What Makes a House a Home?: The Changing State of the American Family through Marcuse, Danielewski and Ware
By RJ Sepich
Narrative & Technology, Dr. Johns, Spring 2013
The once-sacred and traditional American household has crumbled. The statistics about what it means to be an average “family” living in a “house” or “home” in the United States of America have greatly shifted in recent decades. According to numbers from the United States census bureau, the average number of children an American woman gives birth to in her lifetime has been cut in half since the 1950s, dropping from almost four kids per women to just less than two children per women currently. Even more telling about the trend of domesticated America are the numbers regarding the composition of families. In 1950, about ninety-three percent of families with children under the age of eighteen were taken care of by married couples. But over recent decades, that number has slowly but surely plummeted, and in 2010 roughly only sixty-eight percent of kids lived under roofs with married-couple parents. Households run by single mothers and single fathers now make up the difference that has developed, with statistics showing that the single mother raising her children is much more common than the single father raising his.
German philosopher Herbert Marcuse noticed this shifting attitude that was already leading to a different household atmosphere when he wrote his book One-Dimensional Man in 1964. “It has often been noted that advanced industrial civilization operates with a greater degree of sexual freedom,” Marcuse explained before discussing how the marketability of sexualized businessmen and businesswomen permeated the American lifestyle of the 1960s, which led to more sexuality throughout culture and, in turn, less privacy and stability at home. “The corrosion of privacy in massive apartment houses and suburban homes breaks the barrier which formerly separated the individual from the public existence and exposes more easily the attractive qualities of other wives and other husbands” (Marcuse Chapter 3). As Marcuse pointed out almost 40 years ago, husbands and wives are not afraid to express their sexuality and personalities in public like they were back in the 1950s and further back in time, and the numbers validate his observation of a definitely changing landscape with regards to the “family” and “the home” in American culture. As a result of this constantly expanding sexuality and numerous other factors, it’s pretty well known that about fifty percent of marriages in this country culminate in divorce, and when the former husband and wife produce offspring together, oftentimes the children are the ones affected the most by the divorce. But what does this really say about America? Why is it important? Well, it is important to me because I am one of the increasing number of kids who grew up with divorced parents, living with one parent for a few days at a time and then living with the other parent for another couple days before repeating the endless cycle. (At least I wasn’t one of the kids completely shut off from one of his or her parents.) It matters because millions of American children are growing up with two homes and two families, which actually means they don’t really have anywhere to call “home”. And it matters because if the trend continues at its alarmingly swelling pace for another couple decades, eventually there will be no traditional homes as we knew them, no traditional families as we knew them, and no economic or social stability in our once-great country. The destruction of the trademark American family that used to lay the groundwork for our nation’s future but now has become borderline nonexistent is finally beginning to become an issue discussed more and more throughout media and literature, and two of the best modern storytellers, Mark Z. Danielewski and Chris Ware, both referenced and rhetorically commented on the deteriorating American home in their recent works.
Although Danielewski’s book House of Leaves and Ware’s graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan differ significantly in the amount of traditional writing used to tell each respective story, both books frequently utilize complex visual elements that delve into this growing national problem. One of the main themes in both of Danielewski’s and Ware’s comprehensive and brilliant works is the abstract concept of what exactly defines a “house”. Danielewski always writes the word in blue to further emphasize its importance—and he even uses it in the title of his book—while Ware’s work with the complicated idea deals more with what exists on a day-to-day basis within the usual house: the family. There is one particular section in each respective work that I believe presents the reader with a similar image of a house gradually deteriorating into nothing.
