Reading House of Leaves

DH306, New Media
A page from House of Leaves

A page from House of Leaves

This is my second time through the novel, that great sprawling beast of literature that almost defies definition, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Experimental would be the most base term to use to label it, while Post-Print fiction has recently been assigned, with always the Gothic and Satirical running through the mayhem of categorization. No matter how you view the novel, it is extremely effective. We can debate the story(s), which has its problems and holes, but the unified work achieves something greater than the sum of its parts, much like the titular house.

The key here, I think, is disruption. As we enter the text and begin navigating the relatively straightforward narrative (albeit with interruptions), we think we understand what’s going on. It’s not until later after a gradual increase in tangled textual pathways that we start to become affected by the novel. Our eyes stop following the rules when we see cues, we begin to ignore footnotes, pay closer attention to passages that look like nonsense, which are often rife with meaning where many of the “scholarly” references are a thinly veiled poke at the literary criticism community. In a sense, House of Leaves nurtures us towards a rebellion.

Spend enough time in the novel and you’ll start to understand the idea of a networked narrative (in print form anyway, networked narrative has been running pretty strong for years on this little thing called the Internet). Instead of being a static audience, we become involved in the novel, holding reversed passages up to mirrors, following a labyrinth of footnotes that lead back and forth up and down through the story, flying through pages that only contain a single letter, and digging for meaning in the massive chunks of impenetrable text. HoL elevates the reader to participant, and encourages exploration. Once you unearth something hidden–the (purposeful?) misspelling of a word in a dubious location, perhaps–you start digging deeper, until you find yourself lost among the halls that vex the novel’s own characters.

In its decade plus history, HoL has created a frenzied analysis online, notably centered at the HoL Forum. I’ll leave the deconstruction for now, because I think the truly stimulating part of the novel is how it showcases a more three-dimensional story telling approach. This is serious out-of-the-box territory, where you don’t need a coherent narrative, or even a coherent narrator, and instead offer the reader choices that give them real power over how they experience the story. Are you going to read everything straight through, bobbing and weaving through the typefaces and footnotes while trying to maintain some semblance of self? Or will you read only certain narratives at a time? Perhaps just pick a page at random and start there? How about beginning at the index, following entries that catch your eye?

The book is a great example of all these things, but when we apply the same kind of open-ended approaches to online communities and the capabilities of tech, we can further enrich literature to become something never ending. What if you could comment on certain passages, leaving your voice there for the next reader to find? What if you could make notes, point out connections, and then share these with others to build upon? What if you could add a chapter of your own creation?

We’ve spent a little bit of time talking about the Digital Humanities and about how hard it is to nail down definitions or directions, only reaching the consensus that it’s important, innovative, and “the thing” for moving the human experience into ones and zeroes. HoL is like that too. The possibilities are endless, the snaking hallways and seemingly banal lists of texts are affecting something subconscious, stimulating new pathways for us to explore. Pair these concepts with the idea of the “deformed” digital humanities and you get something really exciting just around the next corner.

5 thoughts on “Reading House of Leaves

  1. I think you hit on a critical comparison regarding the inability to define both HOL and digital humanities. Thus, Jesse’s use of HOL as the “textbook” for digital humanities is appropriate. I love this connection!

    1. Thanks Carrie. I don’t know why, but I actually really enjoy the “non-definable” part of Digital Humanities (and the book too, obviously). There’s something really exciting about the almost limitless directions DH seems capable of.

  2. “Experimental would be the most base term to use to label it, while Post-Print fiction has recently been assigned, with always the Gothic and Satirical running through the mayhem of categorization” I really liked this quote from your post. Its interesting how obsessed with being able to label things humans are. HoL doesn’t fit well into any category and I don’t think it really ever will.

  3. I almost did add a chapter of my own actually. All of the pages that had one word, or just a few scattered ones made my brain itch to fill them in. Those pages messed with my head more than the ones that required you to turn the book completely around. I stopped reading for a few days to try to keep up with my other reading for school, and it felt like a whole new novel. I had no idea where to begin, even though my bookmark was showing me the right page to start on. I can’t imagine that it is possible, but it seems like a book that you should read straight through without pausing.

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