Monday, December 8, 2008

House of Notes

Note that for this work, I will commonly use "Danielewski" to refer to author Mark Danielewski while using the stage name "Poe" to refer to his sister Annie Danielewski.

At a very simplistic level, it is clear that Mark Danielewski's work in House of Leaves connects to Annie "Poe" Danielewski's work in her albums Haunted and Hello. The fact that the albums have tracks titled Five and a Half Minute Hallway, Dear Johnny, Angry Johnny, and even House of Leaves should draw an obvious parallel. However, Poe's work does more than simply reference the work of her brother. The two mediums collaborate much more closely, and Poe's albums connect with the novel at both a lyrical and musical level. Likewise, Poe's music shares similarities with Danielewski's writing by reinforcing the idea that things are not always what they seem. Haunted and Hello have the potential to impact a listener's/reader's view of House of Leaves by reinforcing many of the ideas perpetuated about the novel, its characters, and entertainment as a whole by Mark Danielewski. Poe's repeated use of contradiction forces the reader to stop and think about Danielewski's material. The true benefit to readers is that much of the material Poe chooses to emphasize is material which the average reader could simply gloss over. Through her music, Poe forces readers to consider Danielewski's work in depth rather than seeing details as diegetic fluff. The end result for the reader is a greater understanding of House of Leaves, both in the context of the plot and Danielewski's message, by realizing the one cannot accept everything at face value.

Contradictions are a prevalent theme for both Danielewski and Poe. Poe's work is quite clever in that it commonly appears to contradict itself as well as Danielewski's work. For example, the track Five and a Half Minute Hallway may initially seem to stand in stark contrast to Danielewski's representation of the dark, mysterious, polymorphic hallway that appears in Navidson's house. Danielewski portrays the hallway and its branching corridors to be dreadful and frightening. Given that, one would expect the music of a song named after the hallway to be very moody, atmospheric, or even chilling. However, Poe takes a different route and the musical score of Five and a Half Minute Hallway is slow and mellow. It is completely devoid of the jarring noises and dark undertones one would expect.

By creating such a drastic contradiction, Poe forces the listener to truly consider House of Leaves and the point Danielewski makes. When the song's lyrics are considered, a parallel can be drawn easily enough to Navidson's trek back to the house proper after the rescue attempt on Exploration #4. Stranded at the bottom of the Spiral Staircase, Navidson has to try his best to journey out of the labyrinth. Considering the height of the staircase based upon Tom's dropping of a quarter, Navidson realizes his situation is essentially hopeless. However, he moved onward regardless. Rather than succumbing to fear or even madness, Navidson prevails by focusing on his family. His thoughts of Karen save him as he remembers her "as vividly as possible. In as much detail. Eventually [he] went into this daze and the hours began to melt away. Felt like minutes." (323)

While Navidson has a rather optimistic take on the matter, it should still be clear that it would not be physically possible for him to walk a distance greater than the diameter of the Earth on the small amount of food and water he had available. Rather, Navidson's thoughts literally transform the hallway into a much smaller, shorter rendition which allowed him to reach Karen. While a reader might be tempted to give the whole matter up to coincidence and luck, Five and a Half Minute Hallway completely nullifies that possibility. While stuck in a "hallway that keeps growing", Navidson did not give in to hopelessness. Instead he achieved some degree of inner clarity in thinking about Karen. He was able to convince himself, just like the song's lyrics, to continue for just a little bit further. Navidson's level of peace melds perfectly with the song's folksy quality and is suggestive of tranquility. Thus readers/listeners come to understand that while the song contradicts the hallway, it is only superficially about the hallway to begin with. Instead, Navidson's journey is the true focal point of the track. The song does not allow the reader to miss the nuances of the house which prove that it, much like the song itself, is not entirely what it seems and can be altered by the mindset of the individual within.

Poe's contradictions do not stop there and indeed they become even further layered within themselves as the album progresses. The track House of Leaves initially seems to be a song which matches with the novel perfectly. Only after further consideration can it be seen to possibly contradict. Just as Danielewski layers the narrative throughout the novel, Poe likewise layers the meaning within each of her tracks. Once again, nothing can be taken at face value without deep consideration.

The track initially seems like a perfect fit for the book since the entire feel of the song is extremely dark. The score is slow and deep, with occasional high-pitched elements screeching forth at what seems to be random. The composition would be quite fitting for a horror movie and thus likely mimics the feeling that most readers would assume the house to give off. However, the song is not merely an instrumental and in the background another track plays. Similarities arise again; Danielewski has a story inside of a story in his novel House of Leaves while Poe has a song inside of a song in her track of the same name. The song is Dominique, a French song by The Singing Nun. Dominique clashes profoundly with the track House of Leaves. It has a very upbeat, almost jovial tune about it. When listening to it, once can almost imagine a Frenchman walking down the street in the middle of the 20th century with a spring in his step, humming the tune. The lyrics themselves are even positive. It is about the man Dominique who goes from sinner to believer, lonely to in company, starving to fed. Essentially, Dominique believes and good things happen. (Song Facts)

