Literature Long Read: Utter Dismemberment in House Of Leaves

There is a very strange and small subgenre of literature that is so esoteric and self-reflexive that conventional attempts at categorisation seem to be powerless to define it. The Norwegian academic Espen Aarseth, in attempting to define the outer limits of literary potential made possible by advances in electronic media, noted such texts as ergodic literature; texts which required a non-trivial amount of effort to complete and/or penetrate. That’s not necessarily anything new. Moby Dick requires a reasonable amount of investment from the reader; ditto War And Peace, or Ulysses, or the poetry of Ezra Pound, and much more. But in essence these texts are still mostly bound by the conventions of the printed word; you read the words in the order you find them, and piece together the narrative in a linear fashion. Ergodic (meaning “the path of work”) literature requires more overt efforts on the part of the reader. One book has acted as the poster child for this strange new genre for over twenty years now; Mark Danielewski’s House Of Leaves.

Leave it alone

Certainly, with its layers of text, its unusual demands placed upon the reader which include changing the actual physical interaction that we have with the book – read it upside down! Back to front! Non-linear! Read the hundreds and hundreds of footnotes! – it was wildly inventive, a fuck-you to conventions of genre categorisation (is it a horror story? A love story? Is it genre fiction, satire, literary fiction; is it even fiction at all or an early example of literary biography?), and an immense experience to read.

Postmodern Prestidigitation

It’s been said that House Of Leaves is one of the great postmodern texts, but I’m not sure that’s the case. I think people who are predisposed to postmodern modes of thinking would probably like to identify this as a great example of the postmodern text in action, but it seems to me to be mocking, or even warning against, the very idea of the postmodern. 

The story, such as it is, is that of a “found footage”-style documentary entitled The Navidson Report, a home movie made by photojournalist Will Navidson as he explores an impossibly large labyrinth that he discovers in the heart of the suburban house into which he has moved with his wife Karen and two children Daisy and Chad. This found footage tale is related to us in the form of a huge, sprawling pseudo-academic dissertation written by a blind old man called Zampanó, complete with myriad footnotes and references, some of which are fictional, and some of which are real. This dissertation is compiled by a Californian druggie dropout called Johnny B. Truant (a character whose name becomes more meaningful if you say in the style of a Californian druggie dropout – Johnny be truant, know wha’m sayin?). Johnny litters the text with his own thoughts, interjections, stories and reflections, sometimes relating to his own life, and sometimes relating to the text, and sometimes to… well, something else entirely. This manuscript is then compiled by a set of probably fictional editors, and then subjected to cryptanalysis by you and me, the readers. That’s not reckoning with the multiple appendices and materials in the endpaper. That makes at least six layers of filtration for the reader to untangle, and that’s before the literal fracturing of the text. So, on the face of it, by flying in the face of common assumptions of what a novel is, House of Leaves does seem to provide some sort of watermark of a postmodern piece of fiction.

It’s perhaps worth providing a definition at this point. Postmodernism is defined principally by its scepticism, and its assumption that nothing – and particularly the systems of thought upon which the Enlightenment and modern western societies are based – can be taken for granted. It’s a type of fundamental scepticism, a weaponised scepticism that mirrors fundamental religious attitudes but without the fundamental value systems that underpin those philosophies. The value systems of religions act as fundamental anchors to which they can return should (and when) they go too far in their endeavours. For example, Catholicism survived wretched episodes such as the hunting of heretics and witches because the central tenets acted as a starting point from which to reinvent and start again. Postmodernism has no fundamental value system; it has no anchor to which it can return. It’s an endless loop of questioning and scepticism. It is able to offer a critique (which is good); but it cannot offer an alternative. It can only tear down, it cannot build up. And people get lost in it. Zampanó, in writing his House Of Leaves academic text, is analysing The Navidson Report to death, deconstructing every last gesture, every last image, into its infinite fragments, finding meaning in everything until at last there is no meaning left to find.

Magritte: This is not a pipe.

