Enter the Abyss
“Unfortunately, the anfractuosity of some labyrinths may actually prohibit a permanent solution. More confounding still, its complexity may exceed the imagination of even the designer. Therefore anyone lost within must recognize that no one, not even a god or an Other, comprehends the entire maze and so therefore can never offer a definitive answer” (Danielewski 115).
The novel “House of Leaves,” by Mark Z. Danielewski, defies explanation. It is a vast labyrinth of a book, within a book, about a movie that never existed—not even within the world of the book. When I first began reading this book I started on page 1; I quickly realized my error and turned back to read the introduction, assuming it would lead to some kind of explanation about how to read this book. I was wrong. Perhaps I should have heeded the warning “This is not for you” (Danielewski ix) and closed the book, but I was determined to move ahead so I dismissed the warning. Again, I was confronted with the question of whether or not to press ahead, this time by one of the narrators, Johnny Truant, who right from the very beginning tells the reader, “Zampano’s entire project is about a film which doesn’t even exist. You can look, I have, but no matter how long you search you will never find The Navidson Record in theaters or video stores” (xx). Thus, still having no idea what is in store, yet, knowing that I cannot trust at least one narrator, I plunge ahead. “Muss es sein?” the novel asks without translation, and without knowing the answer I turn the page.
The first aspect of this book that I would like to consider is the way one goes about reading it. Not knowing anything about this book (except what Professor Mueller said in class) I decided to just go ahead and read it in the same way I would read any other book. I resisted going onto the website for the book or reading any reviews about the book until I was finished, because I did not want any outside sources to influence the way I read. That being said, this is not exactly an easy book to read in a linear fashion. When faced with the decision to read Zampano’s book, or Johnny’s footnoted story, more often than not I would choose Johnny’s story. That part of the book felt more immediate; it felt as though Johnny were somehow more real than the rest of the book (which becomes interesting when one considers how time works in the novel). I stayed on this course until told by a footnote from the ‘editor’ that “those…who feel they would profit from a better understanding of [Johnny’s] past may wish to proceed ahead and read his father’s obituary…as well as those letters written by his institutionalized mother” (Danielewski 72). The letter from May 8, 1987 is an acrostic code. I spent quite a bit of time decoding this message from Johnny’s mother, which affected the way I read the rest of the book. Now I knew to look for hidden messages throughout the novel, and once again I was confronted with the fact that the narrators were not to be relied upon.
This brings up the interplay between the reader and the novel itself. It is almost as if the novel were a strategy game: choose A and end up at point Z; choose B and end up at point X, and so on. There are so many possibilities for reading and interpreting this work that one cannot possibly have the exact same reading experience as another person. I wondered too about the fact that the word house is written in blue throughout the book; it made me think of a hyperlink, as if you could click on the word house and it would open the vast space that is the internet, in much the same way that the house itself opens into an unfillable void. There were many times when reading this that I thought perhaps the house was a conceit for the Internet, and in some ways I still think that could be true. However, I’m not completely sold on that idea by the end of the novel, because on the last page of the book is a poem with the word “Yggdrasil” written vertically down the center of the page. According to Wikipedia in Norse mythology, Yggdrasil “was said to be the world tree around which the nine worlds existed” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yggdrasil), and it was also thought to be an Ash tree, which is significant because the Navidson’s house is on Ash Tree Lane. Furthermore, there are several interpretations of the word “yggdrasil” and one by F. Detter states that the word comes from the word for “terror,” which is interesting when one considers the terrifying abyss that was inside the Navidson’s house.
There are so many possible interpretations for the many meanings behind “House of Leaves,” which is perhaps part of what Danielewski is trying to demonstrate with the mind-blowing amount of “scholarship” that has been published about the Navidson Record. First of all, because The Navidson Record never existed the scholarship obviously never existed. However, Danielewski seems, at the very least, to be satirizing academic scholarship’s tendency toward being obtuse, and the tendency to over-analyze every single word or frame. The “scholarship” cited in the novel imparts meaning on every word uttered, gesture made, drawing created, and book read by the Navidson’s after the fact—when really there was no deeper meaning at the time.
There are so many questions that I want to raise about this book, but in the interest of everyone’s time, I will only broach one more subject in this post and that subject is time. How does time work in the novel? I find it interesting that Johnny Truant’s writing is done on a type-writer; I know the editor’s say that the font choice is to distinguish his writing from Zampano’s, and still I can not get over the fact that the choice was deliberate in order to raise questions about when Johnny was writing. When Navidson is lost in the abyss of the house, he has a book with him: “House of Leaves.” It is the same “House of Leaves” that we are reading, and it has the exact same number of pages (not the incorrectly cited 709 pages, but the actual number of pages). Navidson reads the book by match light and then begins to burn the pages one by one in order to have light to read the next page, the book is literally consumed by the act of being read—and yet this action takes place, presumable before the book was ever written. There is also the instance of the band that Johnny meets toward the end of the book, and they have already read the book as well, which causes Johnny to question what he had done. I cannot help but think that this is a reflection on the author; he published the book on the Internet before he published it in book form, and he found that people were actually reading it. In a way the book had taken on a life of it’s own.
Things to consider:
This book was published in 2000, so a good amount of time has passed to ask: What do you think this book’s influence on the novel as a form has been? Have you seen anything directly influenced by this book, whether it is the style or the content or the layout or the publishing process?
How would one go about teaching this novel? In what ways could you incorporate all of the digital resources available for this book, into a lesson plan? (See links below)
What do you think of the comparison between Zampano and Thamyris? Have you found the code on page 387?
How could Johnny’s mother have known Zampano? (page 615 “many years destroyed. Endless arrangements—re. zealous accommodations, medical prescriptions, & needless other wonders, however obvious—debilitating in deed; you ought understand—letting occur such evil” = My dear Zampano, who did you lose?)
What role does madness play in the novel? How does the perception of madness shape the reading?
Why does Zampano try to strike the Minotaur from the novel?
I have a bunch of links to sites I have found useful, informative, and fun related to this book. Have a look if you get a chance! (I have to add that reading about this book is like entering the abyss--I could have gone on forever!)
Interview with Danielewski:
An Idiot’s Guide to “House of Leaves”:
I couldn’t help thinking about Jean Baudrillard when I read this book, so I thought I would share this link to his chapter “Simulacra and Simulations - I. The Precession of Simulacra”:
Jean Baudrillard Excerpt from “Simulacra and Simulations - I. The Precession of Simulacra” (1983) Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser
The following links are all projects created in response to “House of Leaves”:
(Circa Survive's secret song House of Leaves):
(Same song but, reversed):
(by Poe, [Danielewski’s sister] directed by Mark Z. Danielewski):
Poe “Hey Pretty”:http://youtu.be/Hvkc2yd1YSU "You got a death wish Johnny Truant?" by Fall of Troy:
A student's school project [in the interest of our digital stories]:
“If one reads too quickly or too slowly, one understands nothing” (Danielewski 115).