Borges: Influence and References

Mark Z. Danielewski

This young American writer may only have one book to his credit, but it's one hell of a book: House of Leaves.
House of Leaves is essentially a horror novel, but less about things that go bump in the night, and more about the existential dread latent in the tensions between knowing and not knowing, about 3 a.m. anxieties, and about the empty spaces in our awareness and apprehension of ourselves, others, and the world. The novel has strong Borgesian overtones, both in theme and in style, and even features a central character that is loosely based on the Maestro himself. So, a closer look....
House of Leaves has many layers, and like the film The Blair Witch Project, or perhaps a work such as the Encyclopedia of Tlön, it comes pre-fixed in the middle of its own fictional mythology. The book as sold purports to be the revised "second edition" of a work that was originally loosely bound and passed along the Internet-savvy counterculture. The version you are reading has been "professionally edited," binding together the work of two "authors," Zampanò and Johnny Truant.
The bulk of the novel is a critical explication written on the subject of The Navidson Record, a documentary film made about a house with more inner space than is mathematically possible. This "inner book," also called The House of Leaves, is written by one Zampanò, who uses copious footnotes to provide a somewhat pompous sense of academic documentation. These footnotes are largely apocryphal, reminiscent of David Foster Wallace and of course Borges. Indeed, Zampanò himself is a thinly veiled Borges figure, like Eco's Jorge of Burgos or García Márquez' Melquíades. The old writer is blind, has a penchant for old languages, writes lonely poetry, and, like the fictional Borges of "El Alef," counts a "Béatrice" among the great loves of his life. And like Borges, he is fond of mixing real sources and fictional sources in order to provide an academic veneer to his work. (Or is that Danielewki and not Zampanò? Oh, my....) The notations also occasionally veer into the realm of the surreal and the encyclopedic -- In the chapter known (informally) as "The Labyrinth," certain footnotes wind their way around and through the text like twisting worms of pure data, catalogues so comprehensive as to approach an unreadable Gigantism. It is very much a visual labyrinth, an attempt to reflect the internal labyrinth of the house in the story itself. A line from "The Garden of Forking Paths" comes to mind: "No one realized that the book and the labyrinth were one and the same." Indeed, a direct reference to Borges appears in footnote 167 -- which is about the very question of similarities between House of Leaves and its artistic predecessors!

167 In her elegantly executed piece entitled "Vertical Influence" reproduced in Origins of Faith (Cambridge Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996) p. 261, Candida Hayashi writes, "For that matter, what of literary hauntings? Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting, ... many stories by Lovecraft, Pynchon's gator patrol in V., Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths" in Ficciones, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, ...? To say nothing of ... Bill Viola's Room for St. John of the Cross or more words by Robert Venturi, Aldo van Eyck, James Joyce, Paolo Potoghesi, Herman Melville...? To all of it, I have only one carefully devised response: Ptoeey! (House of Leaves, Footnote 167, pg. 131-135. The blue type is as it appears in the text.)

As Zampanò relates the events occurring in the film The Navidson Record -- which is apparently a world-wide phenomenon, generating nearly as much scholarship and commentary as Finnegans Wake -- we as readers are allowed access to the primary story, that of the Navidsons and their eerie home. Zampanò's work was left uncompleted at his death, however, which is an ingenious device for bringing in a third level of narration, Johnny Truant. He's the young man who found the manuscript fragments of The House of Leaves in a trunk, where Zampanò had labored to write it on reams of paper, napkins, envelopes, and anything else he could find. As Truant assembles the work, he adds his own layer of footnotes; perhaps better described as intensely personal digressions. These long passages tell Truant's story, a parallel tale of creeping madness, of alienation, and even the doubt he feels about the whole Zampanò manuscript itself -- in Truant's universe, as in ours, there never has been a film called The Navidson Record! Through his reflections on Zampanò's work, we also see evidence of a very mysterious story revolving around the old man -- Why did Zampanò "make up " this documentary? Why was he writing this book? And of course, What happened to him? The fourth level of narration comes from the "editors," who have taken the work of Zampanò and Truant and bound it in a book, adding supplementary material for this "second edition" which you, the reader, are holding in your hands. And for a final twist, some of that extra material involves a refutation of Truant's introductory claim that Zampanò's sources did not exist.... Wheels within wheels within wheels!
I do believe that Herbert Quain would have been most proud of this work....

Additional Information

House of Leaves Web page -- The far-too sparse official homepage.

Interview with Danielewski -- FlakMagazine talks to Danielewski.

House of Leaves: Points of Issue -- This useful page gets to the bottom of the House of Leaves multi-edition mythos.

TW Books Danielewski Page -- A small page on the author.

The Modern Word's review of House of Leaves -- I wrote a review for the Spiral-Bound newsletter.

House of Leaves - Joycean Influence -- From the Libyrinth's "Brazen Head" site, this entry describes the work from a more Joycean perspective.

Selected Works by Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves
by Mark Z. Danielewski.
Hardcover (March 7, 2000)
Our Price:$32.00. You Save: $8.00 (20%)

House of Leaves
by Mark Z. Danielewski
Paperback (March 7, 2000)
Our Price:$17.95. You Save: $2.00 (10%)

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