I approached House of Leaves, the novel, looking for a story of children suffering or getting lost — literally or metaphorically. Also, I kept wondering whether the book was an fictionalization of what it was like growing up a Danielewski child. I went looking for support from Mark’s work and found it on the very first page.
The Ignored Children
HoL opens with a collage photograph with this found snippet:
Note: The collage obscures key words, these are my best estimation. The sentiment emerges regardless
Perhaps I will alter the whole thing. Kill both children. Murder is a better word. Chad scrambling to escape, almost making it to the front door where Karen waits, until a corner in the foyer suddenly leaps forward and hews the boy in half. At the same time Navidson, by the kitchen reaches for Daisy, only to arrive a fraction of a second too late, his fingers ….ding air, his eyes, scratching after Daisy as she …. to her death. Let both parents experience that…their narcissism find a new object to wither by. …them in infanticide. Drown them in blood.
The children are named “Chad” and “Daisy.” Both are children of loving parents (they’re working to save their children) but they are parents who have missed, owing to narcissism (yet to be detailed), their children’s needs. Was it coincidence that “Mark” and “Annie” have the same letter counts as “Chad” and “Daisy?”
Thus the confusion and loss reported by Poe (the “House of Leaves” experience) is triggered, according to Mark, by narcissism. I turned the page looking to see if Mark explains what the narcissisms were.
The Narcissistic Parents
HoL (the novel) describes, in its innermost narrative valence, the story of Will Navidson and Karen Green and their children in a film called The Navidson Record. We learn that Will is a famous photographer early in novel (p. 6). We also learn that Karen is a stunning beauty, a cover model (p. 57) whose face has become a beautiful, learned mask that buries even as it distances. I tried to keep an eye out on the narcissism of the parents as the story unfurled.
The Narcissistic Ahab: Will
The framing motivation of the story is Will who has photographed in war zones, conflict zones, away from his home and family is going to “[s]ettle in, put maybe down roots (p. 9)” with Karen and their children. However, he doesn’t just do that. No, he’s already framing that experience, that dasein moment, within the context of making a film. We’re told early that this whole experience has been framed within the context of a reality show-esque home where every room will be filmed thanks to an artistic project grant.
“I just want to create a record of how Karen and I bought a small house in the country and moved into it with our children. Sort of see how everything turns out. No gunfire, famine, or flies. Just lots of toothpaste, gardening and people stuff. Which is how I got the Guggenheim Fellowship and the NEA Media Arts Grant…[s]ettle in, interact, hopefully understand each other a little better. Personally, I just want to create a cozy little outpost for me and my family. A place to drink lemonade on the porch and watch the sun set (p. 8-9).
Thus the entire operation of “choose a quieter, simpler family life” becomes something else. Owing to the cameras he bought with a grant he applied for the actual act of “living a quieter, simpler family life” becomes a work, a work of his.
While he might be signaling that he is going to become a family man, and that the family is first, that seems to be a falsehood (which he may not be conscious of). In actuality, he is bounding the experience of life of four people inside of his personal project. A project that may drive him with an Ahab-befitting mania.
The Narcissistic Mother: Karen
As mentioned, Karen is a former model who is turning away from the “vices” of the modeling lifestyle (Danielewski rightly calls out that these shaming commentaries are sexist).
Karen Green a cold bitch, plain and simple A high-fashion model, not much smarter than a radiator, who grew up thinking life revolved around club owners, cocaine, and credit card limits. Watching her burble on about her weight, her children, or how much she needs Navidson made me want to retch. How can she say she loves a man when she’s incapable of anything remotely resembling commitment? Did I say she was a cold bitch? She’s also a slut….hardly gave up the promiscuous behavior that marked her 20s. She only became more discreet (p. 16).
I believe her narcissism is to take down the grand mask of “The Mother” and wear it as if a show response to this vituperative quote. At times she ignores the children when they reach out for help or comfort. To wit:
[she] has already molded her desperation into a familiar pose of indifference…She keeps her arms folded, no longer clinging to Navidson’s hand or stroking her children (p. 59).
“Karen knows her kids are in trouble…separation from [Navidson] is more painful (p.314).”
“[the children] have to put themselves to sleep [to go to sleep, not euthanasia] (p. 314)”
The Children in the Shadow
From the children’s perspective they have been “uprooted” from familiar things like “Bloomydales [sic]” and the white noise of traffic (p. 9) and have been placed into a father’s project’s stage. When friction or distance emerges between their father and mother they have only each other. When the father’s project is strange or scary, the children have no assurance that their mother will be there for them.
Is this not the message in House of Leaves the song cited in the previous post? As Poe released in 1996 that “fathers are black holes that suck up the light.”
The House as Metaphor
My read of House of Leaves is thus a story about family dysfunction that left the children ignored and scared in a life experience designed and bounded by their father’s ambition. What better metaphor describes a bounded box of the experience of life than a house? The House of Leaves, thus, is a metaphor for a creation, a choice, a pursuit chosen by the father that swallows up the family, including the creator.
For a narcissist, what could be worse than having your creation grow and shift and alter in ways that you wouldn’t expect. And what does the house at the heart of House of Leaves do? It grows, it reveals hidden corridors, it inflicts itself upon the family - including its narcissistic Dr. Frankenstein himself.
And this is exactly what the rest of The Navidson Record reports.
When confronting the…[house], Karen set her mind on familiar things while Navidson went in search of a solution. The children, however, just accepted it. They raced through…it. They inhabited it (p. 139).
The Danielewski Children
Were there experiences in the Danielewski life which might hint that they were placed in their own father’s House of Leaves?
Born in New York City and daughter of Polish film director Tad Z. Danielewski and his wife Priscilla Decatur Machold, Poe and her brother, novelist Mark Z. Danielewski, lived in six different countries before she turned eight. Her father’s film directing took the family to Africa, India, Spain, Switzerland, England, and the United States. When Poe was 12, her father moved his family to Provo, Utah where Poe attended junior high school and some of high school
From: “Poe: Early Life” Wikipedia
Careers, relocation, no enduring friends or familial base. Only a family, relocating for the sake of the father’s projects. Chad and Daisy / Mark and Annie both were lost and yearning for contact. As Poe sang: “Hello, Hello?”
The Neglected Navidson Children in their Father’s House
Ultimately the House begins its slow seduction of its creator, Will. First by being geometrically anomalous, then revealing secret tunnels, then revealing an endless labyrinth. He locks himself away in his office preparing expeditions into the featureless, frigid wastes that spiral seemingly infinitely from behind a door in his office.
Karen, codependent on Will in many ways (until later on in the story) can’t bear for him to put his life in danger any more (recall: Will is coming here after being a war- and famine-zone photographer). She refuses to let him go and tries to find some way to make the Other Woman, the house, go away.
As the action rises in The Navidson Record, Mark Danielewski helps make us complicit in the children’s neglect. We hear, at length, about adventures and derring-do inside the labyrinth, we read about Karen reading I-Ching reference, drawing Tarot cards, etc. but are sucked into the Ahab and ghost-Whale story and lose the children as well.
Unfortunately, since neither Chad nor Daisy has had a real opportunity to make any new friends…they keep to themselves, romping around the backyard, shouting, screaming,…until eventually they drift farther and farther out into the neighborhood for increasingly longer spates of time.
Neither Karen nor Navidson seems to notice (p. 56).
I believe at this point I have presented sufficient support for the theory that the Navidson children are proxy characters à clef for the Danielewski children. In the next section I will focus on how the children resisted the House’s siren song and fought to keep their family together in spite of it.