Book: House of Leaves
Author: Mark Z. Danielewski
Type of Book: Fiction, horror, ergodic literature
Why I Consider This Book Odd: Well, because it is ergodic literature. Full stop.
Availability: You can get a copy here:
Comments: I’ve been away for a while, fellow odd bookers. I sometimes get hung up on a review or discussion and because I am not-quite-right, I cannot move on until I have addressed the issue. I think the problem is that in many ways discussing House of Leaves is not unlike discussing Finnegans Wake. There is an arrogance and hubris involved in thinking you can really get a handle on the entirety of either book. I’ve flirted with the House of Leaves before, but not until recently did I read the entire thing, from beginning to end in one go. By the time it was over my book was in tatters (and I was paranoid enough at the time that I wondered if the book construction was meant to echo the house’s obliteration), I had book fatigue and I barely remembered why I loved it so much in the first place. I left it, didn’t think about it, read some lighter fare and gradually let myself like the book again. Hence trying to review it and sensing that perhaps I understand it but wondering if I am full of shit.
This book. Oh dear lord. I have a wretched habit of bending the page when I find a passage meaningful to me. It’s a foul, filthy thing to do, and as a bibliophile, I hate myself for it, but I was never an underlining or highlighting sort of gal. The hell of it is, I went back to the dog-earred pages and read and read and half the time I had no idea what it was that grabbed me the first time. I comfort myself in my wasted effort that the book was in miserable condition by the time I was through – spine destroyed, pages loose, the front end page fallen out completely. I have no idea what I loved when I was reading it so it stands to reason that this is going to be less a review than a discussion of why I like this book and if it is messy and incoherent, it won’t be the first time and it won’t be the last. All I can say is that when a book is half footnotes, I don’t think it is a cop out to quote chunks of text that speak to me or explain my points.
In this discussion, I need to emphasize two things: 1) In my opinion, Johnny Truant’s story is the reason to read this book and it may seem weak not to address all the text concerning The Navidson Record. But it’s my party, and to be frank, all the details are the trees and Johnny is the forest and I think to analyze all of the endless references and throwaways that Danielewski uses in this book, you miss the humanity of it; and 2) I refuse to change my text color when I use the word “house” or refer to anything having to do with the Minotaur. Just not gonna do it. It seems forced, affected and precious when anyone other than Danielewski does it.
So, with that out of the way, a plot synopsis: An old, blind man by the name of Zampanò dies and in his apartment, Johnny Truant finds an in depth analysis of a documentary film called The Navidson Record. The book recounts Zampanò’s analysis of the film, interspersed with numerous foot notes from Zampanò, Truant and an editor. There is an unnerving catch, however: The film does not exist. Zampanò’s in depth analysis, including copious research, is of a film that does not exist and the resources he quotes do not exist. The analysis becomes so entrenched at times that the reader wonders if the real catch of the book is the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” minutia that often goes into academic research. The level of introspection given by fictional research into every element of this fictional movie gives the book so much self-referential claustrophobia that the reader finds herself going mad as she reads it, which, of course, is the entire point.
The written analysis of The Navidson Record tells the story of a family that moves into a house in Virginia. The house is seemingly sentient and able to change itself on the inside without affecting the outside measurements of the house. It creepily rearranges itself internally, becoming larger than the outside proportions, finally creating a hallway that leads into a maze. A search party is sent into the maze with disastrous and appalling results, but at the end of the failed missions, the house collapsing then righting itself, The Navidson Record is a love story, wherein an icy and adulterous model, Karen, finds herself fighting to save her relationship with Will Navidson. Yes, I think it is a love story. I realize just about everyone who has read this book may disagree with my assessment, but the enduring themes of this book are, in fact, love. Maternal love fighting through mental illness, self-love fighting through emotional collapse, and romantic love enduring the unthinkable and impossible.
But for me, as I say above, the reason to read this book is to know the tale of Johnny Truant. Johnny tells the story of his life in footnotes to The Navidson Record, letters from his mother from the Whalestoe Institute, a home for the mentally ill, and a diary he kept during and after his immersion into The Navidson Record. Johnny is a drug abuser, and as the son of a mentally ill woman who died institutionalized, it is hard to say what causes Johnny to drift, then dive headfirst, into mental issues of his own, but Johnny is the heart of this book, the love story of Will and Karen and the peril they live through notwithstanding. Johnny’s story of his life, as he reveals it piecemeal, in a manner that makes it hard to know him if you skip a word, is the reason why I continued reading when I felt I just couldn’t take another damn five-page footnote.
