- "This Is Not For You":Nihilism and the House that Jacques Built
"This is not for you" is the dedication in Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves and reveals that House of Leaves is not intended for the reader, whoever he or she may be. This is because House of Leaves introduces the idea that nihilism exists beneath all forms of discourse, whether linguistic (the literary) or visual (the architectural). The problem of nihilism is implicit in most postmodern or poststructuralist fiction, but House of Leaves suggests a much more radical approach in which nihilism is something that can never come into Being. More properly, this means that rather than nihilism having a construction, it is that which exists before construction or is that upon which a construction is built. Through the figure of the house, Danielewski offers an unprecedented textual meditation on the nature of nothingness and the way in which this relates to literature, architecture, and philosophy.
As House of Leaves is relatively recent and its impact upon critical circles remains to be seen, it is worth providing a short synopsis.1 The text of House of Leaves is actually three different narratives, united by the single theme of the House on Ash Tree Lane (the pseudononymous "House of Leaves"). The first narrative is a videocassette, "The Navidson Record," recording the strange occurrences at the Navidson family house, encompassing recordings of several explorations into the House. Will Navidson is a successful photographer, [End Page 88] best known for a picture of a girl ("Delial") in war-torn Sudan. The second narrative within the text is a commentary on the original "Navidson Record," written by an old blind man called Zampanò.2 This commentary ranges from discourses about the significance of labyrinths and King Minos's son to the physics of acoustics and geological survey information on the House on Ash Tree Lane and includes both "true" literary criticism and faux criticism. The third narrative consists of footnotes to Zampanò's narrative, written by a drugged-up, dropped-out tattoo artist called Johnny Truant, who uncovers problems with the veracity of the Zampanò documents. Truant receives the Zampanò text following the old man's mysterious death and is temporally the "present" of the text, as the reader follows Johnny's own reading of the Zampanò text and his life at the time.
Both the Zampanò and Truant texts are presented in different typefaces, alongside numerous editorial footnotes on both the Zampanò and Truant texts, which amend or criticize the previous narratives, presented in yet another typeface. There are also several appendices, by both Zampanò and Johnny Truant, containing photographs and artifacts of the House, poems ("The Pelican Poems"), and letters from Johnny Truant's mother at the Whalestoe Institute (reprinted with some additions in The Whalestoe Letters). These letters and photographs contain coded references to the lyrics of songs by Poe (Danielewski's sister's band) and Borges's stories, among other things. The text also has an index, supporting its claim to be a "critical" text, and closes on a poem called "Yggdrasil," about the world tree of Scandinavian mythology. One of the most important features of the text is that each occurrence of the word "House," in whatever language, appears in grayscale, never in the same print as the rest of the text.3
The narratives that create House of Leaves can be argued to form different levels of the figure of a house (basement, first floor, second floor, loft), with each critical level adding another level of meaning and, more importantly, another level of deferral from the central narrative. Such a trope means that House of Leaves is both about a "House of Leaves" (a house in which there are multiple absences or a fragile figure of a house built out of leaves) and is a "house of leaves" (a text).4 In this respect, it is part of the American tradition of writing about houses within the figure of a house, analyzed in critical studies such as Marilyn Chandler's Dwelling in the Text. Chandler argues: [End Page 89]
Houses . . . reflect not only the psychological structure of the...