past the moment of the original utterance.
    One event that demonstrates the importance of echo of narrative in House of Leaves is Navidson’s exploration into the mysterious hallway. Prior to this incident, the reader learns that Navidson and his wife Karen are unhappy in their relationship and have a fight because Navidson shows the hallway to their unnamed guests, who soon leave. By revealing the hallway to other people, Navidson attempts to confirm its existence, to bring knowledge of it outside the Navidson house. Like an echo, which Zampano says is scientifically determined by sound and time, the hallway itself is determined by sight and time (the time it takes for that sight to travel). Karen is disturbed by Navidson’s disregard for her concerns about the hallway because in attempting to confirm the hallway’s existence, Navidson gives form to Karen’s biggest fear and the cause of her claustrophobia, “the dangerous influence the unknown naturally has on everyone” (60). Residing in a moment of un-love and unable to sleep afterwards, Navidson decides to explore the hallway. His decision may be linked to Echo of myth in that “unfulfilled love results in the total negation of Echo’s body and the near negation of her voice” (41). Navidson is willing to investigate the unknown because the lack of love he receives from his wife causes him to no longer hear her warnings about the hallway. As the reader learns, his body and his voice are similarly lost in the hallway, giving the inside of the hallway an indefinite quality where echoes only faintly exist.
    Zampano’s recounting of “Exploration A” exhibits a chilling eeriness that haunts those who read his work as fiction (readers of House of Leaves) and those who read his work as non-fiction (Johnny Truant) alike. This is in part due to his outstanding ability to recreate the The Navidson Record via words that cause even the reader, who cannot obtain a copy of the film, to be affected by its horror-mystery qualities. For example, Zampano writes that while Navidson is in the hallway, “his light never comes close to touching the punctuation point promised by the converging perspective lines, sliding on and on and on, spawning one space after another, a constant stream of corners and walls, all of them unreadable and perfectly smooth” (64). This succession of phrases describing the same image not only emphasizes the hallway’s lack of a clear end, but also the image’s lasting quality in the viewer’s mind. Leaving the reader with the image of Navidson standing on the threshold between the known and the unknown, Zampano exercises a cliffhanger and quickly shifts to a discussion about Navidson’s steady camerawork. Cutting back to Navidson, Zampano explains how Navidson “has walked beyond the range of his light” (67), a description which implies that the hallway causes the negation of Navidson’s body (as he cannot see it). His voice too is almost lost in the hallway’s silence when he cries out in an attempt to navigate his position; echoes return, but are delayed. By being determined by proven variables, echoes give definition to a sound and its associated producer. Thus, Navidson’s final cry, “I’m in here!” (68), is the most harrowing because of the desperation heard in Navidson’s voice when he realizes he can no longer be determined by his form. Additionally, the fact that a child’s cry is the sound that echoes is also disturbing because it is not natural to Navidson or his exerted sound, and therefore must be the result of some other lingering reverberation of unknown origin. But it is because these echoes exist that Navidson is able to use echolocation to find his body, his voice, and his way out of the hallway and into his daughter’s arms.
    Navidson’s cry of despair is echoed in Johnny Truant’s personal narrative that follows. Like Navidson, Truant in this moment is unlucky in love, unable to woo Thumper, whom he knows he will not see that day. Awaking from “the sweet effects of my dream” (70), Truant slips into his own dark mental “hallway,” believing that a monster of sorts is with him even though he is alone. He loses control of his body and bodily functions, and “everything falls apart” (71). Truant’s mention of “stories heard but not recalled” (71) echoes Echo’s and Navidson’s loss of voice, as all lack the vocal feedback that would make them real. It also echoes the effect any work has on a reader, as the work will no doubt continue to influence and reverberate in the reader’s mind long past the last page. Truant’s narrative stumbles back into reality when he stubs his toe and falls, causing ink to splatter. Ink marks his body and confirms the presence of his flesh, just as an echo confirms the presence of a sound. His jumbled speech (“Known some call is air am”) and its translation (“I am not what I used to be”) reflect an echo that is a combination of different speakers who emitted original sounds at different times and in different places; the result is a coincidentally coherent echo that captures fragments of echoes and shoots them off in succession. The resulting communication between echoes is similar to the communication between layers of readers, giving the eeriness of House of Leaves a haunting resonance that transcends time and space.

  4. Externality vs. Internality in Will Navidson

    As a photojournalist, Will Navidson lives with a necessary concern and attention to externalities. The camera lens inherently separates him from his subject, placing him in the role of distant observer, even farther from his subject than the vultures overlooking Delial. These vultures, in their proximity to the tragic girl, possess something crucial that Navidson does not: agency. The ability to affect their surroundings, other bodies, an ability they display by merely being components of Navidson’s photo. Though it is Navidson who ultimately captures the moment, he is still removed from it, looking on, separated by a mechanical apparatus, by the camera. He is limited to a world of externality, of looking rather than entering.
    In his letter written to Karen shortly before his final expedition into the house, Navidson reveals a crippling resentment and disgust for such limitation, for his life of constant externality:

    Now I can’t get Delial out of my head. Delial, Delial, Delial—the name I gave to the girl in the photo that won me all the fame and gory, that’s all she is Karen, just the photo. And now I can’t understand anymore why it meant so much to me to keep to keep her a secret—a penance or something. Inadequate (391).

    Though Navidson exhibits a gradual decline in cohesion and sense over the course of this letter, it is in this moment that such deterioration evidently begins. He misspells simple words (‘gory’ as opposed to ‘glory,’ perhaps a manifestation of Navidson’s psychological turbulence in this moment) and loses grasp of syntax and extended, smooth thought (‘to keep to keep’). That this unravelling first becomes apparent when he thinks of Delial suggests a deep disturbance with his largely external existence, as Delial is the perfect embodiment of his externality. Thus when he describes the photo as “Inadequate,” as “just the photo,” he exposes the gaping hole of his existence: his inability to “keep the vultures away,” to attain internality and meaningful agency with the people and places that shape his life.
    Perhaps this hole in Navidson’s existence can explain his obsession with the house. Before he brings up Delial in the same letter to Karen, Navidson says the following:

    Do you believe in God? I don’t think I ever asked you that one. Well I do now. But my God isn’t your Catholic varietal or your Judaic or Mormon or Baptist or Seventh Day Adventist or whatever/ whoever. No burning bush, no angels, no cross. God’s a house. Which is not to say that our house is God’s house or even a house of God. What I mean to say is that our house is God.

    Divine presences such as the Catholic or Judaic God are often construed as explanations or answers to difficult phenomena, to mystifying questions. By perceiving the house as a deity, as an object of divinity and reverence, Navidson confirms it as the ‘missing’ component of his being, as the lacking internal dynamic of his otherwise consistently external role: his ‘answer.’ The house is something that Navidson can only experience as an internal element. He alters and affects the house, extending and shortening its halls, making rooms appear and disappear, merely by being inside of it, by effectively being a part of it. The house, in short, provides him with the agency he lacked attempting to fix his marriage, to settle down with his family, and trailing the dying Delial.

