Postmodern Magical Realism

The essay by Flores was really shocking to me in its own unquestioned assumption of authority, scathing critique, and, well, stereotyping. Is this just a ’50’s thing?? It was hard to get past for me. The history of magical realism and its evolution as a reaction to realism is useful, however, in putting magical realism into a larger context among genres, and in putting The People of Paper in a larger context of magical realist works. When Flores states that “The practitioners of magical realism cling to reality as if to prevent ‘literature’ from getting in their way, as if to prevent their myth from flying off, as in fairy tales, to supernatural realms” (191), it seems as if it is only a matter of prose style that separates magical realism from both literary dreck and other genres such as urban fantasy. (Although in the case of urban fantasy, the markers of elves and fairies would probably force it to be categorized as such, even if it were written in the most bleak and spare realist style.)

Recently, my friend got into an impromptu conversation with another girl about what qualifies a work as magical realism. My friend was frustrated that she could not explain to the girl that no, Harry Potter did not qualify as magical realism. I suggested to her that if the characters defined something as magic, then the text wasn’t magical realism, which seemed to work as a guideline for me. However, reading Flores and his more stylistic definition, I wonder how he would differentiate between magical realism and fantasy – or science fiction, which is often written in a more realist style but can still contain unexplained prophesying like Baby Nostradamus’. Apart from the typical content markers of science fiction and fantasy (space ships, wizards, etc.), one of the things that sets them apart from magical realism is their attempt at explanation of the impossible (through magic and science). Flores highlights how Kafka and Camus and other magical realist writers never explain the impossible premise of their tales, but simply move on with the realistic implications of that premise.

Apart from these signs of magical realism, The People of Paper’s postmodernist markers of multivocality, heteroglossia, intrusion of the author, foregrounding the narrative construction, and playful spirit are all present in the style. I found this multivocality much easier to read than House of Leaves’, and especially the ending, with Little Merced and Frederico de la Fe walking off the page (with Baby Nostradamus’ assurances that he knew all the characters’ lives outside the bounds of the novel) made me feel more invested in their characterization. It was odd but when the author revealed himself halfway through I began to feel frustrated, as if the fate of the characters somehow didn’t matter anymore because their construction was *foregrounded*. (Of course all fiction is constructed, but I guess I like to pretend?) However the end seemed to revert to Plascencia as an unreliable narrator with an incomplete view, paradoxically declaring victory only to be distracted by thoughts of his lost love and giving characters the power to walk off his page. As an aside, Saturn and Frederico’s view of men spurred to great achievements only because they suffered the pain of a lost love reminded me of what Russ said about the Whileawayans’ lifelong achievements motivated by the childhood pain of being separated from their mothers.

Syntax and Semantics

Looking at form, The People of Paper has many characteristics of the House of Leaves.  The text does not limit itself to a traditional format or even a single column down the page.  It breaks into seemingly concurrent narratives, each column clearly denoted with its own heading.  The narratives are amended with blackouts and strikethroughs which emphasize the text’s self-awareness as well as the feeling of being in real time, keeping pace with characters’ thoughts and feeling and the revision of these thoughts and feelings.  Incidentally, the typographic revisions also inject emotion.  Instead of writing “And for Liz who taught me that we are all of paper,” Saturn writes, “For Liz who fucked everything” (Palscencia 122).  This statement, identical to the book’s dedication page, contributes to the metanarrative and informs it in a new way.  When we reflect on the dedication page, is there a sense that it will be revised or that it was revised and then returned to its original state?  Is there a feeling of tenderness or hostility?  Again, this calls to mind the House of Leaves’ dedication page, “This is not for you.”  How do we read that?  Is it a static warning?  Is it written with light-heartedness or hostility?  Regardless, the fact that we are considering the dedication page at all is quite postmodern.

Salvador Plascencia excels in his use of grammar and tense.  Like many other Spanish writers, he does not submit to a singular tense; rather, the narratives interweave the past (e.g. 91), present (e.g. 181), future (e.g. 118), and conditional (e.g. 180) tense, expressing the complex relationship between these spheres.  Moreover, Plascencia does not feel clausal shame.  His sentences are inundated with modifiers:  “In the bathtub, while his toes thawed and Cameroon sat in the next room reading impossible books about capturing birds with peppers and salt, Saturn dialed” (236).  By allowing himself the syntactical space, he gains a panoramic lens.

In the tradition of South American writers like Marquez and Borges, he does not fear passive voice.  He does not seem to fret over “telling” his story.  Consequently, he retains a sense of authorial power in the text-above and beyond the metanarrative.  The passive voice evokes a history of story-telling and oral tradition.  In doing so, he points to the power of the narrative in everyday life:  the stories that we tell ourselves and our responsibility in constructing these stories:

Saturn concentrated on the future, staring at her finger and the way it seemed to hover the longest over the ringed planet, and then looked at her face, wondering what it would be like to touch her Gypsy hair again, to wake in her bed and taste her paper lips and write love letters complete with graphs and charts on her paper skin as she slept, so she would wake and say, ‘You wrote all this for me?’ and Saturn would simply nod. (245)

From a thematic perspective, The People of Paper lands antithetical to the House of Leaves.  While Danielewski would have us believe that we have no control over our own narratives, Plascencia emphasizes the pursuit of narrative control rather than end result of that struggle.

Broad spectrum, closed system

I can somewhat understand Adams’s argument about the differences between The Crying of Lot 49 as a closed paranoid space and The Tropic of Orange as an open space.  Still, as much as Tropic of Orange honors diversity and expresses a multi-national vision, there were a couple of images that struck me as Pychon-esqe and drew attention to the restraints of society that could lead to paranoia and anxiety like that of the Cold War era.  

First and most obviously, the contaminated orange scare, while not as devastating as a nuclear attack, is still far reaching in its impact.  Global markets are a wonderful innovation because they allow people to have fresh produce almost everywhere even when something is out of season.  On the other hand though, the different standards of health inspection in different countries and the difficulty of tracing where some imports come from can make a food scare as random and potentially as harmful and frightening as a terrorist attack.

The highways so prominently featured in Crying Lot and Tropic of Orange connect nations and people are a fantastic invention because they allow for greater freedom to movc about and provide for greater transparency and acceptance between cultures.  At the same time though, these paths often become blocked with congestion and accidents, which, far from liberating, can be confining, frustrating, and dangerous.  The character of Manzanar Murakami, the homeless music of the traffic conductor, reminds me of Pynchon and his novel V., which deals with the ideas of closed systems and entropy, the inevitable breakdown of order in any given closed system.  The highways in Tropic become closed, toxic, destructive systems when accidents occur and yet Murakami seems to accept this.  Personally, I hate traffic and traveling, even when I’m speeding along uninterrupted so the idea of someone watching traffic and watching traffic disasters and somehow integrating it into something beautiful, a work of art, is astonishing to me.  Murakami seems to voice Pynchon’s belief that the breakdown of order cannot be avoided so one might as well celebrate.  In the novel V., Pynchon creates a metaphor for the contemporary person, writing that we are all sailors on sinking ships, but we can still paint the ship as it goes down, a sentiment that seems reflected in Murakami.

