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An Analysis of House of Leaves Part IV: Escaping

Setting the Scene

In the previous posts I have presented a key by which to understand the allegory of the Navidson / Danielewski families. Peripatetic and insular, the children grow up in a world that features great need of their parents; however, their father’s ambitious pursuits swallow him and the mother’s need for his support and validation swallow her along with him, leaving the children alone. While House of Leaves, the novel, depicts that object of paternal obsession as a House with a demonic nature, houses are metaphorical objects meaning any sort of intellectual pursuit that consumes and isolates its pursuer.

The Children’s Experience

I’d like to take a moment to point out that the children’s neglect and fear is not subtle or something that a busy parent with good intentions could miss. No, I think their expressions of discomfort and need were quite clear.

Consistent care seems only to come from outside the nuclear family. Will’s brother, Tom, crafts a custom doll house for Daisy (p. 62) where she spends hours alone playing (ominously) “house.” Further, no one seems to recognize or intervene when Chad “escape[s] outside, disappearing into the summoning woods…his adventures and anger passing away unobserved.”

Even more frightening, from a Child Protective Services perspective, is that the children’s bedroom wall is “covered with drawings (p. 316).” Elsewhere we learn what their drawings look like (from a teacher):

[Chad’s drawing of his house] had no chimney, windows, or even a door. In fact it was nothing more than a black square filling ninety percent of the page. Furthermore several layers of black crayon and pencil had been applied so that not even a speck of the paper beneath could show through. In the thin margins, Chad had added the marauding creatures (p. 313)."

and:

[in the] kindergarten classroom…one [drawing] caught her eye…[t]he same…[monsters]…two thirds the size of the page, an impenetrable square, composed of several layers of black and cobalt blue crayon, with not even the slightest speck of white showing through…drawn by Daisy.

No parent could see this in their children’s bedroom and ignore that something was very, very wrong and that those kids needed out. Will is clearly not visiting children’s most-protected sanctum, the place of one of the first spatial violations, and seeing its violation [1]]. Nor is Karen.

The Children and the House of Leaves

The children’s relationship to the house mirrors their father’s investment in conquering its mystery. When the house (project) first begins it’s an oddity. The first mutation the house takes is to sprout a closet between the children’s bedroom and the adults'.

The children, however, just accepted it. They raced through the closet. They played in it. They inhabited it. (p. 39)

It’s not entirely malevolent, just hauntingly odd and the children are almost amused by the fact that their home has this oddity.

Later “[i]n the living room, Navidson discovers the echoes [of the children] emanating from a dark doorless hallway which has appeared out of nowhere in the west wall. Navidson plunges in after them…Navidson soon reappears with Chad and Daisy in each arm, both of them still clutching a homemade candle, their faces lit like sprites on a winter’s eve (p. 57).”

Again Will’s investment has not started to consume him in an almost Shining-like style. Yet as Will crosses the threshold (literally) into obsession, someone else is required to help him back out. Notably Daisy saves her father from getting lost in the labyrinth during his first clandestine voyage past the threshold.

Navidson freezes, “I better be able to find my way back,” he finally whispers, which though probably muttered in jest suddenly catches him off guard. ..[m]uch to his horror, he can no longer see the [exit]…he has walked beyond the range of his light…his panicked turn and the subsequent absence of any landmarks has made it impossible for him to remember which direction he just came from…a sharp cry comes back to him, a child’s cry, calling out for him, drawing him to the right..discovers a corridor terminating in warm yellow light, lamp light, with a tiny silhouette standing in the doorway, tugging her daddy home with a cry."

It was a touching and tender moment, that tender child’s voice screaming for her father to come back to her, a magical scream with the power to to make a nightmare dissipate. Love, mental directedness, and care have the ability to pull Will back from the yawning abyss of his obsession. But as time goes on, and the father’s obsession with the sprouting labyrinth grows. Karen’s proscription against his entry intensifies his burning desire to go back in. He stays in his office for hours trying to eke out some satisfaction about the mystery against the impenetrable, featureless labyrinth.

[T]he house is “a solipsistic heightener…the halls, and the rooms all become the self – collapsing, expanding, tilting, closing, but always in perfect relation to the mental state of the individual (p. 165).

How does this relate to a little girl who loves her father, a little girl named Annie?

The House of Leaves, the Intellectual, and the Annie Danielewski

I believe “Haunted” is Poe sharing what it felt like to try to pull her father, a dweller firmly in the neighborhood of the Life of the Mind (“Barton Fink” reference intentional), back into relating with her. Her sadness at being lectured to, versus loved; at being recorded, instead of talked to as much as she might have liked. It’s the story of how she competed with a driven (perhaps narcissistically so) father’s plays, movies, recordings, movies, wives for intimacy.

He tries to escape his invention but never succeeds because for whatever reason, he is compelled, day and night, week after week month after month, to continue building the very thing responsible for his incarceration. (p. 337).