  5. The two columns of text located on the right and left sides of pgs. 120 – 135 allow House of Leaves to be read as a piece of architecture, while also disrupting and deconstructing the familiar notion of reading a novel. These columns of text also form a physical narrative frame that is both inside and outside of the text.

    When the book is opened, the reader sees two columns of text on the rightmost and leftmost side of each page, separated from the interior text by a fine black line. The leftmost column contains an exhaustive list of architectural monuments, such as the Guggenheim Museum in New York and First Baptist Meeting House in Providence, Rhode Island, while the rightmost column lists names of architects in inverted, upside-down text. Together, the two columns of text mirror each other, as the builder and the building, or the creator and his or her creation, work in dialogue with each other. To actually read each individual monument or name would be an exhaustive task more suitable for machine-assisted reading practices, as the sheer overflow of text forces the reader to skim the list or skip altogether. Instead of facilitating an act of reading, the columns of text actually facilitate the act of seeing, as the two columns form the physical boundaries of the text. In a sense, these columns work to stabilize the interior text of the page, providing the “exterior ornamentation” from which the text cannot escape (120). At the same time, actual, verifiable people and monuments that exist outside the narrative world of House of Leaves form the columns themselves. The sheer amount of information found within these boundaries force the reader to ignore this binding structure of the real world. The dialectical relationship between the outside and inside speaks to the overarching themes of the novel, in which the Jonny Truant’s substantive letters to and from his mother are set against the supernatural, shape-shifting Navidson house. Text as architecture is also a central theme of Building Stories, a recent release by comic artist Chris Ware ( Leaflets, pamphlets, comic strips, and books are placed within a keepsake box, and each component relays part of the story, thus forming a physical, tangible structure made out of words. In House of Leaves, by comparison, the layout of the text forms the structure within the page. The relationship between these two texts illuminates how notions of the book are expanding to include increasingly multidimensional and multimodal forms.

    Another function of these columns – the left side in small, right-side-up text, and the right side in larger, inverted, and italicized font – is to challenge the act of reading itself. The process of reading a text – the familiar, linear progression from introduction to conclusion – is disrupted and made wholly unfamiliar, as the reader is forced to flip the page upside-down in order to read the rightmost column. The columns continue for 15 pages, forcing the reader to choose between looking at both columns at once for the whole 15 pages, or reading each column part-by-part as he or she progress through the interior narrative text. This disruption of the reader’s process calls attention to the act of reading itself, thus contributing to the ways this book deconstructs of the novel form and reformulates it as architecture. Perhaps Danielewski is suggesting that there is no one correct way to read a work of literature; rather, texts can only provide a “blueprint” of reading from which the individual reader must work to fill in the blanks.

    Of course, when speaking of boundaries, one must also consider the function of what lies between each boundary – the center. The columns bracket off a literal “center” of text, which is subsequently subdivided into the primary narrative (the Navidson excursion through the Spiral Staircase), academic footnotes, supplementary facts, Truant’s personal musings, and a blue box housing lists of construction materials. The question, “Where is the center?” haunts the entire novel. The simplest answer offered by the text is utter darkness and nothingness, as the excursion to the center of the house leads the explorers deeper and deeper until they cannot escape. I’m reminded of the third line in Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”: “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”, which articulates a similar anxiety about a collapsing and unstable center. In deconstructing the practice of reading, Danieluski suggests that text itself in fundamentally unstable, perhaps caught in a cyclical process of degeneration and regrowth. The text is bracketed by the real – names of physical monuments and architects – yet the instability lingers within the columns, as footnotes, boxes and inverted text destabilize any notion of a central point of the novel.

  6. House of Leaves is, in part, a metaphor for the novel itself. It is a lesson on how to read, and the book and the labyrinth are quickly established as being one and the same. In chapter four, just after Karen and Navidson learn of the “spatial disparity” in the house, the readers are given advice for how to read both the house and the novel itself. Readers are compared and encouraged to read like children in order to feel the delight that the novel has to offer.
    While discussing the extra 5/16 of an inch, the narrator writes, “When confronting the spatial disparity of the house, Karen set her mind on familiar things while Navidson went in search for a solution. The children, however, just accepted it. They raced through the closet. They played in it. They inhabited it. They denied the paradox by swallowing it whole” (39). Although these sentences begin with Chad and Daisy as the subjects, the repeated use of “They” distances the children from the reader’s focus; the reader himself becomes the subject of the sentences. The use of active verbs, such as “accepted,” “raced,” “played,” “denied,” and “swallowed,” serve as guides for a way of reading the novel itself (39). Readers are encouraged to act as the children do- to accept the narrative, to suspend disbelief, to enjoy and to be enveloped by the experience.
    The narrator continues, “Paradox, after all, is two irreconcilable truths. But children do not know the laws of the world well enough yet to fear the ramifications of the irreconcilable”(39). The paradox here refers to the two irreconcilable truths of the outside of the house measuring 5/16 of an inch shorter than the inside. The ambiguity of the subject here continues so that the reader may place himself in the position of the child. The phrase “laws of the world” nods to those spatial, scientific measurements that adults require to make sense of their experiences. But children do not have this need. The narrator writes that “There are certainly no primal associations with spatial anomalies” (39). “Primal,” in this sense, refers to the fundamental knowledge with which one is born. That is to say, children are not born with the need to make sense of every “spatial anomaly.” They are inherently accepting of those things which may not make sense to them.
    Yet while readers seem to be encouraged to behave like children, the chasm between children and adults is mentioned almost immediately. The narrator continues, “Unfortunately, denial also means ignoring the possibility of peril” (39). The optimistic, nostalgic tone of the previous section is squashed with a reminder that the “denial” of the “paradox” opens one up to very real harm. This difference between adult and children is mentioned earlier in the chapter when the narrator explains the various functions of riddles. Fictional contributor Edith Skourja writes, “Riddles: they either delight or torment. Their delight lies in solutions. Answers provide bright moments of comprehension perfectly suited for children who still inhabit a world where solutions are readily available (33). When provided with an answer, riddles can offer “moments of comprehension” to children; a means of breaking down and understanding their world (33).
    Although readers are likely certain by now that the novel will not offer a solution “readily available,” they are still drawn to the potential for the “delight” of finding a solution. The riddles of adults, Edith Skourja writes, “do not have answers and are often called enigmas or paradoxes. Still the old hint of the riddle’s form corrupts these questions by re-echoing the most fundamental lesson: there must be an answer. From there comes torment” (33). As the sensual experience of “delight” is far more appealing than that of “torment,” the narrator is implicitly suggesting that adults read the riddle of this novel with a child-like mindset. As a coping mechanism, the readers are encouraged to approach the novel as Chad and Daisy approached the house. They are encouraged to embrace the paradox. To “fear the ramifications of the irreconcilable” will mean, in the case of this novel, to get lost in its hallways (39).

