Estrangement of House of Leaves Through "Haunted"
Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves has the unique characteristic of having an accompanying studio album: “Haunted” by Poe, Mark’s own sister. The two works were released months apart in the year 2000. Because of the closeness of the release dates, the relationship between creators, and the similarity in topics and mood of the two, the works should be examined as colluding, possibly even complimentary, pieces. When simultaneously analyzed, a phenomenon of estrangement results from the diametric nature of the dominating speakers of each work. Listening to the Goth-Pop album “Haunted” by Poe offered a polarizing voice to the voices of House of Leaves: a dominant feminine voice. House of Leaves is pervaded by three male primary speakers, Johnny, Zampano, and Will Navidson. The story breaks from this domination only by a later discovery of narrative control from female speaker, Karen. But the foiling, powerful, and characteristically female voice of “Haunted” brought greater attention to the relentless masculine-centric plot and feeling of House of Leaves.
The dominant male voice of House of Leaves begins with Johnny and his friend Lude (notice the name). The pair spends their leisure time “chasing tail” with extremely demeaning methods. The voice of the narrator, Johnny, inserts stories related to Zampano’s writing; stories which, at the beginning of the book, are nearly invariably about conquest of some woman. The only features Johnny ever acknowledges about a woman are their genitalia and, occasionally, some other physical feature. His deepest infatuation is with the stripper, Thumper. He recklessly flirts and sleeps with married, engaged, and dating woman, and offers nothing more to them. But this is only Johnny’s hobby, because his main occupation lies in the devotion to the stories of men: compiling and interpreting Zampano’s writings of the Navidson Record. As House of Leaves progresses, Johnny loses his interest in having sexual relations with women, or even exiting his home. He has forfeited even his interest in Thumper, and turns full attention and energy to the life of Zampano and fictional story of Navidson. His debilitating focus is marked by the last significant sexual encounter he has with an eighteen year old named Hailey. Johnny’s obsession has become so severe that he alienates his female partner by screams in the night and the strange nature of his apartment. Any amount of significant female contact while compiling Zampano’s writings is terminated with his last phone call with Thumper. “Beautiful as her voice is, it is not strong enough to draw me from this course. Where eight months ago I’d have been already out the door. Today, for whatever sad reason, Thumper no longer has any influence over me.” During their conversation, it is shortly after he turns down an opportunity to see her that the phone company disconnects his line, silencing the sole remaining female voice in Johnny’s life (Danielweski).
Because Johnny has entirely suppressed all female voices, he cannot be distracted from the manuscript of Zampano, whose writings focus on the story of a fiction photographer, Navidson. These next levels of narration are notably focused on the adventures of man conquering the unknown, while exploiting women. Johnny informs us of the numerous female guests he had to read literature for him. “Exhibit B, Bits” is vital in a deeper understanding of Zampano’s relationship with these women. The editors inform us that a number of these brief passages are “written by someone else,” possibly one of his female visitors (Danielweski). Bit [J] on page 545 reveals how Zampano treats the women: “Goddamn!... Yes, of course write it down! Write down all of it down! Everything I say!.... Goddamn her wrong!” This conveniently displays that Zampano is both using a woman, and abusing her to write his masculine reflection through the Navidson Record. This is emphasized further by Bit [H], where he not so subtly calls his female ghost writer garbage. And in his account of the Navidson Record he occasionally viciously demeans the sole female character, Karen. She is carefully portrayed as an unsupportive, insubordinate, adulterous wife. This is in contrast to the sympathy with which Navidson is portrayed as he disregards his wife’s wishes in order to pursue the knowledge of the hallway (Danielweski). Navidson’s relationship with Karen is equivalent to the relationship Zampano and Johnny have with women: satisfying a need, but rejecting attachment in order to continue pursuing knowledge of his respective labyrinth. Zampano is also sure to include detailed discussion on the nobility of defeating a mutiny, justifying Navidson’s pursuit into the hallway. While not entirely obvious that Zampano’s writing reflect a dominating masculine voice, inspecting the nature of the writing and some clues in the Bits, it becomes apparent that The Navidson Record is working to suppress the feminine voice.
