In the same way that Heidegger begins “On the Question Concerning Technology” with and introduction that explains how to read the text, Chris Ware and Mark Danielewski address their readers with a set of instructions that explain how to read their inconsistent and perhaps unreliable styles of writing. While Ware uses pictures and academic jargon to address the limitations of images and language, Danielewski uses fictitious academic references and layers of unreliable narrators (who comment on comments), to force us to question the reliability of any story. By only telling a one side of a whole story do these parallel plots join character narratives together, stitching together reality with fantasy on purpose to engage the reader in a more truthful reading, one filled with many layers and perspectives with which to navigate through language and images that may or may not be depictions of reality. Much of the narrative in these novels is not shown to readers, but detailed through the minds of our main characters, revealing the surface level representations of language. Essentially, these authors use frames or academic footnotes that illustrate the passing of time, allow for the formation of parallel stories that comment on each other, and force readers to question whether these forms depict the book’s reality or a characters wondering thoughts.
The passing of time in each novel is depends entirely on the perspective of the narrator, particularly when Jimmy Corrigan drifts into his fantasy, child-like daydreams, which go on for frames at a time that span from the length of a second, depicted as Jimmy sees motion lines coming from a moving object, or full seasons, indicated by a change in leaf color. Readers feel a similar effect in reading the long digressions that spin into depictions of both Johnny and Zampano as characters, as well as their reactions as they analyze this fake story. The passage of time in House of Leaves is controlled by each character’s distinct prose (so distinct that each must be distinguished in their own font), as well as the presentation of the text on the page, ranging from long-winded sentences in which readers lose themselves in the concepts that take hold of our narrators, to quick pages of little text and glossaries of images that tell more parallel stories that add layer and meaning to the storyline. In way, these novels allow both the author and the narrators to manipulate the passing of time, but readers, participating in the struggle to learn the whole story from the given perspective, feel as though time is passing around them.
One of the most common similarities in Jimmy Corrigan and House of Leaves is that they both require an active readership. To understand the narratives, readers must be willing to turn the book around to find the right orientation and order of frames, whether that means starting from the bottom of the page instead of the top, or following long-winded and often made-up footnotes and appendixes to piece together the whole story. Although the footnotes and frames are common styles that an author of a comic book or research book might use, both Ware and Danielewski use them ironically in their pieces to take the reader in and out of these parallel storylines. Ware tells us explicitly in the beginning that his use of visual rhetoric by making up a source from a fake organization he calls Comic Strip Apprehension: “I think it’ll be good, because people like looking at pictures, and I think words have had their day anyway. It’s a media-saturated world where media saturates everything and you can’t think about anything except media saturation all the time…Besides, people are getting less smart everyday everywhere.” (Ware 1). Unconcerned with what is real, Ware uses this quote in a way that satirizes comic strips. Images are an industry monopolized by advertizing, making Ware’s use of academic jargon ironically a statement that pictures can be just as corrupted as language, claiming that “’visual language’ has secretly been used by the military for years.” (Ware 1). Ware then proceeds to use frames that disorient readers, becoming quickly more complex than the dense, academic language that he pairs with his images. Ware uses the frames to pull us through the story, using symbols like the bird and the Chicago cityscape to drag us along to a different point in a different story. Ware uses frames to take us where language cannot, demonstrating Jimmy’s fantasies at the turn of a page, flashing back through symbols to demonstrate the effect of patriarchal lineage, the mixing of visual rhetoric and advertising, forcing us to question what Corrigan’s reality is, and if it is as alienating and sporadic as our own.
House of Leaves also makes use of false academic resources and visual representations to give the reader a layering of realities, rather than one perspective. Although we see that many of these academic footnotes, the whole analyzed documentary, in fact, is a figment of Zampano’s imagination, the word “house” colored blue an effect that perhaps gives insight into why he is writing about this fictitious documentary. On page 38, we see Zampano’s footnote covered in ink, and then a footnote from Johnny commenting on Zampano’s footnote giving the reason why the rest of the translation cannot be recovered. We see this set up throughout the book, giving readers insight into Johnny’s character through his frustration being left with Zampano’s work, as well as tiny pieces of auto-biographical information about his parents. In Zampano’s footnotes, we see comments on the Navidson family and their problem, but it is through Zampano that we receive both real footnotes that translate quotes that tend to add meaning to the chapters (for example, the origins of an echo), and other times they branch into fake literature that comments on the fake documentary. But, instead of this being a pointless look down at the bottom of the page, the act of following the footnote reminds readers that they are constantly seeing language manipulated through several narrators (and editors). Zampano’s fake footnotes range from being esoterically academic (quotations from Metamorphosis and Paradise Lost), to comments that only attempt to give insight on characters like Tom Navidson, who we know are not real. Zampano’s comment to one of this readers that he is proud of being uneducated gives us reason to believe that like Danielewski, like Ware, leaves clues as to what is reality and a character’s fantasy, but largely want their audiences to always be questioning the reliability of the visual and “academic” clues they are receiving.
Ware and Danielewski both begin their stories trying to warp language: Ware by forcing us to consider the history of visual rhetoric and the capacity for pictures to tell a layered, multi-dimensional text, and Danielewski warning the reader of the nightmares and frustration that come along with understanding Zampano’s story, following his footnotes, as well as Johnny’s to piece together meaning from a story that presents itself as false, but become true enough for these characters that they experience many truthful aspects of reality.