Book as House, Word as Brick: First – and Lasting – Impressions Upon Reading M.Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves

by Movie Quibble’s BA (Hons) Criminology T.G. Bruce

In its simplest form the book House of Leaves (HOL), the debut novel of American writer Mark Z. Danielewski, is, literally, a house of leaves. Indeed, the title is far more than what meets the eye; House of Leaves is not only the name of the book but also an astounding visual as well as intellectual pun for what is contained therein. A multi-faceted work of literary trickery that has pulled the wool – or, in keeping with the book’s recurring themes drawing upon classical mythology – the golden fleece of Jason and his Argonauts over the eyes of millions of readers, many of whom probably felt proud of themselves for even tackling the text, such is its behemoth reputation.

Tome might be a more accurate descriptor but, as has been demonstrated by innumerable failed – and now permanently hospitalised – HOL critics , the sufficing reasons are best left untouched except by only the most devoted philosophers and professors of the ancient texts of the lost civilisations from which HOL draws its mythos. And possibly not even them. Perhaps the only people that could relay such concepts to the layman are long dead, having departed the Earth long before the house aka ‘novel book’ was ever conceived.

To begin. The leaves of HOL are its pages. Pages house words, and the pages, or ‘leaves’ as they once were known, are housed by the book itself. The covers, the spine, all of the pages in their binding together – as a whole they enclose each individual page [read: leaf/sheaf]. And yet simultaneously each individual page stands alone; conversely without each and every page there would be no house. So the h[H]ouse is the entirety of the book but the construction of the book/house can only be made possible when built upon the sturdy foundations of each and every page in their collective form. That is to say, the pages are also the house, which is to say that HOL is not merely a structure in which ‘Leaves’ (pages) are ‘Housed(bound*) but it is also a ‘House’ (book in binding) comprised entirely of ‘Leaves/Sheaves’ (pages [housing] passages of text or visual imagery). Maze-like, in more ways than several.

*bound in the traditional ‘book’ form, although savvy readers may interpret the dual meaning of the binding the words to the purpose of the whole in the same way that the ancient Greek gods may bind an Earthly thrall to their supreme will.

The book’s already impressive entity (mainly its metaphysical implications, not its form in the physical third dimension, imposing as its hefty 705 pages may be) grows ever more enigmatic and labyrinthine still when one realises that the words, pictures, and numbers embedded* into the surface of each page actually make the page what it is. These are the endlessly repeating pathways, or ‘hallways’ of the rooms or ‘pages’ within the house which is of course the book [that is to refer to HOL in its primary manifestation]. At this incontrovertible truth many may reel in disbelief, shake their heads in dismay, turn tail, then exit stage left pursued by a minotaur flee.

What fools, cowards, and philistines they are! For they have leapt headlong into the very first trap, just one of many to come; not comprehending that they are already trapped in the depths of the house-book’s maze. As inscribed within the book, both explicitly in the case of Zampan0’s memoirs and via metaphorical implication as a constant throughout, the faster one traverses a labyrinth the more mired they become in its unending rows of dizzying complexity. The same counts for retreating, not proceeding only.

So to run from the fact is to condemn oneself to eternal** struggle.  Not to mention the profound intellectual humiliation that is borne of such a defeat. The only way then, is forward. Press on. Confront the true meaning of the book [house], its title and contents: its All-ness or Full-ness. Not an undertaking to be taken light heartedly for, as the very least of it, sanity’s sake.

* embedded as tattoo ink upon the skin. But where do words implant their black tendrils? The mind.

**by external*** the author presumably means ‘until their DNA has been wiped form the gene pool’.

*** Correction: eternal - Ed

It has been firmly [read: inarguably*] established that the pages are rooms for the sentences that are hallways or paths, so to speak, that are themselves constructed of the familiar yet ultimately unknowable building material of the written/typed words. Blank or sparsely occupied pages, however, are akin to the vacuous chambers of the physics-defying labyrinth of Ash Tree Lane as detailed in The Navidson Record and ‘The five and a half minute hallway’ (+others) as evidenced in House of Leaves as seen in HOL. At a first glance the  ostensible simplicity of these many ‘blank’ leaves  becomes over time an obstacle more confounding than the densely populated pages – remembering that these are the rooms of a house – of overlapping words and numerals that obscure the infinite nature of the H[ouse] by reducing it into small, digestible*** chunks of data.

Yet the glimpses of the vast unknown in these aforementioned ‘blank’ pages are what swallow**** the reader whole. Staring out into the void they are all to a one deceived – duped by their brains which are stuck in some unknown mode, operating purely on primordial self-protective instinct – into thinking they have uncovered a mooring post. Little do they suspect, it is their own end to which they fasten the threadbare rope of their reprieve.

* see attached world wide web doc:**

**link defunct – Eddie.

*** the theme of breaking down sugary chain molecules into nutrients will be revisited later on.

**** this is not later on enough yet.

Filled ‘leaves’ (or pages/rooms aka chambers) are not to be underestimated, however.

Cont. (on this page)

The sentences of the leaves of the house (HOL) can provide, theoretically speaking, an unlimited diversion for the overly curious scholar. For not only can each line, and for that matter each word of each line, be construed in a myriad number of ways, the closing pages/Leaves of HOL infer that there are hidden codes on practically any given page. Maybe even all. Random or by design? Actual or utterly fictitious? Who can know? The author, a few more than many have asserted. Nay, not he.

One only has to think of the great pseudo-academic philosopher and sonar theorist Zampan0, who supposedly wrote the book on House of Leaves within HOL, meaning that he actually wrote the book on writing the book which the book was written about. But the burden was too heavy and he failed to finish it, at long last dying a sad, lonely death with a once fine tuned mind reduced to tatters of napkin scribblings. A life’s work – which, make no mistake, HOL is – can never be over; it is Danielewski’s burden now as much as it was Zampan0’s , and like a serpent wrestling hermit he shall writhe against it in stubborn silence until he is steeped in its venom.