In addition to suppressing the feminine voice, House of Leaves has multiple layers of men competing for control. From the top layer of Johnny’s story, there is a constant alpha-male struggle present in the beginning of the book, with echoes of this struggle later in the book. As previously mentioned, Johnny and Lude spend evenings like average young men competing for the attention of women. But Lude also competes for the readers’ attention with his crude and pornographic stories. As Hemmingson details, Lude’s “list of women he has had sex with in the past thirty days… draws away from the issues of The Navidson Record,” (Hemmingson). Additional hyper-masculine behavior is presented in Johnny’s story though the character known as “the Gdansk Man”. He enters the story with the knowledge that Johnny has had a relation with his wife, Kyrie, and, as fitting of the role of an alpha-male, unleashes physical vengeance upon Johnny and Lude. Johnny’s fantasized, hyper-masculine retaliation was to beat the Gdansk Man to death, then rape his wife; but Johnny settles for the mildly less masculine vengeance of beating the Gdansk man to an socially acceptable degree (Danielweski). The alpha-male struggle is continued further in the Navidson Record level between Navidson, and his visitors, especially Holloway. Navidson was feminized by Holloway as he made approaches on Karen, and even more so by Holloway leading the expeditions into his home. Even Will Navidson’s brother Tom felt the insecurities of insignificance to his masculine, successful twin, as evident through the comparison made between the brothers to Jacob and Esau of Genesis (Danielweski). The struggle for alpha-male dominance throughout House of Leaves shows the extent to which the masculine dominates the book.
The sole presence of a female voice in House of Leaves enters with Karen’s creation of What Some Have Thought and A Brief History of Who I Love. This appears to be a shift in the voice House of Leaves, but even though Karen now is able to tell her story, she tells a story about Navidson. Karen’s compilation of What Some Have Though itself contains an underlying, but blatant, tone of suppressing the feminine voice. In these fictional interviews, Karen interviews twelve men and seven women. This is a minor example male domination, but relevant at least. Some more interesting analysis of the voices is how a large portion of interviews end with the interviewee making a pass at Karen. This was done by a handful of the male interviewees and even one, possibly two, of the women. Some more subtle than others, for example Douglas Hofstadter’s explanation of Zeno’s arrow could contain a subtle hint of flirtation as he is implying an arrow getting infinitely close to its target, but never reaching it. In the closing remarks, the women interviewees, in one way or another, only get to say one word or a few if they in some way are not acting as a woman. This contrasts the men, who each say at least three words, but up to even a paragraph. Importantly, this is followed by Johnny’s footnote of Thumper’s voice being cut off, discussed previously. But it cannot be ignored that Zampano is the author of the fictional tale of Karen’s compilations, meaning that Zampano is the direct cause of the suppression of Karen, and the female voice in general, here as he was elsewhere in The Navidson Record.
But these instances of masculine domination could easily be missed, as was the case of my initial reading. It was only upon listening to the companion musical album, “Haunted”, that this aspect was brought to my attention. The general style of the album as a whole contains a strong female lead vocalist (with mostly female supporting vocals and echoes), and the female voice asserting dominance over male voices and traits. The extreme feminism of “Haunted” is what brought my attention to the male domination of House of Leaves. Inspecting various tracks of “Haunted” reveals the numerous ways in which the album supports an overthrow of male dominating voices.
As the album begins with listeners learning, through the experimental track “Exploration B”, about an absent mother, and a father who had just died (Poe "Haunted"), representative of Poe’s exact history (Poe "Poe - Interview"). The first musical track “Haunted” begins the trend of a feminine voice asserting dominance. The commands of the track begin with “Come here, pretty please” but escalate to “Come here, no I won’t say please. One more look at the ghost then I’m gonna make it leave,” in a dominating voice (Poe "Haunted"). The female voice of the track is asserting dominance of the story, which would be representative of Poe asserting dominance of telling her father’s story after he passed away. This is emphasized with the following track, “Control”, in which the female voice declares, in an aggressive tone, that she has taken control. The track ends with sound clips of her father asserting that it is “comical in the idea that we can impose our will upon humanity. Power corrupts,” (Poe "Haunted"). Her father’s voice is countering Poe’s control, yet the female voice remains in control to tell her story. The introduction of the album is focused on a feminine overthrow for control, which is a sentiment that numerous songs on the remainder of the song will echo.
