House of Leaves #2 – The Labyrinth

(I’m sort of tempted to attempt some typographical fuckery for this post, but my CSS game is not that strong and WordPress wouldn’t allow me to anyway. I would like to note that this post mentions a lot of spoiler-y things)

So far I’ve read up Chapter 9 and Appendix II-E (Whalestoe Institute Letters). I had stopped reading before I got to learn more about the Minotaur all those years ago, so it’s one of the aspects of House of Leaves that still fascinates me in its absolute opaqueness. One of the things I think about is the significance of the crossed out text, especially since they invariably reference the Minotaur story, even tangentially.

Was it Zampano’s way of staving off the unknown horror that was stalking him? Had Johnny, by virtue of “restoring” the words, unwittingly invited this horror back into existence?

The events leading up to and including the Exploration sequences remind me of those Polar exploration tales from the turn of the 20th Century. It even has the staple archetype of the genre: the cocky and nature-hardened extreme explorer as embodied by Holloway Roberts. Of course, those stories often involved people getting stranded in freezing wastelands, ships being slowly crushed by encroaching icebergs, explorers losing their grasp of reality, and survivors eating corpses out of desperation. These things (aside from the cannibalism, so far) make them thematically consistent with HoL.

Chapter 8 is my favorite section so far. Such a well-structured, clever sequence with great writing that keeps the tension as tight as a drum. It simultaneously makes you admire Navidson (the character) for focusing his camera on Reston and admire Danielewski (the writer) for putting the focus on the focus. Other people have even argued that even the paragraph structure of the chapter reflects the SOS distress signal.

Meanwhile, the labyrinthine format of Chapter 9 is probably the thing that will make or break this novel for the reader. The long digressions in the footnotes approximate a journey into long hallways, with the text being basically a list of documentary directors, architectural features, architectures, etc. I didn’t read the lists judiciously but sort of skimmed throught them, my eyes catching momentarily on names I recognize (I.M. Pei, Frank Capra, and so on). So some of the names are not made up, but what’s the guarantee that everything Zampano cites is factual?

The thing that currently fascinates me from craft perspective is the tension and release that happens with Danielewski’s writing. There’s a reason why he’s trying to frustrate your efforts to know what happens to Jed, Wax, and Holloway. Why else would he do these footnotes at the exact moment when their lives are in peril?

Re: the Whalestoe Letters. It’s the part of the book that I found so hard to revisit. The psychic toll this particular storyline takes on me is unbelievable. Aside from the entire mental illness issue, the idea of a parent basically gaslighting their child into feeling profound guilt and fear is something that truly disturbs me. Even if that is not true, the alternative reason for Johnny’s mother’s letters is even more horrific. Compound that with the notion that Johnny had been profoundly abused during his run through the foster care system, and you really get the picture of how truly screwed up Johnny is.

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3 thoughts on “House of Leaves #2 – The Labyrinth

  1. I believe what you said about Zampano’s stricken-out text, which Johnny nonetheless retained, makes perfect sense. Consider their similarities: Zampano’s apartment was all boarded up when he died, and Johnny was doing that, too, and was slowly being lured into staying inside his apartment at all times.

    • I wonder about the recurrence of agoraphobia (the fear of open spaces) in the book. Tom in The Navidson Record is explicitly described as fearing it, and it seems to me that Johnny is showing symptoms of it. I’m kind of uneasy with the entanglement between insanity and true horror in this book. It makes the characters’ predicaments even more heartwrenching for me.

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