House of Leaves: Decoding Pelafina’s letter to Johnny (pgs 620-623)

In the back of the House of Leaves, following footnote #78 on pg. 72 to Appendix II-E., there are dozens and dozens of pages of letters to Johnny from his mother, Pelafina, who is writing her son from a mental institution. Over the course of her letters, her mental illness (schizophrenia?) intensifies, along with a chief symptom of her mental illness: paranoia.

On page 619, her letter to Johnny reads:

“Dear, dear Johnny, 

Pay attention: the next letter I will encode as follows: use the first letter of each word to build subsequent words and phrases: your exquisite intuition will help you sort out the spaces: I’ve sent this via a nigh nurse: our secret will be safe.

Tenderly,
Mom”

(Notice the misuse of colons. I think its safe to say the breakdown in punctuation symbolizes or tracks the breakdown in her mental health. The letters that follow this one, including the coded one I am about to decode, display a total breakdown in proper punctuation, grammar, and epistolary structure.)

The following letter, decoded, is as follows:

My Dearest Johnny,

               They have found a way to break me.  Rape a fifty-six year old bag of bones.  There is no worse and don’t believe otherwise. 

The attendants do it.  Others do it.  Not every day, not every week, maybe not even every month.  But they do it.  Someone I don’t know always comes when it’s dark.  Late.  I’ve learned not to scream, screaming gave me hope and unanswered hope is shattered hope.  Think of your Haitian.  It is far saner to choose rape than shattered hope.  So I submit and I drift. 

I let caprice and a certain degree of free association take me away.  Sometimes I’m still away long after it’s done, after he’s gone-the stranger, the attendant, the custodian, the janitor, cleaning man, waiting main, dirty MAN-the night tidying up after him. 

I’m in hell giving into heaven where I sometimes think of your beautiful father with his dreamy wings and only then do I allow myself to cry.  Not because your mother was raped (again) but because she loved so much what she could never have been allowed to keep.  Such a silly girl.

You must save me Johnny.  In the name of your father.  I must escape this place or I will die.

                                             I love you so much.  You are all I have.

P.”

Is she actually being raped? Are her paranoid fantasies and hallucinations getting the best of her? Is she lying in a last ditch effort to be taken out of the hospital? We do not know… But imagine being in Johnny’s position…

House of Leaves, Chapters 1-5: Fractured Narrative.

Recently, me and a couple of close friends discovered House Of Leaves, a 600 some odd page novel, and decided to read it together in a small book club. After reading the introduction and the first four chapters, I’ve decided to blog about the book. So this entry will be the first of multiple short essays investigating aspects of the book that I find particularly interesting. I am not interested, however, in summarizing the book, just in analyzing or exploring parts of it.

The first thing you notice when you get your hands on this book, and begin flipping through it, is the radically strange structure of it: hundreds of footnotes (some extending for multiple pages), photos and sketches in color, entire paragraphs written backwards so that the only way to read it is by holding it up to a mirror, entire pages with only a sentence, a word, or even just a letter occupying them, and the word “house” always in blue ink, even when written in another language. In short, the book is fucking weird. And that weirdness only amplifies the creepy, unsettling story found within its pages. In some ways its reminiscent of Infinite Jest: a behemoth of a novel with multiple intricate, overlapping narratives, footnotes, appendixes, etc. Both books are postmodern and both were written in the 90’s. But perhaps that’s where the similarities stop. The stories themselves are very different. Infinite Jest was a deep and sad examination of American society, and the people who populate it, at the turn of the 21st century, while House of Leaves is a labyrinthine horror story about a family moving into an old and secluded 18th century house.

Either way, the point of this blog entry is to discuss the fractured narrative of House of Leaves, and how it effects the reader.

The novel takes the form of a book written about a film by a recently deceased elderly man. The book is then discovered by a young man living in L.A. as he helped a friend clean out (or, rather, go through) the elderly man’s apartment after his death. Soon the young man, named Johnny, descends into a dark obsession with the book, which gives rise to some psychological issues which, in turn, seem to be increasing in intensity. But while the main story is the book written about the film by the old man, Johnny inserts long footnotes explaining parts of the book, the original author, and his own experiences as he delved deeper into the very story we, the readers, are now delving into. This complicated web of narrators, and meta-narration leads back to us, the readers, as Johnny often breaks the fourth wall and addresses us directly (even making wry making puns for us and immediately becoming self-conscious about it!).

So, in short, the reader finds themselves reading a story about a film, presented to us by a narrator who played no part in the creation of either the book nor the film, and appears to be slowly descending into madness. Additionally, dialogue occurs between the characters within in the film itself, which is recorded in the book being written about said film, adding another wrinkle of narrative. Consequently, we are constantly being ripped from one level of narration and forced into another without warning, then plunged back into the initial narration, only to be pulled out again, addressed as the reader, then tossed back into the Johnny’s second-level narration; then we are led to a footnote referencing a scholarly article which attempts to analyze the film that is being referenced in the book written by the old man about the film! Its as dizzying and it is exhilarating.

The effect this has is one of self-consciousness;  you are unable to dissolve yourself into any one level of narration fully, and are therefore reminded of yourself *as the reader*; and so the structure of the book begins to structure the way that the reader relates to him/herself.

But fractured narrative aside, the quality of the literature itself is dazzling. Here are some snippets I especially enjoyed:

“…So I renewed my kisses with even greater enthusiasm, caressing and in turn devouring their dark lips, dark with wine and fleeting love, an ancient memory love had promised but finally never gave, until there were too many kisses to count or remember, and the memory of love proved not love at all and needed a replacement which our bodies found, and then the giggles subsided, and the laughter dimmed, and darkness enfolded all of us and we gave away our childhood for nothing and we died and condoms littered the floor and Christina threw up in the sink and Amber chuckled a little and kissed me a little more, but in a way that told me it was time to leave.”

and:

“When confronting the spatial disparity in the house, Karen set her mind on familiar things while Navidson went in search of a solution.  The children, however, just accepted it. They raced through the closet. They played in it. They inhabited it. They denied the paradox by swallowing it whole. Paradox, after all, is two irreconcilable truths. But children do not know the laws of the world well enough yet to fear the ramifications of the irreconcilable.  There are certainly no primal associations with spatial anomalies.”

So, not only is the book a dizzying, complex web of postmodern meta-narration (a story about a book about a film); its also a wonderful achievement of literary fiction; the prose often teetering on the edge of poetry.

This is not for the weak of heart/mind; or, as the book says on its first page, “This Book Is Not For You” (me?).

Hm.