Beginning on page 119 of House of Leaves, Danielewski introduces a seemingly random blue box on the page that is filled with a list of items used in the construction of a house. Considering his use of blue when typing the word “house” throughout the book, it is fair to say that this blue box should be viewed as a emblematic representation of a home, especially given the lengthy written list within it that includes just about everything that could ever be used to add to the foundation of a house. For the next twenty pages, the “house” remains filled with this ridiculously long list of objects. During this time, the “house” is always safely protected by a slightly changing, but fairly consistent block of text surrounding it. But on page 141, Danielewski’s “house” suddenly begins to deteriorate. Only about half of the blue box is filled with text, and even the block of words around it isn’t as stable. However, the main passage of words on the page near the box, which is quoted from a 1990 New York Times article by Andy Grundberg about photography, hugely represents Mark Z. Danielewski’s view of the “house” in a very indirect form:
“In the future, readers of newspapers and magazines will probably view news pictures more as illustrations than as reportage, since they will be well aware that they can no longer distinguish between a genuine image and one that has been manipulated. Even if news photographers and editors resist the temptations of electronic manipulation, as they are likely to do, the credibility of all reproduced images will be diminished by a climate of reduced expectations. In short, photographs will not seem as real as they once did” (Danielewski 141).
Danielewski creates fake sources for a lot of his footnoted information in House of Leaves, but this is not one of those instances, and I believe that this fact is vitally important to notice at this particular moment of the book. What is also imperative to notice is that beyond writing about photography and art, Andy Grundberg also wrote numerous obituaries for the New York Times. I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that on the same page the blue-block “house” begins to deteriorate, Danielewski quotes a real-life obituary journalist from one of the planet’s most recognizable newspapers. The message of this crucial page is very clear to me: Grundberg’s rumination about the future of newspaper photography stands as a metaphor for the decline of the American home. Seemingly perfect households no longer get the benefit of the doubt in this country as less and less homes abide by social norms; everyone always views happy families with skepticism, knowing there must be some dirt or gossip just waiting to be uncovered. Essentially, page 141 of House of Leaves hints at Danielewski’s belief that the American house is not as real as it once was; it has transformed into a photograph constantly being photoshopped.
This belief exposes itself further in the ensuing pages of the book. Flipping House of Leaves to page 143, the blue box is now all of a sudden completely empty with no protective chunk of writing surrounding it. Flipping again to page 145, and the box is gone altogether, replaced by white space surrounded by some new text. On page 147, some text begins to fill in the area where the blue box originally was, but there are no remaining remnants of the box shape. Flip over to page 149, and there are more words where the box used to be just a few pages ago. And by the end of chapter nine on page 151, the entire area where the box stood is filled with a block of text, which perhaps could be understood to be a new box-like figure beginning to form in its place as a replacement.
Danielewski’s interpretation of what the “house” truly means in modern American culture can be extracted from this brief section of an incredibly dense book, and, as Natalie Hamilton points out in her scholarly journal article “The A-Mazing House: The Labyrinth as Theme and Form in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves”, by later ending the story with its two main characters—Navidson and Karen—escaping the haunted house that seems hell-bent on killing them together, “the novel implies that their love for each other brings them safely out of their individual labyrinths” (Hamilton 7). With his negative opinion about the ongoing destruction of the house in society declared earlier in the novel in the passage I just pointed out, here we have a moment where Danielewski suggests with positive insinuations that love can indeed repair or escape any broken household, even when it is stretched well beyond its limits (pun intended).
A similar extremely visual series occurs early in Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan. All on the same page at the beginning of the graphic novel about a protagonist with a problematic relationship with his sketchy father, Ware creates four main panels of the same place at different moments in time. In the top left, the panel is sideways with a nice new house in the late winter/early spring, presumably waiting for a family to begin living in it. In the top right panel, the house is right-side-up in the summer with two cars out front, showing that a family now lives there, with the nice weather suggesting that the family is likely happy and comfortable. Over time though, as the panel in the bottom left depicts, the house begins to show age and only one car is parked outside in the fall, representing a diminishing of the family living there. And in the bottom right panel of the page, the house is suddenly gone completely in the winter, leaving behind only the tree that stood beside it for so many years to show that this is indeed the same area where the house stood. A small red bird, which appears throughout the graphic novel, is in the middle two frames, representing a significant change in time and letting readers know that the house didn’t just dissolve in thin air over night, but instead it eroded over a period of years (Ware). Matt Godbey, an English professor at the University of Kentucky, noticed several of these moments where Ware pays great attention to detail when drawing several pictures of buildings over time throughout Jimmy Corrigan, and Godbey believes that, “Ware thus offers a new perspective on the dwellings where we live and, more importantly, shows their importance in preserving the social and public life of our cities”, suggesting that Ware wants his readers to know that how we take care of our architecture—everything from homes to business, both figuratively and literally—could determine where we are headed as a society in the future (Godbey 124).
