annotations of House of Leaves
Amos | Audrey Craipain |
Daven Kang (on the
Beatles epigraph) |
Meghan Koch (on string theory)
-- All Copyright © 2003 --
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
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
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.
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
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)
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
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
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.