Thursday, April 16, 2009

Deep and Surface in House of Leaves

In House of Leaves, the structure of the novel itself creates a major problem for authenticity. The reader is apparently presented with Johnny’s compilation of Zampano’s manuscript, with footnotes by Johnny and another editor added throughout. The lines between what and when Johnny is editing becomes increasing unclear throughout the novel with questions of authorship and editing arising throughout.

At the end of Chapter 16 in House of Leaves, on page 383, Danielewski leaves the reader with an almost seemingly out of place Glossary of Terms. Intermixed with many geological terms are eight distinctly linguistic ones. Linguistics is most briefly defined as “the scientific study of language” (Bergmann). This is broken down more in the definition that Danielewski gives in his glossary: the “Study of the structure, sounds, meaning, and history of language.” 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. These linguistic terms appear at the end of a chapter which deals with the scientific analysis of pieces of the house. If the novel itself is thought to be the true house of leaves, then it would follow that the 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. As we apply each term, it will become more clear that what we get as readers is not Zampano’s manuscript, but rather a twisted version of Johnny’s life story.

D-Structure, S-Structure, and Trace 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 of sentences 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, the meaning and order of the words before any transformational movement is applied. Once this shifting occurs, the s-structure appears. When a person speaks, the order of words and structure of the phrase is the s-structure. For an example, the sentence “The paper was read” is the surface structure that comes from the deep structure “was read the paper.” The determiner phrase “the paper” must be moved due to certain syntax rules (Cook). When an element of a phrase is moved due to transformational rules in between surface and deep structure, there is a need for something to fill the space that it left behind. This is where the trace comes in. In the sentence from the previous paragraph, a trace is left after the verb, showing that in deep structure the object of the verb 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.

Deep Structure: Was read the paper.
Surface Structure: The paper(1) was read t(1)

Deep Structure: The concert is when?
Surface Structure: When(1) is(2) the concert t(2) t(1)?

The real purpose of traces is to show that something used to be there, but what once was there is not any longer, and has moved.

When these three terms are applied to the novel, they yield an interesting result. A D-structure and S-structure must be identified, as well as the shifts that the deep underwent to yield the surface. 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. However, upon further analysis, it can been seen that Johnny’s life is more fittingly the deep, and the final work that we read is the surface.
On page 12, Johnny Truant openly alerts us that things might not be what they 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 talking 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. He doesn’t seem to care that this might impact that 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.

While the water heater example may seem quite trivial, there are numerous aspects of Zampano’s manuscript can be linked to personal events from Johnny’s life. Even 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. Danielewski leaves many clues to tell the reader that they are in many ways one character, or 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 ends 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, identically 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 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 trying (supposedly, assuming once again that her “sister” can be believed) 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, because Karen definitely doesn’t seem like the type who would be wearing pink ribbons normally. When compared to the Attic Whalestoe Institute Letters, however, it begins to make sense. Johnny’s mother, after hearing from Johnny after a long period of silence, wrote to him about her happiness. Included in this was the information “I put pink ribbons in my hair” (599). While Johnny’s mother was so cut off from the outside world, any long period without a letter from her son made her feel like she had already lost or was in the process of losing him. When she finally hears from him, 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 ribbons in Karen’s hair once again represent 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. They were clearly important to Karen and represent the private part of her life, hidden 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 his mother 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 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 lock, 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”. 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. 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 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.”

If these syntactic terms are to be applied, then a shifting must have occurred, and this shifting never occurs randomly for no reason. There must be rules or reason behind the shift itself, and we can see this is Johnny’s motive for changing his mother’s character. 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. In the word writing there is the root “write” and affix “ing”. Affixes add meaning and function to the root word (Bergmann). 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.

Why did Johnny do all this shifting and adding? This is realized through synchronic and diachronic analysis of these changes. 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 (Bergmann). Why did Danielewski include these two terms? Both the changes that the content underwent and the various “stages” that it stopped at along the way must be very important. Language doesn’t change immediately; it is always changing. In the same way, Johnny’s analysis and shifting of his own personal history is constantly changing throughout the novel, along with his mental state. One character comparison and overview of Karen and Johnny’s mother 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. At the same time, Johnny does feel like his mother has saved him, and he mentions the power that her letters had over him. Much like Karen is the unlikely one to rescue Navy from the house, Johnny’s mother is an unlikely candidate to rescue him from the outside world.

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. 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. While the credibility of some of the narratives during the Navidson Records is questionable due to insertions by Johnny, Johnny doesn’t directly admit to creating the entire story himself. This may very well be the case, however. “Alternatively, the labyrinth is conjured unknowingly by Truant as a mechanism to reinvestigate his mother and recover his past” (Cox). With so much of Johnny’s past be interlaced throughout the novel, the question becomes whether Zampano’s manuscript ever existed at all.


Bergmann, Anouschka, Kathleen C. Hall, and Sharon M. Ross, eds. Bergmann: Materials for an Introduction to Language and Linguistics. 10th ed. Columbus: The Ohio State UP, 2007.

"changeling." Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. MICRA, Inc. 13 Apr. 2009. .

Cook, Vivian, and Mark Newson. Chomsky's Universal Grammar. Grand Rapids: Blackwell Limited, 2007.

Cox, Katharine. (2006) “’What has made me?’ Locating Mother in the Textual Labyrinth of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.” Critical Survey XVIII, I

"Karen+Quesada+Molino = Questions [Archive]." MZD Forums: House Of Leaves. 15 Apr. 2009 .

Tallerman, Maggie. Understanding Syntax (Understanding Language). New York: A Hodder Arnold Publication, 2005.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

The introduction seems a little bit easy or a little bit obvious, especially if it's intended as a statement of your argument; you want to have more focus, if this is your main area of interest (maybe on the consequences or meaning of this struggle with authenticity?)

The second paragraph is genuinely interesting and provocative, if maybe a little over-compressed; a separate paragraph briefly articulating your real main argument (replacing your existing introduction) might be in order.

Your introductory discussion of d-structure, s-structure, and traces is interesting but confusing. A little more space (and a clearer structure) dedicated to your main terms would be helpful.

Your application of these structures *to the novel as a whole* seems brilliant, but also insufficiently justified - there's a missing transition here.

Let me skip from that thought into some thoughts on the paper as a whole. Somewhat to my surprise, it ended up being a paper fundamentally about how Johny is reworking his own life into HOL, and specifically transforming his mother into Karen. This argument, taken strictly by itself, is good and detailed.

The thing that I struggle with throughout (note that not all struggle is bad, or a problem) is that it seems to me that your essential move is to take the linguistic terms you began with as a kind of metaphor; implicitly, you're arguing that the transformations Johny is working, or that D is working, are analogous to the transformations that interest you in linguistics, and that appear in the book.

This is all quite good, and credible - but I'm left uncertain about whether this is really a paper fundamentally about Karen and Johny's mother, or whether you're trying to make an assertion (as yet not fully articulated) about the deep meaning or significance of linguistics to the book.

To put it simply: are you (and D) using linguistics as a metaphor (perhaps a metaphor for metaphor itself)? Or are you making a more precise, technical claim about what D is up to?