Another detail in Tropic of Orange that seemed to change the setting into a closed system was the brief exchange at the end of chapter 20.  A woman in the restaurant says ‘”I happen to adore Japanese culture.  What can I say?  I adore different cultures.  I’ve traveled all over the world.  I love living in L.A. because I can find anything in the world to eat, right here'” (129).  The odd thing about this statement is that is takes ethnic diversity and reduces it to a commodity to be consumed, literally.  L.A. becomes a microcosm of the world, a concentrated mass of multi-culturalism.  If one believes that L.A. contains everything one could want from another culture, then hasn’t that other culture been simplified and restricted?

Postmodernism and Place

Sarah briefly mentioned place in her blog post and that got me thinkin’. Since many folks out there have already weighed in on the Adams article, I decided I would go elsewhere with this post and try to make sense of place in some of the novels we have read.

The notion of place seems to be pretty flexible in postmodern texts. In gothic literature, for example, place is often easily described as antiquated. In genres like fantasy and sci-fi, place also fluctuates but tends to follow some basic rules (outer space, past feudal realms). Many people have posted about how difficult it is to place postmodernism within any strict walls or interpretive confines. I agree that this is tricky and as I’ve read books from The Crying of Lot 49 to House of Leaves to Tropic of Orange, I’ve noticed that there don’t seem to be any conventions that strictly define place in postmodernist writing.

As I looked closer I found that there is little overlap in location: Beloved occupies a small space in the rural South; The Crying of Lot 49 takes place in bustling, crowded cities across California. The size of the places also changes: there are the small confines of a house that can also grow to enormous proportions in House of Leaves; the small (but ever-changing) office where much of Lathe of Heaven occurs; Tropic of Orange sprawls all over LA and in Mexico too, across landscapes both vast (the urban ghetto, the highway systems) and localized (the house near Mazatlan). Places can occupy just about any form in postmodern texts, from rural to urban, small to large.

It’s how place feels to the reader and how it is handled by the characters in the stories that I think give many of the places we’ve read about a common characteristic: they are unreliable, sometimes to the point of becoming untrustworthy. Why do I see some of the places in this semesters novels as unreliable? How does this relate to postmodernism?

I don’t think anyone will disagree that the space in House of Leaves is unreliable. The house shifts, it changes, at times it attempts to trap people inside. However, the novel also takes place in the world of Johnny Truant. Johnny begins the novel with some forays into the city, but by the end, he is as shut-in as Zampano, with drapes over the windows and cardboard blocking the vents. Not only does he not trust his own space, he doesn’t trust the space outside.

In Crying of Lot 49, everything seems to be untrustworthy. Oedipa travels around to different cities, and as she does this, I never feel a strong sense of the location. Each city seems the same. What makes them important is that they conceal the hidden clues she so desperately seeks. Each place sends her to a new location, all another stopping point on a journey that leads pretty much nowhere. Those are some unreliable locales.

In Tropic of Orange place seems to be more reliable than these other two, but is it? Crabs in Mazatlan, located hours’ walk from the sea, signify that something isn’t right. Gun shots on the east side may be an every day part of life, but for Buzzworm, it can all be avoided, the space can be reclaimed–from the beuracrats, from the gangsters who do their best to claim it, from the vicious cycles that occupy that space and keep revolving and threatining to never let anyone out. Gabriel’s unreliable space takes the form of a two-headed monster: the quiet Mexico or the bustling LA where he can continue working as a journalist. These spaces all bring with them a strong sense of unreliability. This is not the house you grew up in or the bustling city that represents opportunity. No, these spaces, even when they’re at their best, are ever-changing, sometimes alien landscapes.

Manzanar seems to be one character who finds the space he occupies–highway corridors–to be reliable. However, upon closer expection, we see that they are only reliable as far as his music goes, but not reliable as a whole. Crashes occupy this wide-lane space and Manzanar also summons images of maps. Maps can be reliable, but for anyone who has used one knows they are subject to change. Unexpected, sudden change that leaves you at the end of a dead-end road, just miles from your ultimate destination in the middle of the night, wondering, “what do I do now?” The maps in this book also have layers–“for Manzanar they began with the very geology of the land…” (57). These multi-layered maps become so thick in their complexity and construction as to render them too numerous and too specific to serve much use at all. In chapter 13 Buzzworm thinks about maps and how little they really do to help. He sums this up with the early line, “if someone could put down all the layers of the real map, maybe he could get the real picture” (81). Only if all the layers are assembled can the maps provide a clear picture–and as the tone suggests, this will never happen. So even maps become unreliable in Tropic of Orange.

Some of the other novels we’ve covered also deal with unreliable places, but I felt that these were some of the shining examples. Places change, but their unreliability in postmodern texts seems to be relatively constant.

In postmodernism many aspects of life (language, morals, truth, etc.) are shown as constructs of society that we all end up buying into. In a postmodern novel, the author may investigate these constructs, and in so doing, help shed some light on their existence (the constructs’), which is usually enough to get people thinking. I can’t help but want to channel Saussure when thinking of place, who wrote about the signifier and signified in linguistics. I believe that while he mainly focuses on words, the same can be said for place. The signifier “home” or “city” will mean many different things to any number of different people (the signified). New York is the symbol of American freedom, LA of opportunity and fame, DC of power. However, to the people who visit and occupy these spaces year round, the cities become many different things. This may be part of the reason spaces seem so hard to trust in the works we’ve read. After all, when a space means something different to everyone occupying it, and seems ever-changing, there isn’t a lot to rely on. Just below the surface the labels we apply to certain locales (the peaceful setting of the South, the emblematic American cities) suddenly vanish. Each person takes something different away from their place. Each one views their place differently as well. I believe this root of unreliability is essentially postmodern becauyse it’s not only the observed that’s important, but who’s doing the observing, how they observe, and what that says about the unique spaces we all occupy and how they shape our unique perspectives.

Freeways, Highways, & Underpasses

As I read Tropic of Orange, I was immediately draw to the highway images.  Thanks to twenty-four hour news stations, I have seen many high-speed chases down 805, 1, or some other highway in LA.   While there are a few chase scenes in the novel–Gabriel and Emi after the woman and child in a taxi; the Jaguar and the bus–this wasn’t what attracted me to the highways . Rather, I was draw to the apparent use of the highway as map in the novel, albeit not one that is easy to trace.   

Yamashita is able to have her characters situate themselves in connection to the roads.  Sig traffic accidents happen, the “NewsNow” van arrives on the scene, cars pile up for miles.  Many homeless men and women, such as Manzanar, are described as living under it or compose music by it.  Goods such as oranges and body parts are transported along its veins.  Each character could be placed on or around the highway, thus creating a map of sorts.  However, I don’t think the map would lead the reader anywhere, but would be constricting in some points and expanding in others.  It was this idea that made me think of the staircase in House of Leaves that continually alters and changes on itself.   The highway, like the staircase, traps and confines characters to enclosed spaces.  Such as when Emi gets caught in traffic on page 58,  “Doing the Joan Didion freeway thang.  You know, slouching around L.A.  Sorry, babe, but it’s hard to feel exhilarated going five miles an hour.”  Other characters are situated and sometimes confined in cars–Buzzworm sets up a semipermanent headquarters in a gold Mercedes (186), Mara Sadat does a live TV broadcast from “the open hood of a rusting Cadillac” which is filled with dirt and to grow herbs and vegetables (191).  At other times, the highway seems to stretch in unusual ways, “Harbor Freeway.  It’s growing.  Stretched this way and that.  In fact, this whole business from Pico-Union on one side to East L.A. this side and South Central over here, its pushing out. Damn if it’s not growing into everything!” (189-190). These images seems to link with Foucault’s “Of Other Spaces” essay that we read many weeks ago.  He could bring to the table a discussion of the highway as a public or private space.  (I think a case could be made for its functioning as both.) On page 23, Foucault says, “We do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light, we live inside  a set of relations that delineates sites, which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another.” Couldn’t these “delineate[d] sites” be transfered to the way we view highways in the novel–a way in which to organize our lives?

