Narrative and Technology
House of Leaves as a Reworking of Greek Tragedy
Danielewski’s House of Leaves reworks the classic Greek tragedy through the exploration of the three narrators and their relations to the two recurring myths of the Minotaur and Echo. Much like these myths, their fates are inescapable, and the measures they take to avoid them only expediate their fulfillment.
The main mythological characters that are explored are Minos, Theseus, the Minotaur, Echo, and Narcissus, and each of the narrators (Navidson, Zampano, and Truant), all have aspects of these characters inherent within them. This reflection is similar but different for each of them, much like the idea of the echo within words and literature is explored in the novel.
Navidson’s exploration of his House is essentially an exploration of his self, and through this exploration the existence of the flaws of each mythical character arises. To begin with, Minos exists within him as he builds the labyrinth that is his hallway; at first it is merely an inch that is off within his home and then begins to grow larger and larger, until it is more expansive than the diameter of the Earth. Much as Minos did, this is his distancing of himself from Karen and his children. Chad, especially, ventures further and further from Navidson’s House, just as Navidson ventures further in. As the House is Navidson, the more he becomes absorbed in himself the further his child is from him, just as Minos was absorbed in his own image and distanced himself from a child that did not fit in with his self-conception.
As for Theseus, his connection to Navidson lies in their personalities, which is the necessity of the pursuit. Just as Theseus pursues the minotaur, Navidson hunts down a defining photograph through each of his journeys. However, Navidson is directly tied to the variation on the story of the Minotaur that is expressed through a play in the novel, in which Theseus in fact is killing something misunderstood and beautiful, something that is trapped forever in one moment by a single act (110-111). This is Navidson's Delial. By capturing his prize-winning photograph, he is destroying that which gives his own rise to fame, but unlike Theseus, he is forever haunted by this singular moment for he knew the true beauty of the creature which he was slaying. He is trapped in pursuit from then on, but his pursuit is to define a moment without destroying it. He is still the hunter, but his hunt is self-destruction rather than the destruction of the external.
The Minotaur itself is the idea of the beast, something that is defined as unnatural and undesirable, whether misunderstood or not. For Navidson, this is his repression of his memory of Delial, and he himself is in many ways the beast. He sees all of his own misgivings in the photograph that won him his fame, and cannot separate his success from his failure to save a child. Because of this, he sees himself as the beast, as a killer of children, which is perhaps why he is constantly distant from his own children; he is oblivious to the fact that in so doing he is killing his relationship with them.
From the context of the story of Echo and Narcissus, therefore, Navidson must be viewed as Narcissus. His self-absorption blinds him to what truly is asked of him, and he can only look inwards, into his House, his psyche. Though he does so with the best of intentions, to bring his family further together, he cannot see what they truly require from him, his attention, much the same as Narcissus' inability to give his attention to something other than his own reflection.
This is not to say that Echo isn't a part of Navidson as well, however. Just as Echo was robbed of a voice that she could give through anything other than the repetition of something outside of her, so too is Navidson. His only voice comes through that of his films and photographs, said in the novel to most likely be a result of his distance from his family as a child. Without the context that surrounds it, he does not have a voice, and so anything he shows through his lens is necessarily missing some human aspect. This further depicts the impossibility of his gaining of a normal family; he chooses to film their every interaction in their new House, "just lots of toothpaste, gardening, and people stuff"(8). Even in interviews with him in the novel, it is prefaced with them being included in his film.
Zampano's characteristics are more hidden than Navidson's or Truant's, as he never truly has a voice within the novel. Instead, his voice is expressed in what parts of Navidson's film he chooses to create an account of as well as what others have to say about him.
However, just as Navidson does, he creates his own labyrinth, and so shares a similar tie to Minos. He builds around him a comprehensive study of everything having to do with Navidson's film and personal life, replacing his own personal life with one that only involves others when he needs books read or pictures explained to him regarding Navidson. As he is blind, his labyrinth is the world he builds for himself regarding The Navidson Record, an impenetrable mass of knowledge that bends back upon itself and has no straight path through it. This can be seen in his footnotes, constantly doubling back upon themselves and forcing old thoughts back to the surface, overlapping and complicating the knowledge he has.
