Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The House of Leaves on Ash Tree Lane

 My final paper for my Study of the Novel class was about House of Leaves.  It is the most experimental paper I have ever written - and I did it unconventionally, because HOL is an unconventional novel.  I have shared it here because I'm a narcissist and I think it's really good.  I hope you all enjoy it.  Please leave me comments as I always welcome feedback and constructive criticism.  Also, if you loved it I'd really like to hear that, too.  :-)
            House of Leaves is the wrong book to write about when you’ve been assigned a 3-5-page essay. The concept is too dense; it is far too complicated and layered, and there is no way anyone could pluck one simple idea from the book to write a short paper without constantly being bombarded with tangents, shifts in perspective, or convoluted ideas; unless, of course, I wanted to write a high school-caliber dissertation on What I Loved Most About House of Leaves.  It would be better suited for a 60-page masters thesis, but I am compelled to write something about it. 
            I would like to say that House of Leaves is nothing but an elaborate exercise in self-indulgence, an ego-driven masturbatory masterpiece from a narcissistic writer grieving the death of his genius filmmaker father.[1]  I would also like to say that Mark Z. Danielewski is so obsessed with his own vast knowledge that he had to jerk us through 709 agonizing pages using a blind narrator, named Zampano, to detail an analogous version of Danielewski’s life – a simple story of a family torn apart (albeit living in a house that is growing on the inside), to the bewildering and often incoherent ramblings of another narrator, named Johnny, (who is descending into madness after he finds a box of journals, clippings, drawings and other random things from Zampano, which detail a film Zampano allegedly saw about the family who bought the house that is growing on the inside [this is the House that Jack Built]), who turns to drugs and sex to over-compensate for the lack of a consistent and strong maternal influence in his life, until Danielewski finally dumps his load all over our faces as we stare back in disbelief – just to see that it was all (probably) just an elaborate deconstruction of the idea of literary analysis and a reason to mock the publishing system. 
            Danielewski even almost goes as far as to tell us how countercultural he and his book are by couching his opinions in what Zampano says the “Navidson film” is “destined to achieve” and how “good story telling alone will guarantee a healthy sliver of popularity in the years to come, but its inherent strangeness will permanently bar it from any mainstream interest” (7).  In some parts I’m even reminded of Virginia Woolf’s metaphor for writing in To the Lighthouse when the narrator, Johnny, mentions his disgust for a story he made up for some women at a bar and “how fake it is” and that “it’s like there’s something else, something beyond it all, a greater story still looming in the twilight” (15).  As bold as Mark Z. Danielewski is, like all of us, he still hears the Critic’s Voice loudly. 
            I could also say that House of Leaves is a love story to the author’s black and white ideals of men and women.  Danielewski’s men are heroic even in their neglect (personal and otherwise) and irresistible to women.  His female characters are otherworldly in their beauty and mystery, but cold and distant at heart.  Will and Karen Navidson are said to have bought a house in Virginia, built on the bizarre land of Jonestown.  Navidson is a world-renown photographer who remains faithful to his wife, Karen, even though every woman he meets wants to have sex with him.[2]  Karen, an ex-model, has spent her life hiding behind a “hard and practiced smile” (58), and “hardly gave up the promiscuous behavior that marked her 20s.  She only became more discreet” (16).   
            In this house that the Navidsons bought, there is a labyrinth that grows out of a hallway.  I could go on and on about how the dark labyrinth is a metaphor for the unquenchable sexual desire of men, and how Karen’s claustrophobia is her fear of rape (or even simple sex for that matter).  The wheelchair bound character, Reston, even refers to the uncanny ability of the house to change size as “a goddamn spatial rape” (55). 
            Karen and Navy’s strained relationship is connected strongly to a lack of sex in their marriage and at one point Navidson says, “if she keeps up this cold front, you bet I’m going in there”(63).  If the house’s labyrinth could be seen as man’s unquenchable desire for sex (or desire to rape), one could interpret Navy’s words as meaning, “if she doesn’t give me sex, I’m going to take it.”  Or perhaps the labyrinth is a metaphor for existential angst – the dark abyss of the psyche, subconscious repression.  Either way a psychoanalyst could have a field day.
            If I were Johnny’s therapist I’d say that it’s all a lie.  In fact there is no Johnny (not in the way the narrator wants us to think); there is no Zampano; there is no House.  Karen and Navidson (what kind of fucking name is that, anyways?) and their children are all made up, too.  What we have here is a repressed drug addict who is losing his shit and writing a twisted manifesto of a madness he himself doesn’t even understand and it was all triggered by the death of his mother. 
      For one thing the character, Zampano, the one who allegedly got his hands on a film called, The Navidson Record, and who was writing a book about it is blind.  There is no way a blind man would be able to detail the events that take place in a film with such clarity if he couldn’t even see.  The narrator, Johnny, who supposedly finds all this work that Zampano has done, claims “we all create stories to protect ourselves” (20). 