Another way to look at the highways could be to see them as another character in the novel.  Adams briefly touches on Yamashita’s humanization of the highway, “The great flow of humanity [runs] below and beyond his feet in every direction, pumping and pulsating, that blood connection, the great heartbeat of a great city” (35).  Adams contrasts Yamashita’s anthropomorphizing of the highway to Pychon’s passive description.  As I was reading Tropic of Orange, I found that not only was the highway given human qualities, but in some cases it served as another character making an appearance in almost every chapter.

Globalization & Transnational Studies in Tropic of Orange

In reading Adams’ explanation of the distinction between postmodern and contemporary literature, I felt the following quotation best aided my understanding of her argument:  “Although Tropic of Orange is similarly complicated in terms of plot and narrative construction [as The Crying of Lot 49], its formal difficulties seem designed less to entrap both character and reader in a postmodern labyrinth than to evoke the dense networking of people and goods in an age of global interconnection. As Yamashita represents it, California is a nodal point where globalization threatens to erupt into environmental and human catastrophe, but also where people find themselves creating unlikely coalitions that might work to remedy these problems.”

If I understand this correctly, Adams suggests that while both books depict an interconnectedness (among people, events, things, and places) that is both complex and ambiguous, Pynchon depicts this interconnectedness as a conspiracy which ensnares both Oedipa and the reader, whereas Yamashita’s book uses interconnectedness to display humanity’s potential to work together to achieve solutions. 

I agree with Sarah that Adams has helped me to understand postmodernism better, but I must also say that it brings to mind a conversation we have been having in my other class this semester, ENG 551: Literary Criticism.  We have discussed a smorgasbord of critical views of literature, and more recently, we have discussed the section in our textbook entitled “Colonialism, Postcolonialism, and Transnational Studies.”  I researched the distinctions and connections between these terms for a recent presentation on a Jamaica Kincaid piece called A Small Place (in which Kincaid suggests that the tourism industry in postcolonial tourist destinations like the island of Antigua exists as a sort of secondary colonialism in which the binary between tourist/native creates a tension not unlike that between colonizer/colonized).  Interestingly, Adams references the following statement by Michael Denning:

a central task of a transnational cultural studies is to narrate an account of globalization that speaks not just of an abstract market with buyers and sellers, or even of an abstract commodification with producers and consumers, but of actors: transnational corporations, social movements of students, market women, tenants, radicalized and ethnicized migrants, labor unions, and so on.

Of course, my “ears”/eyes perked up when I read the term “transnational,” and I found myself considering the economic reading of Tropic of Orange as largely important to understanding (anything about) the text.  In my used book, I have notes in the margins from a previous owner that are, by and large, not useful to me except one which reads: “Traded goods, but not people–people do not get in” (scrawled on p. 230 beside the following underlined pasasage in the text: “Cuz is staring at her new Nikes.  Made in China.  Nikes get in.  But not the bro.”)  What hypocrisy!  We will exploit the developing worlds for its goods and its services, but we gawk at the idea of transnational experiences which will allow people in the developing world the same liberties we have in the United States.  Of course, immigration is a very complicated and heated issue, but why isn’t commerce and consumerism more of an issue?

Transnational studies, I have come to understand, considers the effets of the spread of English throughout the colonies of the British empire, as well as what Adams considers the “globalization of American literature.”  We cannot deny that the United States has been equally successful in creating some kind of empire that has spread the culture and language we speak across many parts of the world.  That said, our job as contemporary critics, I am coming to understand, is to not only incorporate varying cultural perspectives, but to purposefully consider the ramifications of a postcolonial world and a world affected by the United States’ hegemonic status.

Yamashita’s contemporary novel Tropic of Orange brings together multiple cultural identities, with particular attention to the minority groups often left out of American literature before postmodernism.  I feel strongly that her choice to incorporate the perspectives of seven main characters over a period of seven days relates directly to the cohesive quality of the number seven: not only are there seven days in the week, but there are also seven continents in the world.  As Adams points out, despite a very organized chart entitled “HyperContexts” at the beginning of the book and “although this map locates the central characters in time and space, [this chart] also provides a deceptive sense of order to a narrative that ultimately refuses to come together in any coherent manner. ”  That, I gather, is part of Yamashita’s message here: there is no coherent, cohesive, or perfect way to mesh together a variety of people and cultures, but it is certainly necessary and reasonable (and even unavoidable) to do so.

Tropic of Orange and Cognitive Mapping

Tropic of Orange was a very accessible read for me, so right away I knew something was wrong. The use of magical realism was charming, but that didn’t seem to jibe with what I thought I knew about postmodernist style. Adams’ article was very helpful to me in defining postmodernism by defining what it is not. She made a good point that the label of postmodernist loses any meaning it had when it is applied so liberally. Part of the reason I think we all feel so confused sometimes about what constitutes postmodern (aside from the fact that no critics can really agree either) is that the adjective is applied to such different-seeming texts. One thing I liked about Adams’ article was that she framed both postmodern fiction and contemporary fiction in more positive terms. Not only did she define postmodernism by what it’s not, she defined it by what it is. The “post” terms for schools of thought are somewhat troubling to me because they seem to define the wave only as a reaction to what came before, not as something in its own right. Of course all trends in intellectual thought are reactions to what came before, so it seems as if postmodernism should be able to come up with a descriptive definition for itself the way that other waves have done, instead of a temporal placeholder of a name. Adams terms postmodern fiction as Cold War literature, and contemporary fiction as the literature of globalization, which seem useful definitions to me.

Although she says it would be premature to label aesthetic and thematic trends in the literature of globalization (Is that a cop-out?), she does identify multivocalism as one stylistic trend in Tropic of Orange. I found myself reminded of House of Leaves’ multivocalism, but when I stopped to think about House of Leaves in terms of her definition of a postmodern text, it did seem to have the requisite “preoccupation with paranoia and conspiracy, radical skepticism about foundational truth and authority of all kinds, deft mixing of genres, distrust of received historical knowledge, and confrontations with the sublime and apocalyptic” (Adams 3). Tropic of Orange does mistrust the government, the army, the police, the newsmedia, but at least there does seem to be room for change. In a world where such acts of magical realism are possible, attitudes and ingrained cultural processes can surely also be extraordinarily transformed. What’s more, I did believe that the characters in Tropic of Orange themselves believed in the possibility of change.

It would be interesting to view Tropic of Orange, The Crying of Lot 49, and Adams’ article in terms of Jameson’s cognitive mapping. He decribed the alienated city as “a space in which people are unable to map (in their minds) either their own positions or the urban totality in which they find themselves” wherein cognitive mapping should work to “enable a situational representation on the part of the individual subject to that vaster and properly unrepresentable totality which is the ensemble of society’s structures as a whole.” It was the beginning map of the character’s voices throughout the novel that reminded me of cognitive mapping, in addition to Adams’ focus on the geographical spaces in the novel. But in Tropic of Orange, at least some of the characters seem to have both psychological and metaphysical maps working and intact. Excluding perhaps Emi and Gabriel, Buzzword, Archangel, and even Bobby (with his barrio surfing) seem to be sure of their literal and figurative place in the world. Buzzword in particular seems to be an activist on behalf of cognitive mapping, wanting people to get outside and walk to connect themselves more intimately to the places they live in. Archangel as well was establishing a place for his people. Manzanar perhaps is with his symphony establishing cognitive maps for those who can hear, integrating the different voices of the city into a coherent living, functioning whole.