The instrumental for Poe's track fits quite well in relation to the house depicted by Danielewski. By the same token, Dominique mirrors Navidson himself during his previously described escapades surrounding Exploration #4. However, the two contradict one another sharply. As the track plays out, the parts of Dominique being played in the background are frequently overpowered by the dark overtones of House of Leaves and the cacophony it can generate. Again, though, it serves to emphasize the same point as Five and a Half Minute Hallway. Navidson was against the odds as the house attempted to overpower him in his return to Karen. By having faith, this time in himself rather than in a higher power like Dominique, he was able to overcome. By layering contradictions on top of one another, Poe again forces the reader to understand the nature of the house and the factors which allowed Navidson to persevere where others, such as Holloway, failed.

Yet another track, Dear Johnny, establishes no direct contradiction of its own but instead chooses to focus on a contradiction Danielewski himself uses in the novel. A superficial reading of the novel might lead one to consider Johnny's predicament as his own fault. After all, Johnny's life has become dominated by putting together Zampano's work with The Navidson Record. To regain his life, Johnny simply has to stop working with Zampano's material. However, this is yet another facet of the novel which cannot be simply taken at face value. Instead, a deeper inspection is required to see that Johnny's mental state will not allow him to stop working with Zampano's material. He has no choice but to persist because he believes that, to some degree, he is a product of The Navidson Record and that, in a monumental contradiction, he is not creating it but that it is creating him. In reference to Zampano's material, Johnny actually claims that "... this thing has created me..." and goes on to say "... I am nothing more than the matter of some other voice". (326) He even takes such an idea literally when he says Zampano is "trapped inside me, and what's more he's fading..." (338)

Johnny's ideas may seem little more than nonsense, especially to readers who refuse to believe that his mental state is anything other than normal and healthy. To such individuals, the possibility for Johnny to simply walk away from Zampano's work may still exist. Poe's work with Dear Johnny refutes there being any possibility for Johnny to move against the act of re-creating The Navidson Record. Not a typical song, it consists of just over two dozen words that form a message to Johnny, ending with the demand of:

"Bring me to the blind man who
Lost you in his house of blue."

The line forms a command, issued to Johnny to bring forth Zampano. Of course, since he died Zampano himself cannot literally be presented. However, the line can be understood to mean that bringing someone to Zampano is the same as bringing his work to light. The track essentially acts like a voice in Johnny's head, telling him to finish his work. However, in this case the lyrics alone are far from settling the matter. Rather, the instrumental score solidifies Poe's case. Much like House of Leaves, the song features strong, dark undertones. It also features occasional high pitched effects, such as whistles. A piano appears sporadically to add an almost haunted feel to the track. Most importantly, a gong rings out in the background at set intervals. The overall effect achieved by the gong is to supplement the dark atmosphere with some degree of profoundness; it signifies that something deep and important is taking place. Given the musical score, the command posed by the lyrics becomes something more. It becomes an ultimatum.

Johnny's inner mentality is not just suggesting he should continue Zampano's work. It is not even ordering him to finish it. Instead, it is giving him absolutely no choice in the matter with the implicit threat of worse consequences should he choose otherwise. By focusing on the contradiction that exists between Johnny's point of view and the actions of a rational person, Poe forces the reader to understand Johnny's plight. He is not completing The Navidson Record out of any true desire of his own to see it completed, beyond the possibility of containing it, or to honor Zampano. Instead, he works on it because in the recesses of his mind the decision is not his to make.

Surprisingly enough, one of Poe's most contradiction-laden tracks comes from her Hello album. The track, Angry Johnny, presents the listener with contradictions in every form possible. The track is melodic with soft, almost sensual vocals. While the tone alone would not likely make anyone listening believe the song to be laced with happiness, it would also not indicate that the song is about murder, which is precisely the case. The easy, smooth track that could be found in a jazz lounge is mixed with lyrics on the various locations, mindsets, and composures for committing murder.

The music video for the song adds yet another dimension to the contradiction. Poe is shown on a bed amidst various objects suggesting romance: pictures, hearts, flowers, and chocolate. Such visuals support the jazz room-like quality of the music, and as such they clash just as strongly with the song's lyrics. It is not until after three minutes into the song that the lyrics are sung with a more aggressive tone and visuals such as a skull with a candle are used to remind viewers of the true meaning behind the song. While that meaning could easily stand alone, it also correlates strongly to Danielewski's depiction of Johnny.

Repeated throughout the song is the line "I want to blow you... away." The initial connotation the listener is likely to develop is sexual before the line finishes, denoting murder. Poe draws a connection between sex and murder; one turns into the other. It makes another contradiction since, at least in a pure sense, sex would suggest love while murder lends to hatred. The connection is not an empty one, however, especially when considering Johnny and Lude. Before being overwhelmed by The Navidson Record, Johnny's life is a menagerie of drugs and one night stands. He and Lude both revel in their ability to sleep with dozens of women a month and while Johnny often seems as though he wishes for more, it is never enough to cause him to alter his behavior. Regardless, when Johnny considers a list compiled by Lude of women he slept with in a month, he adds his own notes on their past, all of which he assumes to be horrific. Included are comments such as "hiding from a stalker", "had her first abortion when she was twelve", and "date raped last year". (265) He assumes all of these women to be emotionally damaged.