            The story that Zampano is telling is full of things that could be directly related to Johnny’s life – particularly his childhood.  The character of Holloway Roberts, an explorer and rival of Navidson, is reminiscent of Johnny’s foster father, Raymond.  Being “broad and powerful with a thick beard” (80) he is visually similar to Raymond who has “a beard rougher than horse hide and hands harder than horn” (92).  Holloway is also used to taking charge, like Raymond who is “a total control freak” (92).
            There is also a similarity between Navidson and Karen’s son, Chad, and Johnny as a child as he “turns out to be the most problematic.  He spends more and more time outside by himself” and he “returns home from school with a bruised eye and swollen nose” (91); this indicates that like Johnny, he spends time fighting.  These are only a few details that make it seem as if Johnny makes up The Navidson Record.
            Johnny also admits that he is guilty of “shifting and re-shifting details, smoothing out the edges, removing the corners, colorizing the whole thing or if need be de-colorizing” (92), indicating to us that he is clearly an unreliable narrator.  Knowing this we can chose to disregard everything he says and when he tells a girl about a poem called, “Love at First Sight” having been “written by a blind man… the blind man of all blind men, me” (117), it becomes quite clear that he possibly could be Zampano.  Or maybe not.  We can’t know for sure.  The only thing we really know is that Johnny is obsessed with women.
            From the beginning of the book we see that Johnny has severe issues where women are concerned.  He falls in love with every woman he talks to and when we meet Johnny, he’s “getting over this woman named Clara English” (xii), with whom (we later learn) he only spent one night. 
            From Clara he jumps into love with a stripper he calls, “Thumper,” to whom he can barely speak and when he looks at her his “desire suddenly informed by something deeper, even unknown, pouring into” (52) him, indicating to me a sort of Oedipal complex.  Throughout his supposed love for Thumper Johnny runs the gamut of sexual conquests.  He writes about all sorts of women he sleeps with (because no matter how nasty and smelly he is, he gets ALL THE CHICKS) and sprinkled amidst all his exhausting convoluted drug-addled prose we see subconscious references to his past and his mother. 
            While he is at a bar with his best friend, Lude, thinking about blindness and echoes, he refers to what seems to be a nightmare and “her toiling fingers wet with boiling deformation” and “the silence then of a woman and an only son” (49), which speaks directly to when his mother accidentally drops boiling oil on his arms, scarring him for life.  At one point after a paragraph about the explorers in the labyrinth using thread to help find their way back, a footnote discusses common metaphors for thread, one of them being an “umbilical cord, for life, and for destiny” (119), which is relevant if we think of the house’s labyrinth as a metaphor for Johnny’s inability to cope with his mother’s death.  Johnny himself admits that he “constantly craved the comforts of feminine attention” (129) and this is because of his repressed subconscious desire for his mother – not necessarily in a sexual way, but in the dark edges of the mind unrealized emotions can manifest themselves in weird ways. 
            Johnny is aware of the weird ways “desire and pain communicate in the vague language of sex” (265) and how the “emptiness in one night stands” is just another way of living in “darkness” (265), and that all of his encounters “added up to so very little, hardly enduring, just shadows of love outlining nothing at all” (265) – like the house and its labyrinth, which ultimately is a figment of Johnny’s tortured imagination. 
            He has experienced so much and has witnessed so much “atrocity” and is so utterly tortured by the madness of his mother and the horrors she had to endure – “unknowable rapes?” (299) – that his guilt drives him crazy.  It permeates his sleep, like when he dreams of a woman whose “face glows with adoration and warmth and her eyes communicate in a blink an understanding of all the gestures” he has ever made and “all the thoughts” he’s ever had (405) who tearfully tries to chop him to pieces and the only woman who ever really felt that way about Johnny is his mother.  This dream directly relates to a wrong memory he has of his mother trying to choke him to death – a lie she told him in an insane attempt to keep him from loving her, in order to protect him from her inability to be there for him.
            It is this dream that seems to bring Johnny one of the rare moments of clarity he has, he sees that he needs to let her go and he manages to start that business by getting rid of the necklace she left him.  The “idea of getting rid of it was no longer enough” he had to hate it, because he felt the “horrendous weight” around his neck – even when he wasn’t wearing it – was killing him.  The memories were too heavy.  He needed to heal himself the only way his broken self knew how.
            His mother told him “words will heal” his heart (598) and he believed her.  This is why he wrote everything – a book from the point of view of a blind old man, named Zampano, a description of a movie that nobody has ever heard of let alone seen, his own stream-of-consciousness writing.  He knew that if he ever came “to disregard everything” she told him he should believe that his “words” and “only” his words would heal his heart (598). 
            There’s so much more that could be discussed about House of Leaves, but it would be impossible to encompass it all in a short paper.  The various layers of this story could be analyzed and picked apart for years (they already have), but ultimately I think we have to accept that there is no one single meaning and that, like the house, it takes on a new form every time you "enter" it.  