A Lesson in Postmodern Disorder

In “The Ends of America, the Ends of Postmodernism” Rachel Adams writes this of her students’ responses to The Crying of Lot 49 and Tropic of Orange:

Their responses caused me to realize that in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Pynchon’s novel [The Crying of Lot 49] has ceased to read as a work of contemporary fiction, even though many critics continue to use postmodern and contemporary as synonymous term.  While my students find Tropic of Orange no less challenging, they are willing to grapple with its difficulties because they recognize its form, which evokes the internet’s polyvocality and time-space compression, and its theme–the human and environmental consequences of transformations taking place at America’s borders-as belonging to their own contemporary moment. (2)

Looking at these texts from an undergraduate pedagogical perspective, this seems to be a fairly onerous lesson.  Even if pairing these two texts together produces a distinction within literary postmodernism, it seems more of a salvage mission than one of intellectual curiosity.  If The Crying of Lot 49 (or any text for that matter) only “works” for those experientially familiar with Cold War paranoia, “nuclear apocalypse, and newfound distrust of a government enmeshes in secrecy and conspiratorial activity” (2) then does it really offer a spring board for scholarly discussion (outside of: This text will inform the other texts we will be reading)?  Is it only possible for students to value the text after they have read a “relatable” contemporary text like Tropic of Orange?  Taking it a step further, are we merely teaching The Crying of Lot 49 for contextual/historical reasons?  Is it possible to make it more relevant to students?

Though I do not disagree with Adams pairing of the two texts, I am curious to whether she believes them to be short-term “cultural capital” or appreciating assets on the road to canonization.  Though either point could be argued, for the purposes of this discussion (as well as arguing for its inclusion in this course), I am more interested in the latter.  Though Adam’s experience with her students initially points to the texts as holding short-term “cultural capital,” this need not be the case.  First and foremost, a reader, even a reader as potentially resistant as a student, must have some sort of connection with a text.  Even if it manages to “generate a more precise understanding of literary postmodernism” (10) that lesson will be lost if it is not more than a simple history lesson.  Therefore, to make The Crying of Lot 49 relevant to an undergrad population, one must have an appropriate framework for discussion.  Adams seems to draw a connection between using The Crying of Lot 49 as a point of entry to discussing Tropic of Orange.  “These novels are an ideal pair because each translates the cultural and political dilemmas of its time into the aesthetic and thematic innovations of narrative fiction.  Any attempt to define what makes Yamashita’s moment distinctive will require different forms of literary, historical knowledge, and attention to emergent sensibilities that break from earlier understanding of ‘the contemporary'” (10).  I think she falls short in using the more remote text to inform the more “relatable” one.  Drawing from Robert Scholes, I would stay she demonstrates “the tendency to follow a line of ‘masterpieces’ until the end, [which] no longer serve their purpose.  It is not simply that the line is too narrow, though it is, but that this material does not reach student effectively because they do not know why they know why they need it. . . To put it simply, we much begin where we are, at the end, and start asking how we got here” (115).  Perhaps, it would be wiser to read the “relatable” Tropic of Orange first. Only then is it possible to spark the intellectual curiosity necessary to take The Crying of Lot 49 to task.

Works Cited

Scholes, Robert.  “A Fortunate Fall.”  Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature. Ed. David H. Richter.  Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1994.  111-119.

Mao II and Optic Consumption

Mao II and Optic Consumption
Whenever two distinct cultures come into contact with one another, there is always resistance – either resistance to assimilate, resistance to acknowledge the other culture’s traditions, or whatever. Generally such an encounter results in consumption. One culture consumes the other, the other’s traditions/artifacts, or the other’s land. The bigger the gap between cultures, the messier the encounter seems to be, historically speaking – Europe and Africa, Europe/America with Native Americans, Brits and India, Spain and Anything South of Texas,…etc…add technology to the mix and things can get really out of hand.

Imagine, its like 1840something and you and your tribe are living somewhere in present day Idaho – your day consists mainly of getting food, taking care of your family, sleep, etc and a stranger, who looks nothing like you or your friends and has this crazy machine that flashes and makes your face appear on paper. How would you rationalize that? Sure it might seem primitive (though to be honest I still don’t understand the logistics of film and cameras) to conclude that said machine has somehow trapped or stolen your “soul,” but is the idea that a photograph or photographer can connote some kind of ownership, really that crazy?
The motifs of mass vs anonymity in Mao II are fairly evident and the consequences, or the “next step” inferences/reaction from/to such a situation – the inability to be recognized in a crowd, the desire to be isolated, etc – are present in the text. But more interestingly to me, is the focus on photography and its implications. Brit, a major character is a photographer…that’s gotta mean something right? Sure…but first let’s consider the “magic” of photography.

Sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke (2001: A space odyssey/the sentinel) offered the following statement as one of his “laws” of future prediction: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So is it insane for the Native Americans to conclude that a photo can steal/imprison one’s soul? If we’re dealing in a world of “magic” that seems plausible. Or consider the practice of the voodoo doll – a likeness of an enemy can act as a sort of psychic remote control, giving complete ownership to the doll’s creator. Or more recently, whether it should be termed postmodern, or pop art, or pastiche, or whatever, consider the re-appropriation of images of Mao/Manson/Hitler, whoever – using his likeness to subvert/pervert/remake their being. It’s said that people don’t just read books or look at art, but rather they consume…with their eyes, rather than mouths. The act of photography (or other visual media) is the first step in a process of optic consumption.

Bill, fears his picture being taken much like he is hesitant to release his newest work – presumably for the same reasons, that once both are no longer solely his own, they can be remade, subverted, perverted, reappropriated as the consumers see fit. He consents to a photograph under his own terms to, effectively, take control (yes a split infinitive!) over the frightening situation. Now I’m not advocating that a camera actually captures some ethereal portion of our being, but if we look at other depictions of people via photograph, still or moving, we can see at least the political and social implications of reappropriation of another’s image. Exp: Karen in the bedroom watching tv (with no sound so that she is able to re-author the scene) when film footage of a crowd appears. She describes a horrible writhing of thousands of people pressed into a fence and when it pauses into a still image, she describes it as a fresco in a tourist church..only as a master of the age could paint it. She redefines the image in her own terms but still the characters in said “fresco” remain anonymous in the crowd –a girl…men…maleness…etc – and she never speculates upon the event itself.

Female Unity in THE FEMALE MAN

As others have been discussing, I, too, was struck by the “unity” of the women in the novel. There are several instances where Russ presents the idea of a dual-personality. For instance, Laura struggles with her wants and how they differ from societal expectations. (In fact, this idea of duality is clearly displayed as Laura’s name become “Laur” at points when her “other side” is most prominent.) When Joanna (?) discusses how she turned into a man she says that “knowledge is […] the perception of all experience through two sets of eyes, two systems of value, two habits of expectation, almost two minds” (137-138). Alice says “there are always two sides” (165), and Jael suggests that each woman has a Doppelganger (162).  These women, mainly “the J’s”, seem to be compromised of two personalities: the individual they want to be, and the individual resisting society’s pressures and expectations. Each woman seems to have another “self”. Earlier in the novel, this other self seems to be in the form of some sort of spirit. (The “I” is confusing here, as its unclear if the spirit “I” is the other self of the same woman, or another woman all together. For instance, the “I” in the scene when Janet and Laura first become physically intimate seems to be some sort of an observant conscience of Janet.)

