English 146: Contemporary Experimental Narratives (Fall 03; UCSB)

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Student annotations of House of Leaves

Amasa Amos | Audrey Craipain | Daven Kang (on the Beatles epigraph) |
Meghan Koch (on string theory)

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[Amasa Amos] "A Note On This Edition": Careful attention to colors, braille, etc. present or absent in each edition draws attention to the materiality of the work, as per Hayles' Writing Machines. Reminds me of Milorad Pavic's similarly fragmented work A Dictionary of the Khazars, available in both "male" and "female" editions. I've read House before but didn't notice this the first time. "This is not for you.": Aside from recalling the warning inscribed on the gateway to the Inferno, the dedication invokes the book's key "unifying" themes: self-reflexivity ("This"), the play of presence and absence ("is not"), and the relation to the Other ("for you"). There might be some connection to Johnny's (much later) comment about the love letter being "for the one, not the many." One might perhaps also read a bit of condescending elitism.
"Introduction": (1) Zampano ("blind as a bat"), associated with so much Greek mythology, resembles Tiresias' afflicted döppelganger. Fitting his hero Navidson should suffer from a swollen foot, and his posthumous editor Johnny Truant find that the "dreamwork" of narrativizing the old man's ambivalent revelation of absence should exacerbate his own unresolved Oedipal conflicts; (2) "Endless snarls of words, sometimes twisting into meaning..." (xvii) recalls the palimpsest, layer overlaying layer of meaning, an etymological labyrinth unreadable (and inescapable) without the "clew"...
Chapter I: "... image has forsaken its once unimpeachable hold on the truth" (3). Can the word reestablish its claim? What makes certain media more "true" than others? Does it make sense to think of an immediate (unmediated) truth?
Chapter II: "... the water heater's on the fritz" (12). Something unsettling about the resonances between The Navidson Record and Truant's autobiographical footnotes, as if this imaginary film were somehow erupting through Zampano's narrative into Truant's "real world" (and hence ours). Or, is Truant's narrative parasiting Zampano's? We learn here that Johnny is a masterful storyteller (liar?) Who's telling whose story? Is "narration" always "fabrication"?
Chapter IV: unheimlich and the existence of crack (25). Danielewski uses Truant's voice to poke fun at academia, but the uncanny still gets its revenge. It's not the intellectuality or the abstractness he has a problem with: it's the discursive mode. Instead of aiming at "the Truth," House of Leaves incorporates as many "truths" as it can. What emerges from their collision is not "the Truth," but it ain't false neither.
Chapter V: The myth of Narcissus and Echo echoes the relationship between Zampano and Truant, the text and its criticism. The Navidson Record is itself profoundly narcissistic in that it creates the object of its criticism, and its critics as well -- it holds its echoes captive. The same holds true for House of Leaves as a "whole" -- it seeks to be without an "out," everything goes into its "ego" -- one could, I suppose, call it a narcissistic text about (is there any doubt?) narcissism!
Chapter IX: The book as labyrinth. Here self-reflexivity takes on a new dimension, using the textual layout to comment on the text's own labyrinthine structure, bringing the materiality of the book as a physical object to the fore.
Chapter X: The page as a frame of film (192-205). House of Leaves attempts to incorporate other media into its structure. On p. 193 we find that the frames in which Jed's head explodes "(Reel 10; Frames 194, 195, etc.)" correspond to the pages in which the event is described.
Chapter XIII: The "f" thing. We commonly think not only of words as arbitrary signifiers of concepts, but letters as arbitrary signifiers of sounds. Yet here the shape (materiality) of the letter is significant. "...the fea, this fea, my fea" (413), reveals a semantic link between fear and the sea merely by virtue of the shape and sound of the letters.
Chapter XX: Navidson reads House of Leaves (i.e. the text becomes absolutely self-reflexive) The horror of infinite recursivity transubstantiates into sublime redemption at the moment self-reflexivity reaches the limit point of absolute, (transcendental?) narcissism -- the text, having incorporated everything else, finally incorporates itself, becomes its own Outside -- (i.e. there is an outside-text, but only if it is inside it.)
Chapter XXII: "Care-" becomes "Karen" (523). Absolute narcissism paradoxically allows for the (re)appearance of the Other as a relation to rather than a projection of the Self.

