The problem of authenticity is a huge one that persists throughout the novel House of Leaves. The blurring line between what Zampano wrote, what Johnny added, and what an external editor may have changed is constantly tampered with, which can make the book’s content difficult to grasp. Danielewski, however, leaves clues throughout that tell the reader how he or she is meant to read the text. One of these huge helpers is the glossary of terms that appears on page 383, at the end of Chapter 16. Intermixed with many geological terms are eight distinctly linguistic ones. Linguistics is most briefly defined as “the scientific study of language”, which is further broken down in the definition that Danielewski gives in his glossary: the “Study of the structure, sounds, meaning, and history of language” (Language Files). There are many different branches of linguistics, and the terms that Danielewski chooses to include (Diachronic, D-Structure, Linguistics, Morpheme, Semantics, S-Structure, Synchronic, and Trace) span several of them. While these terms may at first seem out of place in House of Leaves, Danielewski includes them as a metaphor to show the reader how the text of the novel was created, and in turn how it should be read.
These linguistic terms appear at the end of a chapter which deals with the scientific analysis of physical pieces of the house. If the novel itself is thought to be the true house of leaves, then it would follow that the linguistic terms should be used to scientifically analyze the pieces of the novel. These terms, both separately and together, have a very important meaning to the field of linguistics, and when applied to the content of the book, provide invaluable insight to the question of authenticity. The confusion with authenticity arises from the manner in which the text was supposedly created: Johnny Truant found, edited, and assembled numerous pieces of a dismantled manuscript written by Zampano. Footnotes by both Johnny and an external editor are also included. Danielewski’s inclusion of linguistic terms and processes as a metaphor, however, brings new light to this. As each term is applied in this paper, it will become clearer that what we get as readers is not Zampano’s manuscript, but rather a twisted version of Johnny’s life story.
The terms D-Structure, S-Structure, and Trace all fall under the category of Syntax, or the study of “how words group together to make phrases and sentences” (Tallerman). There are two different levels at which a phrase or sentence can be described: the deep structure and the surface structure (also referred to as d-structure and s-structure). As Danielewski’s glossary says, the d-structure is “the tree providing a place for words as defined by phrase structure rules” (383). In other words, it is the internal structure of a phrase or sentence, or the meaning and order of the words before any transformational movement is applied. According to linguists, the human brain doesn’t initially think a sentence such as “Where did Johnny go?”. Instead, the sentence “Johnny went where?” is created, as it follows normal word order for sentences, and then processes inside the brain shift everything around to make the sentence grammatically correct for speaking English. Once this shifting occurs, the s-structure appears in the order of the words and phrases that the person speaks or writes. As another example, the sentence “The paper was read” is the surface structure that comes from the deep structure “was read the paper.” The phrase “the paper” must be moved due to certain syntax rules (Cook). While the actual rules are not important for this discussion, it is important to note that the transition from deep structure to surface structure is never random, but rather, there is always a driving force behind it.
When an element of a phrase is moved due to transformational rules in between surface and deep structure, linguists feel that there is a need for something to fill the space that it left behind. This is where the trace comes in. A trace holds the place of the gap that was left by the phrase that moved. In the sentence from the previous paragraph, a trace is left after the verb, showing that in deep structure the phrase “the paper” used to appear afterward. While a trace is obviously not portrayed in speech or writing, it can be shown in linguistics by a lowercase “t” followed by a subscript matching it with the word or phrase it replaces. For example:
Deep Structure: Was read the paper.
Surface Structure: The paperi was read ti
The important part to remember for this discussion is that a trace holds the place of something that was shifted; its real purpose is to show that something used to be there and is there no longer.
