Tag Archives: Mark Z. Danielewski

House of Leaves as a Print Artifact

Cover of House of Leaves

House of Leaves

Mark Z. Danielewski

2000

PS3554 .A5596 H68

Aren’t I done with House of Leaves yet?  This is a book designed for obsession (Exhibit A), and since I don’t want to just get stuck here, I’m not going to write too much more about it.  But given my general preoccupation with formats, I shouldn’t write multiple posts about a book that goes out of its way to be a physical print-based object without addressing that aspect of it.

Of course, I am more conscious of print because I’ve been thinking about e-readers in various ways in my professional life. E-readers today are intended to provide a book-like experience. They have black and white screens that can be changed in size and allow you to turn pages back and forth, allowing the reader to move through the text one page at a time (like a quarter falling down a staircase).  There are also iPads, which provide a little more flexibility because they’re not intended to only be e-readers, and have more allowance for things like color, images, etc.  But it’s a book like House of Leaves that shows to what extent e-readers are based on particular assumptions about how people read.

(Full disclosure: I’ve used e-readers before, but I am deeply suspicious of them for many reasons and thus don’t have and don’t plan to buy one.  If I had one, I would use it only for pdfs and possibly the occasional public domain book that I’m having trouble finding in print. This will hold up until something really compelling changes (“it’s almost as good as print at doing exactly what print already does!” is not compelling.) So these are my biases.)

So. House of Leaves. From what I understand, there exist several editions of the book and they look different from each other, but the one that I read had the word “house” in blue and all sentences concerning the minotaur in red and struck through in black. Some of the footnotes are also linked to the text with semaphore symbols instead of numbers. Now, we’re already outside the capabilities of many e-readers, which provide only black-and-white e-ink text. I’m not sure whether it can get outside of ASCII, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that is a challenge.  But let’s suppose you had one that uses color and can reproduce these symbols. There’s still the matter of font. I believe that some of them allow you to choose a font of your preference, but I don’t know of any that can do two or three different fonts on the same page—a necessity for this book, because it is important to distinguish the various voices in the footnotes from each other.  Not only that, it’s quite useful to try to keep all the footnotes on the appropriate page, so you’d need a way to deal with that. Ideally, the screen would be the same size as a page of the book, so that everything could stay on the same page and still be legible. This becomes even more important when you get to some of the more complex layouts, with the multiple columns (something the Kindle 2 couldn’t handle at all; I don’t know whether newer models have corrected this) and inset boxes and that sort of thing, and the pages that use white space intentionally, where the placement of the text matters.  Let’s not even get into the parts of the book in which sentences stretch across the two-page spread instead of being contained on one side.

It turns out that the actual appearance of the page is important to the story in a way that most aren’t, which of course is always going to make translation to another format difficult. Early e-reader studies, for instance, revealed a lot of problems with format-sensitive texts such as poems.  But we do have a machine that can faithfully reproduce the appearance of a page on a screen, the iPad.  However, there is still the little matter of orientation. This amuses me because it’s kind of a feature that the iPad can change from portrait to landscape—but in this case, you want to turn it around and around without that happening.  Looking on the internet, I see that it’s actually able to lock orientation, so I suppose that isn’t a huge barrier.

However, these are all the superficial things.  There’s still the question of how you read the book.  Personally, I needed two bookmarks. Keeping track of where in the book I was when I found myself gallivanting off into a multipage footnote, which eventually sent me off into an appendix, which may have had footnotes of its own or might have sent me to another appendix itself. It’s intentionally complex and I needed to flip back and forth in order to remind myself where I came from.  I’m sure there’s some way that you could try to simulate this electronically – a list of places that are bookmarked? – but it’s certainly not what it is designed for.

Then, too, a major strength of e-books is that they are convenient. They are small and easy to carry around.  This is emphatically not the case with House of Leaves, and it shouldn’t be. The very bulk and inconvenience of the book further emphasizes the general maze-like and intentionally intimidating nature of the book.  In essence, House of Leaves was designed with print in mind, and makes no apologies for the fact.

Does this matter? After all, there are plenty of e-books that do things that can’t be done in print; different formats just have different capabilities.  Of course. But there are a few important points to be made from it…

1)      It says a lot about what we think books are.  We expect that a book is read linearly from the front cover to the back.  We expect that it is the meaning conveyed in the book’s words that matter and not the way those words are arranged on the page, and certainly not the font. We expect that readers are only looking at one page at a time, and not trying to read several different parts of the book at the same time.  And we assume that reading is not a physically challenging activity.  I’m pointing out these assumptions not because they are wrong—for most people, they usually aren’t—but because they are such strong expectations that we don’t usually notice that this is what we expect.

2)      In any given format, a very small number of texts will take full advantage of everything the format can do.  We’ve been using print for centuries, but how many books do everything that print can do? Not many. This is one of them. The same is true of e-books; there’s a vast array of things that e-books could do, but so far, almost all of them don’t.  (Digression: I remember once hearing about a book that was just a list of unbound pages in a box. You could read them in any order you wanted.  I doubt it had an interesting plot, though.)

3)      Whoever says we can move entirely from one format to another and lose nothing in the process is simply wrong.  To prove this by writing a large, complex book that readers have to struggle through at great length may seem like undue effort to prove a very simple point. But, well, for me to criticize a lack of brevity is simply silly at this point.

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House of Leaves as a Humorous Story

Cover of House of Leaves

House of Leaves

Mark Z. Danielewski

2000

PS3554 .A5596 H68

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?)

Twain continues:

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.

 

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House of Leaves: The One-Hour Quarter

Cover of House of Leaves

House of Leaves

Mark Z. Danielewski

2000

PS3554 .A5596 H68

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.

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