If you want a clear outline of this book, there are numerous places online to find such things. You will not find a clear outline here. All you will find is why I love Johnny Truant and how, using one of the most non-linear methods of storytelling ever, Danielewski created a memorable, sympathetic, complex character. A character you almost miss out on in all the analysis this book provokes. Yes, the references to Jonah in the whale in reference to Navidson in the maze juxtaposed with the fact that Truant’s mother died in the Whalestoe are interesting. Trying to piece together all the names in this book, like the weird link between Zampanò and Truant, revealed in the cipher code Truant’s mother creates to send him letters in the midst of her paranoia, can derail you as Johnny’s life unfolds. All those maddening details, little clues that lead nowhere but away from where you need to go.
Johnny is one of the most unreliable narrators ever, and owns his unreliability, admitting that he changed the text at times to allow him to put in a related footnote. But he also doesn’t do much editing, even when Zampanò makes mistakes.
Zampanò himself probably would of insisted on corrections and edits, he was his own harshest critic, but I’ve come to believe errors, especially written errors, are often the only markers left by a solitary life: to sacrifice them is to lose the angles of personality, the riddle of a soul.
There is no mistaking why this statement, with “of” instead of have (a chronic error in his writing) and punctuation misuse, is important. Johnny, solitary himself, with only a couple of friends and alienating sexual couplings, before long will become a mass of human errors and mistakes, both of which are already manifest in his writing.
Johnny, a tattoo artist, is scarred heavily on his arms, the result of a terrible childhood accident when boiling oil scalded him. Johnny shows, early as a child, how he will handle all the trauma that comes his way.
It’s kinda funny, but despite my current professional occupation, I don’t have any tattoos. Just the scars, the biggest ones of course being the ones you know about, this strange seething melt running from the inside of both elbows all the way up to the end of both wrists, where–I might as well tell you–a sizzling skillet of corn oil unloaded its lasting wrath on my efforts to keep it from the kitchen floor. “You tried to catch it all,” my mother had often said of that afternoon when I was only four.
Johnny will reach out to all the damage that comes his way, even if he doesn’t tell the entire truth about it. For example he tells people that his scars on his arms came from an incident with a Japanese Martial Arts Cult.
Johnny crafts lies into a manageable veil to shield him from the truth – he was damaged as a boy beyond all belief. His mother, losing her mind, tried to strangle him. His father died and he was forced into foster care where he was eventually beaten by a former Marine. His body is covered with scars, he sports a broken incisor.
…scars are much harder to read. Their complex inflections do not resemble the reductive ease any tattoo, no matter how extensive, colorful or elaborate the design. Scars are the paler pain of survival, received unwillingly and displayed in the language of injury.
That Johnny is covered in scars is both a comfort and a form of foreshadowing. All those scars show he has and probably will survive anything.
In discussing the obsession Johnny thinks overcame Zampanò, he gives a pretty good idea what is happening to him as he reads and annotates Zampanò’s manuscript:
As I strain now to see that the Navidson Record, beyond this strange filigree of imperfection, the murmer of Zampanò’s thoughts, endlessly searching, reaching, but never quite concluding, barely even pausing, a ruin of pieces, gestures and quests, a compulsion brought on by— well that’s precisely it, when I look past it all I only get an inkling of what tormented him. Though at last if the fire’s invisible, the pain’s not–mortal and guttural, torn out of him, day and night, week after week, month after month, until his throat’s stripped and he can barely speak and he rarely sleeps. He tries to escape his invention but never succeeds because for whatever reason, he is compelled, day and night, week after week, month after month, to continue building the very thing responsible for his own incarceration.
Though is that right?
I’m the one whose throat is stripped. I’m the one who hasn’t spoken in days. And if I sleep, I don’t know when anymore.
Zampanò is a blind man who created a labyrinth of words to occupy him, to feed his obsession. Johnny is the man lost in the maze. This passage also should give the reader two strong clues about Johnny. Despite being a person who uses “of” for “have,” his intellect is quite keen. More interesting, his passages can often mimic the tale he is reading, using endless comma clauses, repetition, words wandering into a maze. I am all too familiar with this disorganization of thought in the middle of a brainstorm, this need to tell the tale without stopping for metaphoric breath, struggling to be understood. Johnny is breaking down as we read his footnotes, documenting too clearly his decline.