These three terms, D-structure, S-structure, and trace, are the most critical part of the metaphor that Danielewski suggests through his glossary. As mentioned before, he placed all of these linguistic terms in juxtaposition with terms that were to be applied to the entire house, suggesting that he meant for these linguistic terms to apply to the entire novel. Perhaps he was pointing out that these terms and processes that occur in linguistics are similar to what has occurred within the novel, and can thus help the reader understand what is really going on. When such an application is performed and the content of the novel is placed in the context of linguistics, it yields an interesting result. A D-structure and S-structure must be identified, as well as the shifts that the deep underwent to generate the surface. Another way to word this is that there must be beginning content (deep structure) that underwent a process which changed it into the content that we see as readers (the surface structure). At first, it may seem obvious that Zampano’s manuscript was the content that was shifted by Johnny to get the version that we read. This is, after all, the story that we are told over and over again by Johnny throughout House of Leaves. He insists that he found the jumbled manuscript after Zampano’s death and he outlines all of the things that changed in his life since he began to reassemble the pieces. Keep in mind, though, that Johnny has been known to lie before, and upon further analysis, it can be seen that this might again be the case here. The abundant links between Johnny’s past and the manuscript that Zampano supposedly wrote suggest that Johnny’s life may in fact be the deep structure. This is quite a big change to the original hypothesis, because it means that Zampano’s manuscript may have never existed at all, and that Johnny singlehandedly twisted his own biography into the final work that we read (the surface structure) as House of Leaves.
On page 12, Johnny openly alerts us that things might not be how they initially seem as he admits to changing one of the details of Zampano’s manuscript arbitrarily. In the passage in question, Karen tells Navy that “the water heater’s on the fritz”, and Johnny follows up with a footnote telling a story about how he did not have hot water that morning. He also notifies the reader, near the end of the same footnote, that this was not pure coincidence, and that he decided to add the word “heater” to Zampano’s manuscript on his own accord. He doesn’t seem to care that this might impact the authenticity of the piece, and does not see any ethical problem in manipulating the text in order to make it more applicable to his own life. In fact, he begins to speak out in an almost hostile way toward any reader who may question his decision to do so.
While the water heater example may seem trivial, there are numerous aspects of Zampano’s manuscript that can be linked to personal events from Johnny’s life. Even entire characters in “The Navidson Record” seem to be very similar to those encountered in Johnny’s earlier years. No character parallel appears more strongly than that between Karen and Johnny’s mother, Pelafina. The relationship between these two is a good example of how Johnny’s life serves as the deep-structure that forms the surface-structure of the novel. Danielewski leaves many clues to tell the reader that Karen and Pelafina are in many ways one character, and that Johnny shifted the latter into the other. For many of these connections the reader must consult The Three Attic Whalestoe Institute Letters in Appendix II (beginning on page 586), which are letters that Johnny received from his mother during her stay at a mental institution.
Johnny’s mother closes one of her letters on pg 599 (in House of Leaves) with “Practicing my smile in a mirror the way I did when I was a child.” This is significantly familiar, perfectly emulating Karen’s behavior as a young girl. “Apparently – if her sister is to be believed – Karen spent every night of her fourteenth year composing that smile in front of a blue plastic handled mirror.” Later on this same page, this smile is referred to as “her creation” with which she deferred the world (58). Both females are using their created smiles to repress something dark from the past; Karen is supposedly trying to cover up her rape, while Johnny’s mother is struggling with the fact that she tried to strangle her son.
In the end of the Navidsons’ narrative, Karen appears with Navy in the front yard. What immediately jumps out is the odd description of Karen here: “a neighbor saw Karen crying on the front lawn, a pink ribbon in her hair, Navidson cradled in her lap” (523). This seems incredibly bizarre (Karen definitely does not seem like the type who would be wearing pink ribbons normally), but when compared to the Attic Whalestoe Institute Letters it begins to make sense. Johnny’s mother, after hearing from Johnny after a long period of silence, wrote to him about her happiness, including the information, “I put pink ribbons in my hair” (599). While Pelafina was so cut off from the outside world, any long period without a letter from her son made her feel like had already lost or was in the process of losing him. When she finally receives word from Johnny, the pink ribbons represent her happiness at realizing that they were figuratively together once again. When Karen and Navy return from within the house, they have more literally just experienced a reunion, and the pink ribbon in Karen’s hair once again represents this.