Throughout the novel I thought of Adrienne Rich’s poetry and her themes of the unity of all women. Like Karin, I found the multiple pronouns to be very confusing at times, but I do think that Russ is saying something about the unity of women, just as Rich does in her poetry. Both Russ and Rich use pronouns in such a way as to emphasize the solidarity of women and the shared female experience. 


Along with my frustration with the shifting point of view that I could not always follow (I really feel that I lost whatever grip I had with the introduction of Jael), I also had a love-hate relationship with Russ’s style. I enjoyed Russ’s acknowledgement of social expectations and their incorporation throughout the novel, such as on page 65 when she repeatedly states, “everyone knows”, adding emphasis to these stereotypes and expectations. I enjoyed Laura’s rebellion against “The Man” (65).  I want a better understanding of the point of view changes, though. I also don’t understand why Russ uses what seem to be sub-chapters within her chapters and I’m curious as to the significance of this choice. I’m also curious about the significance of the moon. Jeannine and Janet’s first words were “see the moon,” and the moon comes up at other points in the novel.


As others have posted, I agree that in some ways The House of Leaves seems to have prepared us for the journey into The Female Man.  I have to admit that I did find it to be a challenge, though, and I feel that I’m left with more many more questions than I have opinions and arguments.

A Misandristic Proposal

What is the opposite of misogynyMisanthropy?  No, that’s the dislike of humankind in general, rather than the specific dislike of males.  Try again.  Misandry is the word.  As I type it into Microsoft Word and hit the spacebar, it becomes underlined in red.  Misspelled?  Quite possibly.  No, a quick trip to the Oxford English dictionary confirms spelling and definition.  So misandry simply isn’t recognized by Microsoft technology.  It’s unfamiliar.  It’s defamiliar.  Perhaps, this just represents one of many omitted words and names, or maybe it signifies something greater and more telling about (wo)men and technology.  Regardless, it offers point of entry into discussing Joanna Russ’ The Female Man.

Though Russ’ The Female Man can fit into many classifications of literature (e.g. postmodern fiction, science fiction, a feminist work, etc.), I am interested in how it functions as a satire.  At the end of the text, Jael proposes the women (Janet, Jeannine, and Joanna) “do business with [Jael’s] Womanland” (211) and to incorporate women soldiers from each of their individual realities to wage war on the men.  Jeannine and Joanna quickly acquiesce.  Jeannie states, “‘Oh sure, I don’t mind.  You can bring in all the soldiers you want.  You can take the whole place over; I wish you would’” (Russ 211).  The response is pert and off-the-cuff.  Oh sure.  Why not? Well, why not?

Janet, the woman from the all-female Whileaway, alone, resists.  Moreover, she refuses Jael’s retelling of the plague as an act of female aggression.  It is unclear whether this resistance comes from inexperience with males, stupidity, or a more simplistic view of conflict resolution (or perhaps, like Microsoft, Janet does not have a word for this construct).  Still, we don’t know why she would resist or why anyone should resist?  At first glance, it seems perfectly logical.

What’s wrong with a rebalancing of power?  In Jeannine and Joann’s worlds, when woman are not being infantilized by the men in the text, they are being raped or arranging their lives so that they won’t be vulnerable to rape.  Clearly, a master-slave relationship is at work, dominating the women at every opportunity, denying them “adult independence—namely money” (118).  It is only through technology that Whileaway and Womanland the women regain their power.  Why not take this to the next level?

Given the endless possibilities of technology, an inter-dimensional war with men may throw the balance of power in favor of the women.  Most of the characters find that idea fairly attractive.  In fact, Jael’s logic reflects that of an oppressed people made free.  Rather than preach the ills of subjection, the free must, in turn, oppress to maintain their freedom.  Freedom cannot exist without oppression; oppression cannot exist without freedom.  On second glance, it simply replaces one societal ill with another: misandry with misogyny.  So what’s the point of this exercise?  By promoting misandry, The Female Man would undercut all its previous points about the master-slave power in male-female relations.  But it doesn’t just do that.  Misandry defamiliarizes misogyny.  It gives us a new word, a new point of reference, a new context to highlight an old referential.

Expectations and Disintegrations

Many of the posts so far have explored the “So?” question of House of Leaves.  The “what’s the point?” question.  But I think that a lot of this question is coming from the way that HoL breaks genre conventions.  Why don’t we ask “what’s the point?” of any literature we read?  Because we’re accustomed to genre conventions, we automatically accept normal genres of literature as fulfilling the functions of education and/or entertainment.  I think what HoL is doing is forcing us to reexamine our own genre assumptions and conventions.  This process of reexamination forces us to ask the questions: “What is the purpose of literature?” and “How do we determine and construct that purpose?”

By foregrounding the process of the construction of the text, HoL does not allow us to fall back into our normal mode of reading literature along genre conventions.  Some of the conventions I mean are: a book has a clear and authoritative narrative voice; there is one overarching story arc; characterization is consistent; there is a demarcated line between fiction and nonfiction; there is one font used throughout; there are chapters; there are page numbers; footnotes are denoted with numbers; text is arranged in a rectangular block and read all in the same direction and orientation; there are paragraphs, and they are indented and spaced; except for dialogue, spelling and punctuation are standard; illustrations are pertinent to the story; the text aims to enlighten or entertain the reader.  I’m just spelling out a random few, mostly determined by what conventions HoL has broken.  Perhaps it is this last one that is so disturbing.  HoL doesn’t seem to care much about the reader. Indeed, the anti-dedication warns us away.  Yet for a text that seems to ignore the reader’s desires and frustrate her expectations, it encourages great participation on the part of the reader.  The fact that the forum and the album were released along with the book contributes to the view of HoL as encouraging active reading.  But to what end?  Why bother to shake us up?

By highlighting different aspects of “what makes a book a book”, HoL exposes the fact that any book is merely a house of leaves – the sum of its component parts.  The concept of “book” itself is a kind of constructed cultural narrative.  Perhaps by becoming aware of the constructed nature of “book” and not taking its existence as a naturally coherent whole, readers will be able to participate more actively in the construction of meaning around them.  By viewing critically and strategically the various sites of cultural construction, readers can then learn to influence the reiteration of those constructs toward an iteration more favorable to themselves.

I would have to read more of Danielewski’s interviews on his own motivations (if indeed he reveals them), but this type of awakening agents of political change could be one answer to the “So?” question.

Photographic Technology’s Twist on Reality and Credibility

I am going to take a break from my reading to post on what I have read so far, and then get right back into it.  I just finished one of the sections where there are very few words on each page, and I must say that I was turning those pages so quickly that my dogs got startled.  Really, I was reminded of those little flip-books with pictures that if you flip through quickly enough produce a cartoon.  That page-turning effect especially kicked in for me when reading pages 182 to 245, when Navidson’s group meets with Jed and Wax.  I even found myself getting outright angry at Truant for having the audacity to interrupt the story.