But postmodernism is a sham, a parlour trick, a trompe l’oeil, a veneer that can use trickery to mask the mechanics of story, but ultimately finds them unbreakable. The ancient sensibilities of story and myth are in us, within us, they are us, spiritually, biologically, socially. The postmodern can only pretend to upend them; at best it can hide them, but it cannot disappear them completely.

As Chekhov (name-checked in Appendix F of House of Leaves) has it: “A Professor’s view [is that] “it’s the commentaries on Shakespeare that matter, not Shakespeare.” Consider the dreams that Navidson and Johnny Truant have; Navidson’s esoteric dreams of snails and rural villages and strange rituals are endlessly analysed for symbolic significance by Zampanó, desperately searching for some hidden meaning. Johnny’s dreams are related in simple gory carnality; he dreams that an ax-wielding fratboy wants to chop him up, cleaving his nose, his mouth, cutting off his hands, wresting his thighs from his knees, popping his eyes, prying out his sternum and hammering it into fragments, crushing his teeth into powder (this act, at least, in unsuccessful) until Johnny is nothing but the result of this absoluten Zerrissenheit utter dismemberment. Such things happen to those texts and films when they are overanalysed; they become less than the sum of their parts; their magic and beauty shredded into bone fragments, destroyed tissue, and pools of blood. The postmodern can only break down; it cannot build up. And even then, it fails. Johnny’s teeth cannot be ground into powder. There is always a hard kernel of truth which cannot be denied.

The great joke of House of Leaves is that it focuses upon an overwrought dissertation about a found-footage documentary film written by a blind man. Zampanó’s text is fragmented irreparably by the hundreds of academic eyes peering from beneath the footnotes. These acts of observation present the book as open to a million possible interpretations, each one as relevant (that is to say, as irrelevant) as the next. It becomes the epitome of postmodernism, an act of creation where the impenetrability is the point, and where such passé forms as story and character and arc are chopped up, to increase the sense of rabbitholish alienation. 

So, if House of Leaves can be said to be about anything, it’s perhaps about obsession, and the perils of pursuing something unpursuable. Zampanó, this blind man writing a deep analysis of a found-footage movie, dies before completing it, having become obsessed with reconstructing something meaningless. And it’s instructive that we get absolutely no understanding of Zampanó’s character other than dry, pseudo-academic analysis. That’s little more than obsession masquerading as importance. Will ends up dying by degrees in a soup of chaotic nothingness, having become obsessed with exploring the dark labyrinth at the heart of his house. Johnny Truant becomes lost to the point where he may well have not existed in the first place (we’ll come to that later), having allowed Zampanó’s obsession to become his own. Each of them enters the postmodern labyrinth, a belief system without any beliefs, never to return.

The Labyrinth

Just as there are layers to the stories-within-stories that make up House Of Leaves, the truth of the narrative is buried within layers of impenetrability. Well, almost impenetrable. One can penetrate it, but the great trick of the book is forcing the reader to undergo the sort of painstaking analysis the book seems to be warning against. But, if you tread the line towards the centre of the labyrinth, the monstrous kernel of truth does become apparent, and the postmodern scales fall away, revealing something ancient, unbreakable, and undeniable. And as Will does explore the labyrinth, he hears a constant ferocious growling coming from further on in the darkness.

Chartres a course for the centre! Sorry, forgive me.

The labyrinth itself is hugely ancient. It’s not strictly the same as a maze, which is a form of puzzle. The labyrinth only has one solution, and is more of a meditative tool; a visual representation of the journey to the centre of ourselves that takes in all possible aspects along the way. The labyrinth at the Cathedral de Notre Dame in Chartres is a good example of this. To reach the centre you must walk around every inch of the labyrinth, so you see it – and the cathedral – from all possible angles, and build up a holistic understanding of it.