  7. Perhaps the most prominent mystery in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is the question of whether or not Johnny Truant can be trusted as a narrator. In the introduction, Johnny already warns the reader that he’s “responsible for plenty” of mistakes, and that there is therefore “a whole lot here not to take too seriously” (Danielewski xx). Thus, the reader is aware from the beginning that he or she must question the reliability of Johnny’s narration. Furthermore, The Navidson Record and Truant’s letters from his mother, Pelafina Heather Lièvre, contain far too many mysterious references to each other to be purely coincidental. For this reason, it can be concluded that Pelafina is the true author of House of Leaves, and that Johnny is a narrator constructed by the true author.
    To begin, this theory explains the many similarities between Pelafina and Karen that suggest that Karen is, in fact, a representation of Pelafina. For example, Pelafina signs her letter, “Returning steadily to my former self, / Practicing my smile in a mirror the way I did when I was a child” (615), which echoes a description of Karen which states that she “spent every night of her fourteenth year composing that smile in front of a blue plastic handled mirror” (58). This analogous behavior suggests that Pelafina became institutionalized as an adult due to schizophrenia or some other mental disease, and writes about how she was in her younger years in House of Leaves. Further evidence of this theory is seen when Pelafina “put pink ribbons in [her] hair,” (599) just as Karen left the house with “a pink ribbon in her hair” (523). Hence, the similarities in behavior of Karen and Pelafina suggest that they are one and the same.
    Furthermore, Karen’s dependency on Will mirrors Pelafina’s need for Johnny’s attention, which suggests that a schizophrenic Pelafina obsesses over the imagined characters that her mind has created. In fact, in The Navidson Record, the critic Harold Bloom asks Karen, “My dear girl, is it that you are so lonely that you had to create this?” to which Karen had no transcribed reply (360). This demonstrates Pelafina’s need to create extremely complex characters and situations in her mind. Perhaps her schizophrenia is a result of her loneliness, which could have been exacerbated during her institutionalization. This creation of an extensive metal world would illustrate the depth and severity of Pelafina’s condition. Additionally, her schizophrenia is further reflected by descriptive correlations between Pelafina’s letters and The Navidson Record that imply sole authorship. For instance, Pelafina asks Johnny whether “they serve [him] hot chocolate and large slices of lemon meringue pie” (588) at his foster home, and the Record describes how Tom “steals a slice of lemon meringue pie and then whips up some hot chocolate for everyone” (320) after Navidson’s disappearance. Another example can be seen in the name of Pelafina’s mental institution (the Whalestoe Institute), which is reflected in the narrative through Will’s swollen, damaged toe. Thus, the use of extremely detailed, similar descriptions in both the letters and the Record suggest that a highly schizophrenic Karen is the lone author of both.
    As a result, these connections support the theory that a schizophrenic Pelafina wrote the entire book in an attempt to realize her own disease. That is, the fact that the house in The Navidson Record is larger on the inside than it is on the outside could represent how Pelafina’s mind contains a whole other world and identity that is not visible to outsiders. This is supported Pelafina’s statement that she receives pills that are “Madder, azure, celadon, gamboge,” (615) which are shades of the colors of the keys to the hallway (red, blue, green, and yellow). Just as the pills help Pelafina retain some sense of control over her disease, the keys are meant to help Karen feel more in control of an uncontrollable situation. Pelafina also writes that she “[lives] at the end of some interminable corridor,” which refers to the endless hallway in The Navidson Record (624). Karen’s claustrophobia and consequent fear of the hallway in the film reflects how Pelafina feels trapped within the confines of her own mind. Therefore, a possible reason for Pelafina to write House of Leaves is to subconsciously help herself realize that she is a character within her own book, which would help her recognize that the world her mind has created is false; in this way, she could bring herself back to reality, and thereby overcome her schizophrenia.
    Overall, there are several correlations between Pelafina’s letters and House of Leaves as a whole that indicate that Pelafina wrote the entire book as a result of her schizophrenia. However, this does not mean Johnny does not exist, as the letter from the director of the Three Attic Whalestoe Institute mentions that “her son John” (644) claimed a piece of jewelry upon her death. An explanation is that Johnny does exist, but did not write the book, which his mother wrote from his point of view in order to soothe her hurt feelings at his infrequent visits and letters. This is because Johnny explains the reasons behind his lack of visitation in the narrative. Hence, Karen represents Pelafina herself and the expanding hallway symbolizes the varying severity of her disease while she was writing the book. In this way, the complex characters and distressing situation created in House of Leaves reflect the seriousness of Pelafina’s condition and her attempt to find sanity.

  8. The interplay between the characters in “House Of Leaves” is extremely important in that it reveals so much about the novel itself. As anyone who has read “House Of Leaves” knows, there are several fictional characters whose writings contribute to the novel as a whole. All of these characters have hidden messages in their writing, and often these hidden messages reveal something about a character or aspect of the novel that had been previously unknown.

    One character that has several hidden messages in her writing is Pelafina. She often hides messages to her son within her letters. This makes sense given that her son is the person she is writing the letters to. One such example of a hidden message intended for Johnny is on pages 620-623. At first glance this passage appears very odd to the reader. The content of the letter itself is somewhat confusing and it is filled with incorrect capitalizations and punctuation. These oddities are no mistake, as they indicate to the reader that there is more going on than meets the eye. This passage can be decoded using the first letters of each word. Once the first letters of each word are put together, they form a rather long message that reveals that Pelafina has been raped by various people at the mental institute she lives in. She also asks Johnny to save her at the end of the decoded letter, making it clear that both the original and the decoded message are for Johnny.

    While this hidden message, and others intended for Johnny, are important and illuminate certain aspects of the story, there are arguably more important messages hidden in Pelafina’s letters. As was previously stated, hidden messages to Johnny make a good deal of sense to the reader. Johnny is the intended recipient of the letters and is Pelafina’s son. There are messages, however, that either refer to or are intended for a character that has seemingly no connection to Pelafina. This character is Zampano. There are perhaps many references to Zampano that are hidden within the letters, but I will focus on two.

    The first is a somewhat less obvious reference to Zampano. Pelafina ends her letter from August 19, 1983 with the statement: “May your summer be full of rootbeer, joy and play.” (593) On the surface this may just seem like nothing, but when compared with a line from one of Zampano’s poems, a connection seems to appear. The fifth stanza of the poem entitled That Place ends with the line: “Certainly not when there was summer love and rootbeer.” (558) There are some key similarities between this line in this poem and the August 19, 1983 letter from Pelafina. They both use the terms “summer” and “rootbeer”. Also, they both use root beer as one word. In a novel with few coincidences, the similarities between these two lines appear to suggest some connection between the two characters. While some may consider this connection a bit of a stretch, when considered along with the second connection I will present between Zampano and Pelafina, the idea that the language used in the aforementioned lines presents a tie between the two characters seems more feasible.

