No matter what you heard or read about this book, House of leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski is objectively a masterpiece.
Personally I would list it among the greatest postmodern books, between Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity Rainbow, Don DeLillo’s Underworld and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite jest.
Not because of its curious typographic choices. Not because of the meta-bibliographism. Not because of its representativeness of the egordic literature (along with the unforgettable Composition no1 by Marc Saporta) – a book that openly and willingly requests a superior effort of comprehension from the reader. Not even because of the vaguely horror intuition that constitutes its central body. But rather because it wants to lead everything back to a single language.
But let’s take it one step at the time.
The book in a nutshell
House of leaves is a literary case in all respects. Initially appeared online, thanks to a broad consensus it gets published in a reviewed and enriched version which soon becomes a best seller in the USA.
On a basic level, House of leaves is about an obsession over a mystery. This mystery is a house whose internal space is bigger than its external space.
This obsession is mirrored through different narrative levels, chinese boxes apparently:
A boy named Johnny Truant finds a series of sheets and notes written by a blind old man who calls himself Zampanò. He decides to tidy them up and finds out that they form an academic essay on a documentary titled The Navidson Record, created by one Will Navidson. A documentary which cannot be found, which records the discovery and exploration of this house and its atypical spaces.
The book proceeds by intersecting narrative levels. While reassembling Zampanò’s manuscript – ideally House of Leaves itself – Truant adds notes, often digressions about his life and his growing obsession over Zampanò and his work. Zampanò himself describes the events involving the Navidson family, adding some dark references, intricate interpretations, different thoughts.
And yet this is not a game of chinese boxes. The maze of narrators and characters intersects voices, stories and elements. And meanings.
Like many readers, at first I had difficulties accepting Truant’s point of view, as he often interrupted The Navidson Record with what sounded like rantings. But actually, the contrast soon becomes more than understandable, it becomes necessary.
In fact, nothing inside House of Leaves is truly superfluous, if one is really willing to dig deep below the surface.
House of Leaves is not what it seems, it is no coincidence that we mentioned ergodic literature.
The meaning of the enigma
I would like to attempt to draw a parallel between this novel and the work of David Lynch, particularly Inland Empire. Both works obsessed me, as they include a vast number of hidden clarifying elements: if you really want to understand them, you have to investigate them. They are masterpieces because of the solving tension they ingrain in the user.
And yet these two works are opposite in many ways. Lynch’s work, in my opinion, is always the result of personal suggestions and intuitions. Some of his interviews and his book, Catching the big fish, clarify how much his sensibility is influenced by transcendental meditation. There is a gut feeling to Inland Empire, despite its basic clear vision it is a result of Lynch’s sensibility. We are inside his subconscious and what we might find is not always under his control.
Instead, Danielewski’s work represents extreme rationality to me, House of Leaves is a carefully structured enigma. A much more complex one than it may seem at first.
And a true enigma cannot exist without someone trying to solve it. For this reason, House of leaves is not for everyone. If you are not interested in exploring its depths, you’ll find yourself with a horror/thriller book continuously interrupted by notes and digressions that you will often skip out of boredom. However if you are willing, and often predisposed, to solve its enigma you will be completely sucked in. Its hidden complexity is unique.
Why is it a masterpiece?
There is much, too much to say. Mine doesn’t aim to be a reading guide, but rather a simple proposal. Anyway, the main point of House of leaves, which makes it a literary masterpiece, is its author’s mad challenge. Presumptuous, pretentious, and yet extraordinary. With his book Danielewski decides to lead everything back to a single language, as I was saying, to a single vision, greater than any historical and cultural difference.
No element is spared from being dismantled in service to the house. Like the echo of the house, analyzed from an acoustic, physical, etymological and mythological point of view. As I said, everything serves the house, so, beside that, the echo, which leads to phonetic deformation, is an element of the novel itself, deforming names and some of the narrative passages.
Recurring elements, an interpretation
House of leaves is more suitable to be interpreted than reviewed, and at this point I would like to propose my personal interpretation. Of course what follows should not be read by who still has to read the book, as it explains crucial elements of the narration. If that’s the case, I suggest you to skip this section.
I would like to start by outlining a series of internal references that in my opinion should be kept in mind for a rightful interpretation of the novel. I will divide them in two macro-groups in order to better understand constants and connections.
