“It’s the commentaries on Shakespeare that matter, not Shakespeare.”
— Anton Checkov, Notebooks (from House of Leaves, Appendix F)
I only started reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves recently, and I’ve already started a dedicated notebook in an attempt to work through its meaning via literary criticism, the kind I had hammered in me throughout my English program in university, mutating into a bad habit I don’t think I’ll ever be able to kick. If this isn’t the textbook indulgence and obsession of which House of Leaves whispers gentle cautions I don’t know what is.
I’m expecting my house to start expanding at any minute, half-inch by cold half-inch.
I think I’ve discovered a linchpin to the book’s meaning – assuming there is a discernable overall meaning – somewhere between chapters VIII and IX of The Navidson Record. In jest, my good friend Joe replied to that with “don’t have sex in an infinite maze.” If he had said “don’t have sex with an infinite maze” he’d have been closer to the mark.
A few notes before I begin:
- At the time of this writing, I have only read the book through to the end of chapter IX. My passage through the book has been obstructed by my need to write this criticism, to plant a singular neon marker in the swallowing black of this maze.
- Anyone who’s written a last-minute paper for a collegiate-level literature course should feel right at home.
- I haven’t read much of the discourse on House of Leaves, so what I’m saying has likely been said before.
- I find it deliciously ironic that I’m writing an academic piece on House of Leaves, since it’s the very sort of writing that House of Leaves blatantly parodies.
Within the first few pages of chapter IX, I noticed that when Johnny Truant describes his sexual conquest of Tatiana, the sex itself is instigated by Tatiana saying something “out of the blue.” In fact, I realized, every one of Truant’s sexual conquests is similarly instigated. Blue being the color associated with the eponymous house, this realization signalled to me some correlation between Navidson’s house and the women Truant was boning. I dowsed for the nature of that correlation through the lens of metaphor. Because goddamn if this book isn’t a minefield of metaphors.
Thumper is the house, by the way. I have no idea what the fuck that even means, but it’s clear as day on page 105 when Truant is catching a bite with her at the Thai food place. And this fact is communicated metaphorically to boot: “treat my clit like a doorbell, the door’s not going to open” she says; Truant muses that “she’s so open and uninhabited, I mean uninhibited” as if he couldn’t fix that word in a footnote when he’s already overhauled the source material; Thumper laughs when Truant recounts sex with “Christina & Amber, Kyrie, Lucy, and … Ashley” as if she’s aware of the metaphor.
So what the hell? Why not extend the metaphor: the girls are the house. Like I said, this is something I still have to unpack, but accepting this metaphor is essential to examining Truant’s encounter with Tatiana, which goes something like this:
- Tatiana sticks her finger up Truant’s ass and finds his “P-spot.” Why not the G-spot? Maybe because “P” stands for “prostate.” But we also know another “P” who figures prominently in Truant’s life is his mother Pelafina.
- This causes Truant to ejaculate all over Tatiana’s black skin. Black is the color associated with ink, with Zampanò’s monolithic work The Navidson Record. Much like Truant has indulged in free license of Zampanò’s work, Truant sprayed his indulgence all over Tatiana...
- ...and Tatiana rubs it in. Consumes it. Smiles.
To me, this whole metaphor reads that Zampanò’s work touches on the trauma in Truant’s life – much of it centered around his mother Pelafina – which leads Truant to indulge in editing The Navidson Record with all too much artistic license, and The Navidson Record soaks up Truant’s trauma like a sponge, thrives in it.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying: The Navidson Record is a conduit through which Truant is working through his traumatic past (another one of Truant’s stories we have to buy if my criticism’s going to hold water).
I am Zampanò, Zampanò is Me
So why so much metaphor-stretching to arrive to a conclusion most everyone who reads House of Leaves arrives at with no more than a cursory read? Because I had to root my argument in the text if I’m to show just how cozy Truant has made himself in the house Zampanò built. So comfy, in fact, he isn’t just wearing the old man’s shoes, he stole them outright.
Truant has admitted that the stories he invents are labyrinthine – always “shifting and re-shifting details … smoothing out the edges, removing the corners” (92) – so much so that he has lost himself in them. Remember in the beginning how Truant mentioned that Zampanò leans on the memories of seven women “when he was disconsolate” (xxii)? As far as we’ve seen in The Navidson Record, Zampanò doesn’t lean on women at all, but Truant sure does: Amber (#1), Christina (#2), Kyrie (#3), Lucy (#4), Tatiana (#5), Natasha (#6), and Ashley (#7), all women he has sex with at points of marked deterioration during his decryption of Zampanò’s pseudo-academic drivel, all of which were Zampanò’s treasured assistants.
Combine this revelation with Truant’s confession to editing The Navidson Record wholesale on page 12, and we realize that it’s perfectly reasonable that any edits of Zampanò’s could be Truant’s in disguise. The poor bastard probably doesn’t know the difference either.
