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An Analysis of House of Leaves Part I: Toward a New Understanding

Introduction

Last summer I was prompted by my friend Danielle to read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. As she urged me to read the book I gleefully said that I had alway been meaning to given that I was such a fan of “Haunted,” the album companion to the book by Mark’s sister, Annie Danielewski, who performs under the name “Poe.”

Truth be told, I had avoided the book in part because it was just too much like me. I had scanned a few pages shortly after its release and I immediately recognized a kindred spirit in the voice of Mark: discursive, recursive, rambling, annotated, polymathic, vertiginous. I (rightly) feared what it would mean for me to process this work and integrate it. I finished the book over a year ago and have put hours into writing this series of posts. To say it had an effect on me would be an understatement.

Looking on the Internet for fellow lovers of the book I was surprised that so much of the focus was on the postmodern structure of the book: use of formatting, footnotes, narrative frames-within-frames, etc. Even I wrote from that perspective in discussing his break with Latin metrical rule. Far too much discussion has focused on secret codes and symbolism and have missed the message of the novel.

I believe I have perceived the message this cry of pain in part because I have loved “Haunted” for over 15 years. Since I have memorized and internalized the emotional anguish and rage inside “Haunted” I never stopped looking for the companion dynamic in House of Leaves. By holding this perspective, I think I found House of Leaves' message.

The Message of House of Leaves

House of Leaves is a roman a clef. It tells a story, in its inner-most valence, of two children raised by a narcissistic [1] father film-making father whose obsession with his ideas and logocentrism left them feeling ignored for much of their childhood. Their mother was unable to assure them due to psychological damage from her history and her codependency on the father. As a result, the children spent much of their time together in unstable situations clinging to each other for support. The girl (Daisy) turned to an inward world of creation and imagination (dolls, doll-houses) while the boy (Chad) flirted with violence and withdrawing into nature.

It is further my belief that this story is pseudo-biographical: the boy, to a greater degree, is Mark Z. Danielewski and the girl is Annie Decatur Danielewski. The story inside of House of Leaves’s innermost Matryoshka Doll, The Navidson Record, is a fictionalization for their youth and describes the desperate machinery of their family[2].

A “house of leaves” is therefore a metaphor for an intellectual pursuit that captures the pursuer and pulls them away from the “reality” of their social universe and relationships. The creators of these houses can only be freed from them or escape them when they give up the quest &emdash; something they may not be able or willing to do &emdash; and seek those relationships while being sought by those outside.

Vulnerability

This interpretation is so intimate and so personal and raw and private to the Danielewski children that I was, at the end of writing these posts, unsure as to whether I should publish them or not. They felt too personal, like the facts had been hidden intentionally with the expectation that no one would dig that deep, would break the code.

Talking this over with Lauren she suggested that people who encode their art may have the feeling that “they could never say it right when they said it plainly” but that someone caring enough to read through might be validation and the type of love they were looking for. Thus I am here, writing this first prologue to a series of posts. [3]

After-Effects

Many years on, after the death of the father, the two children made a collaborative art project. In “Haunted” the girl, Annie AKA Poe, lays bare her hurt from this dynamic and moves toward forgiveness (“He wanted you to know / He isn’t holding a grudge And if you are you should let go”). In House of Leaves the boy, Mark, obfuscates and creates logocentric traps that misdirect and seduce the reader from seeing the simple plain truth at the heart of the story: “we grew up neglected by a man who was easily drawn-in by logocentric traps like you; it was painful to me and my sister.” He imagines a happy ending (whether he got it or not, I do not know).

In the following posts I will try to justify my interpretation.

Next Post

The next post will focus on how familiarity with Poe’s work provided a topical emphasis on neglect that informed my interpretation and described above.

Footnotes

  1. The words “narcissistic” and “neglect” are words that stop a reader cold. Both of these words exist on a gradient. “Narcissism” can range from a pathological form to a less pathological form. “Neglect” need not be a trailer park home in squalor with babies sitting in mud either. “Neglect” runs a wide gamut. Neither implies criminal or delinquent behavior per se. In fact a discussion about “invisible” neglect is described here: http://www.drjonicewebb.com/about-emotional-neglect/
  2. Let me be explicit, I do not believe there is 100% correspondence between the Danielewski family and the Navidson family. I am sure there are substantial differences in degrees and character traits. It is unlikely that every flaw or virtue of Will Navidson corresponds to the childrens' real father. There should be allowances for artistic license.
  3. Should you, dear reader, ever be one of the Danielewski children and you feel heard, or hurt, or thankful for this analysis; should you wish to clarify or deny or tell me I got it all wrong or too painfully right, please let me know and I will correct or remove or edit per your request. I love both of your works so very much and I’m so glad that in this life that they both meant so much to me. I would never want to hurt either of you. You are brave and beautiful artists and my life has been enriched by your work.

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