Saturday, November 8, 2008

Physical Narrative

For last week's assignment, I wrote about Chris Ware's genius in using a two-pronged approach in his work; by combining the textual content of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth with subtle (and occasionally not-so-subtle) undertones in his artwork, Ware was able to help the reader experience the story at a much deeper level. Mark Danielewski accomplishes the same feat in House of Leaves. Not being an artist, though, Danielewski instead uses the phsyicality of the book itself to draw the reader more deeply into the world he has created. In this way, the reader ultimately ends up making a much more significant connection with the narrative since he or she is constantly holding what is essentially the physical manifestation of the tale.

Even the novel's title, House of Leaves, demonstrates the importance of the physical book. The book simultaneously houses the story and becomes the story through clever design and typographical choices Danielewski employs. He first emphasizes to the reader that the physical object of the book is representative of the house on Ash Tree Lane. This is indicated by the fact that the book's front cover is 1/2" shorter than the pages which compose it. In this manner, the inside of the book is 1/2" larger than the outside of the book, just as the inside of Navidson's house turned out to be 5/16" larger than the outside. Without even reading a word of the text, the reader has already begun to follow the same path as Navidson in the story. When Navidson enters the house, the tale begins. Similarly, the same experience occurs for the reader upon opening the book.

Of course, this is not to say that Danielewski does not effectively employ the text. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The textual layout of House of Leaves serves to only draw the reader more deeply into the material. During Exploration #4, Holloway, Jed, and Wax are exploring the unknown, moving ahead with only a faint idea of where they are going. When Holloway attacks and Wax is wounded, Jed is forced to forge ahead blindly, moving quickly yet carelessly, in an attempt to shake Holloway's pursuit. The text is positioned perfectly to allow the reader to thoroughly empathize with Jed's plight. In the height of Jed's confusion,the page is literally covered with material placed in a highly disorienting manner. (133) The text acting as the actual analysis of The Navidson Record covers at most a quarter of the page. The rest of the space is filled with sidenotes, an awkward text window, footnotes, blockquotes inside of footnotes, and even what appears to be another footnote transposed sidways inside of the blockquote from another footnote. Virtually any reader coming across such a page will likely be confused as to what material should be read and in which order. Simply looking at the page and making sense of anything is a challenging endeavor. However, the reader's confusion is exactly what Jed is experiencing at the same point in the narrative. The layout of the text forces the reader to be placed in Jed's role and emulate Jed's feelings.

Along with allowing readers to experience the emotions of the novel's characters, Danielewski even forces the reader to occasionally mimic a character's actions. When Navidson is left stranded at the bottom of the rapidly expanding Spiral Stair, he is forced to watch Reston drawn continuously upwards. On the page where such activity is described, Danieleski placed the text "drawing Reston" upside-down, vertically stretched out, and moving from the bottom of the page to the top rather than vice versa. (291) The impact of this is that the reader will likely start at the bottom of the page and have his or her eyes follow the text upwards. One can only imagine that this is precisely what Navidson would be doing as he watches Reston being pulled up to the top of the stair, his gaze following his friend's ascent. Thus the reader is not simply reading about Navidson and imagining what he would be doing. The reader is quite literally enacting Navidson's motions. For that instant, just as the physical book becomes the story, the reader actually becomes Navidson.

Danielewski uses the physical aspects of House of Leaves to achieve amazing results. He has created a highly interactive work of literature by drawing the reader's attention to the book itself. Rather than doing so in a manner disruptive to the story, though, Danielewski's technique actually causes the reader to become significantly more engaged in the written tale. For most written works, the text alone is the only true constituent of the story. Whether in a book, on loose sheets, or printed online, the story is the same. Suffice to say, House of Leaves in any other form would hardly be the same experience.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

While this piece isn't as well structured as it could be, it has considerable strengths nonetheless; I'm hoping to keep it in mind the next time I read the sections about Jed, because I find your analysis both detailed and interesting.

Your discussion of Danielewksi is good, too, although more general than your discussion of Jed. I think one could easily disagree with your claim that he isn't an artist. Check out this paper from last semester for the counterargument: