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Sarah Glover, Marjorie

Olly Galvin, Dad

Tom Robinson, Buster Keaton: Fear is a Man's Best Friend

Lucinda Chell-Monks, Five Sounds

Lucinda Chell-Monks, Dining out for Down-and-Outs

Sarah Glover, Orange and Gold

Briony Chalk, Mirror Image

Alec Patton, Don't Mention The Empire

Alison Gibbons , A Visual & Textual Labyrinth

Louise Mousseau, Determining Aesthetic Value in the Postmodern Period

Non-Fiction

Alison Gibbons

A Visual & Textual Labyrinth

 

Mark Z. Danielewski’s debut novel House of Leaves opens with the extraordinary admonition, “This is not for you” (Danielewski ix). This caution initially appears to be a strange tactic by the author designed to deter readers. However, as the story unfolds, as the reader turns page after page, it becomes clear that this epic novel is highly unusual. Danielewski issues his readers with both a warning and a challenge. This book is not for the faint-hearted or escapists among us, but for those who are prepared to negotiate new reading paths, delve beyond the ostensible surface of the page, and actively engage with the text. In his introduction, Truant describes what awaits the reader:

 

Endless snarls of words, sometimes twisting into meaning, sometimes into nothing at all, frequently breaking apart, always branching off into other pieces… each fragment completely covered with the creep of years and years of ink pronouncements; layered, crossed out, amended; handwritten, typed; …impenetrable, lucid…                                       (Ibid. xvii)

As Truant suggests, Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a ‘Literary Labyrinth’ with an advanced emphasis on visual innovation.

A Literary Labyrinth, in my conception, is any literary text that embodies key characteristics of the namesake, resulting in readers’ experience of a text paralleling the experience of maze walkers. Just as “the text itself is a labyrinthine artefact, so its creation and reception are labyrinthine processes” (Doob 65). House of Leaves embodies the literary labyrinth in its most complex form, the Rhizome, which takes its name from Deleuze and Guattari’s conception:

 

A rhizome as subterranean stem is absolutely different from roots and radicles. Bulbs and tubers are rhizomes… Burrows are too, in all of their functions of shelter, supply, movement, evasion, and breakout. The rhizome itself assumes very diverse forms, from ramified surface extension in all directions to concretions into bulbs and tubers.    (Deleuze and Guattari 6-7)

The rhizome’s basic principles provide key features of its labyrinthine parallel. It creates an open-ended configuration with no single, linear channel; a “system of ramifications” (Hoffman 138) that cannot be compounded under a unified interpretation. “The rhizome is so constructed that every path can be connected with every other one. It has no center, no periphery, no exit, because it is potentially infinite” (Eco Reflections 57). At first, the rhizome may appear to be a distortion of the maze concept. Since it has no periphery and no exit or entrance, one may wonder if there is a point to the decisions it asks its participants to make. With the literary rhizome, it is the process rather than emergence (that is, total completion of the novel) that is important. Consequently rhizomatic novels are often cyclical; they provide numerous reading paths and prevent an absolute conclusion of the story/s. Even when the reader has taken in every single path, page, and/or sentence of this literary maze, s/he can reread the novel again in an alternative order, making it seem like a different story and appear endless. House of Leaves is rhizomatic in its employment of a multitude of reading paths and insistence upon readers’ decision-making capacities, enticing them to lose their way and above all, encouraging them to explore. Like the labyrinth, it “unfolds its creative negentropic potential in unending paths, infinite twists and rewindings, rendering the maze as narrative structure inexhaustible” (Hoffman 140).

