2 + 2=5
Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves and Hollywood Agnosticism.
By Andrew Moody
“Hollywood was not a place for intellectuals”
Peter Biskend, EASY RIDERS, RAGING BULLS
I suppose it’s necessary to begin with my own personal story about how House of Leaves entered my life.
I was nineteen, was working in an office job that I hated (to such an extent that even now, despite working there for four months, I have no recollection of what my job entailed), had just returned from a botched mission in Amsterdam to busk my way around Europe, and was in a drunken, drugged up (and sometimes hallucinatory) state for most of my days.
I remember that I was reading a lot (in between the nightmares that had taken me each night to horrors that still return on occasion) and I had built up such a desire for information that I was reading (on average) a book a day.
Three books preceded House of Leaves, which I found in a friend’s bookshelf and rudely stole, since its horrifyingly impressive stature as a clearly ‘important’ and gigantic book almost had a supernatural incarnation.
Firstly, J.D Salinger’s notorious mini-epic, The Catcher in the Rye (which I read twice, and quite heroically, in the corner at a party while everybody else was getting drunk, pilled up or stoned); second, John Fowles’ The Magus (which I won’t go into, but if you’ve read it, you’ll understand my later psychosis); and thirdly, Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama, which impressively induces the reader after about four hundred or so psychedelic pages into a compliant male anal sex scene, which was, in this writer’s opinion, the reason for the book’s existence.
I read these books in snatches on the train to London, staring out every so often at the sun drenched skyline of Canada Waters and the grafittied tower blocks that reminded me of Aztec temple adornments and did nothing for my already wavering mental health.
Like many of its cult like followers, part of the appeal and nightmare came from Ellis’s review on my copy of House of Leaves, which, in this edition, was the only one:
“A great novel. A phenomenal debut…How will I ever recover?”
Since Ellis is the post-modern master of sexual nightmare, inducing more internal horror than a Ray Palmer production (the current author was scarred for months after reading American Psycho at the hormonal age of 15) and the seven hundred page monstrosity begins with the words:
“I still get nightmares. In fact I get them so often I should be used to them by now. I’m not. No one ever really gets used to nightmares.” P.xi
I knew two things: 1.) Something awful lay at the heart of House of Leaves. 2.) I would be changed forever if I read it.
Which I did.
In one, terrifying night, and one following day, and I remember the feeling that I had been to a particularly devastating funeral, that was how badly the novel had affected me.
“Towards the end of the twentieth century we lost confidence in reality. Everything- identity, morality, time, space, gender, political alignment, relationships, memory, history- became provisional…
…The ‘rubber reality’ trend was in full swing well before the dawn of the third millennium- an arbitrary ticking over of the odometer, celebrated without the collapse of society that had been feared- and the world-changing events of 11 September 2001. The nightmares of Elm Street made fantasy mindscapes commonplace in horror films, with Freddy Krueger’s control over dreams allowing for sequences in which logic could be suspended for the sake of a scare.”
Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies (2010) p.449
Danielewski allegedly spent over ten years composing House of Leaves, and in one of those strange twists of providence, it was published very shortly after the appearance of a soon to be notorious underground movie (and subsequent box office smash) The Blair Witch Project, itself a clever no-budget reworking of Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust. (In my opinion, a wildly better film.)
The plot for Blair Witch is so well known it is meaningless to go into detail, suffice it to say that its phobic pressure points, the dark, the fear of isolation, the safety of hiding behind a camera revealed to be no match for the monster (if such there be) are essentially the ghosts that haunt the pages of House of Leaves. The difference of course, is that one is a book, which is always a personal experience, and the other is a movie, which is not.
“(The Blair Witch Project) consists solely of material shot by its characters, in a mix of grainy colour and cooler black and white, in academy ratio (with rounded corners), hand held and shaky, often out of focus or misframed, with inconsistent sound levels. Crucial events aren’t documented because the camera was pointed the wrong way or turned off. The characters argue about whether to keep filming and the last moments are fragmentary- like those hurried, broken sentences in italics at the end of H.P Lovecraft stories as a narrator is overwhelmed (and probably eaten) by cosmic horror. The amount of effort taken to make the film convincing as a document is highlighted by comparison with Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005), a documentary built around footage filmed by Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard in the Alaskan wilderness in the months before they were killed by a bear in 2003. Apart from thematic similarities, the films look and sound so alike it would be hard for a casual reader to tell which was ‘real’.”
Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies (2010) p.439-440
What follows is my interpretation of the ‘story’ in House of Leaves. I will engage the reader in a personal reading, the same I had when I was nineteen, in that I will assume that the entirety of the book is told from Johnny Truant’s perspective, and if you don’t like that idea, then by all means stop reading…now.
