House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
I’ve wanted for a while to start a blog where I could write about what I’ve been reading. Unfortunately, the point at which I could no longer resist was also the point at which I was reading House of Leaves, a work that a single post simply cannot capture.
It’s a complicated book in which there are several disparate layers of reality. On the outmost level, there’s the book itself, the thing you are reading, which was ostensibly edited by an anonymous editor who uses a font called Bookman (because he’s a book man, get it?). He makes occasional corrections and small explanations of the text in a perfectly reasonable way. But the text that he’s commenting on is essentially a fiction. It was purportedly delivered to him by one Johnny Truant, who writes in Courier (that’s right, the character who delivers the text to us uses Courier) and who comments on the text, but not in a professional way, and not in order to clarify its ambiguities. There is the occasional translation, but he is more likely to point out that something makes little sense, or to shrug, or to engage in long, stream of consciousness digressions about his personal life, which is a very sad one. However, in some ways it does function as a commentary on the text because he also describes the effect that it has on him—as he reads, he gradually loses his ability to carry on his life. In turn, he got the text from an old blind man, now dead, called Zampanò. On Zampanò’s level, you’ve got a heavily footnoted, pseudo-academic study of a film that doesn’t exist. It is unclear whether Zampanò believed it did, or whether you are supposed to believe that it does as part of the fiction, or what. There are lots of citations to fictitious books and articles about it. In any case, the film in question is Will Navidson’s documentary about his impossible house, which is bigger on the inside than the outside (no, not even slightly like a TARDIS) and contains an expanding and contracting labyrinth which may or may not have a minotaur in it. In some ways, the house is treated as a text as well, so the documentary is also a commentary on it. (In case that isn’t enough, there are also references to one school of (fictional) analysis that says that the house is actually a reflection of Navidson’s subconscious. So then it’s also a commentary on him.)
As if this isn’t enough, many of the footnotes refer to other footnotes, and some refer to appendices, some of which are actually there and some of which are missing.
Got it? It’s all very postmodern and there’s not a very clear sense of exactly where reality lies. The reader telescopes in and out and tries to make sense of things (or just floats along for the ride, I suppose). No matter which way you read the text, it is non-sequential. I read the footnotes and the appendices as I was referred to them in the text, which means that the story was interrupted as other stories and other voices came up. I suppose it would also be possible to skip all the footnotes and come back to them later, in which case your reading would be linear but you would just be skipping pages, but the text encourages the reader to move back and forth from one page to another. There are even footnotes that refer back, creating the possibility of an infinite loop.
Anyway, I wanted to address a moment on one of the lower levels of reality, when Navidson and some of his friends and acquaintances go in to explore the house. There is a large spiral staircase which varies in length; sometimes a person can go down it in a few minutes, and in one case a team spends hours hiking down it. Unfortunately Navidson gets stuck at the bottom at exactly the wrong moment. His brother, at the top, had dropped quarters to measure the length of the staircase. The first two fell in a reasonable amount of time, but the third..
“For almost an hour,” he begins. “I waited, rested, kept hoping something would change. It didn’t. … Then all of a sudden I heard something clatter behind me. I turned around and there lying on the floor, just off to the side here, was the third quarter. … If Tom dropped it say a few minutes after Reston reached the top, then it’s been falling for at least fifty minutes. I’m too muddled to do the math but it doesn’t take a genius to realize I’m an impossible distance down. (305)
In a footnote, Zampanò offers a formula for calculating the distance that the quarter fell. Truant makes a footnote to that footnote to say that there is a more accurate way to calculate it, and the editor notes that Truant never provided his alternate formula. Later on, Zampanò further emphasizes the impossibility of the quarter’s descent:
Keepling credits The Navidson Record with the revival of the Hollow Earth Movement. … Of course even if this planet were truly a hollow globe – an absolute impossibility – Tom’s dropped quarter still describes a space far greater than the earth’s radius (or even diameter) (378).
It’s a strange thing, but let’s think about this in the context in which it appears. It’s in a chapter about 30 pages in length, but most of the pages are mostly blank, with the text only filling up the bottom, as if it were a series of captions to some photographs that are missing (Navidson was a photographer). But some of that text is upside down. There are also a couple pages of Truant’s footnotes, taking place in another place (you almost want to say another dimension) altogether.
But it’s one of the more straightforward chapters. It comes not too long after a chapter that, despite being much shorter, took many hours to read, because of the footnote effect described above. You read a little bit, and then you are referred to a novella-length appendix (this is not exaggeration; in fact, I believe this particular appendix actually was published separately as a novella).
If the house is a labyrinth, so is the book. Navidson goes into his house and gets lost, Truant goes into the text and gets lost, the reader goes into the book and quickly becomes disoriented. There are chapters in which the text is oriented on the page in such a way that, as I read, I need to turn the book around and around—hardly surprising if we consider what a labyrinth looks like.
So far, so obvious. But what about the quarter?
All the formulas are based on the assumption that a quarter travels straight down, pulled by gravity. It may bounce off of something at some point, but we imagine the quarter following a very predictable path to the ground.
But there’s a good chance that, as readers, we made a similar assumption about our progress through the book. We read it from left to right, from top to bottom (putting aside for the moment the possibility of translation into languages in which that is not the case), making our way predictably from the beginning of the chapter to the end in an amount of time that we can predict if we know our own reading speeds.
And then Danielewski laughs at us, and we spend hours making our way through a few pages—and then are astonished when a quarter fails to make it to the bottom of the staircase in a the timely manner that we might expect.
Too much explanation? In essence, we don’t know where the quarter was, but the obvious answer is that it fell into a footnote, and much like the reader, bounced around there for quite some time before it could make its way back. Here, we should begin to expect that the levels of reality in the text will eventually collapse, as indeed they do. We already suspect that it is more difficult than it appears to distinguish between the house and the book. It’s not called House of Leaves for nothing.