    There is a point in the letters when Pelafina references Zampano by name. There is another coded message in the second to last paragraph of Pelafina’s letter from April 5, 1986 on page 615. If one takes the first letter of each word (“&” must be read either as “and” or “ampersand”) starting with “many years” and ending with “letting occur such evil”, one can produce a hidden message that reads: “My dear Zampano, who did you lose?” This is essentially indisputable evidence that Pelafina at least knows of Zampano’s existence. It is also clear that the message is intended for Zampano because Pelafina refers to Zampano as “you” in the decoded message.

    While these hidden messages do reveal that Pelafina is aware of and communicating with Zampano, it does not explain how she knows him or why she is communicating with him. The possible key to answering these questions is the intended recipient of the letters. Each letter is written to Pelafina’s son Johnny Truant, yet she has hidden direct messages to Zampano within said letters. One possible explanation of this, and arguably the explanation that makes the most sense, is that Zampano and Johnny Truant are actually the same person. This dramatically changes the way one reads the novel. We as readers assume that Zampano and Johnny are two completely different people, so we may read their writings as if this were the case. However, the idea that perhaps Zampano and Johnny are the same person puts a strong emphasis on the importance of interplay between their writings in the novel, adding a deeper layer to the story.

    There is one question left unanswered, however, that may reveal even more about the interplay of the characters within the novel. Johnny and Zampano may be the same person, but how does Pelafina know that? One possible reason she knows that Zampano and Johnny are the same person is because Pelafina is Zampano and Johnny herself. It is established that she is in an insane asylum, so the idea that she could have multiple personalities is not at all farfetched. This further changes the way one must read “House Of Leaves.” Instead of assuming that we are reading a compilation of writings from various characters, it is possible that we are reading one piece of work by one character who is clinically insane. Clearly, if this is the case, it changes the dynamic of the novel rather dramatically.

  9. Mark Z. Danielewski “House of Leaves”

    One of the central themes of Mark Z. Danielewski “House of Leaves” is, without a doubt, trust or the lack thereof. Before the book even begins, the editor warns us that the “novel is a work of fiction” and that “any references to real people, events, establishments, organizations or locales are intend only to give the fiction a sense of reality and authenticity”. Initially, we don’t see this as an important statement, we have seen it printed in other novels before and in fact, it only starts to gain a certain level of significance when paired with a comment made by our narrator, Johnny Truant. In the book’s introduction, Johnny tells us that most of “the books cited in the footnotes… are fictitious” (introduction xx) implying that we shouldn’t believe everything we read. Normally, we trust our narrators to tell us what they see and to guide us through the narrative of the story. In this case, however, we cannot bring ourselves to fully trust him. As a result, the text is drenched with ambiguity and we are essentially left to fend for ourselves and (struggle to) come up with our own conclusions and interpretations.

    I choose to believe in Johnny’s family life and the intense level of trauma which he suffered because of his mother. According to Pelafina’s letters, she attempted to strangle Johnny to “protect [him] from the pain of living” and “the pain of loving” (p. 630). Towards the end of his book, however, Johnny muses about how his mother “hadn’t tried to strangle [him]” and how “her letter was hopelessly wrong”, “an invention to make it easier for [him] to dismiss her” (p. 517). Once again, we don’t know who to believe or what to believe. Is Johnny currently telling the truth? Did the letters even really exist? We will never know, and maybe we don’t have to know.

    The significance of these contrasting stories bring us to the heart of the problem; abandonment. When reading this book, we can’t trust nor find a way to validate anything that has been told to us. However, we soon realize that every character has been abandoned or severely neglected, making them unable to connect with others or trust in their family, friends or even themselves. We find abandonment at the root of the entire story. In the same way that Johnny was abandoned by his mother, the characters in Zampanò’s narrative also seem to be suffering from the same condition. Karen feels abandoned by Navidson who often takes long trips for work, Navidson feels abandoned and disconnected from his wife as she refuses to be intimate with him. Their children, instead, are neglected by both parents who are too distracted by their own problems and their own house to give them the attention or explanations that they need.

    The Pekinese was abandoned too, “it was dirty, scared and obviously without owner” (p. 266). Johnny was in the same condition when he was abandoned by his mother and in fact, he sees “that… pup, hungry and abandoned, suddenly recede, suddenly with hope” as a “a projection of [himself]”. It becomes clear that Johnny had longed for a family to pick him up, bring him in and care solely about “[his] safety” and “[his] future”. Seeing Johnny’s initial affectionate behavior towards the dog gives us readers a sense of relief. He describes himself as “cradling its small head in the crook of [his] arm, wiping some of the snot off on the sleeve of his… coat, deciding… to take it home with [him]” (p.267) making his actions sound motherly, caring and considerate.

    For a fleeting moment, we believe that both him and the puppy will be okay. However, we know that the figure of Johnnie–the “porn star” he met at the club–will prevent this from happening. Johnny states that “we all create stories to protect ourselves” (p20) and therefore, after further analysis, we can speculate that Johnnie never actually existed if not as his alter-ego or as a symbol of resentment, jealousy and guilt.

    If we look at the description of Johnnie, we notice that she is described as a hyper sexualized caricature of a woman: “…petite figure, platinum hair, way too much eyeliner… her tits… enormous… we’re talking DDDD” (p.266). Additionally, she is initially described as a porn star, occupation that promotes fake emotions, fake settings, fake sexual chemistry and fake love. This portrayal of a woman is too exaggerate to be true. Johnnie is merely another ‘projection’ representing the way in which our narrator sees and wants to see all women; as sex toys. Real women with real jobs and real emotions are too threatening to him as due to his mother’s abandonment, he inevitably sees them as a source of pain and conflict. He is terrified of being hurt again and therefore finds it impossible to connect with one on an emotional level. In his mind, the only way to breach the distance between himself and the opposite gender is through the physical act of sex. Via intercourse, he experiences literal closeness with his partner of the time and in his head, the pleasure that he experiences replaces the love and affection that his mother never gave him.

    It’s interesting to see how Johnny’s main interest and obsession is ended after the appearance of “his Pekinese”. Regardless of whether Johnnie physically existed or not, Johnny is no longer thinking about sex. He wouldn’t have asked her to come into his building nor would he have been concerned with her “tits or lips or the positions… [they] could have done together” (p.267). Strangely, he was experiencing another kind of pleasure; that of unconditional and undying love. The kind of love experienced between a pet and his owner. Inside the club, he felt strong sexual attraction towards Johnnie as that was the kind of ‘love’ and closeness that he was familiar with. However, soon after holding the puppy, he begins to think about ‘Johnnie’s’ in a more negative way. Her “salt full breasts… deformed mouth… fresco of makeup… her entire figure” which was “perfect(ly grotesque)” left him feeling “vacant”. In a matter of hours, his perception of ‘Johnnie’ drastically changed. After having experienced real affection towards his Pekinese, our narrator realizes that his feelings towards “Johnnie” aren’t neither lasting nor real. “Everything [he] thought [he had] retained from his encounters added up to so very little” (p.265).

