Johnny Truant’s mind is turning on itself. Through his journal entries, we see Johnny forget what he does for months at a time, attempt to lie to himself as he grows weaker and more insane. He creeps close to ending not only his own life, but imagines committing murder as well. The Navidson Record possesses him; he searches for its meaning and a trace of its reality across the country. He has become so deeply entangled with its fiction that he seems to give up his will to live. The darkness of the halls in the house constantly surround him and cloud his vision. Jimmy Corrigan is unable to escape his fantasies as well. He lives in a world filled with daydreams that leave the awkward and lonely reality of his life behind. He cuts himself off from the world with these fantasies, cuts himself off from the only chance he has at connecting with family. Stumbling through life and saying very little, Jimmy’s isolation stems from the same behavior that Johnny’s does (along with Navidson and Zampano, for that matter): reality has been overtaken with obsessive illusion. The parallels lie not only within the characters, but are outwardly expressed in the pages of their stories, turning the illusion, ironically, into a very tangible reality that can change the way we view illusion entirely outside of fictional universes.
Will Navidson’s house is the clear catalyst of the illusions that characters feel in House of Leaves. We can understand the first-degree psychological consequences by first looking at Will Navidson himself, and his interesting relationship with the place. As noted early in the book, Will’s childhood has a great impact on his identification with the darkness and depth of the place: he identifies with the absence felt when left practically orphaned, the absence that the halls of the house embody in their ashen walls and windless corridors. Because he identifies so closely with the house, Will begins to develop almost an obsession with it. He leaves behind the realities of his family and risks his life to try to understand the house. In Aguirre’s analysis of closed spaces in the horror genre, he looks specifically at labyrinths in one section, explaining that a prisoner within the labyrinth with either escape or submit: it “is something to get out of – or to submit and adapt to” (Aguirre, p 54). Rather than escaping, Navidson wishes to explore and stay, to try to live within a deathly environment. He is becoming one with the illusion as he is drawn to it. On his final return – Exploration # 5 – Navidson is unlike any of the other characters as he feels he must go back. Whether it is due to a motivation to possess, a motivation to self-punish, or the psychological after-effects of his earlier explorations, Navidson had grown too attached to the darkness and absence that the house provided. He could not re-enter into reality because he was too wrapped up in the illusions that the house created by surrounding him with an absolute silence and darkness in which he could create a final judgment for himself and an escape from the world of Delial and the fame she brought on him.
If it was escape reality that Navidson imagined within the house, the illusions of The Navidson Record almost seemed to entrap Johnny Traunt. He spiraled deeper and deeper into illusion as his life began to revolve completely – in waking and sleeping – around Zampano’s writing and the mysterious house. Obsession brought paranoia, extreme fear, near starvation. He no longer talks to those who once mattered to him – Lude dies in his absence – and he loses the ability to care even for himself. Like Navidson, Johnny is obsessed with the house and its mysterious power. It has the ability to exist where it shouldn’t be able to exist, it can take lives and change its shape at will. As I mentioned above, it was the emptiness of the house that drew Navidson to it. Johnny was perhaps drawn to the house because of its ability to shift and move. He’s spent a lot of his time with Lude creating a world and a life from his own imagination – shifting his past and to change his present. The book he finds left behind by Zampano creates a different kind of escape and, while it brings him close to death, it also takes him away from the harshness of his own reality. Own one hand, this rejection of reality and obsession with the house on Ash Tree Lane connects him to both Navidson and Zampano. We can even see points where the connection becomes so strong that parts of Zampano’s story exist in Johnny’s world: after discovering others have read his compilation of Zampano’s work (which in and of itself is an instance where The Navidson Record seems real), Johnny goes to the park to sleep and “stretched out beneath an old ash tree” (Danielewski, p 514). Johnny buys the gun Holloway wielded to protect himself from the ‘monster’ within the house. He believes his own house will begin to expand and shrink as the Navidson’s did, and obsessively measures the dimensions of his apartment. The lines separating reality and fantasy, separating one world from another, are clearly blurred. Even if Johnny isolates himself from his friends and co-workers, he is connected to the other levels of Danielewski’s novel through his obsession with illusion; connected both psychologically and physically.