The labyrinth emerges as a central theme in the novel, with its conceptual focus, the Ash Tree Lane house, taking on the terrifying traits of a maze. There is even explicit discussion of the labyrinth and its famous Myth. Conversely, whenever this occurs it is shown crossed out with a single line striking through it:

 

…the labyrinth Daedalus constructed for King Minos. It serves as a prison. Purportedly located on the island of Crete in the city of Knossos, the maze was built to incarcerate the Minotaur, a creature born from an illicit encounter between the queen and the bull. As most school children learn, this monster devoured more than half a dozen Athenian youths every few years before Theseus eventually slew it.                    (Danielewski 109-110)

This is an example of what Derrida called sous rature or ‘under erasure’. Placing something under erasure creates a ‘double play’, obliterating the word yet simultaneously allowing it to be read, undoing and challenging its authority while acknowledging its significance. Postmodern novels place under erasure “presented objects in a projected world; and their purpose is… that of laying bare the processes by which readers, in collaboration with texts, construct fictional objects and worlds” (McHale Postmodernist 100). As the structural foundations and content of House of Leaves rely so heavily upon the idea of the labyrinth, Danielewski appears to be confessing the artistic origin and model of the text. By portraying these roots sous rature he pays homage to this heritage, whilst demonstrating that the traditional (unicursal) concept of the labyrinth has become an anachronistic paradigm, one that should be innovated for the renewal of fiction.

The Ash Tree Lane house represents a fearsome unknown labyrinth with its dark corridors, shifting unknowable proportions, and often-inescapable depths. Similarly, the fictional film The Navidson Record executes a twisting trail of images through its complex network of shots and edits (Danielewski 114). Danielewski organises the layout of his text on the page to emulate this motif, with chapter nine providing the finest example. It is a montage of material including endless lists, footnotes, pseudo-criticism, and Johnny’s crude contemplations, arranged intricately into boxes and columns that traverse the page in all directions . Thus Danielewski’s novel can be said to demonstrate Spencer’s model of the mobile architectonic book, making maximum use of spatial form by defying conventional ordering of words on the page. In “architectonic books, [words, sentences, discourses,] bear the same relationship to the whole as do bricks, stones, steel rods, and concrete blocks to a building. This relationship is more accurately structural than expressive” (Spencer 169). Danielewski exceeds these expectations, as while his careful arrangement of words shapes the composition of a labyrinth upon the page, it additionally conveys and embodies the conceptual space of the house and experience of the film.

Danielewski foregrounds the book as physical artefact by playing with the reader’s most basic suppositions concerning novels. Footnote 144’s tunnelling of pages has been described as “a kind of shaft which has been drilled through the central text…let’s call it [a] “ductnote” (Fordham 14). For the majority of the ductnote, the reverse side of the page displays the text backwards. Hayles analyses this:

 

The box calls into question an assumption so commonplace that we are not normally aware of it: book pages are opaque, a property that defines one page as separate from another. Here the back of the page appears to open transparently onto the front, a notion that overruns the boundary between them and constructs the page as a leaky container rather than an unambiguous unit of print. (Hayles Saving 792)

Danielewski’s novel refuses to be contained within designated frames, interrogating the printed form and its conceptual space. When reading, a book is often disregarded as a material article as the reader becomes engrossed in its imaginative realm. This novel contains a dual vision. Richard Lanham distinguishes between “looking through a page (when we are immersed in a fictional world and so are scarcely conscious of the page as a material object) and looking at the page, when innovative [designs] encourage us to focus on the page’s physical properties” (Hayles Saving 794). Hayles argues that the ductnote collapses the two perspectives so the reader performs both actions simultaneously. Thus House of Leaves “disrupts our notion of how a book should look and behave before our eyes” (Bolter History 116).