    Johnny could have found happiness with his new friend and it was truly touching to see how the dog’s brief existence still had a significant impact on his. Our narrator was a stray, yet nobody lovingly took him in. Why was a lost Pekinese about to be cared for and cured for in a “happy pet land” (p.267) whilst he had endured physical abuse from his foster father as well as being treated like an unwelcome “guest” (p.92) in what was supposed to be his home?

    We could therefore view this horrible incident as a result of Johnny’s fiery feelings of jealousy. “Something about [Johnnie] frightened [him]” (p.267) and if we keep imagining that he is in fact alone, we can interpret this moment as him looking into his rear mirror and seeing himself morph into his mother. Subconsciously, Johnny abandoned and hurt the dog in the same way that his mother abandoned and hurt him, making his sudden realization-that he is more similar to his mother than he ever imagined-the most terrifying yet.

    His mother affected him so deeply that he either killed the dog to “protect [him] from the pain of living” (the dog was close to death already, why prolong it’s fate?) or as a means to take out his anger on someone else; most specifically an innocent creature who was just as helpless as he had been. The fact that the dog was thrown out of the window in “an almost unimaginable amount of force” also supports this notion as a petite woman generally doesn’t have that astounding of strength.

    Furthermore, if we consider how he leaves the dog on the side of the road to be picked up by the street sweepers, and bare in mind how the dog is a “projection of [himself]” we can’t help but assume how being discarded by his mother has made him feel like unwanted trash his whole life. We can’t forgive him for what he did to his Pekinese, and clearly, neither can he. This story haunts him and will haunt him forever. His alter-ego will never completely clear him from the intense guilt and blame. By lying to us and lying to himself, he’s not helping his unhappy situation in any way, as all ‘Johnnie’ does is help his conscience and mind avoid the issue at hand and stop himself from getting the help that he needs.

  10. In books, one of the purposes of an introduction is to prepare the reader for the main text of the work. This could include information on the author of the work, as well as a general sense of what the person writing the introduction thinks of the work. In House of Leaves, both things are present. However, in this book, the introduction is a part of the story, and can be just as intricate as what would be considered the main story. There is a passage on page sixteen of the introduction in which Johnny Truant describes the look of Zampano’s apartment and some of the possessions within it. This marks the beginning of Johnny’s excursion into Zampano’s writings of The Navidson Record. Through this passage, Johnny’s character encompasses Zampano’s apartment.

    In the passage, it is mentioned that “all the windows were nailed shut and sealed…the front entrance and courtyard doors all storm proofed. Even the vents were covered with duct tape.” This, of course, evokes a sense of entrapment within a relatively small space, that being Zampano’s apartment. The interesting thing about the apartment, however, is that “this peculiar effort to eliminate any ventilation…did not culminate with bars on the windows or multiple locks on the doors.” This means Zampano could easily leave and re-enter his apartment, as well as have visitors easily enter it. This can be seen as Johnny’s situation regarding the finding of Zampano’s writings; he is free to read through them as much or as little as he wants, and he is also free to interpret them as shallowly or as deep as he pleases. However, he does not go ahead with a shallow reading of the work; Johnny becomes completely engaged with it to the point of obsession. This can be seen on the first page of the introduction, in which he discusses his insomnia and desire for a pill that can eliminate the nightmares he’s been having. In Johnny’s case, he has sealed of all the ventilation within his mind. He does not have the ability to release all of the information that he has attained, but t goes even deeper than that; he cannot release all of the interpretation that he has acquired. This sealing away for the retention of something is even thought of by Johnny himself; the passage ends with this sentence: “My best guess now is that he sealed his apartment in an effort to retain the various emanations of his things and himself.” Johnny also does this in another way: he seals away certain feelings so he does not have to deal with them. Clara English, a girl he had previously dated, is compared to this other girl that he is seeing at the time Zampano’s work is discovered, called Thumper (XV). While this shows that Johnny is a guy that does not seem like the committing type, it shows something else. Clara English, if said fast, sounds like the phrase “clear english.” Thumper can refer to the thumping of one’s heart. By taking on the task of combing through Zampano’s writings, Johnny forgoes the idea of clear english, for this work is not something that is written clearly. He delves deeper and deeper into its mysteries, causing him to lose a clear sense of reality. He has recurring nightmares, and only by avoiding sleep can he avoid feeling the loud thump of his frightened heart.

    The main text goes through the intricate record that Zampano worked on, with Johnny’s footnotes littering the pages. These are the only times he has a sort of release. But, because this release is being placed within his own obsession, he becomes trapped within the work. His mind lacks ventilation, and even if he were to physically move from place to place, the apartment and what it contains would continue to follow him.