– Yggdrasil is put between the different levels of narrative: for Navidson and Karen it’s the house, for Zampanò it’s The Navidson Records, for Johnny it’s Zampanò’s record, for Pelafina it’s the Whalestoe institute;
– During the exploration n.5, Navidson reads House of leaves, the description of which makes it seem identical to the book we are holding, as for the page number and length of the introduction;
– A constant and essential element is forgetting: it involves Johnny and Pelafina but it also characterizes the house (its monster/darkness) which makes physically disappear what is forgotten;
– The typographic choice of each narrator is relevant when it comes to names as well: Courier for Johnny, Times for Zampanò, Bookman for the Editors, Dante for titles;
– The author said that in the book everything is tripled;
– Black and purple are the constant colors throughout the book: Pelafina’s nails when she tries to strangle her son, the inks made by Jonny before the appearance of the spirit, “the horror beyond horror… black as ink, veined in bee’s purple“;
– Another constant color is blue: obviously the color chosen for the word “house” in the US colored edition, but also the color of the salvific light during the first dream of Navidson.
The hidden connections between the characters:
– In the note dated September, 21 1970 Zampanò expresses his wish to create a son. Nine months later, Johnny is born;
– In the letter dated April 5, Pelafina adds the following encrypted message: “My Dear Zampano, who did you lose“;
– Another connection can be found in Pelafina’s letters, in the phrase “you shall be my roots and I shall be your shade“, taking up a poetry written by Zampanò. This letter does not start with a reference to Johnny and can be anagrammed into “i love you always“;
– Pelafina remembers when she practiced the perfect smile in front of the mirror, just like Karen used to;
– At page 599 Pelafina talks about putting pink ribbons in the hair out of joy, like Karen does at page 523;
– There is a sign in the right bottom of page 97, like the one that Pelafina asks Johnny to make in his reply;
– In the letter dated August 19, the reference to the lemon meringue links to the one stolen by Tom;
– At page 320, Zampanò ends a sentence referred to Tom with “me“;
– The Pelican Poems are associated to Johnny as they take the name from the Pelikan pen he took with him during his trip to Europe, but are quoted by Zampanò at page 138;
– The Pelican Poems also include a reference to the battle of Dien Bien Phu, to which Zamapanò possibly participated, making it the dark past previously mentioned;
– Johnny’s father was born in Dorset, Vermont, where Navidson’s story ends;
– At page 404 Johnny writes “I’m here because I am deformed, because when I speak my words come out in cracks and groans, and what’s more I’ve been put here by an old man, a dead man, by one who called me son though he was not my father.“;
– Zampanò’s blindness links him to one of the essential myths of analysis, the story of Isaac, with Johnny in the role of Jacob, who takes something (the manuscript) that was not destined to him;
– In a dream, Johnny appears resembling a minotaur, and at a certain point he suspects to be one, linking Zampanò to Minos and opening a digression on the father and son connection between Minos and the minotaur.
I’m not interested to psychological theories according to which a character could be the fictional creation of another, and not even to meta-literary theories that see the house like an interpretation of language.
As I said, I think that this book by Danielewski is extremely rational and logic, and that its intentions are not just about stimulating its readers’ interpretations. Every detail is planned and orchestrated, leading me to believe that this recurrency may be the keystone for the final understanding.
I would like to underline the manifestations of the house. It re-assembles its elements constantly, adapting them to everyone’s psyche, it manifests itself by turning to ashes what is not remembered. This applies to the characters in the various levels, the house not only re-assembles the spaces but the characters and the narrating elements. The characters echoes each others in this transformation (remember the importance of the echo, in the act of transforming as well, as it happens with the choice of certain names and elements that echoes directly from sister Poe’s songs). The effect of the house is not limited to the single stories, it involves the whole book. Danielewski’s creation, his House of leaves, is in all respects the house. That is what he delivers to us, the house itself, the extraordinary and labyrinthine descent he creates, depriving each level of its hierarchy and bringing his game of mirrors inside reality itself. Truant was not the actual recipient of Zampanò’s book, just the courier, we are the recipients. And just like Truant, Zampanò and Navidson, we get lost in the obsession of finding our manifestation of the house: the book itself.
The book ends with a poetry about Yggdrasil: the tree of Norse folklore which connects three worlds. A tree made of ashes, hence the name Ash Tree Lane: the house and the road connecting the three levels of the book, through which the internal elements are changed and assimilated. This place, literal, linguistic and physical, is the extreme place, the conjunction of things. This is the road we walked as readers.
In conclusion, if you wish to dig deeper into the theories surrounding this novel I suggest you to visit the official forum: http://forums.markzdanielewski.com/forum/house-of-leaves/house-of-leaves-aa