“While enthusiasts and detractors will continue to empty entire dictionaries attempting to describe or deride it, “authenticity” still remains the word most likely to stir a debate. In fact, this leading obsession—to validate or invalidate the reels and tapes—invariably brings up a collateral and more general concern: whether or not, with the advent of digital technology, image as forsaken its once unimpeachable hold on the truth.”
It is certainly neither ironic nor accidental that the above statement comprises Zampano’s very first sentences of House of Leaves. Obviously enough, the idea of “authenticity” or “credibility” is a reoccurring and almost redundant theme in this book, as the reader soon discovers that he is constantly questioning the truthfulness to the words being read.
Zampano’s narrative begins as it investigates the credibility of the Navidson Record by presenting the opinions of critics and experts, all analyzing the veracity of this film. This all may be very interesting to the reader, had we not already been informed by Johnny Truant that the Navidson Record is undeniably, and without a doubt, completely fabricated. By immediately educating the reader of this fact, Danielewski cleverly places the reader in the intended state of mind: we are instantly skeptical of everything we are about to read.
House of Leaves can be seen as a story about a drug-addicted man obsessively piecing together a dismantled narrative, a synopsis of a film documenting the horrors of a mysterious house, or even a combination of the two. What is certain, however, is that House of Leaves is deliberately designed to operate as a film (or a series of photographs, which ultimately comprise a motion picture film). This book repeatedly questions the authenticity of images in film while simultaneously designed to operate as a film; therefore, by combining these two components this book deliberately draws attention to the lack of credibility of House of Leaves itself.
As mentioned, Danielewski has related much of the content of House of Leaves to films, images, and photographs, including the physical book itself. In doing so, the reader is able to become actively involved in the telling of the story and can take control of how various events should be interpreted. For instance, on the inside cover, before the chance is given to read a single word, a pause sign is displayed. The action of turning the page to begin the novel is the very first indication that the reader has not just begun to read a book, they have pressed the hypothetical play button and have become involved in a book comprised of vivid images, photographs, sounds, and emotions. A pause sign is found on the inside back cover as well, symbolizing the end of the experience. Progressing further into the novel proves this first sign of foreshadowing to be appropriate. Similar to the feelings in which a motion picture film provides its viewer, Danielewski’s use of color, space, font, and placement provides the reader with a multi-sensorial experience not typically found in books. Actions and emotions in House of Leaves are presented in a way that transforms simple words on a page to sights, sounds, and sentiments comparable to those found in a film.
To further investigate the film-like nature of this book, one might refer to the interpretation of the dark labyrinth where much of the narrative takes place. An abundance of blank space surrounds small patches of words, using space to suggest time, and therefore allowing the reader to experience the vastness and impossible size of the house in which they travel. The description of slamming doors allows the reader to determine the speed of such and to provide the sound for the action as he turns the excess of pages. Johnny also often speaks directly to the reader, drawing us in to experience the fear and loneliness that saturates his life. This ability to thoroughly involve the readers into the plot is intentional and effective, and as a result we are put in a position in which we are eager to interpret the questionable events that House of Leaves presents.
When the reader has become aware that he is actively engaged in the middle of a twisted plot, the question of the authenticity of what he is experiencing is certain to come into question. As stated in the first sentence of Zampano’s narrative, “authenticity” is the word most likely to stir a debate, and by immediately presenting this controversial word the reader is coaxed to investigate and debate the meaning of “authenticity” and its relationship to this particular work. Danielewski, or Zampano, or Johnny for that matter, consistently go out of their way in attempt to validate the embedded material with credible facts and support. Hundreds of scholars are cited, the majority of whom are completely fictitious. In excessively citing absurd numbers of made-up scholars and critics, these narrators are testing the readers; they are determining if we are able to look past this façade of extreme detail and intelligence and see House of Leaves for what it actually is: a highly unauthentic sequence of thoughts and images. In the attempt to pretend to validate the facts and opinions quoted, Zampano ultimately, and purposefully, draws attention to the lack of credibility that saturates his work.
William J. Mitchell, one of the few people cited by Zampano who actually exists, has ironically written entire books on the lack of authenticity in film and photography. In investigating this credibility he states, “If we cannot find grounds to conclude that a given image is a true record of a real scene or event, we can take the opposite tack and attempt to demonstrate that it could not be a true record. We can look for inconsistencies—play a sophisticated game of ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’”(Mitchell, 31). Should we take Mitchell’s advice, readers of House of Leaves are supplied with an abundance of reasons why this book should not be trusted, as the book is basically presented as a series of images full of inconsistencies. Readers observe many obvious contradictions throughout the book (as Johnny has repeatedly said “fuck it” and fabricated stories to his convenience), that blatantly present the inconsistencies for what they are. However, additional reasons for doubt are often presented more subtly, such as through Zampano’s interpretation of the Navidson Record.
