Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves as a Metaphor for American Colonialism

The eponymous house of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, published in 2000, is different things to different people. For some, such as Karen and Tom it is a threat, while for others, like Navidson, it is a dark fascination. The only quality of the house that appears immutable is that the house is something unknown to those who encounter it. This treatment of the house as an unknown, previously unexplored space takes a new meaning when the story’s context is taken into account: that is, the story’s deliberately American context. Throughout the novel, Danielewski makes a point of centering the story within an America-centric viewpoint through use of explicit references to American culture and the “American mindset”, as well as more covert references. This newly understood context combined with the fact that the story of The Navidson Record is essentially one about exploring uncharted territory suggests that the house functions as a metaphor for American Colonialism. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) is a useful text for framing this topic, as he discusses how Western scholarship has historically characterized unknown, “unclaimed” territory as inhabited by primitive “others”, justifying its colonization; just as how the “monstrous” nature of the creature in the labyrinth vindicates its destruction.

The book wastes little time establishing itself within an American cultural context. The very first pages of Johnny Truant’s introduction place him within the United States by mentioning the California cities he had been staying in (pg. 11) as well as including distinctly American references in a seemingly unimportant, yet bizarrely violent and ultimately crucial, exchange between Johnny and his previous landlord. Through this exchange, which results in Johnny’s eviction, Danielewski not only establishes Johnny’s cynical, dark sense of humor by having him tell his landlord, who believes he is Charles de Gaulle, that “the thought of a 757 landing on him was not at all disagreeable” (pg. 11), but is also referencing an American made aircraft familiar to most anyone who has taken a commercial flight in the United States[1],  the identifying number of which just so happens to also be the telephone area code for southeast Virginia, which is not only the very place where the Navidson family encounters the infamous house, but also the site of the Jamestown colonial settlement. Jamestown is notable for its status as the first permanent English colonial settlement to be established in the Americas[2], therefore a quintessentially American setting, but is particularly important in the context of the book. Later in the novel, a journal by an occupant of the Jamestown colony is discovered and it is revealed that a set of stairs were found in the woods nearby, by a group of men. Two of these men turned up dead, and one was never heard from again, suggesting the existence of the house as an all-consuming entity even as far back as the 17th century. This reference is the most explicit connection in the novel between the house and American colonialism. Its inclusion, along with the other, more quickly digested reference points easily introduce the novel as contained within an American context.

The American references continue with the introduction of Zampano, and move into the realm of historical commentary. The very first sentence describing Zampano states that from what Johnny could gather “he was an American” (pg. 12). Even before Zampano’s name is given in the following paragraph, his supposed nationality is given. This positioning gives it emphasis, although Johnny does not mention why he feels the need to emphasize this. This statement is combined with a mention of those who knew Zampano having detected some hint of a foreign accent, “even if they could never say for certain where it came from” (pg. 12), and yet Johnny still insists upon Zampano’s American-ness. He even goes on to doubt Zampano’s real name. He states “Who knows where the name really came from. Maybe it’s authentic, maybe made up, maybe borrowed…” (pg.12). Johnny’s reasoning is further confused by the fact that, as we later discover, there are no personal records of Zampano in his apartment to confirm or deny his name or nationality. Even though the only personal information Johnny can gather from other people about this man is his foreign-sounding name and purported accent, it is all irrelevant; to Johnny, Zampano is American. There is no reason given for this assertion within the novel, but it adds to the list of components that lend the novel an objective Americentrism. Johnny exemplifies this when he rejects the notion of Zampano’s “foreign-ness” in favor of branding him with a generic American identity with no evidence to spur him on, and through this is participating in a type of cultural erasure similar to that imposed upon the “foreign” native peoples of a colonized space. Any foreign cultural identity Zampano might have had is wiped out by Johnny in an instance of inner-textual revisionist history. As Zampano’s narrative is framed by two other narrators, Johnny and the editors of the “found” texts comprising House of Leaves, information about him is susceptible to “hidden revisions” such as the one made by Johnny on page 12, where he only adds one word – “water” – but makes no editor’s note of it until after the reader has accepted it as canon. This highlights the uncertain nature of Zampano’s personal history by calling all of it into question, since none of it is communicated (to our knowledge) by Zampano himself, while much of Johnny’s background is written by his hand, according to the font. This “reclaiming” of a supposedly foreign individual’s history is a significant detail when considered in parallel to the “reclaiming” of the foreign space of the house by Navidson and his crew.

