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Enter the Void: the Journey Away from Narratives and Towards Self in House of Leaves

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  • Enter the Void: the Journey Away from Narratives and Towards Self in House of Leaves

    “I think that the reader should enrich what he is reading. He should misunderstand the text; he should change it into something else.”
    ― Jorge Luis Borges

    Two groups of texts namely employ the labyrinth as a symbolic landscape: those that include a voyage toward the self and those that contain a voyage toward the text (Faris 121). These two categories will tend not only to intersect, but to converge. This convergence is particularly evident in of Leaves (Hamilton 4). The act of Danielewski’s characters navigating the labyrinth of self has the effect of transporting the reader into their own labyrinth. Although the reader may believe that a close examination of of Leaves’ many narratives will lead them to the labyrinth’s correct solution, this could not be farther from the truth. Danielewski deconstructs the aforementioned idea by emphasizing that these seemingly distinct narratives overlap so much that no sufficient answer may be discerned. The overlying narratives suggest that the reader’s labyrinth holds consequences exclusive to the reader alone.

    On one level, of Leaves is about the Navidson family. Will Navidson, a journalistic photographer, and his wife Karen, retreat to the countryside of Virginia with their children in an attempt to rekindle their faltering relationship. Shortly after moving into their new home, several anomalies transpire. One anomaly being the emergence of a short, dark hallway. Navidson enlists the help of his brother, an engineer, and later a group of explorers, in making sense of the hallway. The events that take place within this narrative are recorded and edited to create the film known as The Navidson Record.

    A recently deceased writer, named Zampanò, wrote a manuscript also titled The Navidson Record. Zampanò’s manuscript is composed of commentary on the film. Similar to the explorers in the hallway, Zampanò can see nothing—Zampanò is blind. Furthermore, throughout of Leaves the reader is not provided with very much information about Zampanò himself or his life, except that he wrote The Navidson Record. Just as Zampanò is blind, the reader is also sightless to information regarding his character. Johnny Truant, a young tattoo artist, acquires Zampanò’s manuscript from his home at the beginning of the novel. And so, all of the information the reader receives about Zampano is given through Truant’s perspective—one that may or not be sighted. The Navidson Record and Truant’s story overlap on several prominent occasions throughout the novel. They culminate in an episode Truant had at work, “He can feel the monster’s breath and feel its eyes burning into his back” (Mark 2015). As he rushes to leave, he trips and falls down a flight of stairs, spilling tattoo ink everywhere:[INDENT=3]
    …called there by all that clatter and mess. What they can’t see though is the omen seen in a fall, my fall, as I’m doused in black ink, my hands now completely covered, and see the floor is black, and—have you anticipated this or should I be more explicit?—jet on jet; for a blinding instant I have watched my hand vanish, in fact all of me has vanished, one hell of a disappearing act too, the already foreseen dissolution of the self, lost without contrast, slipping into oblivion, until mid-gasp I catch sight of my reflection in the back of the tray, the ghost in the way: seems I’m not gone, not quite. My face has been splattered with purple, as have my arms, granting contrast, and thus defining me, marking me and at least for the moment, preserving me (72).[/INDENT]
    The fact that Truant feels he has vanished is mirrored by the Navidson’s hallway’s ability to swallow people whole. In another passage, while recalling the day his mother was taken to the asylum, Truant remarks, “Like a bad dream, the details of those five and a half minutes just went and left me to my future” (517). Truant’s comment here overlays with the title of Will Navidson’s short film, The Five and a Half Minute Hallway. Additionally, Will Navidson brought one book, of Leaves, with him on “Exploration #5.” He burns of Leaves on the expedition to keep warm. This parallels Truant’s burning of Zampanò’s book, of Leaves (518). These instances support the idea that both Truant and Navidson’s narratives are indistinguishable. Thus, no level of narration holds the answers the reader is searching to find—the labyrinth has no gratifying,transparent exit.

    By the end of the novel, Johnny Truant has left Los Angeles on a journey of discovery. It is as if Truant is navigating his own version of the labyrinth. He is searching for a meaning and understanding to his pain. He intends to find the on Ash Tree Lane, but has no success in this endeavor. The pages that follow are a strange mixture of falsehoods and reality. When he admits he has been lying, he writes, “I don’t even know where the last month went. I had to make up something to fill the disconcerting void. Had to” (509). Truant is now conscious of the disturbing truth: to move beyond the power of nothingness, he must stop searching for answers. For the reader, Truant’s epiphany implicates a lesson that the reader making sense of the overlapping narratives is more contingent on their inner self than they may have previously thought.

    The minotaur may take different forms in each narrative, but it is present in each telling. Karen and Will each had to face their personal Minotaur in order to successfully navigate their inner maze of a fractured coupling. The strained relationship between the two is a result of her insecurity and his obsession with his work. Ultimately, it is their love for one another that brings them safely out of their individual tangles. Karen entered the gaping blackness in one of the walls of the children’s room not having any prior knowledge of Navidson being within. Despite her fear of the minotaur throughout the novel, she was able to cross the threshold in order to save the one she loves. Interestingly, Zampanò’s passages regarding the minotaur have been struck out in the text. Like Karen and Will, he is representative of Theseus. For if Zampanò were not blind, he could confront his monster and kill it. Moreover, at the start of the novel Truant seems to be a sort of Daedalus, “viewing Zampanò’s of leavings synchronically, with an eye to the larger pattern” (Hamilton 9). However, as the novel progresses, the reader is forced to identify Truant as yet another Theseus, "experiencing the labyrinth, diachronically from within" (Hamilton 9). This serves to suggest that no single narrative in of Leaves contains a Daedalus masterminding this multi-leveled labyrinth. Hence, “it makes no difference that the documentary at the heart of this book is fiction,” because “the consequences are the same” (xx).

    Jacques Derrida believed that all of Western thought functions in binary oppositions, and all binary oppositions privilege one member while marginalizing the other. As the reader travels through their web, a new kind of answer is discovered, an answer not found within any of the narratives. of Leaves bequeaths the reader with a unique experience: he or she must choose how to traverse the labyrinth that is presented throughout the interrelating narratives. Indeed, the reader must not let the horrors of the text engulf them and slip into an experience of meaningless suffering. However, if the reader chooses to understand the various journeys’ sentiments, they will ultimately attach a new purpose to the novel. The reader will not be blind like Zampanò. Through their own unique experience, they will uncover their journey to self-whilst defeating a real or imagined monster. At the end of the expedition, the reader will be able to create a multicursal labyrinthine solution that is reflective of the positive effects of solving a possible void in their own life’s path.

    Works Cited

    Danielewski, Mark Z. of Leaves. New York, Pantheon Books, 2000.

    Faris, Wendy B. Labyrinths of Language: Symbolic Landscape and Narrative Design in Modern Fiction. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.

    Hamilton, Natalie. “The A-Mazing : The Labyrinth as Theme and Form in Mark Z. Danielewski’s of Leaves.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 50, no. 1, 2008, pp. 3-16, Accessed 9. May. 2017.