Borges posed the question that Danielewski seeks to ask again: How does he do that? By being himself.
“…truth, whose mother is history, who is the rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future.” – Ed. (43)
It is clear through a comparison of “Pierre Menard Author of the Quixote” and House of Leaves, that the later Danielewski was heavily influenced by Borges and sought to advance his work into the questionable future of the 21st century. Borges used footnotes and a heavy academic language in his short story, and while the Navidson Record sections of House of Leaves play and expand at this, they also counter Borges’s clarity with footnotes upon footnotes, and colorful narration upon academic narration. Responsible for the chief differences between the two works is Johnny Truant’s presence in HOL. Johnny Truant serves the purpose that Borges himself identifies, “Unfortunately, only a second Pierre Menard, inverting the other’s work, would be able to exhume and revive those lost Troys…” The lost Troys inspire visions of The Illiad, arguably the literature upon which all literature is built. By asking the same questions that Borges asked, and asking them again through Johnny, Danielewski attempts to ask the age old question in a novel way: how to approach truth through literature in an uncertain past, present and future – the same uncertainty that has affected so many others and has been pondered so many times.
Zampanò seems to some a Borges-like figure, though not a copy. As one website notes,
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.
I would agree with this comparison, though noting the differences between Borges and Zampanò is probably also useful. Where Borges was successful, Zampanò died unpublished. Where, at least in Pierre Menard, Borges dealt with the real work of Cervantes, Zampanò deals with the faux fantasy/documentary that is The Navidson Record. Perhaps, in the face of such literary giants as Borges referencing Quixote, Danielewski sees the opportunity to comment on his own difficulty living up to such legends.
From the words of Johnny: “Here’s the point: the more I focused in on the words the farther I seemed from my room” (43). Zampanò projects Johnny out of his comfort zone and into the unknown. Johnny has been reading the complex manuscripts of Zampanò, and usually he cares about what the old man has to say and expands upon them in logical if extreme parallels. But sometimes the words, or memories of them, produce a moment of paralyzing existential dread in Johnny. Later on page 43: “…leaving me no sound way to determine where the hell I’m going, though right now going to hell seems like a pretty sound bet.”
It would be worth noting here that Mark Danielewski’s father, Tad, was a filmmaker who perhaps most famously directed a version of Sartre’s No Exit, a/the literary icon of existentialism. I reason that HOL deals with several autobiographical issues then. Zampanò the intellectual father of Johnny/ Tad the father of Mark/ but also Borges, and literary icons like him, as the intellectual fathers of Mark.
So, even though it may not be clear enough yet, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which at its core is a love story according to the author, can be looked at as an examination of the influences that keep us going in the face of struggle – what forces bring us up and down. As Danielewski recounts in a YouTube video dedicated to HOL: the story of people’s experience with the book that sticks with him most is that of a father, whose daughter attempted suicide and failed. When she woke up her father asked what he could do for her, and she asked for a copy of House of Leaves. - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9mbd3a5AHU
So yes, HOL is both a horror story and a love story, but it’s also a story about why we try things again, in the face of disappointment (wherever it comes from), in search of closeness and personal acceptance.