The impact of choosing illusion over reality can also be seen clearly in Jimmy Corrigan, where Jimmy is constantly fantasizing about his world, but living only through fantasy and very much ignoring the reality of his life. Jimmy’s character is derived from the world of over-analyzing, as he tends to analyze to the point where he imagines and dreams up scenarios for most of his life, creating a constant mix of fantasy and reality for the reader. Looking at his life from every angle, Jimmy creates in his head a diagram of possibilities – he imagines himself a hero at some times, a murderer at others, a lover, a husband, but never the role he acts out in reality. Like Navidson, Jimmy hides his true self in darkness: for Navidson, this darkness was found within the house; for Jimmy it is found in his silence as he simply observes the world around it and chooses not to interact. These actions prove to be isolating for Jimmy, as he misses a chance to bond with his father and sister, to better understand his past. One place where we can clearly see a missed opportunity to connect with others is with Amy. By staying together and attempting to understand their history, Amy and Jimmy could have created a more human connection with each other in the present: “Jimmy’s disappearance is a tragic failure of family reconciliation” (Ball, 2010) for both characters. If the past is emphasized, Jimmy fails to realize its importance to his and Amy’s present because of his inability to remain in the present. The fear and paranoia Jimmy feels because of his tendency to over-analyze his world and imagine all possible outcomes (often with focus on the bad) is literally preventing him from creating connections in reality. Even an examination of Chris Ware’s comic style blurs the lines between reality and illusion: in David Ball’s analysis, he looks at the fact that Ware’s work falls somewhere between “illusionism” and “realism” (Ball, 2010). Rather than showing us the gritty images of realism, Ware’s drawings are able to show the emotions that realism can’t. This allows us to better see Jimmy’s feelings and thoughts, the fantasies he holds in his head that we wouldn’t understand or see in realism. This fact shows us more about Jimmy Corrigan’s character, and shows how impossible it is to rely on even the author to create a clear distinction between fantasy and reality for the reader. Jimmy Corrigan is lost in fantasy, isolated from others, and leaves the reader just as confused in trying to distinguish between the reality and illusion as well.
By comparing the psychological impact this mental state and obsession with fantasy and escape has on the characters in these books we can see how connected the characters really are. To understand the underlying psychology of how reality and illusion are formed, it is important to first look at the concept of ‘reality’ in general: how we define reality is very subjective – reality differs immensely from one subject to another. Looking at the overlap of personal realities is where Emmanuel Cassimatis develops his ideas about the ability of reality to both isolate and connect people. He talks about the subjectivity of reality, saying “Each one of us lives in his/her own reality, that is, experiences perceptions, feelings, and events in life as real” (2000). The mind of each individual is then reflected in the reality that he perceives around him, unlike any other’s realities completely, but similar in very important ways. When realities overlap, they become more accepted. Cassimatis refers to this overlapping of realities as sharing, and explains that “This sharing validates, and often adds meaning to our personal reality… But again, does sharing by itself make a reality more real?” (2000). What one person sees as a private reality might be perceived by others as illusion or fantasy. In this context, it is much harder to see someone like Jimmy Corrigan or Johnny Truant as mentally unstable; perhaps their ‘illusion’ is a reality that most cannot perceive.
