Modeling House of Leaves
“If the work demanded by any labyrinth means penetrating or escaping it, the question of process becomes extremely relevant. . . . In order to escape then, we have to remember we cannot ponder all paths but must decode only those necessary to get out.” (Zampanò, qtd. in House of Leaves, p. 115)
With its themes of echoes, expansion, and exploration, and a structure that enacts these very themes, House of Leaves the novel seems to invite a kind of mapping that the fictional house on Ash Tree Lane resists. For this inquiry you will draft a “model” or a “map” — not necessarily a geographic map — that highlights spatial, temporal, thematic, or structural elements of House of Leaves. The project is due in class on Wednesday, March 4.
A “map” does not necessarily have to be a cartographic map; in fact, the last thing I want is a faithful map of all the “places” in the novel. Rather, by “map” I mean a model: an abstract visual representation of some element of the novel that captures its complexity and reveals a pattern or set of relations that a straightforward reading might overlook. The concentric circles we might draw circumscribing the hierarchy of narrative voices in House of Leaves is one example of a “map,” although for the purposes of this inquiry, that map oversimplifies narrative relations.
In an article called “Graphs, Maps, and Trees,” the critic Franco Moretti makes a case for creating what he calls literary maps:
What do literary maps do . . . First, they are a good way to prepare a text for analysis. You choose a unit — walks, lawsuits, luxury goods, whatever — find its occurrences, place them in space . . . or in other words: you reduce the text to a few elements, and abstract them, and construct a new, artificial object. A model. And at this point you start working at a ‘secondary’ level, removed from the text: a map, after all, is always a look from afar — or is useless, like Borges’s map of the empire. Distant reading, I have called this work elsewhere; where distance is however not an obstacle, but a specific form of knowledge: fewer elements, hence a sharper sense of their overall interconnection. Shapes, relations, structures. Patterns. (New Left Review 26 (2004), p. 94)
There are a number of ways to approach this inquiry. For examples of different kinds of mapping visualizations, browse through the Periodic Table of Visualization Methods. I encourage you to be creative and to make use of any style or tool necessary. You can be as low-tech or high-tech as you want; your map can be hand-constructed or you can use sophisticated mapping software like Bubbl.us or CMap, or other digital data visualization tools, such as those highlighted here, here, or here.
Whatever form your “map” takes, be sure to include a legend or key that explains the information represented.
Once your map and legend are complete, you can turn to the next part of the inquiry. In roughly 4-5 pages, reflect upon what your model reveals about House of Leaves. How does this abstract model of the novel encourage a “distant reading” and what does that reading tell us? How does the map reveal qualitative or quantitative aspects of the novel that would elude a typical close reading? Also, walk us through your thinking process: what element(s) of the novel were you trying to convey, and why did your “map” take the shape it did? Finally, how does your map succeed, and what are its limitations?