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Literary Criticism, Colour Commentary, House of Leaves

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

— Mark Twain, Epigraph to Huckleberry Finn

I’m a little more than halfway through Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which I’m reading in prep for a possible thesis by an M.A. student in the lab.

If you don’t know the book, it’s probably not one you’d pick up in an airport book store in hopes of whiling away the time on your red-eye to Ottawa: you don’t need more than a quick fan-through the pages to see that this is Serious Literature. The kind of thing you turn to after reading Woolf’s The Waves, or Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, rather than Mitchener’s The Source. Or when you are assigned it in literature class.

Even before you start reading it, there are all sorts of typographical quirks: text that is repeated backwards, that runs all over the page, in different fonts and various colours; pages with a single work on them, or almost no margins. According to the Wikipedia, the author typeset it himself. Not a surprise.

When you read it, you see that appearances are not lying. It is, formally speaking, a difficult book: there are footnotes within footnotes, text structures that mimic the plot (a section on labyrinths is particularly difficult to follow in layout), and multiple changes in narration. Sometimes you have to read it upside down, or in a mirror, or backwards.

For all that, however, it really is an enjoyable read (and I mean “for all that” literally, rather than as a contrastive: for in the sense of because). Like Joyce’s Ulysses, it is a book that looks more impenetrable than it actually is. If you ignore the sense you get — probably because of literature class — that you’re supposed to find things deep, you’ll probably also find it fun. And I just used it to while away the time on a flight, albeit in the afternoon rather than a red-eye and to Charlottetown rather than Ottawa. Worked great.

Like many really good books, there’s probably a lot you’ll find to think about as you read through it.

But for me, one of the most interesting has been its thoroughgoing parody of academic literary criticism — something that is so good and effective that, like the epigraph from Mark Twain at the beginning of this blog, it makes it even difficult to discuss.

To understand this you need to know a little of the complicated narrative situation in the novel. The title page calls it “Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves by Zampanò With an Introduction and Notes by Johnny Truant,” and this mostly sums up what’s going on (the Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication Data cheats by describing the novel’s title as “House of Leaves / Mark. Z. Danieleweski,” which doesn’t sum up anything in addition to [probably] being wrong bibliographically): the book is ostensibly a work of film criticism called “House of Leaves,” which has been left in manuscript form by a now-dead amateur author called Zampanò, which was then edited and commented on by a (I believe now missing) amateur editor called Johnny Truant, whose work was then edited and commented upon once again by a more professional “Ed.” (who presumably may or may not be a characterisation of “Mark Z. Danielewski”).

The original manuscript by Zampanò is about the contents and reception of an apparently non-extent film called the Navidson Record, which is in turn about a house that can change shape. This work quotes a huge amount of criticism and commentary about this film, most from the years 1994 through 1996, with various real-sounding academic or journalist titles. Johnny Truant’s contribution is footnotes with the occasional translation of phrases in the main text and rambling personal anecdotes (think a little of James’s The Aspern Papers except told via the footnotes). And the “Ed” steps in every so often to comment on and fill in (again in a more academic vein) Johnny’s notes.

The parody of academia comes primarily in Zampanò’s part of the book. He is explicitly not a professional critic, but he is definitely trying to mimic one: the manuscript is a book-length discussion, history, and explication of the Navidson Record. The things parodied are too many to include in a blog, but include ostentatious erudition (failure to translate passages and terms, the use of foreign words and phrases instead of quite natural ones in English); academic fights (he is quite vicious about a few critics he dislikes); some of the academic titles in the footnotes; simply the ostensible bulk of criticism written about this film in a few years (there must be fifty or more supposedly published in the period 1994-1996); and so on.

A lot of this is quite funny if you are in the field. My favourite is the Rilke quote in following discussion of the questions raised by the first evidence of the house changing shape:

The next question is whether or not someone could have broken in and in four days constructed the peculiar addition. Improbable to say the least. Their final thought is that someone came in and uncovered it. Just installed two doors. But why? And for that matter, to quote Rilke, Wer?