As I mentioned from the very beginning of this essay, the styles of these two authors differ greatly in numerous facets, but their end result reaches a similar ending point. Danielewski gives a more abstract metaphor of a declining house before offering a sliver of hope, while Ware often shows a concrete (sometimes literally) representation of an aging building to display his more pessimistic outlook on homes and families, which could be possibly interpreted as ending with his main character, Jimmy Corrigan, committing suicide in rather saddening fashion by jumping off a building with his favorite childhood superhero, Super Man. But regardless of their separation in methods of attack, there’s no denying that these two men both want their readers to ponder a similar question by the time they are finished with the book: What exactly makes a house a home? And as Marcuse and these more modern storytellers all reference, it’s glaringly obvious from the inclination of the statistics and the overall American culture that keeping a family together just isn’t as valued as it once was many decades ago. There’s a popular cliché that I’ve heard far too many times in my life that says “home is where the heart is”, but Marcuse pointed out long ago that the heart of Americans seems to be so caught up in sexuality, success, politics and numerous other materialistic and possessive ideals that many people have forgotten about something that used to be more important than anything else: their home lives with their family:
“This liberation of sexuality (and of aggressiveness) frees the instinctual drives from much of the unhappiness and discontent that elucidate the repressive power of the established universe of satisfaction. To be sure, there is pervasive unhappiness, and the happy consciousness is shaky enough-a thin surface over fear, frustration, and disgust. This unhappiness lends itself easily to political mobilization; without room for conscious development, it may become the instinctual reservoir for a new fascist way of life and death. But there are many ways in which the unhappiness beneath the happy consciousness may be turned into a source of strength and cohesion for the social order” (Marcuse Chapter 3).
This passage from One-Dimensional Man can be read numerous different ways. But to me, it seems that Marcuse approves of the “liberation of sexuality” that he claims allows the mind to free itself from repression of home life and “the established universe” because it leads to more political awareness, ensuring that fascist regimes don’t take over. As he appears to support the twentieth-century trend of increased sexuality and individualism, despite its obvious downgrading of the priority of home life, it is important to remember that Marcuse is a Marxist—he is often referred to as “Father of the New Left”—and that his political and social beliefs drive this thought process. But his recognition of this transformation in American society is still very important to notice, even for my argument’s sake.
In conclusion, I firmly disagree with what Marcuse would argue about the positives of a world filled with sexuality, extreme amounts of expression and revolution because of the potential further harm it would cause to an already increasing amount of American households that are losing stability and cohesiveness, as referenced throughout House of Leaves and Jimmy Corrigan by Mark Z. Danielewski and Chris Ware, respectively. It personally saddens me to think that while people enjoy exclaiming that “home is where the heart is”, it is becoming increasingly apparent to me and many, many other writers and journalists that the heart of the American people certainly isn’t at home anymore. About a half century ago, Herbert Marcuse noticed this worrying (or not worrying, depending on who you are and what you believe) change in society. And it certainly remains true today. As Mark Z. Danielewski suggests in the index of House of Leaves, the blue house appears everywhere, but the house written in black DNE.
"Census Bureau Homepage." Census Bureau Homepage. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.
Danielewski, Mark Z. Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.
Godbey, Matt. "Chris Ware's "Building Stories", Gentrification, and the Lives Of/in Houses." The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking. Ed. David M. Ball and Martha B. Kuhlman. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2010. 121-30. Print.
Hamilton, Natalie. "The a-mazing house: the labyrinth as theme and form in Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves." 50.1 (2008): 3+. . Web. 17 Apr. 2013.
Marcuse, Herbert. One Dimensional Man. London: Sphere, 1968. Print.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.