Let us not forget that the snake, too, bears ink.

If there are codes planted throughout the ‘book’ or, to put it more accurately, unsolved puzzles hidden in all corners, crevices, storage cupboards, and alcoves of the House, how could any self-respecting academic help but return time and time again to those lugubrious passageways? The ceaseless poring over of the word-building-blocks of this labyrinth’s hallways can (and presently shall be) likened to the expedition team’s sample scraping of Ash Tree Lane’s dank interiors in HOL. Seemingly practical steps* leading to some greater, fuller idea of what lies within – as well as what that can do to name that which lies without – will sadly but inevitably avail them of nothing. Excepting, perhaps, another added layer of sedimentary mystery compounding their insatiable** curiosity of that place.

*the idea of steps leading to some final explanation or end should be familiar territory to HOL readers; the staircase of Ash Tree Lane led to nowhere by itself and stood as metaphor for the spiralling confusion of the naive explorers (readers) seeking closure at its feet

**insatiable is a word not used by accident. Perhaps, though, it is. Either way it is fitting for its connotation to appetite related to the phenomenon of weight loss*** and irregular eating patterns of an alarmingly significant portion of HOL students.

***the author himself pre-empted weight loss  - critically, before the book’s spell was cast - by going on a steady anabolic steroid program and preparing meals for the weeks and months that were to follow. He gained 2 stone 11 pounds on a diet of mainly discus shaped creme sandwich biscuit. – Ed again

Coming now to the index. Not every instance of every place/person/object/descriptive has been listed therein – as it took a an ingeniously constructed MIT software program’s  hyper-advanced word search algorithm to detect. Or some such. Scanning the whole ‘Book’ and comparing it with said index reveals a number of more than many vast multitudes of dissimilarities. Omissions, mainly, but sometimes additions too, with the odd long division thrown in for good measure.

Having limped to the ‘end’ of this otherworldly labyrinth of words, sentences, cryptic clues and permanently scarring images, most will give this section a hair’s more than a cursory glance, not realising how intricately it is related to the whole. For it is the whole because the whole could by definition not exist without it. Of the brave few who do linger on in this array of teleportation points that send them hurtling back into the throes of their ‘escape’ attempt: they shall be lost forever. At least they will know that. Perhaps even accept it, one day.

In skipping over the index entirely ‘readers’ of HOL unwittingly consent to starting the maze all over from its outset [or inset] (all over, once again, for repeat ‘explorers’, of which there are hordes) because they are then face to face with the front cover. This cover or ‘entrance’ to the House (book, that being HOL) is an illusion of sorts. All editions exhibit some representation of the door on which there is attached a handle. The mirage of the door handle which can be turned and opened – by, perversely, turning over the first page or ‘opening’ the book (as in door to the house) – provides a false hope that one’s feet are firmly planted on the terra firma of the non-fictional realm. The tangible. The knowable.  A crueller ruse has surely not been laid since the sacking of Troy by the legendarily resourceful Odysseus.

They are not on the outside, of course; they are right back where they began. But weaker now, much weaker. Worn down. Less and less each time remains.  And trapped. Alone. No amount of provisions, no accrued level of experience and wisdom could ever see them through to the other ‘side’. In re-embarking on exactly the same fateful journey they may be full of misguided ambition,  fuelled by grandiose visions of locating and then vanquishing the minotaur* NOUN that they desperately want to believe** lies within.

Falsely assuming themselves to be learned of the ways of the House and its many confounding passages (i.e collections of words/symbols/numerals/pictures) they strut in boldly, the ‘torch’ of perspective in one hand and the ‘shield’ of finite knowledge clutched in the other. They have incorrectly arrived at the calamitous conclusion that the book has an ‘end’, that it can be in some way ‘finished’ and that they have in fact already done so. A sorry sight, for they weave the tapestries for their own embalming. Their doom is sealed, secured; the stone halls (words of the sentences) collapse in around them.

Desperately wanting to find something new in something impossibly old they convince themselves that they have done so. Man’s supposed victory over the unknown. If only they knew how wrong they were, they would meet their end. That mercy will not be spared them.

*did they pay no attention? The minotaur is not a beast of horn and hoof and brutish strength. It is a monster of symbol  not flesh: the void itself. Hence Zampan0 violently excised the misleading chapter about that whole Theseus animal penetration debacle – too obvious, see?

**Italics added for emphasis by Eazy 'E' Eddy – E.'E'.E

As for the multi-lingual aspects of the House-Book aka the variations in architectural structure within (and indeed of) the house – not to mention the footnotes and numerous deliberately unintelligible passages – which, as stated, contain and are also made from passages of the very same origin – and “translations” (presuming the miasmic proffering of Johnny Truant, Zampan0, and his infuriatingly secretive friend/colleague ‘Ed’  to be even half-way reliable)… that in itself is another school of learning entirely. A school built of symbols. Early hominid cave drawings, specifically*.

*Pleistocene epoch homo erectus experts wanted!!! Email:**

**Again, not a thing – Edward Edwards, Johnny Truant’s other self.                                                                                   

(Y’know, cos we’re mentally ill and that?!)

T.G. Bruce lives in Downtown Los Angeles a flat with his mum.

Publisher’s Note: For a further and more comprehensive insight into T.G. Bruce’s House of Leaves studies, check out the numerous video essays from his ongoing YouTube series, Viewer as Reader, Director as Writer, Camera as Theseus, Film Projector as King Minos.


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