‘Johnny Truant’ is not his real name. His real name could be my name, your name, or one of the innumerable names that Danielewski tirelessly lists as the book progresses from nightmare to all out literary terrorism. He is the ultimate unstable narrator, the deranged detective trying to bring order to the Dionysian ritual, he is Pentheus, Odysseus, Achilles, Huck Finn, Clay, Patrick Bateman, Norman Bates, or even Jenna Jameson. He is searching for the clue that will lead him out of the labyrinth that comprises his downbeat Los Angeles existence. He is on the fringes of Hollywood, he is a literate cross between Henry Chianski and every drugged up, drunken nobody in the town that will swallow you upon your death. He is Zampano, he is Will Navidson, he is Thumper, the well-meaning stripper, he has had his identity shed as many times as she has shed her clothes to another dead eyed punter.
The nameless character has found (or perhaps written) a book about a house that has never existed, documented by a blind, now dead man called Zampano, which is the second initial of MZD. However, as he reads into this bizarre book, which is a cross between Crowley’s Liber Al and the mysterious Necronomicon (which of course, for Lovecraft fans, might only be a figment of its authors ripe imagination…), his own perspective begins to shift, and he starts to feel that the house exists, and that everybody is in some way connected to its transcendental horror.
The ‘story’ in the (perhaps) fictional book he finds (or rather is given) tells the tale of a war photographer named Will Navidson, which, in a post-structuralist way can be broken down to read Will N Avid Son, or Willing Avid Son (initials W.A.S), if you want. Navidson discovers a door inside his house that appears overnight, and, quite bizarrely, is larger on the inside than the house’s proportions will allow…
All of this horrifies ‘Johnny Truant’ A.K.A You/me/Mark Z. Danielewski/insert name here___ and an expedition with a camera enters the void (not unlike the perilous journey of Ahab against the whale or Huck Finn down the Mississippi or the journey to kill Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, or, essentially, any story you’ve ever read, or will ever read) and he turns to drugs, sex, alcohol, etc, all the while getting the sense that…the house…exists…
Which, of course, it does.
The house exists as a verbal construct which has an infinite variation of meanings. (Karen, Navidson’s long suffering wife proclaims before he enters: “It’s freezing in there!”) What the house symbolizes primarily in House of Leaves is the womb, and later we find that Johnny Truant, now on a sailing expedition (Not unlike Ishmael in Moby Dick) is the victim of an abusive mother, who was sectioned in a mental asylum after trying to kill him. Or at least, that’s how I read it.
Aside from many of its interpretations, the key to House of Leaves is that it is not a novel in any real sense, and its story is that of story itself. The purpose being that when you peel back the layers, leaf by leaf, you will always encounter the void, and the void exists, since the void is the sky above us.
“It is an illusion that we were ever alive,
Lived in the houses of our mothers, arranged ourselves
By our own motions in a freedom of air…
Even our shadows, their shadows, no longer remain.
These lives lived in the mind are at an end.
They never were…”
WALLACE STEVENS (The Rock)
Unlike post-modern masterworks such as Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or Joyce’s Ulysses, which present the novel as a puzzle to be solved, House of Leaves poses a post-structuralist puzzle. Not only is there no one answer to it, there is, in fact, no answer to it. The levels of understanding are limitless, and its very well kept website, www.houseofleaves.com is there to catch the endless fallout, and the endless references, literary allusions, influences and influence. If you were to peel back the leaves of Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (written in 1953, the same year La Strada was made, which features a character named Zampano, the blind prophet) you will discover that Huxley was very partially sighted, almost blind, much like Homer allegedly was, the alleged author of The Iliad and The Odyssey. And that he mentions a hallucinogenic plant named Yggdrasil, the word that appears on the final page of House of Leaves. And that he died on the 22nd of November 1963, a notable date in American History, since J.F.K got popped by the mafia/C.I.A/lone nut/you or whoever. And the final word of House of Leaves is a single letter: O which would indicate that his second novel ONLY REVOLUTIONS was designed as a sequel, which has numerous references to the Kennedy hit.
In this writer’s opinion, House of Leaves was written to violently combat the twee and anodyne Hollywood product inspired by the new wave of screenwriting seminars like Robert McKee’s join the dots Story, which indicate that movies must have a beginning, middle and end. Although, as McKee points out, not necessarily in that order. Danielewski has gone on record stating that “there will never be a movie of House of Leaves” and maybe it’s just as well. It would be a little boring.
“Without seasons nothing ripens and drops to the ground, the leaves never change their colours or the sky its vacant blue. Nothing dies, so nothing is born. Everlasting existence is a perpetual calm, the peace of the grave. Seekers after immortality look for a way out of chaos; but they are part of that chaos, natural or divine. Immortality is only the dimming soul projected on to a blank screen. There is more sunshine in the fall of a leaf.”