Spatial form has a considerable effect on the way a novel is read, placing “greater burden on the reader’s synthesizing power than do more conventional temporal narratives” (Smitten 21). Danielewski’s experimental designs place House of Leaves in a tradition of ‘antibooks’, such as Derrida’s Glas and Ronell’s The Telephone Book. Antibooks work against the conventions of print medium, testing new spatial orientations and teasing out subversive potential from typographical tricks. Chapter nine, a visual mosaic in which text bursts apart into fragments which scatter the page with deceivingly chaotic precision, affects the eyes’ movement across the page. One cannot scan a single column from top to bottom and left to right since there is no longer a linear progress to the text. Derrida pondered the possibility of “beginning to write without the line” (Derrida qtd. in Bolter History 116). Danielewski achieves this as each section of text competes for the reader’s attention, offering “multiple pathways in a new kind of textual space whose successful navigation requires multiprocessing” (McCaffery and Gregory 100). The reader must decide which ocular route to take. The disjointed textual space creates an interaction between sections, content, and blank areas while the reader’s eye darts about navigating this maze of meanings. The effect is “to highlight the physicality of the printed word’s presentation and to establish new non-linear connections between words” (Poynor 53), readers and text.

Danielewski encourages readers to find exceptional routes through his novel, ignoring paginated order. The particles in chapter nine are the result of a layering of footnotes that overcome the (main) narrative. Usually, a footnote acts as a blind alley, a simple shoot from the text that “returns us to the main track immediately afterward” (Aarseth 8). In this case, the reader uncovers “a series of footnotes stemming from a single footnote” (Fordham 14), spiralling successively away from the main path. Furthermore, Danielewski uses footnotes to direct readers to various sections, instituting a nonlinear movement through the book. For instance, footnote 175 and 176 refer the reader to appendix E and B respectively (Danielewski 138), sections which provide insight into Truant’s character. The reader’s choice of which direction to take, either moving to designated sections or reaching them according to pagination, changes his/her comprehension of the novel. The maze motif emerges “as a trope for the way in which we as readers experience the novel, [and] is compelling because of the implications that no two people will manipulate their way through the labyrinth or the novel the same” (Danial n.pag.). In traditional books, while the reader is physically able to bypass pages or chapters, they risk losing a vast chunk of important narrative detail. House of Leaves, brimming with supplementary material, bestows upon the reader a greater degree of control. As Johnny suggests, “if there’s something you find irksome – go ahead and skip it” (Danielewski 31). Some readers may attempt to find the quickest way through chapter nine, others may wish to absorb every possible detail. Danielewski also includes an index in (Danielewski 664-705), highlighting the rhizomatic space of House of Leaves. This subtly infers that readers may ignore the chronology of pages, even Danielewski’s own disruptive suggestions like footnotes, journeying instead through the book in any pattern they wish using whatever connection they desire to ‘write’ their personal experience of the novel in an arrangement out of the author’s control.

Danielewski’s textual experimentations are interspersed throughout the book. It seems consistent that this deconstructive thrust permeates other issues. Design scholars suggest:

 

when the deconstructionist approach is applied to design, each layer, through the use of language and image, is an intentional performer in a deliberately playful game wherein the viewer can discover and experience the hidden complexities of language.                              (Chuck Byrne and Martha Witte qtd. in Poynor 49-50)

Nowhere is this clearer than when the rope pulling Reston up the stairwell breaks, leaving Navidson stranded at the bottom. Danielewski’s phrasing here is simple, “the rope snaps” (Danielewski 293-6), but its positioning is more complex. The word ‘snaps’ is separated into three parts, so that it performs its meaning optically, as in concrete poetry. By making the word visually embody its connoted action, Danielewski attempts to refresh the written form. Furthermore, as Danielewski explains, the fragmented word takes on new significance when the reader realises that backwards it becomes ‘spans’, an action it fulfils as each segment is placed on a separate page. While the “word is a literal, thematic, and semantic representation of all that’s happening at that moment in the novel” (Danielewski qtd. in McCaffery and Gregory 122), it also embodies two opposing meanings simultaneously, thus exposing the relationship between words.