The trait of pursuit also lies within Zampano, but his does not seek out a singular moment to define and reconcile all as Navidson does. Instead, he attempts to find every single detail that can be explored in Navidson's work, and keeps seeking more and more minutia so that there is an endless ammount of knowledge to be gained with no clear ending. It seems as though he continued actively pursuing this knowledge until his final moments. Though Truant describes this as his graphomania, it is more an obsession with the acquisition of knowledge, or more appropriately, an obsession with the act of acquiring knowledge.
Zampano's relation to Narcissus is more of a forced one, as he has no choice but to look towards himself due to his lack of vision. However, unlike Narcissus, he does not look at his physical appearance, but rather his mental one, exploring his own affliction through Navidson's film. His focus on the blackness that Navidson explores is a personal one, as he is constantly surrounded by darkness himself, and it becomes an obsession that consumes him. Just as Narcissus became blind to the world around him (besides his own reflection), Zampano becomes doubly blind; he is blind to the fact that he is consumed by his work and no longer sees any aspect of life besides the work that he ceaselessly pursues.
It is in this way that Echo is embodied within Zampano as well. By looking through Navidson's work and trying to repeat it in some way, he is forced to only speak through someone else's voice, someone else's vision. Also, as the idea was explored in the novel, Zampano seems to realize this, and attempts to demonstrate that even through perfect repetition, a different meaning is conveyed as shown in footnote 49 of his work (42). He cannot escape this however, just as Echo was cursed to only speak the end of others' sentences and thoughts. Instead of an outside curse though, he has cursed himself, but still cannot escape his need to speak through Navidson's work.
Truant also shares the traits of these mythological characters, beginning with Minos. The labyrinth that he builds begins with his discovery of Zampano's trunk, and he is immediately faced with the choice as to whether or not he should pursue its contents. Just as Minos first had to make the choice to hide his deformed son, Truant makes the choice to explore its contents, and so begins his labyrinth and his own descent into it. Unlike Minos, he is in fact burying himself within his labyrinth, or rather, his own inner self. It is revealed throughout the novel that he is a compulsive liar, and never truly reveals his innermost self to those around him, hiding it behind substances and false stories of glory. Through the exploration of Zampano's trunk, he begins to truly explore himself, and so reveals his own problems to his readers. As a consequence of discovering what is inside of himself, he loses all interactions outside of himself. He is effectively burying himself within his own labyrinth; his inner self is his Minotaur.
This can be further explained in his relationship to Theseus, as he is in pursuit of his inner self that he has repressed over the years. He hunts this self through Zampano's work, and explores the labyrinthine pages of the trunk until he can find what it is that has defined him over the years; he hunts this down to the point of obsession. However, this trait of pursuit also goes into his relationships with others. Both he and Lude are in constant pursuit of various women, and one in particular becomes an obsession for Truant: Thumper. Thumper is the princess that Theseus wishes to obtain by slaying the Minotaur. Truant delves further and further into the depths of Zampano's work, trying to find himself, in some attempt to remove his issues so that he can obtain Thumper. Their first true encounter involves a conversation about Truant's work with Zampano's trunk, and so their relationship is inherrently tied to his hunt. Just as Theseus' princess gave him a means to escape the labyrinth with a string to guide him, Thumper gives Truant his own lifeline throughout the novel by her phone calls in which she asks Truant to come back into the outside world. However, Truant eventually abandons this lifeline and becomes lost in his own labyrinth.
In all of the above ways Narcissus is inherrent in Truant. His entire existence is focused in himself, even before he begins his exploration of Zampano's work and his own troubles. All of his narratives are focused on himself and the effect that outside influences have on him, and his focus on his inner self becomes stronger and stronger as the novel progresses. He eventually cannot escape his own self-examination, and so is entirely self-centered just as Narcissus was. As in Narcissus' case, Echo is the various aspects of society trying to pull him back from his self-absorption, however these attempts only work to lead him further within himself.
All three of the narrators become trapped inside their own labyrinths, the ones which they create for themselves. In many ways they are tied together, and arguably the same character embodied by their similar traits and flaws. Each is given a way out of their labyrinth, whether it be Navidson's family, Zampano's knowledge that an outside world is possible despite his blindness, or Truant's calls from Thumper. However, each of them eventually ignores this possibility, and so are trapped forever within their personal labyrinths. Just as in Greek tragedies, they are doomed to their fate by their own character, despite whatever possibility of escape from their destruction.
All page references are from House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, published in 2000 by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, inc.