House of Leaves
Mark Z. Danielewski
I’ve already explained why House of Leaves is an unusual text. Now, I want to explain what sort of text I think it is.
Spoiler warning: I give away the punchline in this post. If you haven’t read the book yet but plan to, this is likely to compromise your experience.
In an odd coincidence, just as I finished reading House of Leaves, I was working with a first-year composition class which focused on humor, and one of the class readings was Mark Twain’s “How to Tell a Story.” It’s short, and I hadn’t read it before, so I took a look at it. Guess what it reminded me of? Now, when you are reading House of Leaves, it is not that difficult to be reminded of it, but at this point I’d just gotten to what I suddenly realized was the punch line of the story. After struggling through this text for hundreds of nonconsecutive pages with strangely oriented text, dense thickets of references, and outright rambling, I suddenly came upon a very simple, self-referential moment of deadpan that made me laugh out loud at the train station.
Twain sets out his definition of a humorous story in several stages. First of all, he remarks:
the humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular.
The length of House of Leaves feels infinite at times, more so since one does not exactly reach the end. Since the reader moves through the book in such an unusual manner, it’s very easy to feel as if there are hidden crevices somewhere in the book, lost between one footnote and another. It’s so large that the reader gets physically lost, and all this hopping around is a very clever trick to eliminate the sense of progress from one cover to the other. So, there are moments when it seems as if length is no constraint. It keeps it up by, as Twain puts it, wandering around. It seems as if you are making your way through this pseudo-academic analysis of this bizarre impossible film, but suddenly you find yourself reading a totally irrelevant explanation of the story of Quesada and Molino, or an analysis of the myth of Echo, or some poetry Zampanò happened to write while he was traveling around Europe, or, as mentioned previously, a list of architectural styles that the house is nothing like. At times it seems like a deliberate deferral of the plot, as if the narrator (whichever narrator is relevant at the time) is afraid, and hesitates to continue. And while the punch line to which I refer comes late in the story, the book continues afterward for an indeterminate amount of time—depending on which appendices you read before and which ones you choose to read again and whether there are things that you’d like to go back to (but can you get back there?)
The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it.”
House of Leaves takes this notion to an extreme. The book is disguised as several different things: an academic text about an influential true film, a horror story, a commentary on that text, and not least, a monster itself. There are many warnings early on that the reader will suffer from reading the text. Johnny Truant’s affliction is alarming, and Zampanò’s fear that the text will survive unsettles the reader who has not yet read much of it. Even the dedication is an anti-dedication: “This is not for you.” So the reader approaches the text with a certain trepidation, and the endless mazes encourage careful and earnest reading—and would have to be a very suspicious person to expect a joke.
And then again of course, the joke is dropped in quietly, without fanfare. Twain explains,
Very often, of course, the rambling and disjointed humorous story finishes with a nub, point, snapper, or whatever you like to call it. Then the listener must be alert, for in many cases the teller will divert attention from that nub by dropping it in a carefully casual and indifferent way, with the pretence that he does not know it is a nub.
When Navidson enters the labyrinth for the final time, he is lost and, if we are not utterly jaded as a consequence of so much postmodern disjointedness, we feel a little worried for him. When he pulls out a book and begins reading it, we are distracted by the calculations of how quickly he will need to read to get to the end before he runs out of matches. This sort of diversion is typical of the book. However,
As Navidson reads, he soon begins falling behind. Perhaps his reading slows or the paper burns unevenly or he has bungled the lighting of the next page. Or maybe the words in the book have been arranged in such a way as to make them practically impossible to read.
And this is the moment at which I laughed. It’s partly because self-reference is intrinsically funny, partly because after reading this entire book it’s all too easy to identify with Navidson’s struggle to read and it’s made all the more amusing by the absurd and extreme conditions in which he is reading. But it’s also partly because, as a reader, this is the moment where you realize you’ve been had. But this is not the end of the book. It isn’t even the end of the paragraph. The story keeps on going in quite a serious way, and in fact several things happen before the end, just for show.
It’s a little mean, but so is Twain’s example of “The Golden Arm,” which is in exactly the same vein. It pulls the listener into total absorption, and then plays on this absorption to make a joke.
Of course, Danielewski piles another joke on top of this, insofar as Twain is talking about the oral tradition, and House of Leaves can only exist as a textual entity.