Speaking of Truant, please don’t give anything away but it seems to me he will have “disappeared” by the end of the book, according to Ashley’s letter on p. 151 (in my black-and-white book).  She writes, “I’m sorry to hear he disappeared.  Do you know what happened to him?” and I, the reader, am thinking, “No, you jerk.  I didn’t even know he was missing!”  But now she’s got me wondering: will Truant disappear into this empty, ever-changing space?  Does the space represent our consciousness and sanity, and will he “disappear” like his mother did?  I am determind to find out.  (Perhaps I will know by tomorrow.)

On to another point.  Many of us, at some point or another, have considered the credibility of this text.  (Somehow, the term “text” seems so much more complex when applied to House of Leaves than when applied to any other book.)  I was struck by the following 1990 Andy Grundberg quotation, and I began to consider the implications of film being at the heart of this text:  “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” (141).  I began wondering whether this was a “real” statement or a Danielewski original, and when I did some research, I found the following 1990 New York Times article:

Grundberg’s article is fascinating, and though Danielewski does not include the following excerpt from the article, I think it is particularly relevant in the conversation of credibility and reality which is essential when considering this text.  “In the future, it seems almost certain, photographs will appear less like facts and more like factoids – as a kind of unsettled and unsettling hybrid imagery based not so much on observable reality and actual events as on the imagination. This shift, which to a large extent has already occurred within the rarefied precincts of the art world, will fundamentally alter not only conventional ideas about the nature of photography but also many cherished conceptions about reality itself” (Grundberg).  Yes, reality must be questioned, and the presentation of reality, thus the credibility, of this text is just so complex. 

I think it is very important that in this particular story the focus most basely comes down to a FILM, or photographed images strung together.  Grundberg discusses the “video” specifically in the last section of his article:

“If photographs can no longer be perceived as unalloyed facts peeled from the surface of the real world, what will replace them? The temptation is to say video images, since electronic image making increasingly bears the primary responsibility for supplying society with pictures. But the prospect that video will inherit photography’s former truth-bearing function is limited by its even greater susceptibility to computer manipulation.

Some have speculated that an enterprising computer wizard could, for instance, create a visual data bank of all of former President Ronald Reagan’s speeches and then, using a montage of the recorded images and sounds at his disposal, make the President’s video image speak entirely new sentences – literally put words in his mouth. At a time when governments can deny the reality of unmanipulated television pictures, as China has done in the case of last year’s Tiananmen Square uprising, the notion of a fabricated video reality seems especially frightening” (Grundberg).

Nineteen years ago, “fabricated video reality” was a far-off, almost imaginary concept; today it is “our reality.”  Essentially, reality adjusts based on what technology produces for us at any given time in our human history, and therein (forgive me for sounding like Ray Bradbury, but I am a big fan) lies the “rub.”  Obviously, this novel is not real, nor are the characters, the stories, and especially this “film.”  But then again, there can be no definite reality, as Grundberg predicted, rightfully so, in 1990.  What he calls “computer manipulation” can “literally put words in [people’s] mouth[s]”, and yet, how is that so different from the various methods used to communicate one hundred or two hundred years ago? 

Maybe the difference is that we still, unwittingly, believe in technology’s reality.  We believe what we see and read online is real, especially when we have pictures to “prove it.”  Even the websites which discriminate between urban legends and reality, like, could be (and probably do sometimes) distort reality.

If, therefore, one of the messages we can take away from House of Leaves is that nothing is “real” and no one is “credible,” then I would argue that, in one sense, PostModernism is a continuation of Modernism.  The Modernists were a disillusioned bunch, and my thoughts here point to that same disillusionment, at least at this point in my reading, in Danielewski’s text.

Mr Monster demands smut of the highest caliber

Note on the photo…i did an image search for “house of leaves” and eventually came across this photo…which goes to show, in a world of endless space (weather the house or the internet), youre bound to run into george clinton. at least thats what my grandma always told me.



I was going to write about something like instances of form and function in-and out-world (in relation to the text) or how seriously we can take the narration and subsequent notations, but it seems like thats been covered rather extensively. Then I was going to write about sex, but Alyssa did a pretty awesome job on that…still im out of ideas, so sex it is.

I particularly enjoyed her idea of the little death and how each subsequent sexual encounter is a loss of Truant’s self. I actually was talking to my friend in the writing center this morning and was wondering how a strung out jobless tweak with a broken front tooth got so many women in a successive string. We came to a few conclusions — one, the encounters are (intended to be, by danielewski) in someway fabricated or embellished as per the unreliability of said narrator. two , its LA and most of the women were in the kind of bars where jobless dentally-injured men hang out. 3 the author wanted to be cool by proxy. None of these  previous ideas are particularly intriguing to me, but the situation just didnt make a whole lot of sense. Though, what does in this house?

..reasons 4 and 5(theyre kind of intertwined i think), however may give hint as to why these events are documented, or  at least they may come close . Reason 4 was pretty much Alyssa’s conclusion, that each encounter was a narrative device to show a loss of self, or descent(further) ((i actually had a little bit to say about how both truant and navidson (potentially us as readers and potentially zampano if i learn more of him…im not done the book yet..) begin to model campells monomyth…’hero’s journey’ …in certain ways, from initial refusal to descent, threshold passing, etc (this chart is pretty okay for a refresher), but without finishing the book i cant make that argument stand up much beyond the “initiation” phase, or phase I.

Anyway, in addition to reason 4 (alyssa’s theorem, if she were old and greek), reason 5, which i cant decide if its entangled with or the exact opposite of reason 4… is that perhaps Truant has sex for the same reason Tom tells jokes to Mr Monster, and Navidson needs to be a savior, and Holloway shoots rifles, and Karen ignores….its an attempt to hold onto something quintessentially them..a “me-ness” or “them-ness” needed to be kept safe in the face of a place that erases or destroys the things not specifically held onto or enacted  — like when, i believe its jed…or maybe wax…notes that the buttons and backpack have all but disintegrated..he says something like (rough rough paraphrase) “in this place, its like if you don’t think about something, it disappears/gets destroyed”…

That is to say that Truant needs something primally and concretely “Truant-y” ..something of his ‘old’ life to lean on so that he doesn’t disappear completely. Why the graphic depictions? perhaps the more in detail he recalls the events, the more real they are, and the more concrete “it” he has to hold on to. If he “doesnt remember/think of ” something, these things, perhaps they will disintegrate into nothing, and take him with them? maybe, theres no room for vagary in the house of leaves. maybe blur gets eaten.

It also apparently manifests peanut butter.

I got to finish the book this week, which was great-although I think this is definitely a book I will have to read and reread, and then do it again, to pick up stuff I missed. Reading Johnny Truant’s mother’s letters was really a revelation-I think it makes a lot of sense to put those in the back of the book, because it made me sort of rethink the way I was approaching JT’s character. He’s pretty easy to write off in the first parts of the book, until it become apparent that however much of a screw-up he may be, he’s pretty smart and talented. His mother’s letters make it clear that her character is incredibly intelligent and well-read (despite being batshit insane). Though I have to say I’m getting weary of this trope of sticking every disaffected and underestimated character in a tattoo parlor (what says screw-up but ultimately talented antihero? I know-make him work in a tattoo parlor!). It would make more sense to have made him a hedge-fund manager. Also, I think I found a Thomas Pynchon reference on page 110, “Playwright Taggert Chiclitz.” I think that was the name of a minor character in Lot 49. (Coupled with Charles Huston’s reference to Genghis Cohen-is it a rule that postmodern writers have to include a Pynchon reference somewhere in their book?)