  11. Mark Danielewksi’s novel House of Leaves exploits a kind of literary doubleness that disorients the markers between narrative zones in the novel. Danielewski bounces his fiction between a few poles of reality, so that characters might be Characters in one sense and devices in another. Johnny Truant’s introduction to The Navidson Record is fashioned in the doubleness that makes House of Leaves particularly mystifying. Truant confesses in his introduction, “I still get nightmares. In fact I get them so often I should be used to them by now. I’m not. No one ever really gets used to nightmares.” (xi) Truant presents himself as a haunted man, and perhaps an untrustworthy voice, but talks with his implied addressee as if he were sprawled out on some leather coach confiding in an analyst. In this flickering moment, the reader has a kind of cognitive one-up over Johnny—he’s haunted, we’re not (yet at least). His pseudo didactic authority (“No one ever really gets used to nightmares”) situates him a peculiar relationship to the reader. He speaks to a universality of experience, but yet distinguishes himself. He’s talking to a double readership: the readers of House of Leaves & the readers of The Navidson Record. Danielewski bursts through his character’s text and folds his readers into the doubleness. We are reading fictional reality and real fiction. It seems we’ll have to no other choice but to let him be our tour guide though he’s on display in the museum.
    Danielewski generates fictitious paratextual material, so in one respect the introduction is in fact paratextual to The Navidson Record, while it’s ultimately textual material for House of Leaves (if we take textual to mean creative writing intended for the given fiction). This doubleness renders the introduction both in the text and of the text (A theme that comes to its most literal manifestation on page 151 when Truant replaces the word “from” with the word “for”: “Whatever comes for those who are never seen again has come from [/for] him” and on the same page an old fling of Traunt’s lets slip that Truant has gone missing).
    Danielewski is toying with the practice of critically reading paratextual material. If we are to critically read the textual, Danielewski insists we critically read the paratextual. Where as introductions usually frame a story, this introduction is within the story. One might read this as Danielewski abandoning his reader inside his tale, a kind of darkly smug play on ‘in medias res’.
    Though Truant is our only way in he admits to frequent drug use. He’s on, “Excedrin PMs, Melatonin, L-tryptophan, Valium, Vicodin, quite a few members of the barbital family.” (xi) These drugs contribute to a characterization of Truant as a kind of manic. Anything that follows this confession loses its stability- but brilliantly, Danielewski destabilizes all that precedes this confession as well. Truant’s introduction is a door that swings both ways. Truant piles on his substances: “A pretty extensive list, frequently mixed, often matched, with shots of bourbon, a few lung rasping bong hits, sometimes even the vaporous confidence-trip of cocaine.” (xi) Content wise, this list feels like itinerary for a road trip with Hunter S or Kerouac, and Truant’s rambling road tales suggest he’s fit for the pantheon of screwing, drinking and drugged up narrators of literature. Certainly his typeface reaffirms the implicit allusions. His abuse of prescription pills and illicit substances alienates him from the reader—and now reading Truant (and House of Leaves and The Navidson Record) becomes a circumspect task.
    Passage between (…I’m still not sure this is the appropriate preposition) Johnny Truant’s introduction parallels entrance into the house of Ash Tree Lane itself, so perhaps its fair, maybe even applicable to transpose the fictitious scholarship from the record and use it for the novel. Danielewski invents a critic, Ruby Dahl, who endeavors on quite a fascinating “study of space”. Though the character is imaginary, what is the precedent for using her analysis? Since Danielewski invented Dahl, and Dahl authored the study of space, is it a fair move to suggest that Dahl’s theorizing might transitively belong to Danielewski—and fit into the grammar of his novel? Dahl’s analysis, that, “the house, the halls, and the rooms all become the self—collapsing, expanding, tilting, closing, but always in perfect relation to the mental state of the individual.” (165) This “solipsistic” reading of the house might very well be paired with the reading of Truant’s introduction. In what ways might Traunt’s sentences, words, and paragraphs all become the reader—taking on manifold significances attuned to the readers understanding of the novel/record. Truant even positions himself as having the understanding of the story that a confused reader might posses: “What did I know then? What do I know now? At least some of the horror I took away at four in the morning you now have before you, waiting for you a little like it waited for me that night, only with out these few covering pages.” (xvii) This is quite a complex idea, that Truant’s epistemological advancement has more to do with a general phenomenon of horror and less to do with journalistic calculus & detective’s work. Truant’s understanding of chronology is as useless and blind as the readers. His appeal to the cover pages illustrates the complex web of realties at play: to Truant, the cover pages are official, but from the reader’s perspective- this appeal to the paratextual is quite literally an appeal to the fictitious.
    This conundrum of never knowing what enters and exists the story world mirrors the footnote 202—which references Dahl’s text. The footnote reads, “Curiously Dahl fails to consider why the house never opens into what is necessarily outside of itself.” (165). This critique rests at the foot of a question about Truant’s voice. If we move outside of Truant’s voice, we find Danielewksi’s, but Danielewski is simply of Johnny Truant.

  12. From the beginning of the novel the theme of unreliable narration takes a decisive hold on the complexities House of Leaves presents its reader. There are two primary narrators to the stories within House of Leaves, Johnny Truant and Zampano; they are joined by the “editors” of the novel in the form of footnotes and side notes. As a reader it is easy to get lost in the world of House of Leaves, with its bountiful complexities, and forget that the novel is the creation of the author Mark Z. Danielewski. The voices of both narrators, the editors and sometimes even the voice of Danielewski engage with each other throughout the text, sometimes directly, mostly in discreet indirect ways. In Chapter IV Danielewski seems to be challenging the reader’s ability to dissect the complexities of the novels narration from its complexities as a novel. In footnote 36 Johnny remarks on the necessity of one of Zampano’s passages:

    Easily that whole bit from “coffee arcing tragically” down to “the mourning paper” could have been cut. You wouldn’t of noticed the absence. I probably wouldn’t of either. But that doesn’t change the fact that I can’t do it. Get rid of it, I mean. What’s gain in economy doesn’t really seem to make up for what you lose of Zampano, the old man himself, coming a little more into focus, especially where digressions like these are concerned. (31)

    Johnny’s authority over Zampano’s text of The Navidson Record comes to the forefront in this footnote, reminding the reader of Johnny’s control over the text within The Navidson Record. Johnny’s proclamation of his authority momentarily breaks the trancelike hold the novels “labyrinth” produces for its readers, reminding us that like Zampano, Johnny is only a character in Danielewski’s fictional world within House of Leaves. This passage seems to be Danielewski’s way of definitively showing the vacillating nature of his narrators. This passage is one of the earliest indicators of the complexities of novel offers its readers. The footnote ends with Johnny comparing Zampano to “a very old riddle”, this comparison also gestures towards the idea of the labyrinth that is developed through the rest of the novel and further complicates the already unsteady foundation of the text.

    Zampano further develops this idea of riddles in the sections of The Navidson Record which follows footnote 36. He includes a fictional passage from Edith Skourja titled Riddles Without which analyzes the interaction between Karen and Audrie McCullogh. The passage opens with the line, “Riddles: they either delight or torment. Their delight lies in solutions” (33). Danielewski is challenging his readers to engage with the riddles and complexities of the novel in a specific way by gesturing to the possibility of a key, which could unlock the text, while still hinting there may not be a solution to the riddles he presents.

    The passage from Riddles Without continues with an explication of the origins of the word riddle proclaiming its etymological history with the word read, “Riddling is an offshoot of “reading” calling to mind the participatory nature of the act—to interpret—which is all the adult world has left when face with the unsolvable” (33). Danielewski is inviting his readers to reconsider their reading practices, implying the riddles and the text are one in the same. Zampano’s engagement with the idea of riddles, immediately following Johnny’s comparison of Zampano to a riddle, once again reminds the reader that both of these narrators are simply characters within Danielewski’s larger work. The explication of riddles provided by Zampano is a riddle in itself, which opens up the labyrinth of the text further and poses more questions and further disrupting the unreliable foundation of the text and its narrators.

