This is not for you
– the novel’s dedication page
House of Leaves (Pantheon Books, 2000) is a cluster of stories told more in their metatext than text, a book that took ten years to write and has given rise to another book (The Whalestoe Letters), an album (Haunted, by Danielewski’s sister, Anne – known as Poe), and an author with a reputation for being so ‘experimental’ his next book, Only Revolutions, was shortlisted for the US National Book Prize despite being practically incomprehensible to any but the most dedicated reader[i]. House of Leaves is a cult classic, reviled by some and adored – fiercely – by others.
The author’s most recent literary effort, the limited edition The Fifty Year Sword, is generally only available to collectors willing to part with more than $300 (second-hand) or $700 (new) – or via limited-seat Halloween theatre runs in Los Angeles (some of which you can watch on YouTube).
To perform a Danielewski book is to come full circle, since his books are elaborate productions – paper performances, if you will – in colour and typography, in code and layout. Particularly in layout, where the page is used like the lens of a camera to extend and control reader experience.
House of Leaves owes at least as much to the performance arts as the literary ones.
House of Leaves: Who is weird
“I still get nightmares.”
– Johnny Truant, opening line, House of Leaves, pp. xi
Within the first several pages we find that House of Leaves purports to be a narrative composed by drug and possibly sex addict, Johnny Truant, which describes his investigation of a manuscript by a dead man called ‘Zampanò’. The manuscript, in turn, is an exploration of a collection of video tape called ‘The Navidson Record.’ And The Navidson Record – are you keeping up? – was intended to be about a young family moving into the suburbs, but instead becomes an exploration of a haunted house with a labyrinth at its heart, and in the heart of that labyrinth, a Minotaur.
These are the layers of characters we meet, though it is the house which is at the heart of this book – the house of leaves. But, alas – as Johnny admits – almost none of that is true.
“See, the irony is it makes no difference that the documentary at the heart of this book is fiction.”
– Johnny Truant, introduction, House of Leaves, pp. xx
See, but it does! The documentary may be false, and so – we assume – are the Navidsons. As to Zampanò, well, his manuscript is at least equally questionable, being full of errors and references to source material that partly fictional. Our worthy narrator – Johnny Truant – assures us he is trying to correct these false references as he finds them, and admits his effort is imperfect since he’s no academic. But how trustworthy is Truant himself, the articulate junkie, amateur ghost hunter, and the book’s courier[ii], ferrying the messages (the lies?) to the reader? How trustworthy is his own story of the pursuit of love, told in footnotes?
As we waited for the light to change, she told me her name was Johnnie, though some people called her Sled, though her real name was Rachel. This is a simple telling of a much more difficult series of questions, the answers to which, in retrospect, were more likely all made up.
– Johnny Truant, footnote to Tom’s Story, pp. 266.
The longer we know Truant, the less we must trust him. Just as the family in the fictional Navidson Record (Will, Karen, their children Chad and Daisy, Will’s brother Tom) come to mistrust the very walls and shadows of their house. Just as we come to mistrust the author’s intentions towards the children (note the names of the children in the colour plate inside the cover; note the author’s suggestion ‘I could kill the children’ in that colour plate). Not so much a house of leaves, we realise, as a house of cards. And always falling.
Other characters include Pelafina[iii], Truant’s tragic, institutionalised mother, his friend Lude, and a cruel (dog-killing) woman supposedly called Johnnie who is not Johnny. (Or is she?) All these characters appear in the main text, footnotes or appendices, depending on whose story you’re reading. These characters may or may not exist and may or may not know of each other (Pelafina at one point directly speaks to Zampanò in Johnny’s story, despite ostensibly never having met him), and the strange relationships the characters possess outside of the text lead to metatextual questions. Is Zampanò Jonny’s father? Did Zampanò even exist or did Truant make the whole thing up (or did Zampanò make up Johnny?)? Are Johnny and Johnnie one person? Is the entire book the crazed ravings of Pelafina H. Lievre[iv], trapped in her mental hospital? And why should any of this matter?
The only thing we’re relatively sure of is that somewhere outside of all this, Mark Z. Danielewski is populating his text with a multitude of unreliable, articulate, and weird narrators in a frenzy of something that is deeply meaningful – or discordantly meaningless, depending on your point of view. Because in this text like no other, the reader must become a character too, either a believer or a doubter. You find what you bring. You find exactly what you bring, what meaning and what power, what effort for which puzzles. And when you choose to bring that meaning and power – or doubt – to the text, you, too, are creating something unique, some personal level of collusion with the author who – like a true puppet master – is pulling your strings as dextrously as he is manipulating the characters in his book. It’s just that in the case of the characters, they’re all fictional. And you’re real. Aren’t you?