JOHN GRAY (The Immortalization Commission.p234)
Danielewski’s ambition, it seems, aside from deconstructing the story as quest narrative, is to deconstruct the very nature of criticism, and it is in doing so that House of Leaves stands apart from the haunted houses of Poe and Lovecraft. This present author found it hard not to giggle at the overripe dialogue in most of the stories revealed in The Necromonicon (like this one: “For that very fresh body, at last writhing into full and terrifying consciousness with eyes dilated at the memory of its last scene on earth…screamed out the cry that will ring eternally in my aching brain: ‘Help! Keep off, you cursed little tow head-fiend!” from his hugely influential Herbert West-Re-Animator) but Danielewski never crosses into self-parody except intentionally (ftaires?) and it is his skill at apparently seeming to anticipate all reactions to the reader’s reading of the Navidson Record that the book shares us with its nightmarish plot. He desires, in a fiendish, savage way, to very genuinely give us a nightmare, or nightmares, and through this fear force us into confronting ourselves.
“Bisociation is a term introduced into psychology and philosophy by novelist/philosopher Arthur Koestler (1905-1983). It signifies ‘the perceiving of a situation or idea…in two self-consistent but habitually incompatible frames of reference,’ a process (that) underlies…the joke, the scientific theory, and the work of art…Frames of reference, known as matrices, are a way of organizing experience: a code in our nervous systems that tell the brain where to store each new bit of information. When Bisociation occurs, we have two frames colliding or melding. This can be almost sexual in the joy it yields.”
(p.80-1 EVERYTHING IS UNDER CONTROL: Conspiracies, Cults and Cover-ups, Robert Anton Wilson.)
The innumerable codes that lie in wait for even its most casual reader indicate that the initials H.O.L recall both ‘hole’ and ‘Hollywood’, and the devastating impact the novel had on the literary and artistic worlds fuelled by what Bret Easton Ellis calls ‘Post-Empire’ America and the tandem feeding frenzy between the novel and Blair Witch brought forth a flurry of films that continued to play on the concepts of reality. Apollo 18 (2011), a rather quaint ‘Blair Witch on the Moon’, is a descendent of Paranormal Activity (2009) surely one of the more frightening experiences you can have alone in a dark house. In literature, see Ellis’s Lunar Park, not as some critics have read, the Bretster doing Stephen King, but rather a witty, haunting re-imagining of the father/son dynamic by way of Hamlet that drives so much of his work and to which House of Leaves pays a direct debt.
The novel however, has disturbing implications for the artistically minded, as the members of www.houseofleaves.com will know. The ‘dream’ one may have of ‘making it’, i.e. bringing the story/work of art to life, and to then take the place on the opposite side of the fence, from artist to ‘respected’ critic, overwhelms the more imaginative to the nightmare of the void, the Hollywood framework we all inhabit, if one cannot fashion the dream into reality. The word ‘house’ also means God, and Danielewski was attempting, in his seven hundred pages, to finally deny any certainty of the knowledge of God, or the denial. To really argue against House of Leaves, one really has to never have read it at all. It’s a book you make peace with, not understand.
“It is only in the terrible phantasms of drugs or delirium that any man can have such a descent as mine. The narrow passage led infinitely down like some hideous haunted well, and the torch I held above my head could not light the unknown depths toward which I was crawling. I lost track of the hours and forgot to consult my watch, though I was frightened when I thought of the distance I must be traversing. There were changes of direction and of steepness; and once I came to a long, low, level passage where I had to wriggle my feet first along the rocky floor, holding torch at arm’s length beyond my head. The place was not high enough for kneeling. After that were more of the steep steps, and I was still scrambling down interminably when my failing torch died out. I do not think I noticed it at the time, for when I did notice it I was still holding it above me as if it were ablaze. I was quite unbalanced with that instinct for the strange and the unknown which had made me a wanderer upon earth and a haunter of far, ancient, and forbidden places.”
H.P LOVECRAFT- The Nameless City (1921)
“In The Doors of Perception, Huxley speculates that human beings will always need some sort of chemical aid to free themselves from the inherited limitations of their own nervous systems. Fifty years after his mescaline trip beside a Hollywood garden, when we have flown to the moon and girdled our planet with an entertainment culture more suffocating than anything envisioned in Brave New World, we may be right to think that the expedition Huxley undertook into his own brain is the last journey waiting for us, whether by chemical means or through some less hazardous door, the inward passage to our truer and richer selves.”
J.G BALLARD (Taken from the introduction to The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell p.viii) (2004)