  13. It is interesting to think about the countless ways that the reader obtains information about the “original” source, The Navidson Record, in Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Through outside sources and his own observations, Zampano recounts the story contained in the film (through Truant, another mediating narrator)—but even this story is often recounted through many different “lenses,” obscured under layers of retellings. For example, at the end of Chapter XIV, Endnote 308 explains how the audience is told about events that occur off-camera (moments that are contained within the narrative of the film, but must be discussed and read, or heard, outside of the film itself). Endnote 308 is marked directly after the house breaks Tom’s hands, his bones described “like breadsticks.” Zampano writes, “Due to the darkness and insufferable limitations of the Hi 8’s, the chaotic bits of tape representing these events must be supplemented with Billy’s narration.” Navidson “makes Reston the sequence’s sole authority. . . Consider: 1. Tom’s broken hands → 2. Navidson’s perception of Tom’s hurt → 3. Navidson’s description of Tom’s hurt to Reston → 4. Reston’s retelling of Navidson’s description based on Navidson’s recollection and perception of Tom’s actual hurt. A pointed reminder that representation does not replace. It only offers distance and in rare cases perspective.” The entirety of The House of Leaves, then, is extremely distant—and yet offers many interesting perspectives.

    There is no way to know what the original source might look like if it actually existed—doubtless it would be completely different from Zampano’s/Truant’s telling of it; it might even be unrecognizable, outside of a few “objective” observations. There are countless layers of narration shrouding the original source. In effect, House of Leaves does not read like any other novel. Even when trying to analyze certain parts of the novel, sometimes the reader is beaten to the punch by Truant’s own analysis (which might sometimes be the same as the reader’s), or Zampano’s further explications, and the countless essays, critiques, and analysis written by countless authors completely outside the text.

    Keeping all of this in mind, it is interesting to look at a moment where the reader is directly responsible for the telling of the tale. In Chapter XIII, Truant discloses that parts of the text have been burnt, or blotted out—reasons unknown. Rather than delete the passages, or try to fill in the gaps, Truant marks each burn with brackets. Sometimes these brackets only omit a letter or two from a word, sometimes they omit entire sentences. Here, Truant does not represent even Zampano’s words, let alone anyone else’s—he can’t, they’re not there anymore.

    These omissions seem to serve several main purposes: to hold the reader accountable for the narration; to explore the letters within a word, and how omissions change not only the structure, but, of course, the meaning; and to treat the structure of a sentence (or word) like the structure of the house.

    In the case of the malleable nature of words, it’s interesting to look at the brackets’ treatment of Holloway’s name in particular. There are two distinct variations that occur throughout the passage: Hol[ ]y and Hollow[ ]. Here, Holloway’s name has become two different words, each which represent different interpretations of the space in the labyrinth. The labyrinth is Holy, or it is Hollow—it cannot be both, since religion fills in hollowness, and hollowness is a cavity, emptiness surrounded by a structure.

    The emptiness of the brackets are like the emptiness in the labyrinth: hollow, devoid of the structure and meaning we expect it to have. Nouns are lost, adjectives, clauses, predicates, etc. The concept of emptiness is explored throughout the novel. At one point, Harold Bloom says, “emptiness is the purported familiar and your house is endlessly familiar, endlessly repetitive. Hallways, corridors, rooms, over and over again.” The emptiness of the house works in the same way as the emptiness in these bracketed sentences: they are endlessly familiar. The reader can often easily fill in the gaps, knowing the word even when parts of it are missing. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure if the reader is filling in the gaps the same way Zampano wrote them, so, in this way, the words are the reader’s own creation. Still, this is doable and even fun. (In the same way the exploration into the labyrinth begins as an adventure, more than descending into an abyss.) It’s when the gaps become larger that the reader becomes more and more lost—so it’s the space of the gap, not the gap itself, that leads the reader into confusion. Endnote 290, for example, reads: “[ ]0.” There is no easy way to understand what this emptiness can mean; here, the emptiness is not familiar, though the reader still fills in the gap with a shadow of a sentence, knowing what should be there, only failing to see it. If the reader was so inclined, he could put any variety of words in this huge empty space—but now the excitement is gone, replaced by a hollow experience.

  14. In Danielewski’s House of Leaves, although space and dimension – along with all the impossibilities they imply for the Navidson family – are the obvious stars, there is another curiosity. Smell. Or, more to the point, the scent of something that leaves a person disconcerted, something that they cannot place – something “mean.” When Johnny Truant first steps foot into Zampanò’s apartment that fateful night, “the scent of human history” immediately overwhelms him. Zampanò seems to have blocked all the ventilation: “windows were nailed shut and sealed with caulking. The front entrance and courtyard doors all storm proofed.” Aside from Zampanò’s walks in the courtyard each day and an occasional trip to the beach, it is assumed that he spent most of his time in his apartment. Still, he was clearly “not afraid of the outside world,” and, as Truant notes, his efforts do not coincide with those of a man who was trying to keep something out. Rather, he was trying to trap something within. In this case, it is the assorted smells of his life: a world of blindness rich in odor (xvi).

    Most perplexing, perhaps, is that Truant does not describe these assorted smells, combined into one, as bad. Just strong (xv). Not bad, despite his memory of it as “cloying, bitter, rotten.” He contradicts himself in his next sentence, calling into question his veracity: “These days I can no longer remember the smell only my reaction to it” (xv-xvi). Is it possible that this cloying, rotten smell is something Truant has attributed to Zampanò and his apartment only now that he has given over to madness (if it is indeed madness)? Did he smell it somewhere else? Or maybe the smell has followed him – maybe it is more familiar than he thinks.

    In Truant’s footnotes, unlike his introduction, Zampanò’s left over work – the scraps and snarls and bits of inked-up paper that form The Navidson Record – has not yet consumed him. The reader can sense, however, that his downfall is not far off. For instance, Truant has an episode one day at the tattoo shop where he apprentices. Although there is no apparent source for his distress, he experiences trouble breathing and goes out into the hallway to calm himself. Once again, much like in Zampanò’s apartment, scent alerts him that something is off: “my nostrils flare with the scent of something bitter & foul, something inhuman, reeking with so much rot & years, telling me…I’m not alone” (26). The “rot & years” is directly reminiscent of the smell that permeated Zampanò’s apartment, although Truant’s reaction to it here is markedly different.

    When this incident occurs, Truant has already begun to sift through Zampanò’s writings. He is becoming more and more aware of an uneasiness that does not seem to be connected to anyone or anything. This particular brand of “madness” seems almost contagious: passed from person to person through The Navidson Record. Zampanò died in his apartment, face down on the floor next to four long scratch marks – too long to be the work of any human hand (xvii). Likewise, at the tattoo shop, an idea possesses Truant: that some large beast is waiting for him just beyond his line of sight, waiting to take out his throat. Truant asks the reader to engage in an exercise, to imagine that this beast is about to pounce, that it is ready to “stab your jugular with is teeth or are they nails?, don’t worry, that particular detail doesn’t matter” (27). This detail, however, does seem to matter. Could this be what Truant smelled – or has forgotten he smelled – at Zampanò’s apartment? At this time, Truant’s thoughts had not yet been poisoned by The Navidson Record, by the creeping paranoia that it brings. Perhaps it is the key to recognizing this beast – perhaps it is also the mechanism through which the beast catches your scent.