On page 349, the letters that Karen keeps in her jewelry box are discussed. These letters are supposedly from former (or current) lovers that she has had, and represent her infidelity and the private parts of her life that she attempts to hide from everyone else. At the end of the paragraph describing this, Johnny leaves a footnote that is mostly about his mother, and he describes the locket that she used to wear. Like Karen’s jewelry box, this locket represents what is most important and private for his mother, and it turns out that a letter is also inside. As Danielewski carefully crafted the entire novel, we can be sure that the juxtaposition of this passage and footnote is not a coincidence. The link between Karen and Johnny’s mother is being highlighted once again, and Johnny reveals that he himself is clearly aware of their connection.
As a final assurance that this is a viable hypothesis, Danielewski leaves us another clue. On page 594, Johnny’s mother is gushing in a letter about the vocabulary that he demonstrates in his correspondence. She mentions the word “Changeling”. According to Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, the definition of changeling is “Taken or left in place of another; changed” (“changeling”). Danielewski’s index also holds an entry for the word, directing the reader to the aforementioned reference, as well as to page 49, which appears in Chapter 5, the chapter dealing in part with echoes. The word changeling appears in the footnote, along with references to a locket, a mother, and an only son. Having this reference to both Pelafina and the term changeling once again makes a lot of sense; one character is being changed and left in the place of another.
Johnny’s mother is constantly referring to language within her letters, and commenting on her son’s use of words. When Johnny receives the letter informing him of his mother’s death, the director spells Pelafina’s name wrong at one point, writing “Lievre” as “Livre” (643). This is the French word for book (Cox). Danielewski portrays Pelafina as though she is a book, and as though her character is actually text and language that Johnny is able to manipulate and we as readers are able to consume. This is simply another clue that we are supposed to apply Danielewski’s use of linguistic terms as a metaphor to the book, especially for these two characters in particular. Johnny’s mother can be seen as the deep or “d-structure”, which Johnny shifts into a surface character of Karen. It certainly seems like the two share many characteristics, and Karen has these characteristics, though changed some, only because they belonged to Johnny’s mother. There also seems to be a trace of Johnny’s mother present throughout the novel. She is not entirely removed, but Johnny keeps her there in the background, and her true importance to the story is only realized through her letters in the appendices. Though we may not pick up on these traces initially, Johnny spells it out for us in his journal. On page 502, he leaves an important message. “She is here now. She has always been here.”
Danielewski uses linguistic terms to give insight to content of the novel: Johnny’s life is the deep structure, and what we read is the surface structure. If these syntactic terms are to be correctly applied, however, then a shifting must have occurred, and this shifting never occurs randomly without a reason. There must be rules or reason behind the changes, which are universal and apply to all shifts. In other words, we should be able to find Johnny’s motive in shifting around his past by identifying his motive for manipulating his mother’s character; they should be one in the same.
To strengthen the necessity of analyzing the processes that each part underwent, in addition to the syntactic terms that Danielewski included in his glossary, he also included the word “morpheme”. A morpheme is the smallest unit of a word, and it contains meaning. Many words contain more than one morpheme, for example a root and an affix. For example, in the word writing there is the root “write” and affix “ing”. Affixes add meaning and function to the root word; by the addition of the affix “ing” the word write is changed from a verb to a noun (Language Files). It is clear that Johnny added as well as shifted when he created the character of Karen. It is important to note, however, that there is always meaning and function behind these additions as well as the shifts. By including the term “morpheme” Danielewski points out the additions and poses the questions of why. He also conveniently added additional linguistic terms which direct the reader in how to find the answer.