“For me, [the book] was a combination of theater and music, I suppose,” he says, explaining how he imagines “”House of Leaves”‘” many different voices as resembling those of a musical.
– Mark Z. Danielewski, themodernworld.com, interview by Eric Wittmershaus
House of Leaves: What is weird
House of Leaves poses that question endemic to metafictional writing: what is real?
In the case of a novel, surely we expect none of it to be real? It is fiction, after all, stored in the Fiction shelves in bookstores. We expect a level of manipulation beyond memoir or documentary but perhaps (particularly in this day and age) not that far beyond. We expect the author to guide us in determining what is real and what is not within the fictional world s/he created. We’re familiar, after centuries of literature, with the idea of the ‘unreliable narrator’, but we still expect some injection of reliability – some validation – to occur, or if not to occur to be dangled in front of us with a wink and a wry, writerly smile. ‘Is this bit real?’ the author may ask.
What Danielewski presents is an entire zoo of unreliable narrators with no validation, no authority to whom we can appeal. A potential “hoax of exceptional quality” (Zampanò, chapter one, House of Leaves, pp. 3), and no one who might correct us gently on some points and lead us, equally gently, astray on other points of contention. No points in fact. It is the entire narrative which is in doubt and the only decision-maker we’re given access to is the one reading the book[v].
To hurl ourselves into the rabbit hole again: House of Leaves is about a manuscript about a video about a house that holds a labyrinth that houses a Minotaur. Coming full circle, House of Leaves is, in fact, a labyrinth, a perfect paper-based example of what it’s describing right down to its title (the ‘leaves’ most often assumed to be a reference to pages: thus a house of leaves is a house of pages, or a book). It is a descent into psychosis, a physical and mental challenge. The labyrinth at the heart of the Ash Tree Lane home of the Navidsons is as much a psychological representation of the state of mind of the Navidsons themselves as it will come to be about your state of mind as you try reading it.
As Will Navidson travels deeper into his shame and Karen Navidson travels further from her husband, as Johnny Truant falls more unwillingly under the spell of various sexual partners, and as his mother secretly, covertly opens up to the terrors of the place that houses her (sometimes in coded letters), we experience more of the labyrinth and the ‘inextricable wandering’ of the house[vi].
It starts with the discovery that the house on Ash Tree Lane is bigger inside than out. Then there’s a door, a corridor, a darkness that is insurmountable, unscaleable. Irrefutable. Karen forbids Will from further exploration of the house’s dark heart, and so he employs a team of explorers, not all of whom make it out alive. There are strange growls or howls from the darkness that echoes the howls of Johnny Truant’s own mother as she’s institutionalised. Because she’s sorry. She’s sorry they’re taking her away and she’s sorry she hurt her son. There’s a monster in the house, a Minotaur, capable of making the kinds of marks that were found on Zampanò’s floor (under his corpse, in fact). There’s a tangle of realities that can’t be kept separate.
There is, on the part of the reader – this reader, anyhow – a strong desire to scream what is going on?! at the page, in a kind of giddy awe.
House of Leaves: How it’s weird
The irrefutably weirdest thing about House of Leaves is its layout. Though, if you’ve never flipped through a copy, ‘layout’ is too simple a term. Danielewski strove to use ‘cinematic grammar’ in his pages[vii], utilising the page like the lens of a camera to dictate the pace and direction of the reader’s experience in much the same way a cinematographer dictates camera angles for the sake of the audience. At times, the reader moves slowly through pages dense with multiple narrative. At other times, it’s possible to skim-read the handful of words on a page, frantically turning pages as the characters frantically move through the house. Not to mention the mirror writing, the upside down footnotes, the columns and boxed inserts. As the house continues to transform, so does Danielewski’s text. As the secrets come to be revealed, the text becomes encoded: an entire chapter laid out in the format of Morse code (spelling out SOS[viii], of course), an encoded letter from Truant’s mother that can’t be read until decoded.
Several editions of House exist: the ‘full colour’ edition, which contains red, blue[ix], purple and Braille text, along with full colour plates. The black and white edition (self-explanatory), two two-colour editions (either blue or red, depending), and an ‘incomplete’ edition (no colour, no index) – which critics claim may or may not exist. The book itself claims to be a ‘second edition’, the first having been distributed personally by the author to his friends. Which may or may not have happened (can we even trust the metatext of Danielewski’s interviews?).