The true contradiction is that Johnny takes the concept of sex and renders it meaningless in regard to the concept of love. Rather, sex is typically accomplished for the carnal pleasures of sex itself. On several occasions Johnny makes it clear that he would desire a stronger, more serious relationship. Near the beginning of the novel he obviously feels rather strongly for Clara English. Since falling out with Clara, Johnny has a several encounters with different women, some of which have potential for meaning, if not necessarily love. These include Hailey, for whom he experiences some feelings of pity, Tatiana, through whom he gains insight and wisdom in several ways, and Thumper, who Johnny perhaps comes the closest to actually loving and yet she is also the one with whom Johnny never sleeps.

Indeed, Johnny actually makes a contradiction against love with his “relationships”. He never truly connects to the women with whom he has sex. Pity was involved with Hailey, something which, had the relationship progressed beyond a simple night of sex, could have led to understanding, empathy, and perhaps even greater emotions beyond that. Instead, Johnny never deals with her again and she remains only has a remnant in his memory. Such an experience contrasts sharply with Thumper. Johnny sees Thumper as the epitome of the perfect woman. Time and again he seems to express legitimate feelings for her. However, she remains the one woman Johnny obsesses over yet with whom he does not sleep. For Johnny, sex is about living for the moment and escaping from the issues that present themselves to him. It does not correlate with love or understanding.

Given some of his fantasies about her, it is clear that Johnny would most certainly like to sleep with Thumper, or at least would have liked to do so earlier in the book. By the time he has an opportunity, however, he is forced to deny it because in his mind sex and love, or any type of relationship, make no connection. Johnny makes no pursuit of the women he sleeps with and it leads to a complete reversal of what people would commonly expect from a relationship or even interaction between genders. Johnny does not meet women and try to establish any type of deep connection with them. Instead, he meets them and immediate sex and drugs are the key. Thus, Johnny's actions carry a strong connection to Angry Johnny. In the song, Poe establishes that sex leads to hate, aggression, and simple negativity as a whole. Johnny's life exemplifies this since his own sexual interactions which, though not always leading to negativity like they do with Kyrie, still most certainly do not lead him to love.

By forcefully establishing such a strong contradiction throughout Angry Johnny, Poe exemplifies how Johnny's constant sexual exploits never lead to love like one would expect. Rather, love is ideologically murdered and replaced by a mindset which impedes Johnny's very ability to attain what he desires. Again, it establishes a level of sense, twisted as it may be, to Johnny's actions throughout the novel. The reader is unable to simply gloss over the fact that Johnny has sexual encounters with many women and make the quick assumption that Johnny is a playboy doing what he enjoys. Instead it provides further insight into the story by establishing the fact that Johnny's actions are more than they seem.

Throughout Haunted and Hello, Poe consistently emphasizes and supports the ideas presented by Danielewski in House of Leaves. Essentially, Poe's albums present the same ideas and occasionally even a different take on the same events as Danielewski's novel. Indeed, it could even be seen as yet another re-telling of House of Leaves; it is simply another layer on the tale. Zampano has his creation of The Navidson Record, Johnny has his piecing together of The Navidson Record along with his own notes, the editors of House of Leaves present their version of Johnny's overall work, and finally Poe casts her telling of the material presented to readers. The fact that in doing so she chose to present the same themes and the same mentality as are presented in the novel makes a strong statement. Just as Danielewski and Poe are siblings, their works are siblings to one another. House of Leaves, Haunted, and Hello all portray the same messages, often achieved via the same means. By constantly using contradiction throughout her work, Poe is able to draw attention to some of the more subtle messages found within Danielewski's writing by forcing him or her to consider the circumstances and details which relate the two pieces and which allow the contradictions to make sense.

Works Cited

Danielewski, Mark Z. House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000.

Poe. Haunted. Atlantic Records, 2000.

Poe. Hello. Atlantic Records, 1995.

Song Facts. - Dominique English translation.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

This is focused, detail-oriented, interesting and well-defended from beginning to end: by any standards, it's a genuinely good essay. Your relentless focus on contradictions is very nice; my one unfulfilled wish is for the contradictions to somehow add up to something - to some kind of higher reality after they have been encountered. In other words, what does one do with this maze of contradictions?

As far as your explorations of the contradictions themselves, I thought they were, by and large, excellent. Some of the small details - like your analysis of the gongs (I would have pushed this farther: gongs typically signify religion, which is something we encounter in Navy's final journey) really make your point, song by song.

My biggest nitpick is your analysis of the video itself - did Poe have artistic control over it? I believe that videos usually have heavy studio involvement. That's a minor point, though.

In short: excellent, detailed essay, with only minor flaws and an ok conclusion that might have done something more ambitious.