Chiclitz’s The Minotaur
If Truant has appropriated Zampanò’s identity, then all the “restored” text could have been destroyed during a dissociative episode Truant may have had. And chapter IX is the perfect catalyst for such an episode, because it lays the whole of Truant’s relationship with The Navidson Record bare, exposing a masturbatory relationship with the text (as shown through Titania) that Truant strives to keep a secret, especially from himself.
The very first instance of destroyed text is when Zampanò discusses the story of King Minos’ labyrinth. Zampanò is “convinced Minos’ maze really serves as a trope for repression” (110), leading him to write “Birth Defects in Knossos.” Though this text doesn’t exist, we can glean its meaning from the play that it inspired: Taggert Chiclitz’s The Minotaur. To paraphrase:
Mint – the name King Minos gave to his son, the eponymous minotaur – is a docile creature. In order to ensure that nobody enters the labyrinth in which Mint lives, Minos has criminals privately executed and credits Mint for their deaths. However, a criminal escapes into the labyrinth during a botched execution, and nearly murders Mint before Minos kills the criminal himself. Minos is angry that he caught himself caring for Mint, though he gradually learns to appreciate Mint’s artistic sensitivity. Later, Theseus slays Mint, and Minos is forced to publicly commend Theseus’ courage because of the legend of fear Minos himself built up around Mint.
The Minotaur is an extended metaphor for repression, in that a palisade of stories is so thoroughly built around the truth that the stories become the truth. This reflects on Johnny, who has admitted to a penchant for storytelling. He says that the “struck passages indicate what Zampanò tried to get rid of” (111), but since Johnny and Zampanò’s identities are confused – Johnny himself probably can’t even tell the difference – can we believe him?
From there on out, the line between Johnny and Zampanò begins to blur. Zampanò writes that “from the outset of The Navidson Record, we are involved in a labyrinth” (114); is this Zampanò writing about Navidson’s film, or Johnny writing about Zampanò’s book? It’s likely the latter, considering footnote 135 – leading directly off of that paragraph – contains the following destroyed text:
“Or in other words, like the house, the film captures us and prohibits us at the same time as it frees us, to wander, and so first misleads us, inevitably, drawing us from the us, thus, only in the end to lead to us, necessarily, for where else could we have really gone?, back again to the us and hence back to ourselves.”
Notice the run-on sentence? The lack of capitalization in “back?” the quirky “?,” that only occurs in Johnny’s footnotes? Johnny is writing in Zampanò’s font and he isn’t even trying to hide it (perhaps he can’t if he’s in the midst of a dissociative episode). The only destroyed text in this chapter is this, anything related to Chiclitz’s The Minotaur, and another sleight-of-voice in footnote 139, which reiterates: “You alone must find the way. No one else can help you. Every way is different” (115).
I feel that Zampanò more eloquently made the point that Johnny-as-Zampanò tried to make with a quote from Penelope Reed Doob’s The Idea of the Labyrinth: from Classical Antiquity through the Middle Ages, ironically one of the only verifiably real sources used in The Navidson Record: “Our perception of labyrinths is … intrinsically unstable: change your perspective and the labyrinth seems to change” (114). Zampanò reiterates this statement on page 115 as “all solutions [to the labyrinth] then are necessarily personal.” Which Johnny immediately follows with footnote 141, another rant that he beings with the two of the most important sentences in The Navidson Record:
“I’m not sure why but I feel like I understand this on an entirely different level. What I mean to say is that the weird encounter with Tatiana seems to have helped me somehow.”
Johnny doesn’t even recognize the very point he just made earlier in the chapter, that all labyrinths are personal. And I think this is because he was writing as (read: poorly imitating) Zampanò when he made that point. This point so shook Johnny that he destroyed that point as Zampanò, as well as the material that inspired it: Chiclitz’s The Minotaur, which holds that labyrinths are personal because they are tools of repression. And what does this point remind Johnny of, a resonance so strong that it pierces through those layers of repression? Tatiana, the manifestation of Johnny using The Navidson Record – a labyrinth in and of itself – as a tool for repressing his own traumatic childhood: his father’s graphic death, his mother’s admittance and deterioration.
This “Zampanò” character is obviously fabricated. But it’s too late. Like King Minos, Johnny built his palisade of stories. And now he has no choice but to maintain the belief that Zampanò is real. The Navidson Record is the labyrinth in which Johnny represses his trauma, and Zampanò’s existence as that labyrinth’s creator – an impersonal other – is the linchpin of Johnny’s sanity.
That would be good enough for a conclusion. But there’s two more pieces of evidence I want to go over, both of which give everything away before The Navidson Record even starts:
- The dedication of House of Leaves reads “this is not for you” in Johnny’s voice. Obviously, then, it is for him.
- The phrase “A Novel” on the cover of House of Leaves is colored purple. One of the only things in the book to share this color is the nail polish of Johnny’s mother, Pelafina. The destroyed text is in red, and references to the house are in blue. Red and blue make purple, implying that House of Leaves could not exist without the labyrinthine story of the house and Johnny’s need to repress his trauma.