[Audrey Craipain]:

My attention was drawn to page 563 in the section titled: F. Poems. The poem I chose to explicate does not have a title per se other than: (Untitled Fragment). This poem does not have a credited author either. The fact that it is so short allows me to include it in this annotation:

Little solace comes
to those who grieve
when thoughts keep drifting
as walls keep shifting
and this great blue world of ours
seems a house of leaves
Moments before the wind.

I believe that central themes that constitute House Of Leaves can be found in this small text, which is ironic considering the size of the novel in the first place ~700 pages. When one embarks on the journey of reading this novel, one can experience a sense of vertigo because of the navigation of the narratives, and this refers to the opening line: “Little solace comes to those who grieve when thoughts keep drifting” (Danielewski, 563). The thoughts keep drifting can be linked to the different narratives and narrators whose thoughts drift throughout the novel, and there can be no comfort found when attempting to grieve over this fact.
In the second part of the poem,“as walls keep shifting” (563): this can be linked to the House on Ash Tree Lane itself, to the physical details of the house which is bigger on the inside than on the outside, whose walls are forever changing until the end of the Navidson experience.
This leads us to the latter part of the poem, which evokes the color blue, which is significant to the word House written in blue throughout the novel. The color blue in this poem refers to “this great blue world of ours” (563), and then is directly compared to “a house of leaves moments before the wind” (563). If one thinks back to some of the instances in the novel in which house is written in blue, it can be said that the significance of the color blue in rapport to house is somehow one of entity, globosity, totality which cannot remain complete, as the last line of the poem states: “moments before the wind” (563). By this I mean, the idea of wanting to know everything and grasp everything is an impossible task which leads us to the myriad of annotations and footnotes within the novel, but as the poem indicates House is much like the “great blue world of ours”, there is no way that one, either a reader or a person can take in everything, can say that all is possible to be known to us.
House Of Leaves is an example of experimental narratives unique in the fact that information, knowledge every little bit of data is something that we as a reader WANT, and as we have seen is impossible to decipher their validity-there is a never ending source of information and we as readers are given a choice to take or leave whatever interests us or what we find to be of importance.

[Daven Kang on the Beatles epigraph]: I remembered in class yesterday you mentioned that you had wanted to talk about the Beatles epigraph in House of Leaves ("I saw a film today, oh boy..."); I didn't think much of it at first, but when I went home I put on my copy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (the only Beatles record I own) and was struck by just how incredibly appropriate the invocation of this song ("A Day in the Life") was.
First, of course, is the obvious reference to seeing a film, but the lyrics that follow in the song are equally resonant: "I saw a film today oh boy / The English Army had just won the war / A crowd of people turned away / But I just had to look / *Having read the book.* / *I'd love to turn you on.*"
As I was reading the lyrics off the back of the record cover, I vaguely remembered hearing that Sgt. Pepper's was the first album to have printed lyrics included with the album. I checked on-line, and this was the case--in fact, it was also the first album to have come in a 'gatefold' sleeve, where the cover opened up like a book, in this case revealing a large picture of the band (it's said that this is because Sgt. Pepper's was originally supposed to a double album, though the band ultimately trimmed it down to a single LP). Along with the seminal, oft-imitated cover photo, the amount of attention paid simply to the layout and packaging of Sgt. Pepper's seems in direct correlation to Danielewski's meticulous attention to typeface, layout, color, etc.
And then there's the album itself. Unofficially regarded as rock's first concept album, and recorded after the Beatles decided to stop touring, the record was conceived as an entire concert of a made-up band in a made-up club (thus the garish costumes and imaginary 'audience' on the cover). However, the idea was abandoned at some point, and only the album's introductory title track and its reprise remain true to the idea of a concept album. Nevertheless, the blurring of authorial identity is in line with Danielewski, as is the manipulation of forms (i.e., studio album as concert performance).
Another tweaking of form in Sgt. Pepper's comes at the end of "A Day in the Life," where once the song finishes, a high-pitched dog whistle comes on out of nowhere, a practical joke for any dogs that happen to be listening to the album. After the dog whistle you then hear a bunch of random audio samples pasted together, the loop of which runs through the end of the record, and even into the "run-out groove" (I had to check for the correct term--it's the final thread on a record that eventually loops into itself to keep your needle from being led into the label of the record, which would produce both a terrible sound and needle damage). Anyhow, if you were to leave a record on for an extended period of time, the needle would eventually track to the run-out groove, and silently revolve outside of the label until you turned it off (as is the case on side one of Sgt. Pepper's). However, what the Beatles have done on side two is to encode a small snippet of audio on the groove so that when you leave the record on, it appears to play forever, as the audio sample continuously cycles along with the run-out groove. This, I think, is at the heart of why Danielewski drops his (seemingly benign) reference, because, in effect, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band becomes an album that is "bigger on the inside than it is on the outside." (It is also interesting to note that this concept of an 'infinite' recording is only possible because of the unique workings of records and turntables--I understand that the CD version of Sgt. Pepper's carries out the loop for a couple minutes, which is a pale imitation of what the Beatles intended--another example of extending and playing with the boundaries of a particular format (in this case vinyl recordings) that does not translate into other formats.)
You also mentioned that Danielewski refuses to allow House of Leaves to be made into a film. Strangely enough, this was the case with Sgt. Pepper's (though without any Beatles participation). Though I haven't seen the film myself, it seems like an incredibly bizarre and terrible movie, a sentiment that many critics and viewers seem to share. Thus, another parallel emerges, though probably unintended (although when considering the sheer scope of this book and its followers, you never know...), where a great achievement in one format inevitably fails to translate (or would fail to translate) to another.