Why did Johnny do all this shifting and adding? This is realized through synchronic and diachronic analysis of these changes, both of which appear in the glossary on pg 383. Diachronic analysis is analysis of language “across time” while synchronic analysis is looking at language at one specific point, or essentially taking a snapshot of the language at one particular moment in time (Language Files). Why did Danielewski include “synchronic” and “diachronic”? He was highlighting the necessity of both sides and the ways in which readers must look at the novel; both the changes that the content underwent and the various “stages” that it stopped at along the way must be very important. In the field of linguistics, it is well know that language doesn’t change immediately; it is always undergoing new transformations. In the same way, Johnny’s personal analysis and shifting of his own history is constantly changing throughout the novel, along with his mental state. Going back to the example of Karen and Pelafina, one comparison and overview of the two characters would not be sufficient. In order to fully realize what Johnny is doing, we must look at analyzing these changes “across time” while stopping to look at snap-shots along the way.
If we were to take a snapshot of the very beginning of the novel, we would see that the two women seem to share some similarities, for example, the struggle with some sort of mental disorder (Karen has an extreme fear of dark, small spaces) and the practicing of the smile to hide some repressed background. It seems that the first thing that Johnny does is give some of his mother’s qualities to Karen. At this point in time we really don’t have any knowledge of this as readers, because Johnny hasn’t shared anything about his mother with us. Later, with the appearance of the hallway, we see Karen start to really struggle with her mental problems, and she practically snaps a few times when she is yelling at Navy about not going back through the door and into the hallway. Here, we see that Karen has become more like Johnny’s mother, and is starting to lose the battle with her mind. Johnny is also inserting more personal stories and opening up about his background. If we were to take a third snapshot, one as Karen is entering the house in order to try and find Navy, we see Johnny twisting his own history. He is giving strength to Karen that his mother never had. We could go through and look at many, many of these “snapshots”, or synchronic looks at the character of Karen. We also, though, need to look to how Johnny’s dealing with Karen changed from the beginning of the novel to the end.
An important thing to note is that Karen is actually and somewhat surprisingly portrayed as a stronger character. First of all, she is redeemed at the end. She works hard to continue Navy’s work while he returns to the house, and she is able to overcome her mental fears to enter the house and save Navy. This is especially important, because it is something that Johnny’s mother could not do, although he may have wished she could have. Johnny seems to definitely be shifting aspects of the character of his mother around, and in doing so he ends up changing the parts that he himself wishes could have been different about her. As her son, he probably wishes that she could have overcome her disease instead of lost her battle with it, and this is one of the reasons that he allows Karen to overcome her claustrophobia and fear of darkness in the end. When Karen is a victim, such as when she is supposedly raped by her step father, Johnny seems to be struggling with the fact that he was once a victim to his mother’s mental disease. He even tries to deny her trying to strangle him at one point, “But I do know her fingers never closed around my throat.” (517).
In an effort to analyze and change his past, Johnny manipulated the character of his mother and the role that she played in his life. Analysis of the processes that this deep structure underwent shows that Johnny seems to have wanted to change his past, and in this emotion manipulated the facts into the fabrication that we read. If so much of Karen is made up of Johnny’s life, it is very possible that much of the manuscript could have been created in the same way. Johnny reveals throughout his personal narratives that he is a storyteller, and that is essentially what he does through the Navidson Record. “Alternatively, the labyrinth is conjured unknowingly by Truant as a mechanism to reinvestigate his mother and recover his past” (Cox). Johnny recreates his past into something new, and doing so resurfaces old hurt and memories, which cause all of his mental distress that we see.
With so much of Johnny’s past being interlaced throughout the novel, the question becomes whether Zampano’s manuscript ever existed at all. It seems rather unlikely. In a sense, the question of authenticity is then magnified. On the other hand, it is also being resolved. Danielewski uses the linguistics metaphor to explain that the important part is not the end result is not authentic; it’s how the authentic information got to where it is now.