Johnny Falls in love with a stripper he called Thumper. She is most notable for having a tattoo above her privates that boasts “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Despite his drunken, unfortunate couplings with other women, Johnny falls hard for Thumper, and while the reader initially does not see her appeal, it isn’t important. Johnny does. When his life falls apart and he decides to leave his job and apartment, he stops back by the tattoo shop where he works in order to say goodbye and to leave a gift for Thumper. He had earlier had appraised a necklace his mother had left him, worth $4200. Despite sorely needing the money, Johnny makes another choice (and the f substitutions for s come from Johnny’s reaction to an archaic English quote used earlier):
Maybe in some half-hearted attempt to tie up some loofe ends, I then dropped by The Fhop a couple of days later to say goodbye to everyone. Man, I muft look bad becaufe the woman who replaced me almoft screamed when she saw me walk through the door. Thumper wafn’t around but my boff promifed to give her the envelope I handed him.
“If I find out you didn’t give it to her,” I said with a smile full of rotting teeth. “I’m going to burn your life down.”
We both laughed but I could tell he was glad to fee me go.
I had no doubt Thumper would get my gift.
Then Johnny’s tale is no longer told in footnotes but in a journal that is appended to The Navidson Record. The journal is not always in chronological order. Johnny loses his apartment, lives in a hotel but can no longer afford it and ends up on the street, with his journal and a book by Dante. His external life has finally become a reflection of the internal. From his entry on October 27, 1998.
Wherever I walk people turn from me.
Johnny lives on the street but he is not completely down. When a troubled woman he slept with, Kyrie, sees him on the street, her unhinged, rich and violent boyfriend, known as Gdansk Man, tries to beat him up. From his entry on October 29:
…yelled something at me, for me to stop, which I did, waiting patiently for him to park the car, get out, walk over, wind up and hit me–he hit me twice–all of it experienced in slo-mo too, my eyebrow ringing with pain, my eye swelling with bruise, my nose compacting, capillaries bursting, flooding my face with dark blood.
He should have paid attention. He should have looked closely at that blood. Seen the color. Registered the different hue. Even the smell was off. He should have taken heed.
But he didn’t.
Needless to say, things do not end well for Gdansk Man. It’s hard to hurt a man as broken as Johnny, who has so little to lose, but the trivially violent among us who never have a problem kicking a man who’s down never notice when blood is bad. Also, I do not know exactly when Johnny stopped using “of” and began using “have” because I didn’t notice it until I typed out this passage. What the hell does it mean or signify? I have no idea except for the fact that perhaps when a man sinks to the bottom, his thoughts come clearer to him, even when he is in the grips of madness.
And then when you, the reader, are exhausted, the book takes a left turn down a dark road. Johnny discovers pictures he took and journal entries he made that he has no memory of, remnants of a psychotic road trip he took to find the house in Virginia. He travels to find the Navidson house, but he is clearly looking for more. Of course, as there is in all the books I have read recently, there is a dead cat. A cat with its head splattered on the pavement and another cat looking on, pensive, possibly grieving. One day I may undertake an analysis of why all the odd books I read seem to involve so many dead cats but for now, all I can say is enough. I’m currently reading 1996 by Gloria Naylor and not ten pages in there is a fucking dead cat. Enough all ready, okay. Anyway, some of the madness Los Angeleno Johnny expresses from his entry on May 1, 1998, in one of his bullet points:
Near the campus of William & Mary, surrounded by postcards thick with purple mountain majesty, and they are purple, I hyperventilate. It takes me a good half hour to recover. I feel sick, very sick. I can’t help thinking there’s a tumor eating away the lining of my stomach. It must be the size of a bowling ball. Then I realize I’ve forgotten to eat. It’s been over a day since I’ve last had any food. Maybe longer.
It is here that I realized that I love Johnny Truant because he is cut from the same crazy I am. Self-neglect leading to hypochondria. Possibly hallucinations. I get this man. The scars, the inability to sleep, the obsessive interests. Fuck, that I maintain this damned site, that I am in any way bothering to soldier through this review when the need for coherence has, in fact, delayed me from working on other reviews for weeks, points to an unhealthy, obsessive nature.
He goes on:
Everywhere I’ve gone, there’ve been hints of Zampanò’s history, by which I mean Navidson’s, without any real evidence to confirm any of it. I’ve combed through all the streets and fields from Distputanta to Five Forks to as far east as the Isle of Wight, and though I frequently feel close, to something important, in the end I come away with nothing.
As I read Johnny’s investigative notes, I found myself surging with hope that he would find the house. Then I remembered that the house in The Navidson Record even within the context of the book did not exist. Then I remembered Johnny himself knew the house did not exist, that Zampanò’s record was the fantastic musings of an incomprehensible mind. And yet he searched and I hoped he would find that which was making him mad.
Then Johnny steps into the realm of the utterly mad. He steps into the Realm of Nine. From May 4, 1998:
In Kent. Nine Years. What an ugly coincidence. Even glanced at my watch. 9. Fucking nine pm.