Anyway, I’ve been poking around the forums on the House of Leaves website, and looking at the entries here, the question that keeps popping up seems to be, so what? What is the purpose, and does it matter? Obviously I have no answer, but I think it’s interesting that that seems to be the source of a good deal of underlying frustration with this work.

I found an interesting link (actually, several) on YouTube for a trailer for a nonexistent movie of House of Leaves (sound familiar?). This one in particular is pretty well-done:

It’s generated some discussion on how people feel about turning the book into a movie. There’s also a bunch of links to interviews or readings by MZD (and even some trailers people made for the book itself-has youtube made genre obsolete?).

I think the most interesting thing about encountering this book for me has been the vast amount of stuff on the Web about it. I normally don’t do much background digging when I read a book, particularly a fiction one, but I started to when I began reading China Mieville’s stuff (there’s so much background knowledge that plays into his work linguistically that I needed a much larger vocabulary) and now with MZD. Particularly with MZD, there’s an incredible amount of interplay between different media forms regarding this book-the YouTube trailers, discussion forums, even a band called House of Leaves ( (I think they kind of suck but whatever) and it has made me really start redefining the concept of reading a book, because this isn’t a book you can really just read, which I think may have been exactly what MZD was going for-maybe that’s the answer to the so what? question.

Oh, and the book generates its own peanut butter-several pages in mine are stuck together with it, and I don’t eat peanut butter.

What to believe in this work of fiction

As I continue to read the book, I continue to be pulled into its labyrinth-nature. I wish I had a full day to finish it because it really is hard to put down!

Both Professor Sample and Sara Flood have commented on how exactly we are meant to approach this novel. I keep asking myself that same question, too. Sara pointed out a great quote from page 114 of the novel. I think this quote, which refers to the labyrinth-like nature of the film and the viewer’s interaction with the film, also applies to us as readers of the novel. As we discover the multiple layers we, too, are continuing to try to piece it together. Sara commented on the remark that someone made in class: “Does it really matter?” I’m reminded of Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. I absolutely love the novella and love teaching it. Every year, though, my students get so hung up on the questions that don’t really matter. They become practically obsessed with the identity of the narrator and who really took Angela’s virginity and they miss some of the bigger elements and deeper connections. I am wondering if I’m doing the same thing with Danielewski’s novel. Are we missing something, or, perhaps, are we looking too deep into it? Is Danielewski’s master plan to confuse us in this way? If so, for what purpose?

(I am interested in Professor Sample’s suggestion that the real tests and references in the novel could be the lens through which we should be viewing the book.)

I’m also questioning what Danielewski wants us to believe. Yes, we are dealing with a work of fiction, but Danielewski has put such great time and effort into making his novel appear real. The frame narrator, the footnotes, the letters from Truant’s mother….all of these aspects of the work make it seem real to the readers. But then the footnotes and references are a mix of fact and fiction, and it seems we are seeing more and more references of sources that never seemed to have existed. (Of course, none of it really existed to begin with!) For instance, on page 83, Zampano references a book that is “no longer in print”. Similarly, on page 99, he refers to Navidson’s “now lost journal”. And, of course, The Navidson Record isn’t obtainable. With this mix of fact with an overwhelming amount of fiction constructed to appear factual, what are we supposed to believe? How does this mix contribute a greater meaning and greater significance of the book and its layers?

The layering continues to develop as we read. I had not read the mother’s letters for last class, but, now that I have read them, I agree they provide more insight into Truant’s character. I think we can see him as more intellectual than his lifestyle suggests. The stories about his childhood abuse makes us view him (and his times of violent thoughts and actions) differently, too. It is so interesting to read his footnotes! Whenever I come to one of Truant’s long notes, at first I’m a little annoyed that I have to stop reading about The Navidson Record, but then I get into Truant’s thoughts (it’s almost like reading his annotations in Zampano’s work) and I don’t want to shift back to The Navidson Record! I’m really enjoying the style! I was also particularly intrigued by the fact that layers are played out in this style as well. For instance, in Chapter VIII, the text (and space) mimics the film shots which mimicked the “SOS” knocking heard in the house. I found this choice fascinating!

I look forward to finishing the novel and, hopefully, gaining a better understanding of how we are supposed to read the work and what we’re supposed to take from it.

~Jennifer Kathryn Fulton

Real Echoes

I was intrigued by the passage in The House of Leaves that defined and related the history of echoes. Echo’s voice “has life. It possesses a quality not present in the original, revealing how a nymph can return a different and more meaningful story, in spite of telling the same story” (42). Of course the series of echoes is found in the construction of the text itself, Zampono’s voice filtered through at least two other voices, and Truant even admits to changing Zampono’s “heater” into “water heater,” in order to make Truant’s echo of Zampono’s story more meaningful to Truant. The echo therefore is real and has meaning in its own right, independent from the original sound. This independent meaning of the representation parallels Baudrillard’s phases of the images, where a simulacrum can exist with no relation to reality, and the invented character of Navidson, who would perhaps fit in at number three of the image phases. Of course it’s silly for literature students to debate whether or not fiction/lies/simulacra have meaning, but by inviting the reader to imagine the book as a true story, Danielewski makes the reader more actively involved and invested in the story. Baudrillard suggests that simulation is dangerous because it implies that everything is a simulation. The reader, confronted with such a skillful simulation of a critical discussion about a film, will then somewhat question the existence of the “real” critics and films s/he reads or has read about.

The main episode where echoes play a large role is when Navidson, lost in the passageway, keeps calling out to find his way through space, and his daughter’s response to his calls is a kind of echo that (it would appear) saves his life. Navidson’s adventure in the passageways echoes the imagery Zampano uses to describe (what Truant thinks is) his own experience with echoes: a word “flung down empty hallways long past midnight” (48). The only evidence of the beast in the passageways with Navidson is aural as well, the growling noises reverberating in the silence. Even the beast itself seems to only echo the awareness of it. Lude hasn’t detected anything wrong with reality. Zampono’s foreboding final emphasis on how Daisy’s “Always” echoes “hallways” seems to give great weight to echoes, but to what end? (73) Is the beast the reality that everyone’s simulacra are working to hide? Or is it the truth that there is no reality?

Truant also seems happier with Thumper’s “image feeling permanently fixed within me” than really getting to know the real girl with the tattoo (54). Something strange is going on with his repeated “can’t write the word”s, and also his “Known some call is air am” is a kind of textual echo of the Latin, purposefully leading the reader on an involved quest for its meaning (72).

Confusion of Authorship and the Gothic Novel

I know that as a literature grad student I am supposed to be able to step back and recognize fiction for what it is: made up stories about made up people ( I know that this definition is overly-simplistic, but whatever).  That being said, what I have read in House of Leaves so far seriously creeps me out.  I’ve only managed to read the first 80 pages that were assigned, but I am hooked, and may not get any sleep tonight because I want to know what happens next.  The last time a book freaked me out this much was when I misguidedly read Stepehn King’s It in middle school, alone, at night, and constantly worrying that a killer clown was going to come out from under my bed and do terrible things to me.  A coincidence I noticed was that Bret Easton Ellis offered a blurb praising this book saying that both Thomas Pynchon and Stephen King would want to bow down to Danielewski after reading this book.  It is a coincidence because the three books that pop into my head when I read House of Leaves are It by Stephen King, The Crying of Lot 49 by Pynchon, and Ellis’ Lunar Park.