If one individual differs greatly in his perception of what is real, as, for example, Johnny Truant does, they are seen as mentally incapable or unstable. This is where some of the foundations of mental illness come from. There was some discussion about the possibility of mental illness as a diagnosis for Jimmy Corrigan because of his very awkward, anti-social, and isolated behavior. He tends to avoid the world we see as normal reality, instead retreating to his own fantasies. These could be a reflection to the reality he finds within his own mind, not seen by anyone else and therefore very difficult to accept as the truth. The fact that these fantasies are such a large part of his life and no one else’s isolate him from other, prevent connections with those he should be closest to. Johnny Truant’s life seems to fall into disrepair and some might argue he has developed a mental illness from his depression as well. By understanding that his reality has become The Navidson Record, it’s clear this has isolated him from the rest of the world because he is no longer able to share the connection of understanding the reality of others as his own. This analysis of how mental illness develops shows that these characters who seem mentally ill should not be seen as incapable of higher mental functions or socialization. They are not less intelligent than those we perceive to be mentally healthy, but these characters’ realities have shifted from the norm. They live in a world that comes from their own minds, rather than sharing the world many others do.
One major consequence for the projection of the mind into reality in these novels is the structure of the novels themselves. We can look first at House of Leaves, where the architecture of the novel seems almost entirely dependent on what is happening within the story and the minds of the characters. Simply reading the book creates a maze of words. Footnotes reference each other and other sections of the book entirely, the narrative is often scattered throughout the pages, especially during Explorations 4 and 5, where Holloway and his team and then Navidson in turn try to either conquer or understand the house. Certain passages are reflective of the literal physical details of the story, like the sudden scattering of individual words across the page as Jed’s skull is shattered (and his hopes to escape with his life along with it) (194-205), or the climbing of Navidson up the stairs in the depths of the house reflected by the arrangement of words in a way that forces the reader to carefully climb up the page, reading in an almost backwards arrangement of sentences (440-441). Caroline Hagood looks at the architecture of House of Leaves in-depth and the fact that “Danielewski's novel also has an innovative, obviously architectural textual layout that corresponds to its plot and mimics the labyrinthine structure of the house itself,” (Hagood, 2012). She describes the fact that the design and unconventional presentation of the narrative creates the connection between the different characters within the book. We watch Johnny’s life become immersed in House of Leaves by literally reading his autobiographical footnotes within Zampano’s story, often interrupting it and occasionally changing it to fit his own desires. Zampano and Johnny are connected purely by a fictional story, but the consequences of this fiction create a real connection between the two as Johnny becomes more and more immersed in Zampano’s book and life. As Hagood points out, “This suggests that the labyrinth at the heart of the novel is not only a single location that the characters explore, but also a trope for the intricate structural composition of the narratives of each of the "authors," including Truant, Zampano, Danielewski, Navidson, and even Navidson's wife, Karen” (2012). The structure of the novel is both reflective of the internal action of the novel and serves as a way to connect the characters more physically to one another.
This raises an interesting point: I said earlier in an examination of the psychological theories about reality that a common reality was a way to connect different people (or characters) to one another. The structure of the book clearly serves a similar purpose by creating physical connections. If these two details together are what establish connection between Navidson, Zampano, Johnny, and others, this shows that the architecture in House of Leaves is really a reflection not only of the physical happenings within the story but a manifestation of the mental processes for the characters. The realities that exist within the minds of the characters are truly reflected in their surroundings as the book takes on the characteristics of these realities. The idea of reality and illusion does not just exist within the minds of characters, but within the pages of the book itself, creating illusions for the reader as well. A book composed of internal thoughts is not only a maze in and of itself, but creates a sense of mistrust, as every whim of a characters mind could be reflected in the story. At one point, Johnny points out that he decided to add a word to the story (changing “heater” to “water heater”) in order to properly segue into his footnote. It’s impossible to guess what other words, phrases, or pages Johnny could have changed. He restores sections Zampano wanted crossed out for the purpose of preserving what Zampano left behind, but in doing so he creates fundamental changes in the story. We can’t take Zampano’s work for the truth either, despite the fact that Johnny eventually comes to see it that way. The careful footnotes and references Zampano makes are entirely a reflection of his own mind, and probably of the reality that exists within it. The dark world that his blindness forced him into could have brought about the creation of a story revolving around darkness and absence. In the end, the world created by the narrators in House of Leaves is built from the labyrinth of their minds, leaving the reader wondering where the line can be drawn between reality and fantasy.