The most famous labyrinth of all is arguably that which holds the Minotaur at its centre. The Minotaur is a hideous, ferocious beast – half-man, half-bull. The Minotaur is the product of a union between a woman (Pasiphaé, the wife of the Cretian King Minos) and a bull. Appalled, Minos instructed the builder Daedelus to create a labyrinth to contain the Minotaur. Nevertheless the Minotaur does not die, and must be sated by human sacrifices, until it is slayed by Theseus, who successfully navigates the labyrinth. Wikipedia offers several interpretations of the Minotaur, none of which seem particularly satisfying. The French psychoanalyst Lacan defined the Real as that hard kernel of existence which resists symbolisation because it’s so fundamental; in other words, something that is so horrifying or traumatic that it can no longer be obfuscated by self-deception or mental tricks. We all erect labyrinths to hide that thing which appals us; to be more specific, we erect labyrinths to hide the part of us that appals us. The minotaur is a beast, but it’s also a man. So the question again surfaces: can we navigate to our dark heart and destroy the beastly aspect of ourselves? It’s a heroic journey, and Theseus represents those of us who can make that journey successfully. 

The Minotaur, Geoffrey Laurence (2015)

As such, despite being a mythological beast, the Minotaur is that thing that is so monstrous that it resists interpretation. It’s not a postmodern artefact. It’s literally real. In that respect Navidson’s obsession with reaching the heart of darkness underneath his house is not a pointless task of obsession; it’s an attempt at a heroic journey to kill that monster. He fails, but at least he’s able to confront the monster at the heart of the labyrinth. In Navidson’s case, the Minotaur is not a fercious hybrid monster but a dying little Sudanese girl named Delial.

Will Navidson is presented to us as a photojournalist. Not just any photojournalist, but a Pulitzer-winning photographer who can boast a degree of celebrity in the bien-pensant circles of American academic culture. He won his Pulitzer for a photograph taken in famine-ravaged Sudan, of a starving little girl, her mouth wreathed with carrion flies, desperately clutching a bone in her own bony grasp. Behind her, just out of focus, is a vulture, awaiting her inevitable collapse and demise. Navidson, then, is an unashamed avatar for Kevin Carter, the Pulitzer-winner who took his own life only weeks after winning the award, and was the subject of a song by Manic Street Preachers, written by a man who (probably) took his own life not so long afterwards.

Click click click click click, click yourself under.
Mother, Should I Build A Wall?

It’s well documented that Danielewski’s own life was upended during the writing of House Of Leaves. His father was dying, and House Of Leaves was written as a love letter to his father in the form of a love letter written by a father about his absent, dead or dying son. Yet Danielewski’s father dismissed the manuscript, telling him instead to take a job at the Post Office. Danielewski shredded and discarded the manuscript in a fit of emotional pique, only for it to be rescued and reassembled by his musician sister, Poe. Make no mistake, your life is a house, and your house can fall down. But it can be rebuilt.

Parental dysfunction, absence and trauma runs through the book, fragmented into dangerous shards of glass that cut the various characters into pieces of themselves. Johnny is present and truant. His father is absent, possibly dead, killed by a motorcycling accident. But Johnny’s father is also Zampanó, having inherited his obsession with the Navidson labyrinth. At some point Johnny Truant says The Navidson Report is recreating him, rather than he recreating it. It might not be creating him as a flesh-and-blood human, but as a reasonable facsimile of it, a human that might be created by the cold distance of a disturbed alien obscured by clouds. We know nothing of Johnny before he was, in effect, created by Zampanó by way of discovering his unfinished / unfinishable work. We all carry on the unfinished / unfinishable work of our fathers, and can but give it to the next generation to carry it on.

That’s all before we get to Johnny’s mother, Pelafina H. Lievre. She is, again, absent from the novel, and only appears in any substantive measure in the addendum epistolary novella known as The Whalestoe Letters (the novella also appears in the “remastered colour edition” of House of Leaves, which is the version I have). Through a series of disturbingly overwrought, verbose, seemingly one-way correspondence from Pelafina to Johnny, we get a picture of a woman who is at once physically distant (she is incarcerated in a mental institution) and emotionally overbearing. She is that cold alien, whose idea of Johnny is obscured by clouds of mania, medication and layers and layers of books, books, books.

I’m reminded of Pink, whose own repulsive, suffocating mother helped put some of the bricks in the wall of that character who bounded himself in a walled prison of his own fascistic tendencies.