5+4+1+9+9+8+9 = 45 (or -9 yrs = 36)
4+5 = 9 (or 3+6 = 9)
Either way , it doesn’t matter.
I say it with a German accent:
Math of the damned. It can only get worse and it does. Johnny finds the Whalestoe facility. The old mental hospital is abandoned, so he goes inside and finds his mother’s old room. From the entry on July 1, 1998:
Empty. And her bed in the corner. Even if the mattress was gone and the springs now resembled the rusted remains of a shipwreck half-buried in the sands of some half-forgotten shore.
Horror shouldn’t have buried me.
I sat down and waited for her to find me.
She never did.
Navidson was a photographer haunted by the image he took of a dying, motherless child. Truant is a motherless child haunted by the legend of the photographer. Everything in this book can come full circle if you let it.
From the entry on the same day, Johnny finally finds the place where his childhood home used to stand, a lumberyard now in its place:
There would be no healing here.
I stood by the circular saws and clutched my belly. I had no idea where I was in relation to what had once existed. Maybe this had been my kitchen. Why not? The stainless steel restaurant sink there to side. The old stove over there. And here where I was standing was right where I’d been sitting, age four, at my mother’s feet, my arms flinging up, instinctually, maybe even joyfully, prepared to catch the sun. Catch the rain…
Supposedly I’d been laughing. So that accounts for the joy part. Supposedly she’d been laughing too. And then something made my mother jerk around, a slight mistake really but with what a consequence, her arm accidentally knocking a pan full of sizzling Mazola, while I, in what has to be one of the strangest reactions ever, opened my arms to play the bold, old catcher of it all, the pan bouncing harmlessly on the floor but the oil covering my forearms and transforming them into the Oceanus whirls.
This is not the first time the reader hears of how small Johnny opened his arms to catch the oil, laughing. Like all legends that shape our lives, it is a story he likely tells again and again because it means everything about him. How he was loved. How his mother meant no harm. How even the best memory is tinged with pain. How none of us leave childhood unscarred.
He goes on:
Please bless these arms. Which I found myself looking at again, carefully studying the eddies there, all those strange currents and textures, wondering what history all of it could tell, and in what kind of detail, completely unaware of the stupid redneck yelling in my ear, yelling above the engines and shrieking saws, wanting to know what the fuck I was doing there, why was I clutching my belly and taking off my shirt like that, “Are you listening to me, asshole? I said who in the hell do you think you are?”, didn’t I know I was standing on private property–and not even ending his tirade there, wanting to know if it was my desire to have him break me in half, as if that’s really the question my bare-chested silence was asking. Even now I can’t remember taking off my shirt, only looking down at my arms.
I remember that.
God, will there be no peace for him, a sense that he will arrive at an end of a journey with some comfort and elucidation? I heaved a sigh of relief at his next entries.
From September 2, 1998:
Seattle. Staying with an old friend. A pediatrician. My appearance frightened both him and his wife and she’s a doctor too. I’m underweight. Too many unexplained tremors and tics. He insists I stay with them for a couple of weeks.
September 20, 1998:
I’m much improved. My friends have been taking care of me full time. I exercise twice a day. They’ve got me on some pretty serious health food… Once a day I attend a counseling session at their hospital. I’m really opening up. Doc has also put me on a recently discovered drug, one bright yellow tablet in the morning, one bright yellow tablet in the evening. It’s so bright it almost seems to shine. I feel like I’m thinking much more clearly now… It also allows me to sleep.
September 27, 1998:
I’m healthy and strong. I can run two miles in under twelve minutes. I can sleep nine hours straight. I’ve forgotten my mother. I’m back on track. And yet even though I’m now on my way back to LA to start a new life–the guns in my trunk long since gone, replaced with a year’s supply of that miraculous yellow shine–when I said goodbye to my friends this morning I felt awful and soaked in sorrow… Good people. Very good people. Even as I started the car they were still asking me to stay.
September 29, 1998:
Are you fucking kidding me? Did you really think any of that was true? September 2 thru September 28? I just made that up. Right out of thin air. Wrote it in two hours. I don’t have any friends who are doctors, let alone two friends who are doctors. You must have guessed that. At least the lack of expletives should have clued you in. A sure sign that something was amiss.
And if you bought that Yellow-Tablet-Of-Shine stuff, well then you’re fucking worse off than I am.
Though here’s the sadder side of all this, I wasn’t trying to trick you. I was trying to trick myself, to believe, even for two lousy hours, that I really was lucky enough to have two such friends, and doctors too, who could help me, give me a hand, feed me tofu, make me exercise, administer a miracle drug, cure my nightmares. Not like Lude with all his pills and parties and con-talk street-smack…
Right now I’m in Los Gatos, California. Los Gatos Lodge, in fact. I managed a couple of hours of sleep until a nightmare left me on the floor, twitching like an imbecile. Sick with sweat.