The novel’s parallels with American colonialism only become more apparent with the explorations of the house. Despite the danger it presents, the group’s devoted explorers still commit to the act of “conquering” the house through mapping it out and in doing so attempt to strip it of its identity as an “unknown” space. The framing of the “unexplored territory” as a house Navidson has just moved into gives a sense of entitlement to the explorations. When the first hallway within the house finally opens up into a wide expanse of darkness that surpasses the limits of Navidson’s understanding of the previous corridors, Zampano makes the statement, “Only now do we begin to see how big Navidson’s house really is” (pg.64). The house is still referred to as “Navidson’s” house, despite him being unable to lay any viable claim to this new space. Navidson didn’t even know that this place existed until this moment, but as soon as he peers into the vast “undisturbed blackness” (pg.64) looming in front of him, in an imperialistic move, Navidson’s narrative claims it as a part of “Navidson’s” house, in spite of not fully comprehending what he can only understand to be a preexisting presence within the house in the form of the “beast”. Navidson sees no other “people” within the unexplored region of the house, and so he assumes the role of pioneer; the first to see the land and thus its rightful “owner”. The other presence felt within the house, that of the “beast”, manifests as a disembodied utterance described as “a faint growl, rolling through the darkness like thunder” (pg. 68). The noise is almost always described specifically as a growling noise, and the animalistic connotations of this lead the reader to believe that it must belong to some beast stalking our explorers. This, along with the characterization of the noise as being naturalistic “like thunder”, gives a distinctly “wild”, or at least “uncivilized” persona to the growl. Whomever, or whatever, is with them in the depths of the house is thus defined as a being of primitive nature. The image of the rugged, male explorer team venturing into an unknown, threatening landscape inhabited only by feral, primitive beings strongly evokes the mythology of the American pioneers. Said, in his work, discusses how Western scholarship of places inhabited by “othered” populations rendered them as inherently inferior beings. This logic is also present in the justifications for colonialism, creating a formula in which the “superior intruder” is meant to dominate and the “irrational native” is to be assimilated or eliminated. This rhetoric plays a crucial role in the novel in establishing a clear historical link between the Navidson explorations and acts of a colonialist or imperialist nature.

The deliberate positioning of the novel and its characters within a distinctly American mindset as well as the parallel between the explorations of the house and those of the American pioneers create a clear parallel with the American Frontier experience, the characters’ fascination with exploring the house mirroring (or perhaps echoing?) the Manifest Destined desires of the American pioneers. If the metaphor wasn’t obvious enough, the novel also throws in offhand information like Johnny’s birthday being July 4th (pg.181) and the recurrence of the colors red (the color of the passages referencing the minotaur myth), white (the color often associated with Johnny’s mental breaks and various characters’ dreams) and blue (the color of the word “house” throughout the novel). In this way, House of Leaves seems to propose the idea that the desire to conquer the unfamiliar does not always lead to glory as the American mythos would have you believe, but can also lead to trauma and loss, as experienced by the characters in the novel. However, it also suggests that the outcome can never be known upon entering unknown territory, just as no light can pierce the darkness in the depths of the house. By having the pioneer figures as our protagonists, we can see a kind of heroism in their actions. Perhaps it is as the great Charles de Gaulle himself once said, and “Greatness is a road leading towards the unknown”.

[1] The Boeing 757 aircraft was a popular passenger aircraft in America during the years of its production from 1981-2004 (Linares, Luis. “Flashback Friday: The Boeing 757.” Airchive. Airways International, 22 May 2015. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.)

[2] “Jamestown Colony.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

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