Danielewski’s inventive spatial engineering is transformed from page to page, keeping the reader alert to the challenges ahead and injecting the novel with a dynamic impression of movement. He places words upon the page in patterns that form pictures, creating a “double vision” (Hayles Saving 794) as the reader’s imagination unites the conceptual action with the visual design. For example, Danielewski creates is a ladder that bridges horizontally across a double page spread (Danielewski 440-1) . As we read the words, our eyes journey upwards in a movement analogous to Navidson’s climb of the fictional ladder. Fordham affirms this as “an experiment in mimetic form, when the narrative content… is being projected into the reader’s experience of the text.” (Fordham 14). The changing topographical layout of House of Leaves subjects the reader to an ordeal comparable to the undertakings of the fictional characters, forcing her to participate in the novel with a sentience absent when reading other fiction. Indeed, House of Leaves demonstrates “that novelists have as yet barely scratched the surface of the story-telling options that have always been available to writers” (McCaffery and Gregory 100).

House of Leaves, a novel that cannot be passively perused whilst lazing in bed, demands a high level of involvement fromits readers. Numerous sections see the text being organised in varying, often conflicting, directions from one page to another, sometimes even upon a single page. “Through a bizarre form of reader activity, the reader is literally… manipulating the physical object that contains the text: turning it over and round and upside down, thumbing backwards, rifling through to other disparate sections” (Fordham 15). The changing textual configurations causes tumultuous revolutions in the reader’s interaction with the novel. Indeed, these labyrinthine “games of orientation are in turn games of disorientation” (Hans Magnus Enzensberger qtd. in Calvino Cybernetics 25). Not only is the reader forced to engage with the text physically, she is beckoned to interpret and decode it cerebrally. A letter from Pelafina to Johnny provides a clear example (Danielewski 620-3). This letter has been encoded and to decipher the hidden message the reader must follow the previously suggested instruction: “use the first letter of each word to build subsequent words and phrases” (Ibid. 619). In doing so, the reader uncovers Pelafina’s atrocious confession of her rape by the institution’s attendants. Discussing contemporary fascination with surfaces and concealed profundity, Fordham explains that postmodernism “celebrate[s] structural depth and coincidence, density and complexity, and reaffirm[s] the possibilities of textuality, the pleasures of a reader’s engagement with the textual” (Fordham 3). This novel is quite literally layered with meaning. In Johnny’s words, “It’s like there’s something else, something beyond it all, a greater story still looming in the twilight which for some reason I am unable to see” (Danielewski 15). This is a book daring the reader to probe beyond the veneer of the page, search for its secrets within the covers, pages, words, to enrich the reader’s experience, alluring her into a committed relationship with the novel.

House of Leaves offers the reader an intense encounter, physically and mentally, in which s/he must almost become a player, a walker, actively unravelling its tale and trail of words. Johnny Truant introduces the story, forewarning the reader of what to expect. When he seems to be stuck for further ways to describe the book he resigns, “find your own words; I have no more” (Ibid. xvii). In what appears to be a flippant comment emerges a poignant truth as readers moving deeper into the volume, immersing themselves in the stories. When we, as readers decode Pelafina’s letter, how do we keep track of her horrific admission? Do we scribble it on a scrap of paper, a leaf, folding it into the pages of the novel? Scrawl it in the margins? As academics, students, readers willing to take on Danielewski’s challenge, temptation has us writing notes into the empty spaces of the page; in short, we add our own words; we carry out Johnny’s plea; we create an additional layer to the novel, so that it becomes our rendered copy of a book introduced and noted by Truant, written by Zampanò. It is as though we become the next in line of a legacy. The length, weight, and time it takes to read this seven-hundred-page novel triggers within us an uncanny sensation reminiscent of Johnny’s daunting account of having begun to “feel its heaviness, sensed something horrifying in its proportions, its silence, its stillness” (Danielewski xvii). Just as it grows into an obsession for Johnny, and Zampanò before him, reading (and writing) this novel becomes an exhaustive preoccupation, consuming the reader’s thoughts and time. The novel “escapes from its prison of paper and creeps into [the] mind, making it one of few fiction genuinely to approach the nightmarish.” (Monster n.pag)

Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a remarkable novel that makes unprecedented demands upon its readers. Its audacious use of textual space and inventive visual designs add an additional layer to its maze-like conceptual and structural conceit. Its spatial transformations take another step in the evolution of the literary labyrinth as “House of Leaves recuperates the print book – particularly the novel as a literary form – …the price it pays is a metamorphosis so profound that it becomes a new kind of form and artifact” (Hayles Saving 781). This rhizomatic novel offers the reader an intimate textual experience, in an age in which printed books are thought by some to be archaic, challenging the limits of the novel and printed word. House of Leaves’ proves that books “are not going the way of the dinosaur, but the way of the human, changing as we change, mutating and evolving in ways that will continue, as a book lover said long ago, to teach and delight” (Hayles Writing 33).


Bibliography

 

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Bemong, Nele. “Exploration # 6: The Uncanny in Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ ”. Image & Narrative: Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative 5 (2003): Online. Internet. 16 Feb 2004. Available FTP: http://www.imageandnarrative.be/uncanny/nelebemong.htm

Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1991.

Calvino, Italo. “Cybernetics and Ghosts”. The Literature Machine: Essays. Trans. Patrick Creagh. London: Secker and Walburg, 1982. 3-27.

Clark, Shamra. “Reader or Writer: Hypertext Author?”. n. pag. Online. Internet. Available FTP:
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Danial, Mark. “Deconstructing Labyrinths”. n. pag. Online. Internet. Available FTP: www.uweb.ucsb.edu/%7Ekameel/dl.htm. 16 Feb 2004.

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves: by Zampanò with introduction and notes by Johnny Truant. London: Random House, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. London: Athlone Press, 1988.

Derrida, Jacques. Glas. Trans. John P. Leavey, Jr., and Richard Rand. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

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Eco, Umberto. Reflections on The Name Of The Rose. London: Secher & Warburg, 1983.

Esrock, Ellen J.. The Reader’s Eye: Visual Imaging as Reader Response. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins UP, 1994.

Fordham, Finn. “Novels as Underworlds: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves”. [draft article passed to present author] n.p. n.d. 1-20.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Saving the Subject: Remediation in House of Leaves”. American Literature 74.4 (2002): 779-806.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2002.

Hoffman, Gerhard. “Waste and Meaning, the Labyrinth and the Void in Modern and Postmodern Fiction”. Ethics and Aesthetics: The Moral Turn of Postmodernism. Ed. Gerhard Hoffman and Alfred HornungHeidelberg: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 1996. 115-193.

“House of Leaves”. 13 May 2000. n. pag. Online. Internet. Available FTP: www.goodreports.net/houdan.htm. 16 Feb 2004.

Landow, George P.. Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press, 1992.

McCaffery, Larry and Sinda Gregory. “Haunted House – An Interview with Mark Z. Daniewelski”. Critique – Studies in Contemporary Fiction 44.2 (2003): 99-135.

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London and New York: Routledge, 1987.

“Monster on the margin”. The Independent. 1 July 2000. n. pag. Independent.co.uk. Online. Internet. Available FTP: http://enjoyment.independent.co.uk/books/reviews/story.jsp?story=46349. 6 Feb 2004.

Poyner, Rick. No More Rules: Graphic Design and Postmodernism. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2003.

Ronell, Avital. The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Sampson, Edward E. “The Deconstruction of the Self”. Texts Of Identity. London: Sage, 1989.

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Stegman, Emily. “A Fictional Labyrinth”. n. pag. Online. Internet. 16 Feb 2004. Available FTP: www.uweb.ucsb.edu/%7Eestegman/

Vidler, Anthony. The Architectural Uncanny Essays in the Modern Unhomely. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1992.

Example of Chapter nine’s Labyrinthine Spatial Arrangement: See Appendix, Figure 11.

See Appendix, Figure 13.