[Meghan Koch]: The basics of string theory: String theory is a “new” theory of physics which attempts to unify the four types of interactions in nature: 1) electromagnetism (EM), 2) strong nuclear force (SNF), 3) weak nuclear force (WNF), and 4) gravity. The Electroweak theory has achieved unification between “electromagnetism” and “weak nuclear force” with promising implications to include “strong nuclear force”. However, gravity, explained eloquently by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (GR) does not seem to fit into this scheme. The main problem is that Quantum Field Theory (QFT) has been used to describe the first three forces observed in nature (EM, SNF, and WNF) but when it is applied to gravity (i.e. GR) the answers one gets just don’t make sense. (For example, the force between two gravitrons-the particles that mediate gravity-become infinite when the math is applied). One can get answers by using QFT and GR in conjunction by ignoring certain constants that might seem negligible or by working on large or small scales, but physicists are searching for a theory (with the appropriate math) so that certain forces don’t have to be considered negligible (and therefore not included in the math) in order to get answers that make sense. The string theory represents the biggest breakthrough so far of physicists attempts to combine the four forces observed in nature into one “mother theory” (or M-theory) to explain nature as it is observed around us.
String theory holds that the basic building block of the physical world is a string (not a particle, as had been previously theorized). The strings can be closed loops or open loops (different theories use both kinds), which trace out tubes or sheets (depending on whether they are open or closed) as they move through spacetime. The string theory is attractive because it is held that the strings vibrate, and different vibrational modes represent different particle types (eg electron, photon, quark….). String theory was hailed as a big breakthrough because it was able to describe the gravitron with one of its modes to the point where it could describe the interaction between two gravitrons without producing infinities. Particles are described as those which carry forces (fermion) which include photons and gluons among others, or those which have mass (boson) which include electrons and quarks among others. String theory evolved onto superstring theory (or supersymmetry) which holds that for every boson (particle with mass) there is a corresponding fermion (particle with force). By this point you’re asking yourself what this has to do with an English class, I’ll get there… The next big idea behind string theory is that string theory only works in 10 dimensions, not the four dimensions we observe in the natural world (three dimensions of space and one of time). So either, there are actually 10 dimensions in this world, or String theory is wrong, and scientists need to find a way to whittle the theory down to only incorporate 4 dimensions.
Science plays a big role in Danielewski’s House of Leaves. The horrific nature of the house is due almost solely to the fact that it defies all known rules of nature. However, upon investigation of String theory it is seen that there are no “true” laws of nature, since physicists have yet to come up with a theory that will encompass (and can therefore predict) the forces of nature. The house being bigger on the inside than it is on the out seems intuitively wrong, yet since the laws of nature have yet to be entirely explained, it could be possible.
Since String theory holds true when the world is described in 10 dimensions, some physicists have held that the world actually consists of more that the four dimensions of spacetime that are observed around us. (In fact, this theory did not originate with String theory, but goes back to the 1920s). Scientists hold that the six other dimensions are simply curled around one another so that we don’t see them in the natural world. When Navidson is left at the bottom of the Spiral Staircase after the house “expands” he is estimated to be an impossible distance away from Reston and his brother (a distance exceeding the diameter of the earth by around 3,000ft). This gives the idea that Navidson is no longer in the four dimensions observed around us, but in another one. It is almost as if this is Danielewski’s hypothesis to one of the “curled up” dimensions suddenly uncurling. Physicists speculate that the six unobserved dimensions are indeed curled in a circle around each other. So at one point, Navidson would be right next to the others, but as the dimension unfurled into a straight line, Navidson would be hopelessly far away.
Another way that the house is reminiscent of the String Theory involved the existence of black holes. Black holes are entities with such massive gravity that nothing can escape once it passes the so-called “event horizon,” not even light. So the house resembles a black hole in being entirely dark, while consuming everything that is left in its presence, from neon lights to buttons, to actual people (Tom was sucked down into the house). Black holes have also been hypothesized to be portals, or wormholes, that lead to parallel or even alternate dimensions. As Navidson re-enters the house in Exploration #4 he is constantly being pulled down, whatever direction he rides his bike he goes down into the abyss (or rather he is pulled down by the black hole into another dimension). Black holes have been observed in the universe, and they have been predicted (and can be explained) by Einstein’s General theory of Relativity. String theory fits with black holes because it can incorporate Einstein’s GR with Quantum Field Theory (i.e. it can explain black holes as they exist in conjunction with the other forces of nature), bringing the concept (an explanation) behind black holes one step closer to (our) reality.
Finally, the last correlation (but probably not the least) I observed between String Theory and House of Leaves applies when Navidson is floating in his final moments of Exploration #4, suffering from exposure. He assumes he is “falling” but he never hits bottom, and he does not know which way is up, or which way he is facing. Gravity seems not to have any effect at this point. It is postulated that different realities have different sets of rules. In our world we observe four basic forces (described above), but these rules may not apply in different dimensions (or alternate universes). Thus, in the house, the rules of this world do not apply since the house represents a different dimension.
Obviously, the house can also act as a representation of the physical manifestations of the psyche-being dark, scary and unknown. However, the house as something literally existing in the world as we know it can be (somewhat) explained by string theory. The influence of this developing theory on Mark Danielewski is evident in his portrayal of the house on Ash Tree lane.