Lunar Park is probably the book I most think of when I read this because it explores many of the same themes as House of Leaves (although admittedly many years later).  The main two of these themes being the hiding/layering of authorship and the physical house itself as the sourc of terror.  Lunar Park is a book written by Bret Easton Ellis, author of such works as Less than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho, whose protaganist is Bret Easton Ellis, author of such works as Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and American Psycho. The first sentence of Lunar Park is “You do an awfully good impression of yourself.”  With this sentence, and throughout the novel Ellis attempts to hide/layer the actual authorship of the book by writing about the fictional Bret Easton Ellis writing this book.  The blur between the fictional Ellis’ and the real Ellis’ life are purposefully blurred to the point that his fictional actress wife, Jayne Dennis (I think, I have not read it in awhile), has her own website ( on which she is reported to have formally dated Keanu Reeves……Whoa!).  The novel includes enough actual facts about Ellis’ life that it is hard for the reader to know where the fiction starts and real life begins.  Like many of my classmates, I am so completely caught up in Zampano’s/Truant’s story that I forget that it is all just coming from Danielewski.  I keep feeling like if I stop reading and get on Netflix, I can put the Navidson Record on my queue, and I REALLY want to watch it.  As where Ellis creates the fictional Ellis to hide/confuse authorship, Danielewski manages to completely mask himself and the reader forgets he even exists.

The other thing I noticed was that there seems to be something gothic about this novel’s treatment of the home.  In gothic novels danger/otherness/creepiness shifted from coming from outside the house to coming from within or from the actuall house itself.  This most likely had something to do with Victorian mores about sex according to some scholars, but that is neither here nor there, the house, home or living space generated the otherness/spookiness.   I just thought this was interesting as we have discussed how postmodernism has been a reaction to other modes of literature.  We have mainly discussed how it relates/ contrasts to modernism, but House of Leaves seems to be  a postmodern take on the more traditional gothic novel.

Oh, and if anyone else out there is an Ellis fan, how awesome does the trailer for The Informers look? Spoiler: the answer, pretty awesome.

Postmodern Horror?

One of the things the first strikes me about this novel is its connections to the horror genre (I vaguely recall hearing or reading about this novel a number of years ago and thinking that it was a work of horror).  The title House of Leaves is reminiscent of the titles and settings of other great works of horror fiction: The Haunting of Hill House, House of Frankenstein, the house on the hill in “Salem’s Lot, the Overlook Hotel in The Shining.  The creepy, old house that some unsuspecting family moves into is an undeniable cliche of the genre.  The novel certainly plays up the ominousness and foreboding from the very beginning.  Much like the voice-over/introduction to The Texas Chain-saw Massacre, the story of how Truant acquired Zampano’s writings blurs the line between fact and fiction, grounded reality and infinite dreams and nightmares.  All horror relies upon creating a space in the audience’s mind where anything can happen.

While Truant’s introduction and his footnotes contribute to the tone and tension of the work, as a horror novel, the narrative lacks immediacy.  Scary stories usually depend upon the reader being drawn into a situation of terror with one of the characters.  Danielewski undermines the immediacy though by switching between the Davidson plot and the Truant plot.  He also noticeably softens the horror by ending chapter four with Karen screaming and then beginning chapter five with a long, tiresome explanation about the mythology and science of echoes.  It is as though the author wants the story to walk a line between being horror and being something else.

And if this is a horror novel of a sort, what is the horror, the boogeyman?  I suspect that it has something to do with house, not because it is haunted, but because the house is a symbol for the American Dream as is the family that inhabits the house.  There is something wrong with the ideal life of a couple living in a perfect home with two kids and a dog (and a cat in this novel).  There is something terribly romanticized in the way that Davidson describes his new home, life, and project.  

“Maybe because of my past they’re expecting something different, but I just thought it would be nice to see how people move into a place and start to inhabit it.  Settle in, maybe put down some roots, interact, hopefully understand each other a little better.  Personally, I just want to create a cozy outpost for me and my family.  A place to drink lemonade on the porch and watch the sun set” (9).

The whole situation seems too optimistic to me.  For a guy who won a Pulitzer for a photograph of a dying girl in Sudan, he seems oddly oblivious to the possibilities of obstacles to be met and imperfect conclusions.  

The blending of reality and fiction within the novel and the preoccupation with the family is reminiscent of the sado-masochistic games that the older couple plays in Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.  Neither of the families in these works are complete; there is always a space that needs to be filled whether it be with an absent child (Albee’s play), an absence of communication between husband and wife (Davidson and Karen seem to communicate a lot through cameras), or actual rooms that appear out of impossibility.  I think it is interesting to note that both Truant and Zampano are single, without family, and in the eyes of the American Dream, incomplete.

I suspect that in this horror story the boogeyman is not a fantastic monster, but the reality that the American Dream is tainted, uncontainable, or unattainable.

1/4″, 5/16″ or whatever

I suppose the things that interest me most so far in House of Leaves in no particular order are : the way danielewski plays with the assumptions of genre– here he is hopping in an out of narrative, scholarly journal, confessional, etc. The way the footnotes often overtake the “narrative,” and the subjectivity involved in the order of reading; they do some really cool things. I think it says something about authorial intent/control. danielewski, i suppose, directs us in certain directions, but unlike in the traditional linear narrative, the ultimate decision is left up to us. Kind of like a darker “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, only with less giant squid or space vampires:

You could (presumably as I’ve not finished the entire book yet) theoretically and to a certain extent read all the narrative pieces straight through and then go back to the footnotes, or vice versa, or read them in simultaneously (though at some point(s) you must diverge from one or the other for a page or two…).

What, then is he saying about narration, or authorship? I suppose it could be that he wants stories to tell stories (rather than writers telling stories), thus the book/story reveals itself in its own order/pace, similarly to the mysterious hallway. The parallels, as I think Alana pointed out, between the text and the room/hallway are many. The “overfullness,” the new/multiple arterial pathways, the pacing, the shadow, which exist inside that extra 1/4 (or 5/16)”.

Surprisingly, I’m most interested when danielewski is completely absent from the text — when it is zampano, truant, -Ed.(still detached from danielewski) etc, speaking. but, mentioned by name or not, danielewski does seep in on occasion. In the “spilled coffee” rant by zampano and following commentary by Truant, in which Truant claims he would have just as soon edited the whole thing out if not for fear of (severe paraphrase here) “minimizing all thats left of the old man,” danielewski is too present for my taste. his self-conscious-about-being self-conscious commentary (as zapano as truant as -ED or whatever) breaks the fourth wall….what it boils down to, here in this passage, is a writer commenting on essentially poorly and overlywritten fluff (I know, it serves a purpose here, hear me out) and then calling attention to it, effectively passing the fictitious buck from himself to truant and from truant to a fear of somehow increasing zampanos absence…does that make any sense? probably not. Maybe it’s like an author righting in dialect, only the dialect isnt any good…but he/she justifies it with, “well thats what the character said. thats not on me.” It’s really not the quality of the zampano passage that bothers me…its the way danielewski oversteps his bounds, whether its in someone else’s voice or not.

So, in spite of my lengthy and circuitous complaining, I’m really enjoying this work so far.