After spending a criminal amount of money on a new fan for my computer, it finally came back to life so I could finish last week's essay.
Infinite, Impossible Space
Chapter nine of House of Leaves carries one question with it: How the hell do I read this? Amidst a seemingly endless footnote, there are squares of separate text, some read left to right, others bottom to top. It is, in a word, a mess. A dense, incomprehensible mess. But, amidst all of the chaos, there might just be method behind Mark Danielewski’s apparent madness.
John Brownlee of wired.com wrote, “House of Leaves by Mark E. Danielewski is the progenitor of what I hope will be an entire movement: the metaphysical horror novel, where horrible ideas are explored with nauseous dread. In House of Leaves' case, the idea is explored in infinite, impossible space.” It was not until I read his article: “How Not to Read House of Leaves” that Danielewski’s methodology began making sense to me. Well, I should not that it made sense to me (because it drives me up a tree whenever I try to read it) but it did help me understand what the author was trying to do.
In one sense, the nontraditional page orientation of chapter nine, at least pages 119 – 152, is meant to disconcert. The plot of House of Leaves is that of a rather simple horror film. Therefore, a literal, visceral feeling of dread is a must if the reader will ever truly understand the horror of the events transpiring. However, without the images and sounds that accompany a film and make an audience frightened and uncomfortable, this is hard to achieve. Danielewski’s response to this problem was to create nontraditional (absolutely insane would be more appropriate) page structures that disorient a reader, making them lose track of details, and most of all, putting them right in the middle of all of the insanity. I liken chapter nine to the movie Fight Club. The scene in which it is revealed to Everyman that he and Tyler Durden are one and the same utilizes fast paced flashbacks, quick camera shifts, and scattershot dialogue to create a feeling of chaos in the scene. The viewer does not just see but can feel everyman’s insanity. That is what Danielewski has achieved in the visual craziness of chapter nine. Writing the process of insanity is an exceedingly difficult one, one that, if executed poorly, only detracts from the work. Rather than swing for the fences but miss spectacularly, Danielewski chose to show the reader his book’s insanity instead of simply telling the reader that his main character might be losing his mind. Readers can see the madness of The Navidson Record for themselves and consequentially, can tell why it is making Johnny crazy. In the end, this complex exchange is extremely effective.
Danielewski has replaced the cheap tricks of the horror genre with a much more genuine feeling of insanity. He uses his page structures as opposed to monsters or serial killers to bring out the readers’ fear. Fear, of what though?
House of Leaves is many things, not the least of which is a chronicle of Johnny going insane (at least in his own mind). The reader witnesses his descent first hand but, when presented with sections such as chapter nine, the reader becomes a part of it. As disorientation abounds, combined with the unfamiliarity of that which they are seeing, their mind is left vulnerable to fear. Fear, perhaps, that they are the one going insane? The chaos of the chapter left me questioning my own mind after bushwhacking my way through it, the strangeness of it all taking its toll. In the context of having read the greater story, a reader may begin to feel absorbed by The Navidson Record, dragged to their doom by it just like Johnny. If that is what Danielewski was going for (and I believe he was), it certainly gives a reason behind the book’s orientation.
To take the idea of the chapter’s page orientation one step further, one should examine the feeling of the Navidson Record. It is vast and empty (despite is mass of content), filled with more twists and turns than The Silmarillion. It is purposefully complicated, leading the reader on a goose chase to ultimately be about nothing. With that in mind, the orientation of chapter nine, which is primarily a footnote, seems appropriate. While Zampano takes the reader’s mind for a literary spin in one direction, Danielewski pulls it in another. He wanted to impress upon the reader the utter insanity and ultimate pointlessness of The Navidson Record. Just as it makes a reader feel robbed, wronged, and strangely obsessed, the purposeful page layout makes you feel like a chore – one you must get through because you feel that its gratification is tantalizingly close. But the gratification never comes. As each avenue that the Navidson Record explores only leads to another one, so too does the page layout of chapter nine only lead to deeper visual insanity.
In the end, the page setup of chapter nine serves more to make the reader feel the story emotionally that it does to further it in a literary sense. Some might see this as a waste of time but I disagree. In ten years, I will not remember what Johnny did or who he had sex with in chapter whatever-it-was. I will remember that House of Leaves made me uncomfortable, confused me, and even lead me to question my own sanity. Reactions such as that are why Mark Danielewski set up the book how he did.
PS: Does anyone know why the spacing gets messed up when I paste long pieces into the comment box?