  15. The index at the end of House of Leaves begins on page 664 and concludes on page 705: forty-one pages of alphabetically organized nouns, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, proper nouns, and pronouns. Danielewski has created his own subjective system in this final “chapter” of his novel, selecting words that both appear in print as well as others that apparently do not. Some indexed words reference words from select footnotes in the book, while others have no page reference at all but are given a “DNE” location, assumed to mean “Does Not Exist.”

    Certain words have especially lengthy lists of page references: again, always, and, back, black, can, come, dark, darkness, end, for, God, god, hear, here, hand, heart, home, house, in, into, just, know, life, light, little, me, man, may, more, my, new, never, night, not, nothing, only, other, out, over, place, right, room, see, something, so, time, while, with, without, you. In providing great detail with regard to their appearance throughout the novel, Danielewski elevates these generic or simple words, forcing us to give them a second look—forcing us to delve into their meaning—if they have any meaning at all. Yet, we can be certain that at least some of them hold exceptional significance to characters—and perhaps even to ourselves—as in the impact of “so” on Johnny Truant: “An awful word but it does harden you. It hardened me” (104).

    We are struck by the index’s highly detailed, yet comical, entries. It is as if the author, in constructing a novel that challenges conventions, is mocking what he sees as a pretentious take on academic precision. Just as his copious use of footnotes throughout the book takes on a scholarly tone, the index is a straight-faced exaggeration of novelistic form. The sheer size of the index suggests a lofty professorial authority, yet in the end it is often silly and self-aggrandizing.
    Danielewski’s index takes the reader on a search for deeper meaning and interpretation as it seems to yield more questions than answers. Similarly, Navidson and his team of explorers relentlessly search the mysterious passageways of the house’s labyrinth for answers and meaning. With endless journeys and changing patterns, do both index and passageway ultimately lead to nowhere and in the end divulge nothing? Both the index and the house’s labyrinth indulge our search for logic; the Navidson brothers cannot see how the logic of the house fits with what they know about space in the “real” world as the reader seeks logic in the index’s entry in “DNE.”

    Perhaps, the words listed with “DNE” next them hold some secret yet substantial meaning: arterial, buckles, confuse, crab, dazzle, diner, embalm, embarrass, float, hippo, lime, muddle—to name a few. Yet beyond their individual implications, what relationship do they have to one another? It would appear that any sort of unifying relationship will not develop easily before the eyes of the reader. Search as we may through the index, pouting over every minute word and referring back to the novel will essentially lead us nowhere in terms of understanding it. Typically, an index serves to assist the reader—to grant the reader with quick and helpful references to the text that will enhance understanding. Navidson and his accompanying characters repeatedly return to the house’s labyrinth in search for explanations, truths, and answers to the mystery of the hallway. The twisted logic of this unfathomable interior that leads to nothingness is quite similar to Danielewski’s index. The index leads us around and around and throughout the novel, but in the end it really leads us nowhere. What is the meaning of any index, when all it does is take us to a portion of a novel but we do not get any more clarity by visiting a page here or a page there? Danielewski introduces a passage by Penelope Reed Doob explaining the labyrinth:

    “They simultaneously incorporate order and disorder, clarity and confusion, unity and multiplicity, artistry and chaos. They may be perceived as a path or as a pattern…Our perception of labyrinths is thus intrinsically unstable: change your perspective and the labyrinth seems to change” (114).

    Danielewski has provided us with our own labyrinth—the index. And that is not to say this labyrinth or even maze of an index is meant to cause confusion or chaos. Perhaps the index is the author’s way of giving us a break or even a gift. After all the reader has weeded through—the intricacies and references and confusion and codes and even the sheer size of the novel—the index provides a clean, simple, final gift from Danielewski. Perhaps the index is not making a mockery of literary convention. Maybe we are supposed to turn back to “DNE” and read it as “Do Not Enter” instead of “Do Not Exist” or rearrange the letters to read “END.” We have been presented with a window—a blank page—for our numerous perceptions and endless possible meanings. As Doob so accurately described, the reader has to the power to interpret the index and as these interpretations change upon reading Danielewski’s novel, so will the meaning of the index. In the end, the index might just lead us to ourselves.

  16. The seeming simplicity and shortness of Zampanò’s epigraph belie its significance. “Muss es sein?”, German for “must it be? or must it exist?” is heavily meaningful, though vague. The employment of muss over say, kann (can) or darf (may) adds a sense of fixity to the question. The muss is firm and suggests a desire for an alternate reality, where “it” would not be. Sein (to be, to exist) reinforces this notion. Hidden behind the question is a speaker, presumably Zampanò, who recognizes an impossibility, who bitterly affirms a certain reality. Because of Johnny Truant’s introduction pointing out the nonexistence of The Navidson Record, we are likely to see Zampanò’s epigraph as relating to the existence of the The Navidson Record. In that respect, Zampanò’s epigraph speaks to a desire to will something into being. We can interpret “muss es sein?” as an affirmation of Zampanò’s efforts to imply the existence of The Navidson Record.

    Looking into any possible references to the epigraph, one will find that Beethoven had written down the phrase as well as an answer formulation – Es muss sein! (It must be!) – in his manuscript for String Quartet No. 16, which was written in October 1826. By that point, Beethoven was deaf and one can see the parallel between a deaf composer writing down his composition and the blind Zampanò richly circling The Navidson Record with text. Both would have had a bitter distance from their work. Zampanò gives the reader pieces of vivid description of the film in order to approximate the filmic within his work, in an attempt to visualize what he cannot see, akin to Beethoven’s musical composition. In a sense, Zampanò works to manifest the film within himself – his deep analysis of the film a kind of perceiving.

    Of course, the implication of existence suggested by muss es sein is not limited to Zampanò. Johnny Truant is swallowed as well in his encounter with Zampanò’s work. The veneer of possibility, of The Navidson Record as real is exactly what motivates his investigation and subsequent conclusion that “Zampanò’s entire project is about a film which doesn’t even exist” (xix). Johnny Truant’s obsession, like Zampanò’s, leads to a circling of text – this time around Zampanò’s manuscript. Arguably, Johnny Truant is so convinced by Zampanò that he works to verify the claims and references made in the manuscript, consumed in the process. Add to this the editors, who work in revealing Johnny Truant’s unreliability (Appendix III). They buy into the implied existence of the film asserted by Zampanò’s manuscript, adding to the two sets of text that circle it. There is a sense that all this collateral analysis and commentary by multiple people point to a center – that Zampanò has perhaps willed something into being. Yet, this sense is unstable given the multiple frames in which it is either refuted or asserted.

    “Muss es sein?” is significant because it suggests the possibility of willed existence as well as the closeness between existence and implied existence. It brings into focus the ability to assert an object’s existence without the presence of the object itself. Of course, this assertion is volatile but in being so, speaks to how House of Leaves operates.

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