Exploring Labyrinths and Voids in House of Leaves

“This is not for you.” Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves opens with this warning. Published March 2000 by Pantheon Books, House of Leaves is considered by many to be one of the most important works of fiction of the early 2000s. One part analysis, one part autobiography, Danielewski manages to blend multiple narratives into a single overarching work of literature, comparable to Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Central to House of Leaves is the idea of the “Labyrinth,” a maze from which the characters can not escape, both literally and figuratively. But just what is the labyrinth and how does Danielewski use it in his story? The Labyrinth in House of Leaves is representative of the struggle to determine what is real and what is symbolic, and by altering the written structure of the book, House of Leaves becomes a Labyrinth itself.

House of Leaves is a prime example of ergodic literature. Ergodic literature was first coined by Espen J. Aarseth in his book Cybertext—Perspectives on Ergodic Literature where he says

“In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text. If ergodic literature is to make sense as a concept, there must also be nonergodic literature, where the effort to traverse the text is trivial, with no extranoematic responsibilities placed on the reader except (for example) eye movement and the periodic or arbitrary turning of pages.”

Essentially Aarseth is claiming that ergodic literature requires more than just reading and turning the pages, that there is more effort involved, whether that be translating the pages, or ordering them, or any number of things, some amount of extra effort in understanding the text sets it apart. House of Leaves does exactly this. House of Leaves initially follows Johnny Truant, a 20 something tattoo artist living in Los Angeles, who comes into possession of a manuscript written by an old man who has recently died named Zampanò. From here the story changes perspectives sometimes following Truant, and sometimes following Zampanò’s manuscript, entitled The Navidson Record. The Navidson Record is an analysis by Zampanò of a supposed documentary by Will Navidson a professional photographer who moves into a new home with his family. As the Navidsons get acclimated to their new home, they make a discovery that one of the rooms is larger on the inside than the outside; this discovery leads to an even bigger discovery of a seemingly endless labyrinth underneath the house. House of Leaves moves its focus back and forth between anecdotes of Truant’s life after stumbling across The Navidson Record and of portions of The Navidson Record itself. Along the way the book features extensive footnoting and many of the pages appear printed incorrectly or out of place. This jumping between narratives and altering of typical book format is what makes House of Leaves ergodic.

What stands out so frankly about House of Leaves is how it uses architecture as a way to symbolize the psyche of humans. As the Navidsons dive deeper into the labyrinth underneath their home, so too does Truant become entrapped within the labyrinth of his mind.  In John Shannon Hendrix’s book Architecture and Psychoanalysis: Peter Eisenman and Jacques Lacan he states “Architecture is always a reflection of the psychological make-up of the human subject.” And while Hendrix may be referring to the architect in this quote, it isn’t a far stretch to believe that those viewing the architecture could also be influenced. We see this in House of Leaves as Truant unwittingly finds himself lost in a personal labyrinth created by his fear of the unknown. He finds himself fearing that at any moment some unknown creature could be behind him, ready to tear out his throat, and this fear of the uncanny leads him to trap himself in his room, to hold up in a physical labyrinth where he can not escape and not be found. In many ways even the reader is affected by the architecture, not of the house, but of the book. As the reader flips page after page and is drawn into the book, the book warps and becomes difficult to read, flipping pages upside down, or forcing the reader to physically spin the book to read. The reader begins to lose track of fact and fiction in the book, as many of the footnotes are real academic sources, but just as many are not. In this way the book itself becomes the labyrinth that both the Navidsons and Truant are stuck in. The book itself becomes a physical representation of what we as humans consider the “uncanny”. Fictional enough to surprise us, but real enough to create doubts as to how fictional it is.

In Nick Lord’s The Labyrinth and the Lacuna: Metafiction, the Symbolic, and the Real in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, he claims that while the labyrinth represents the symbolic, the lacuna represents the real. The labyrinth is the framework and the lacuna is the void. At the center of the labyrinth under Will Navidson’s house is a seemingly endless void both up and down. This void represents the real, that can not be symbolized, for although it exists and is “real” it reaches the limits of what can truly be symbolized. Truant must also face a lacuna or void, but as with the labyrinth his is mental rather than physical. For Truant the void is the film for which The Navidson Record is based off of. He wants definitive proof of whether or not what he is reading is “real” or just the ramblings of a mad man. But he never finds the film, and this becomes his void. Ironically the void that the reader must face is similar to Truant’s, in that the void is Truant himself. The reader wants to believe that Truant’s notes are real, and that the experience of the book is real, but once again only a void is left in place of some sort of symbol.

While much of the debate and conflict in this book may seem to be overly pretentious or even nonsense, debates over what is real and what is symbolic are central to philosophy and metaphysics. While traditionally separation of the real from the symbolic has been associated with Jacques Lacan’s work in psychoanalysis, contemporary philosopher Slavoj Žižek separates the real into three distinct categories: the real real, the symbolic real, and the imaginary real. For Žižek the real real represents the horror of the unknown. Humans ultimately wish to understand and explain the world around them, and House of Leaves represents this quintessential part of human nature by taking physical representations of the real and symbolic, and abstracting them onto not only another character in the book but also onto the reader themself. House of Leaves asks the reader to take a deeper look at what they think is real, and to question whether it is merely a symbolic labyrinth they have trapped themselves in. Or maybe the book was never meant to be read, maybe it wasn’t meant for you.

Works Cited

Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1997.

Hendrix, John Shannon. Architecture and Psychoanalysis: Peter Eisenman and Jacques Lacan. New York: Peter Lang, 2006.

Nick Lord (2014) The Labyrinth and the Lacuna: Metafiction, the Symbolic, and the Real in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 55:4, 465-476, DOI: 10.1080/00111619.2013.791242

Žižek, Slavoj, Rex Butler, and Scott Stephens. Interrogating the Real. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

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