House of Leaves Book Club Week 01: Meet Johnny Truant

The first “real” week of reading for House of Leaves has begun, and I can already feel myself getting sucked into the story without even reaching its main piece, The Navidson Record.

Surely, this bodes well for my sanity.

This week, we were tasked with meeting two of our main characters, Johnny Truant and Zampano, the former owner of “The Navidson Record”.

Johnny is a bit (read: alot <– purposeful misspelling for HoL readers) of a drug-addled misfit who’s taken up with a friend named Lude (an accurate name for his personality and is, therefore, most likely a play on “lewd”) and a stripper known only as “Thumper” thanks to the rabbit’s likeness tattooed in a very special location.

In only a few pages, we learn that Johnny suffers from insomnia, nightmares, and paranoia. Why? Because an old man (Zampano) has died in Lude’s apartment building, leaving behind strange, hidden documents about a film that doesn’t exist: The Navidson Record.

The apartment continues to open a Pandora’s box of mystery as Johnny and Lude happen upon books in the fridge and discover no clocks, unused candles, and zero lightbulbs. The big reveal here is Zampano was blind – or, at least, he’s left us with the assumption he was blind. Indeed, House of Leaves very nearly begins with darkness, setting a theme for the next 600 pages where we will roam the dark much like Zampano has done for decades.

Trust me: this is intriguing.

My notes and observations follow (beware – this post will be heavily-laden with spoilers, so proceed with caution):

  • There are already lots of references to trees, leaves, or the idea of trees and leaves. For example:
    • “Endless snarls of words, sometimes twisting into meaning, sometimes into nothing at all, frequently breaking apart, always branching off into other places I’d come across later…” (pg xvii)
    • “…his mind never ceases branching into new territories…” (pg xxii)
  • Statements like “he was blind as a bat” and “…who must somehow capture the most difficult subject of all: the sight of darkness itself” remind me of later in the book, when Navidson is trapped in the House, trying to claw his way around in an ever-changing space. Allusion much?
  • The name “Zampano is an interesting one that could be further dissected:
    • Zampano is a character featured prominently in the movie, “La Strada”.
    • Zampano is also the third-person plural present indicative (ayiyi, did not miss my high school language classes) of the word “zampare”, an Italian word meaning “to paw”. An interesting relationship to note, as Truant tells us cats had an explained draw to Z in the introduction (see questions below for more information).

Now that I’ve rambled enough about my observations, I present to you my lingering questions (and answers as I come back to this post over time):

  • Who is Johnny Truant? Is it possible Lude and Zampano don’t actually exist? That Lude is Johnny when he’s riding one of his drug-induced waves?
  • Only one woman gets a name in the intro, other than women Zampano is claimed to have mentioned (I’ll get into that in the next bullet). That woman is Clara English, the girlfriend who crushes Johnny’s heart, spurring him toward Thumper. Other women are introduced with descriptions like, “single mother” or “stripper”. Why is Clara the only woman mentioned with a real name?
  • The seven women Zampano occasionally mentioned are Beatrice, Gabrielle, Anne-Marie, Dominique, Elian’s, Isabelle, and Claudine. What is their significance?
    • These names appear to be locations of fortified hills at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (time period reference: First Indochina War, 1950s; location: Vietnam). Truant makes several mentions of Zampano having fought in a war, although the exact one is left to our imagination, and I can’t help but think his veteran status is once again referenced when Truant refers to the name Zampano not as a nom de plume, but as a nom de guerre.
      • There’s another war reference at the description of irony being a “…personal Maginot Line…” (time period reference: WWII, 1930s; location: France)
  • Around the time of Zampano’s death, the cats who used to cling to his being suddenly begin disappearing. Why is this important? Is it?

A day of reading and week of analyzing and research. Hmm. Are you sick of me yet?

Note: I consider this post a work in progress and may revisit with other thoughts throughout my reading. Much like the house, this will be a living, breathing thing.

To finish off this week’s notes, here are some of my favorite quotes from the introduction:

  • “…what’s real or isn’t real doesn’t matter here. The consequences are the same.” (pg xx)
    • Book Club Question (my answer TBD): What does this say about Johnny as a narrator? How does it frame our anticipations about the rest of the book (even if we’ve already read it)? And for a more complicated question: how does this prepare us for the trickier dialogue about gender, race, and the narrative self? Finally, what do we make of the word “consequences”?
  • “Zampano writes constantly about seeing. What we see, how we see and what in turn we can’t see.” (pg xxi)
  • “Well that, of course, was Zampano’s greatest iconic gesture; love of love written by the broken hearted, love of life written by the dead.” (pg xxi)
  • “And then for better or worse you’ll turn, unable to resist, though try to resist you still will, fighting with everything you’ve got not to face the thing you most dread, what is now, what will be, what has always come before, the creature you truly are, the creature we all are, buried in the nameless black of a name.” (pg xxiii)

As a side note, I went to Barnes & Noble last weekend to use up a few 20% coupons and accidentally (I’m serious) happened upon a full-color copy of House of Leaves. Knowing I “only” have the two-color version (and because my FOMO is very, very real), I threw money at my obsession before proudly leaving the store. I plan on reading through my original copy because it’s falling apart, which somehow lends itself well to the topic at hand, but it’s nice to also have the on-steroids copy for reference.

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