[1] According to Wikipedia, Mark Z. Danielewski’s film director dad, Tad Danielewski (of No Exit fame), died of cancer back in 1993 and in a Random House interview Danielewski said, “My father will be remembered for a lot of things but by some, TZD--as some of my friends called him--will be forever known for his passionate consideration of the art of cinema” (Cotrell, “A Conversation”).  Danielewski speaks of time with his father as magical and from him he received a “magnificent and strange education” (“A Conversation”)

[2] I know I read that, but can’t find the page for reference!

"Tad Danielewski.” Wikipedia.com. 2013. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

Cotrell, Sophie. “A Conversation with Mark Danielewski.” Randomhouse.com. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. Toronto: Random House, 2000. Print.


  1. I loved the essay, just as I love House of Leaves. My only gripe was the part about men having unquenchable sex drives and potential rape. True in the novel, yes, but in real life I think many men might find this in a bad taste and a tad presumptious.

    That said, it is a very minor gripe, the rest was great. As you say it is impossible to fully explore House of Leaves from an academic perspective and one suspects that is quite deliberate on Mark Z Danielewski's part.

    In a lot of ways the book is about how love (Navidson and Karen's) can end the cycles of violence which surround the characters. Truant finds some kind of peace but his failure to remember the banana leaf girl is definitly becomes a bigger thing about failing to recognise the healing and redemptive power of love. Navidson, despite everything, because of Karen's bravery is redeemed and saved. Johnny we are not so sure about. Although the men have the macho front and desire to explore it is ultimately the women that are (succesfully and unsuccesfully) the true saviors as it were...or more eloquently put it is the union of the two, in love, that does this.

    Also I think women played a role with Zampano-they read to him and possibly he dictated to them. Ultimately he is a lonely old man, love long gone, surrounded by women who can offer comfort and companionship but nothing more. Below I have included some of my favourite quotes:

    House of Leaves:

    P. 45-6 "Echolocation comes down to the crude assessment of simple sound modulations, whether in dull reply of a tapping [cane or the low, eerie flutter in one simple word-perhaps your word-flung down empty hallways long past midnight."

    P. 50 "Myth makes Echo the subject of longing and desire. Physics makes Echo the subject of distance and design. Where emotion and reason are concerned both claims are accurate. And where there is no Echo there is no description of space or love. There is only silence."

    P. 54 "...seeing this stranger, the vessel of my dreams, I withdrew to the toilet, to the shower, toy table, enough racket and detachment to communicate an unfair request, but poor her she heard it and without a word dressed, and without a smile requested a brush, and without a kiss left, leaving me alone..."

    P. 78 "...just like other splinters I still carry, though these much deeper, having never been worked out by the body but quite the contrary worked into the body, by now long since buried, calcified and fused to my very bones, taking me further from the warm frolic of years, reminding me of much colder days where I left Death, or thought I had..."

    P. 114 "Doors are let into walls at frequent intervals to suggest deceptively the way ahead and to force the visitor to go back upon the very same tracks that he has already followed in his wonderings."

    P. 153 "It is almost as if entrance let alone a purpose-any purpose-in the face of those endless and lightless regions is enough to rejoice."

    P. 167 "When revisiting places we once frequented as children, it is not unusual to observe how much smaller everything seems. This experience has too often been attributed to the physical differences between a child and an adult. In fact it has more to do with epistemological dimensions than with bodily dimensions: knowledge is hot water on wool. It shrinks time and space."

    P. 384 "Whoever you are, go out into the evening, leaving your room, of which you know each bit, your house is the last before the infinite, whoever you are."

    P. 504 "Come morning I found the day as I have found every other day-without relief or explanation."

    I hope this comment finds you well. Your essay really set me off on one haha. Now I need to re read House of Leaves!

    1. Thanks for commenting! By writing "man's unquenchable desire to rape," I didn't mean to imply that I felt man had an unquenchable desire to rape, I said that as from a possible perspective, or intent of the writer. It was a very general statement, and I was making an accusation of sexism, but I meant no offense. Thanks for the kind words and I'm pleased that anyone actually reads this thing.


I will not censor anyone, but please, in the spirit of open communication and respect for others - don't be a douche bag, or else I will rip you a new one.