Track “Walk the Walk” acts as a rebellious call to empower the feminine voice and woman’s role. Stylistically, it has definite feel of country music and alternative characteristics, genres fairly dominated by the male voice, and focuses on woman independence from male control. The female voice attempts to inspire women (evidence by the call of “Hey everybody”) to “walk to the beat of [their] own drum” (Poe "Haunted"). In the story of the lyrics, Poe reveals that her mom had her dreams suppressed and her father was the suppressor of creativity and aspirations. This track acts to rebel against male suppression in both genres and the idea that men should be the half that pursues their aspirations.
In tracks like “Not a Virgin” and “Hey Pretty”, Poe takes this sentiment further by demonstrating a gender role reversal with female voice in the position of dominance demeaning and controlling a man. The female voice in “Hey Pretty” is driving the car, typically the man’s role as the driver is in control, and addressing her, presumably male companion as pretty. In “Not a Virgin,” the feminine narrator is relatively proud and boastful about her sexual prowess. With the male background literally suppressed in volume, she asserts her dominance over the man with cockiness in her demand of hearing a true story (Poe "Haunted"). She aggressively disarms the power of demeaning women through “slut-shaming” as the track asserts her sexuality. The song ends with the female voice apologizing to a man, “Oh Sir, I’m sorry,” in an exasperated and sincere tone. But the context of the song implies that this is mocking the idea of a woman having to apologize. These two songs work effectively together to enforce the idea that women should strive to become the dominant voice over anything that is traditionally male-dominated.
However, as the commercial world is not as open to a female dominating voice as the sentiment of “Haunted” emphasize, Poe’s album was not received with general positivity. Alternative radio wanted little to do with the female vocals of the album, despite the popularity of her previously successful neo-feminist song “Angry John” (Farber). Instead, the album grew its fanbase through the new media of music dissemination, the internet, and by touring bookstores with her brother Mark. It was after the base grew that an Atlanta radio station began playing a remixed single of “Hey Pretty.” This remixed song however was dominated by Poe’s vocals being voiced over by a reading of the book from Danielewski (Farber; Poe "Haunted"), literally suppressing the female voice. A historical event like this is the exact suppression that House of Leaves and “Haunted” attempt to bring attention to.
The importance of the overwhelmingly dominant female voice in “Haunted” is that is draws attention to the domination by the male in House of Leaves. According to Herbert Marcuse, one of the most important roles of art is to estrange the audience. He describes the “estrangement effect” as “dissociation in which the world can be recognized as it is,” (Marcuse). “Haunted” effectively shocks listeners with an abrasive female voice, or as Poe puts simply, “people are afraid of the angry woman thing,” (Poe "Poe - Interview"). As a result of this, readers like myself are able to grasp the extent that House of Leaves revolves around the stories and struggles of men. The voices are men, the stories are about men, and the men are in constant competition for control. But the estrangement goes beyond just the two works. The brother-sister novel and album work to estrange their audience of the condition of literature and art: Male-domination. Danielewski’s book is so dominated by stories of masculinity because that is the inevitable result of literature. While Danielewski’s own piece is layered with male voices, the art and literature it references are also stories of men. From the story of King Minos, to the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, to Don Quixote, to philosopher Heidegger, House of Leave redundantly references works about men and written by men. Though Danielewski should hardly be faulted as suppressing the female voice and creativity has been the trend of western culture for millennia. Though the condition has gotten better for the creative woman, the long-term repression has given advantage to the male voice, as important work over a few centuries old will inevitably be voiced by a male. But even contemporary works tend to focus on the masculine. Examining the scope of this course, Portal appears to be the only work that was had pure female domination. While Neuromancer had a powerful female role and Frankenstein was a feminist-sympathetic book, each is superficially voiced through a man. This is the case not only literature, but cinema, music, and various other forms of art. “Haunted” and House of Leaves estrange the audience to this condition of the creative world through their polarizing domination of opposite voices.
Farber, Jim. "Poe's End Run 'Round Radio." Entertainment. New York Daily News July 31, 2001 2001. Print.
Hemmingson, Michael. "What's beneath the Floorboards: Three Competing Metavoices in the Footnotes of Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves." Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 52.3 (2011): 272-87. Print.