The line between those two is just as blurry in Jimmy Corrigan. Ware constantly shifts between Jimmy’s fantasy and Jimmy’s reality, with hardly any transition to distinguish between the two. At one point we even realize that Jimmy’s fantasies can have a physical impact on reality. He wakes up after dreaming of himself as a robot to find himself with the crutch from his dream and an unexplained broken foot. In Bredehoft’s analysis of Architecture, Multidimensionality, and Time within Jimmy Corrigan, he looks especially closely at the cut-outs that appear in two places within the story. He writes that these cut-outs show the way the book manipulates our normal conceptions of narrative flow and time. By doing this, they manipulate the very structures that hold reality together, bringing the whole book physically closer to illusion. They are certainly not integral to the plot, but they are instead one clear example where the kind of thinking that happens within Jimmy’s head is transferred into the story, interrupting it and even going beyond the two dimensional structure of a book by truly being objects that could be cut from the pages and assembled. The strange transitions and interruptions to the story are completely purposeful and show the physical consequences of Jimmy’s life of illusion. His life is often dull, depression, and awkward, but his fantasies are always dramatic and exciting. For him, the world within his mind is the better one to be in. To the outside world, he may seem anti-social and even seem mentally ill, but the subjectivity of that analysis can be put to the test when looking at the fact that Jimmy has a different, private, reality within his mind, a topic looked at in the psychological analysis of reality by Cassimatis. Some might write off the idea of a personal reality as proof of mental disability – he is only truly living in his own world, in his own head. Yet, the physical consequences are there. The world he creates in his head comes to the third dimension with the cut-out zoetrope. There are pages and pages of images and text that bring his mental world to life just as much as reality is brought to life in the pages beside it. So while he is certainly lost among others because of his inability to accept their realities and connect with them, he is not any less capable than them. He has create a world just as rich, even if it only exists privately.
It seems almost impossible to speak objectively about reality and illusion. Through the analysis of the dichotomy and coexistence of these two concepts in House of Leaves and Jimmy Corrigan, we can better understand that they are far more intertwined than they seem to be. The house seems like an impossible reality. It is physically larger (by a lot) on the inside than the outside. It somehow reflects the psychological state of those who enter it. But it is a reality for those who enter, those who are lost within it, those who die because of it. The house is physically represented in the pages of the book itself through black spaces and dark squares and a physical maze of words. It therefore becomes a part of the collective reality of those who read it and connections are created between minds based on a physical impossibility. Johnny Truant is certainly obsessive and his paranoia stems from the illusion he lives in, but looking at it now it needs to be noted that he cannot be judged as someone mentally incapable of existing in the real world, simply because he lives in a different world than others. He does not share their reality and so he is dismissed. In the novels these ideas are supported by the physical reflection of private realities in the architecture of the book, but outside of fiction there may not be such physical manifestations. Reality is truly subjective, and a better understanding of that concept could foster a better understanding of how we define mental illness.
Aguirre, Manuel. The Closed Space: Horror Literature and Western Symbolism. Manchester. Manchester University Press, 1990. Print.
Ball, David M., and Kuhlman, Martha B., eds. Comics of Chris Ware. Jackson, MS, USA: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Print.
Bredehoft, Thomas A. "Comics Architecture, Multidimensionality, and Time: Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth." MFS Modern Fiction Studies 52.4 (2007; 2006): 869-90.
Cassimatis, Emmanuel G. "Reality." Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis 28.4 (2000): 717.
Danilewski, Mark Z. “House of Leaves.” New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. Print.
Hagood, Caroline. “Exploring the Architecture of Narrative in House of Leaves.” Pennsylvania Literary Journal (4:1) Spring 2012, 87-97,140.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. Print.