English 146EN: Guidelines for Annotations Assignment

You will notice that most of the texts we will read are concerned with the question of Reader response(s), and for the annotations assignment I am asking you literally to do just that: engage thoughtfully with the reading, a process which can take any number of forms. You might, for example, explicate (gloss) a passage that you find important, difficult and/or problematic, and in the process of unpacking this passage, you might comment upon its relation to the novel as a whole. You might also use one common theme to link together a few passages; in this scenario, you would extract a narrative thread that interests you and that you take to be important to (or even incongruent with) the novel. You could also string together a list of seemingly unrelated observations and notations, something like a free associative approach that still demonstrates your having thought about some part of the novel. Annotations, in other words, can vary from close reading, to explication, to critique.

“To annotate” was first officially recorded in English in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (c. 1755). He uses it to define “comment,” so if you were to take this little bit of etymological history as your guide, you would interpret the annotations to mean that you should simply “comment upon” some part of the novel. For example, if you were thinking about the fragment If on a winter’s night a traveler inside of the book If on a winter’s night a traveler then you could write a few sentences about what the relations between the two are. If you get carried away, you could pursue it for an entire page, but you might have a few other topics in your mind and you could just splice them all together—you don’t even need to attempt the transitions that we find between the fragments in Calvino.

The best metaphor I can think of for an assignment such as this one is the commonplace book, but you might also think of it as a kind of critical reading journal. In other words, your annotations DO NOT need to be ordered by an overarching argument, as does a close reading. Neither need you be concerned with grammar or style. (I have to say, though, that while it would in every way be appropriate to produce a non-sequential text in response to Calvino’s, for example, please keep in mind that you will still have a Reader that needs to make sense of what you write, so there should be some order behind the chaos.)

Finally, this is NOT an exercise in competitive creativity. If you feel more comfortable writing a “straight” response to the novel, in the ‘Calvino uses X metaphor in order to make a point about Y’ mode, then this is what you should do.

Length: 1 typed page, single spaced
Note: You will write two sets of annotations for this course, one on House of Leaves and the other on a text of your choosing