Fucking Johnny. Yes, despite the fact that this journal is not presented sequentially, that I had read October 1998 first and knew Johnny was freezing and hungry in dive hotels, then homeless, then in a fight with Gdansk Man and more, I put that out of my head. I wanted him to have two friends who saved him. I wanted this to be over for him. How did I manage this feat of self-deception that occurred in only a few pages? Not sure. Perhaps it was reader’s fatigue. You sure as shit get it when you read this book. Nonetheless it was heartbreaking when it became clear that there was no deus ex machina for Johnny. Also, since this is the second time Johnny admits to making shit up, it calls into question a whole lot. Like, was he fake responding to a faked record of a non-existent film? What happened here? What, even within the context of the book, is the reader expected to believe? I realized I had to ignore the notion of any narrative truth and just soldier on.
Nevertheless, you get the sense that after he discovered his journal and the photographs from his journey, things begin to change a bit for him. He pawns his guns and makes plans to meet with Thumper, his dream woman. They both are tight on time but they talk.
I could read the signs well enough to know she wanted a kiss. She’d always been fluent in that language of affection but I could also see that over the years, years of the same grammar, she’d lost the chance to understand others. It surprised me to discover I cared enough about her to act now on that knowledge, especially considering how lonely I was. I gave her an almost paternal hug and kissed her on the cheek. Above us airplanes roared for the sky. She told me to keep in touch and I told her to take care and then as I walked away, I waved and with that bid adieu to The Happiest Place on Earth.
We then skip to August 28, 1999. Not the end of the book by a country mile but at last, I have a sense that Johnny will be okay. He jumps trains and lives as a drifter, broke often, sleeping rough. He lands in Flagstaff, Arizona with little money in his pocket but still buys himself soup. He finds a bar with no cover charge and dollar beers and settles in, buys beers for the band, spending his last dollars to do so. Then the band plays a song with the words, “I live at the end of a Five and a Half Minute Hallway,” which is a clear reference to The Navidson Record. Once they are finished playing, Johnny approaches the band and they discuss, somewhat reluctantly, their knowledge of The Navidson Record, telling Johnny they had found the annotated document online. One gives him a copy of his own manuscripts and Truant wrestles with telling them who he is but decides not to. He leaves the bar, falls asleep under a tree and sleeps well until a large dog comes to wake him.
Flagstaff appears deserted and the bar’s closed and the band’s gone, but I can hear a train rattling off in the distance. It will be here soon, homeless climbing off for a meal, coffee for a dime, soup for three quarters and I have some change left. Something warm sounds good, something hot. But I don’t need to leave yet. Not yet. There’s time now. Plenty of time. And somehow I know it’s going to be okay. It’s going to be alright. It’s going to be alright.
Johnny’s quest has led him somewhere, to a place where others read his words and understand him. People even wonder now where he is, know about him. He is a person in the minds of other people, making him real, just as his mother’s words remembered by him keep her real.
Have you ever heard the song Jezebel by Acid Bath? There’s a line that goes, “She screams bloody murder as they chop off her fingers, ‘So this is how it feels to die. But it’s okay. Everything’s okay.’” Then Dax Riggs murmurs, “It’s okay, it’s okay” and you feel calm after listening to the jarring song because in the context of the extreme violence and dissolution, everything is okay. The worst has happened. Just bleeding and extreme pain, but everything’s okay. That is how the revelation that Johnny is going the be “alright” resonated with me. He isn’t technically okay. He’s homeless, he’s broke, but within the context of his life, he’s just fine. And that’s all I can ask from Johnny, I think. No greater revelation other than that he made it out the other side.
It was tempting to attempt to discuss the letters Johnny received from his mother while she was at Whalestoe, because they are in themselves a fascinating part of the book, in my mind outshining all of The Navidson Record in their comment on the human condition. Instead of turn this already too long discussion into a way-too long discussion, I will one day read Whalestoe Letters, Danielewski’s book that compiles all of the letters.
God, I don’t plan to reread this any time soon. Organizing this discussion has been a nightmare, taking me a couple of weeks to crank out because it was hard to organize it, which happens when you discuss ergodic literature. But I genuinely think that this is a book that every reader, even those not enthralled by odd books, should read. Everyone finds something in it that captures them, that niggles at their mind, that does not let go. For me it was Johnny. For you it may be something else, some small thing that I never caught and no one else did, which is not impossible despite the level of analysis that many have put into this monster. Read it.