As somebody who as an undergraduate was anxious to prove my erudition in many essays, this quotation is to academia as The Office is to work-life: too close to be fully comfortable.

Perhaps the biggest parody of criticism, however, involves the use of paraphrase in argument. This is something that is an explicit topic of discussion at one point in the novel, when Zampanò excuses what he describes as excessive paraphrase (can’t find the reference right now). But it is also the main method of exposition for the Navidson Record. Since the film doesn’t actually exist, everything we know about it comes from Zampanò’s paraphrase.

Where the parody comes in is in the way Zampanò uses paraphrase to argue. Every statement about the narrative of the film is underpinned by several premises that make the criticism as a whole possible:

  1. Will Navidson (the director and cinematographer) is an artistic and especially cinematographic genius

  2. Therefore everything in the film is there intentionally

  3. Therefore everything in the film reflects a larger thematic meaning

  4. The role of the critic is to uncover the underlying genius by showing how #2 and #3 are true throughout the work.

Probably my favourite example of this thus far is an explication of why Navidson himself did not comment on a scene in which the house apparently kills his brother Tom. As with everything in the novel, there’s a lot going on in the passage I’m about to quote, but let me just help a little by saying that “Billy Reston” is one of the characters who had been helping Navidson, his brother Tom, and others explore the changing parts of the house, and “The Last Interview” is one of the various (fictional) critical and journalistic sources that report on the film and its creators. The footnote is in Zampanò’s voice:

Due to the darkness and insufferable limitations of the Hi 8s, the chaotic bits of tape representing these events must be supplemented with Billy’s narration. Navidson, however, does not discuss any of these horrific moments in The Last Interview. Instead he makes Reston the sequence’s sole authority. This is odd, especially since Reston saw none of it. He is only recounting what Navidson told him himself. The general consensus has always been that the memory is simply too painful for Navidson to revisit. But there is another possibility: Navidson refuses to abandon the more perspicacious portion of his audience. By relying on Reston as the sole narrative voice, he subtly draws attention once again to the question of inadequacies in representation, no matter how flawless. Here in particular, he mockingly emphasizes the fallen nature of any history by purposefully concocting an absurd number of generations. Consider: 1. Tom’s broken hands —> 2. Navidson’s perception of Tom’s hurt — 3. Navidson’s description of Tom’s hurt to Reston —> 4. Reston’s retelling of Navidson’s description based on Navidson’s recollection and perception of Tom’s actual hurt. A pointed reminder that representation does not replace. It only offers distance and in rare cases perspective.

What this reminds me of more than anything is the way colour commentators speak of events in a professional game: the play happens, the whistle blows, and the colour commentator comes on to explain what just happened. At least in commentary of ice-hockey games, this pretty much inevitably involves an explication of the thought process involved in the play: i.e. “X got the puck and then saw he had two options: go high or low; but if he goes high he knows that goalie Y is strong with his blocker. So he shoots high, bounces the puck of the glove, and then has it hit him before going in low, taking advantage of what he always knew was the weak spot.” I always find the commentary funny because they make the fairly improvisational and reactive nature of what’s going on the field sound deliberate and intentional. And Zampanò shows that that’s at least a little true of criticism.

It would be nice to end on a profound point about literary study, but in a short speculative piece like this, all I’ll say is that Danielewski is right (see what I’m doing here?): there is a problem with the role of paraphrase in literary criticism. I remember worrying about it as an undergraduate (“how much paraphrase and narrative exposition is enough”?), and as a graduate student, I once ran into real trouble writing about a novel where I didn’t believe premise (2) and (3) above (it was about Mary Wollestonecraft’s unfinished novel, Maria or the Rights of Women). The deeper problem, I assume, has something to do with assumptions about intentionality and meaning (that’s why colour commentary is so funny). But I don’t know more than that.

For this piece, anyway.

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