Mother, should I build a wall?

Pelafina resides in her own fresh hell, sitting cowering at the foot of an epistolary wall recounting a tale of questionable reality, but unquestionable horror. The Whalestoe Letters eventually discloses, through careful analysis, a terrifying secret that reveals the full extant of this woman’s suffering just at the point seems to break down entirely. Even then, once we crack the code and are presented with a terrible horror that lies at the heart of this labyrinth, it only prompts more questions: is this really happening? Is it a narrative trick created by Pelafina to protect herself from an even more horrifying reality: the death of her son? Just how truant is Johnny? The heart of the labyrinth opening doors to other labyrinths that must somehow be negotiated.

The House that Mark Built

Ostensibly House Of Leaves is a haunted house story, which seems to be reasonably conventional. Like all haunted houses, Navidson’s house is alluring, seductive, and somehow eldritch and other. Will Navidson discovers a corridor behind / through his closet that leads to an unimaginably, possibly infinitely vast labyrinth, at the heart of which lies a terrifying monster. But each apparent understanding at which the reader arrives crumbles like a sandcastle, as though the act of observation is like the tide crashing into such an edifice. Johnny B. Truant, in trying to piece together Zampanó’s dissection of the text, becomes irreparably untangled, and possibly absent altogether.

The image of the house must be one of the very oldest of all metaphors. It powerfully symbolises shelter and protection, but also can represent powerful corruptions of those things: possession, incarceration, obsession, rot. We build ourselves a life, or a relationship, just as a man or woman builds a house. But the foundations must be firm. This metaphorical potency was harnessed by Jesus in the conclusion of the Sermon On The Mount:

“Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house on a rock. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it didn’t fall, for it was founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine, and doesn’t do them will be like a foolish man, who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat on that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”

House: wise.

Navidson’s house is based upon a simple impossibility; that his house is larger on the inside than it is on the outside. Isn’t this true of us all (and isn’t this also true of books?)? Are we not more than the sum of our fleshy and bloody parts? Or, as Cathy says in Wuthering Heights, “Surely you and everybody have a notion that there is, or should be, an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation if I were entirely contained here?” The postmodern search for meaning looks good, and reveals blood and bones, but no magic, no beauty, no music. It’s Jack The Ripper in a Savile Row suit.

In the end, we must be careful about entering the house, and the labyrinth. Navidson dies in the maze, having deprived himself of a value system to fall back on; his success was built upon the suffering of another, and possibly others. He was not able to live up to the idea of the man he wanted to be when his family needed him, preferring to explore the heart of darkness. Zampanó died alone, lost amongst a sea of images and words, with nothing to fall back on. Johnny B Truant dies, or ceases to exist, or vanishes like smoke, because he too becomes lost in the labyrinth with nothing to underpin it. Perhaps, if the epilogue in chapter XXIII is anything to go by, where a mother gives birth to a sickly baby and spends a few days bonding with it before its life support must be switched off, Johnny never even made it out of birth alive.

One suspects that a text like House Of Leaves could, just like the Navidson Report (or, for that matter, anything you like, be it Finnegan’s Wake or Hey Duggee) subjected to an almost infinite amount of academic and pseudo-intellectual analysis. That’s the postmodern way. But the text itself warns against it. Sometimes a piece of art is there to be experienced, not understood, and the caustic acts of observation and analysis simply dismember it. And analysis doesn’t necessarily arrive at a place of understanding anyway. Can we say that Navidson, or Zampanó, or Johnny B. Truant arrived at a place of understanding? No. Sometimes it does well to let the strangeness of the world be. Some things resist symbolisation, and those things are the most real things of all.

Published by Dan Jones

I'm a science fiction writer and podcaster. My debut novel Man O’War was published in 2018 by Snowbooks, and I’ve had a few short stories published here and there. I also host Chronscast, the official podcast of SFF Chronicles, the world's largest science-fiction and fantasy community. Away from writing I work for the UK Space Agency on a programme of space robotics for advanced satellite and planetary exploration technologies. All of which comes in rather handy when coming up with new ideas for science fiction stories.

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