While House of Leaves is designed to read as a series of images, it is quite appropriate that this book is entirely focused on the events comprising a documentary film, The Navidson Record. Johnny immediately informs the readers that the Navidson Record is a complete work of Zampano’s imagination; therefore causing a great question of the authenticity of the description of the images comprising the film. Even if this fact had not been revealed, the reader must also remember that the extensive details of this bizarre documentary are supplied by a blind man. While Zampano does his very best, and perhaps succeeds, to provide the reader with a vivid interpretation of the Navidson Record, the fact that he writes a book on a motion picture film is absurd. According to Louis Giannetti, a college professor of film, “Artistry can never be gauged by subject matter alone. The manner of its presentation—its forms—is the true content of films and photographs” (Giannetti 8). In relation to this critique, because Zampano interprets the images from a movie (in extreme detail) in his writing, he ultimately creates the true content of the Navidson Record. As a blind man who has never actually viewed the scenes of the movie being described, it is obvious to readers that Zampano has an incredible ability to fabricate images and words from the darkness of his world.
While much doubt accompanies Zampano’s ability to effectively relay the happenings of the Navidson Record, it is reasonable to assume that a blind man was purposely chosen by Danielewski to be the interpreter of the images discussed throughout the book. Perhaps because Zampano does not have his eyesight, he understands more than anyone that images cannot be trusted. In Zampano’s case, moving away from sight may be a virtue instead of a handicap—he fully understands the lack of authenticity in images because he cannot see them, and he relays this idea effectively to the readers. The use of a blind man to describe a motion picture film was yet another intentional development of Danielewski: Zampano educates the reader that even if one is unable to see the images presented, they must still be deemed unauthentic unless proven otherwise.
A perfect example of this exists in Zampano’s interpretation of Navy’s photograph of Delial. The readers are lead to believe that we are going to be presented with an actual image, where we can finally judge the authenticity of the photograph for ourselves. However, while quite unsurprisingly, the “see diagram:” leads to more blank space, surrounded by Zampano’s own narrative explaining the scene. In the corresponding footnote the editors reassure the readers with, “Presumably Zampano’s blindness prevented him from providing an actual diagram of the Delial photograph” (Danielewski 421). According to Giannetti, “Visual artists often use “negative space” to create a vacuum in the image. This creates the sense of something missing, something left unsaid” (Giannetti 38). While this can be interpreted quite literally from the description of the Delial photo as the following: the supposed blank space provided by Navidson in the actual photograph purposefully symbolizes “both his presence and influence” in the picture (Danielewski 421). On the contrary, it can also be believed that this negative space left by Zampano informs us that (obviously) there’s a serious authenticity issue in his interpretation of not only the Delial picture but in House of Leaves as a whole. Navidson also addresses the inconsistencies in his own film and images, as this “esteemed photographer” states, “Funny how incompetent images can sometimes be” (Danielewski 344).
To demonstrate even further how House of Leaves operates as a film, and in doing so, highlights its own lack of authenticity and the lack of authenticity of film/images, the conclusion of this novel must be considered. What the readers are left with is a typical Hollywood ending (films of this type which are more carefully considered in previous chapters), in which readers experience a generally satisfying conclusion to the book. Johnny has seemingly restored much of his sanity, and the members of the Navidson family are still alive, though in a less aesthetically-pleasing appearance. According to Giannetti, there is nothing less authentic than a Hollywood happy ending (Giannetti 63). While this ending of House of Leaves is generally the most satisfying to the readers, it leaves us with the question of whether the Navidson Record was actually a documentary or if it was simply always a Hollywood film in disguise. House of Leaves ends with an unlikely Hollywood ending, reminding the readers that the novel they had just read was one full of deception and fabrication.
By surrounding House of Leaves with questions of authenticity and credibility of written and spoken words and images, Danielewski has not only drawn attention to the underlying theme of this book, but has also succeeded in educating the readers. The lack of authenticity in this book is used to indirectly instruct the reader on that very topic, in that we should be wary of information presented to audiences via books, photographs, and film. Had Danielewski wanted to simply create a book about crazy Johnny Truant, or about Navidson and his family, he could have easily succeeded by writing a novel in a traditional writing style. However, because this novel was meant to represent so much more than the framed stories of several characters, the intentional creative formatting of House of Leaves transformed a book into a series of “images” that operated similar to that of a film. By doing so, Danielewski succeeded in addressing the controversial word of “authenticity” in every aspect of his book, as he intentionally and repeatedly draws the reader back to that idea through the use of his film-like format. As a result, House of Leaves effectively compares the credibility of the content of Zampano and Johnny’s words with the credibility of actual images perceived in the film and photography world. According to Danielewski’s content and design of this novel, image has indeed “forsaken its once unimpeachable hold on the truth” (Zampano 3), as is effectively and continuously portrayed in the unique sequence of written images that comprises House of Leaves.
Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. Pantheon Books: New York. 2000.
Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Movies. Upper Saddle River: New Jersey. 2002.
Mitchell, William J. The Reconfigured Eye: Visual Truth in the Post-Photographic Era. The MIT Press. 1992.