There are strange trills like a musical melody, codes and games that tell their own stories, each of which leads to such strange conclusions that any one alone could make for an entire article. Footnotes whose first letters spell out further messages. Clues within colour plates (who is threatening to kill the children in the colour plate inside the cover – is it Pelafina, in a rage of psychotic prediction? Is it Danielewski himself, perhaps in his authorial notes to himself, rather than to us?). Formats – such as the chapter composed entirely of short-short-short-long-long-long-short-short-short paragraphs (Morse code for ‘SOS’).
For example, why are 98 index entries marked with DNE? Is it DNE for ‘Does Not Exist’? In which case, does the proliferation of DNEs imply there was even more text that Johnny Truant threw away? Is it intended to imply that the entire text is fictional (Does Not Exist)? Is Danielewski signalling to us, the reader, the very act of selection made by the author which must cast doubt on the validity of the world presented – even the validity of the fictional world?
And, why a house? Is it for the Freudian value of the image of womanhood, the labyrinth as mysterious and threatening vagina? Is it a reworking of the German word for the uncanny, umheimlich, another Freudian concept meaning ‘familiar yet foreign’ – with heim meaning home?
In the words of academe, House of Leaves is ergodic literature – that is, ‘literature requiring a non-trivial effort from the reader’ – and presents several mental and physical challenges to understanding. Or, for that matter, reading. But it is precisely this gap between meaning and discovery that makes it such a compelling book. The more invested a reader becomes in answering the challenges, the more chilling the revelations are. Enter, then, at your own risk.
House of Leaves: The weird conclusion
Danielewski continues to be one of the most innovative authors working today, and a natural descendent of the literary experimentalists (such as Italo Calvino and William S. Burroughs, to pull out two such experimentalists almost randomly). House of Leaves was issued ‘online and free’ as a serial novel as early as 1999. In 2014 he will begin his next serialised novel, the much anticipated ‘cat story’, The Familiar.
To create the ambitious layout for House of Leaves, Danielewski learned desktop layout and spent three and a half weeks on a borrowed computer at Random House, controlling every nuance of his book’s birth. He is an auteur, a label usually reserved for cinema directors, someone dedicated to his personal vision (his personal chaos?) but, for all intents and purposes, dedicated to his medium even as much as he stretches that medium to the very edge of its endurance.
And for those not brave enough to tackle the full, multi-layered text of House of Leaves, there is still xkcd’s truncated House of Pancakes version.
I believe the structure of House of Leaves is far more difficult to explain than it is to read. [snip] But here’s the joke. Books have had this capability all along. Read Chomsky, Derrida, Pinker, Cummings. Look at early 16th century manuscripts. Hell, go open up the Talmud. Books are remarkable constructions with enormous possibilities. We may be using a 300 MHz G3 to finish the layout of my book, but to get from the first page to the last takes impossible seconds. Not a second but seconds. And yet you can pick up a book–even an encyclopedia–and get from one to a thousand in much less than that. You can even access several pages at the same time. And you can carry this magical creation with you, write in it, and never need to hunt down conversion software to find out what you wrote and read years ago. But somehow the analogue powers of these wonderful bundles of paper have been forgotten. Somewhere along the way, all its possibilities were denied.
[i] Common criticism of Only Revoutions includes a variation on the phrase, ‘it’s pretty, but does it have a story?’ While supporters argue that with its dense mathematical structure and ornate layout, Danielewski has boldly crossed and re-crossed the line between book-as-story-holder and book-as-artistic-object.
[ii] Worth noting that Danielewski chose purposefully Courier font to represent Johnny in the book.
[iii] The font used for Pelafina is Dante – appropriate given the institution she describes is, for all intents and purposes, hell. Other fonts (Zampanò’s Times and the Editor’s Bookman) are also metatextual curiosities for the discerning reader.
[iv] Lievre, Pelafina’s purported surname, means ‘hare’ in French, lending credence to the theory that the entire text and all its characters are Pelafina’s creation – Truant, Zampanò, the Navidsons, the lot of it – as she falls deeper into the rabbit hole of her own madness.
[vi] From Chapter IX, pp. 107, “Hic labor ille domus et inextricabilis error” – Virgil. Meaning, “Here is the toil of the house and the inextricable wandering”.
[vii] Danielewski was in part influenced by his father’s experimental films.
[viii] SOS: a cry for help by the author? By Truant? By Pelafina?
[ix] Most famously, the word ‘house’ is blue in every language that it appears in the full colour and blue editions. In interviews, Danielewski has referred interested readers to the use of ‘blue screen’ in cinema. Like it’s better known ‘green screen’, blue screen is used as a matte background against which anything can be projected. Similarly, then, the use of blue for ‘house’ implies the house itself is a matte screen, a backdrop for our own, internal psychological projections: the failures of our relationships and ourselves, the horrors confronted inside and outside the house – and the horrors within ourselves.