Recall in Poe’s song “House of Leaves,” Father says: “I WASN’T SURE IF I’M GOING TO SURVIVE THIS HORROR.” In the process of “Haunted,” we see the power of music to share emotional realities. Poe seems to, ultimately, make peace with the complicated of the ghost of the man who was her father. Yes, he was distant, he was lecturing, he was unavailable, but he was also, by turns, tender, warm, quiet and loving. You feel their intimacy in some moments and it’s deeply stirring.

"If You Were Here" by Poe

...

If you were here, I know that you would truly be amazed
At what's become of what you made
If you were here, you would know how I treasured every day
How every single word you spoke
Echoes in me like a memory of hope

When you were here, you could not feel the value that I placed
On every look that crossed your face
When you were here, I did not know just how I had embraced
All that you hid behind your face
Could not hide from me, 'cause it hid in me too

(voiceover, Father)
How are you, Tiger?
This is great fun to be able to talk with you like this
In fact, I'm going to do it more often

Now that I'm here, I hear you
And wonder if maybe you can hear yourself
Ringing in me now that you're somewhere else
I miss you a lot

'Cause I hear your strange music gentle and true
I'm sharing with you some of my reflections
Singing inside me with the best parts of you
Now that I'm here

But I'm so proud of everything you do there
Love you most
I hope somewhere you hear them too
Next time I see you you'll proudly sing it back to me
Now that I'm here
Oh, I love you
It's okay, you can go now

But what of Mark’s resolution to live with his father’s House?

The House of Leaves, the Intellectual, and the Mark Danielewski

The novel House of Leaves sets up a context which allowed Mark to exercise his artistic vision but to also show how a father with a House of Leaves left him forgotten and alone more than he could reconcile himself to.

Ultimately the book is a love story about how the driven and the intellectuals may need help in getting out of their Houses of Leaves. Mark Danielewski features several citations and quotes about Narcissus and his reflecting pool. Clearly Will’s need to understand, to document, and to define has seduced him away from his family.

I don’t believe that, in fact, Tad Danielewski ever escaped his labyrinth. As evidence of this I take the damaged relationship sung about on “Haunted.” In that work Poe is advised that if she’s holding grudges, she should let them go.

The third act of the fictional House of Leaves is Mark’s wistful take on what he wished might have happened or is perhaps advice. In this, he takes the writer’s balm: he gets to rewrite history the way it wished it could have been. He also tells us the secret for escaping the labyrinth.

Escaping the Labyrinth

Notably in the house metaphor explorers and adventurers enter the labyrinth. As they go further trying to understand what it is and why it is (when it offers nothing back, ever) they find it growing and deepening and pulling them ever further down into it [2]. Recall that Daisy helped guide her father out of the labyrinth, apparently is has some respect for intention and connection

In a chapter that is superbly easy to discount, the Navidson dog chases the Navidson cat into the labyrinth and then, moments later they both appear in the backyard. Clearly the labyrinth can release entities. While I first took this to mean that it was only interested in humans, I now think that the house responds to intention and intimate connection. When the dog chased the cat their full attentions were focused on one another; when this emotional dynamic occurs, when two entities are more interested in each other than the null space of the House, it dissipates.

This seems to be echoed by how Navidson escapes from the brink of death inside the null spaces of the labyrinth. As he voyages deeper and deeper into the labyrinth, he covers unfathomable distances away from entry door. He rides a bicycle down an infinite grade, odometers and pedometers give way until he is lost so far and so deep in an abyss he has no hope of safe return.

He performs an act of atonement, he burns the leaves[3] of a book he has with him “House of Leaves,” for light until it is gone. While much discussion focuses on the recursive “whoa!” of burning the look you-the-actual-reader are reading, taken at its symbolic it’s very clear: Will is letting go of his logocentric fixation on this quest. He’s realizing there’s always more to explore, further to go, more time to not spend with his family. He shivers closing in on death. He finally puts his attention back on his children and back on Karen. He gives up on his obsessive need to understand the labyrinth, the focus of his logos. He wants back to the realm of the living. He wants his family. And it is too late.

The house, honoring the request for connection opens a void in the children’s bedroom where Daisy, his former rescuer, once slept. Unbeknownst to Will, a stronger and more self-assured Karen is in the room searching for him having heard his end-of-life wails from those bedroom walls. Scared by claustrophobia, unprepared with bicycle or warm clothing to brave this frigid void she lets go of her personal boundary and heads into the void searching for him. She’s oddly giddy, full of joy at finding him at last.

She finds him in the cold void and then the labyrinth simply dissolves and they are back in daylight again, together, on their front lawn. She screams for help as the hypothermic Will shivers in her lap.

He recovers but is permanently injured, permanently. She loves him. They move, with their children, far away from the house. He drops his defensive distance. They come to spend more time with their children and the family heals. Mark writes the ending he had hoped for.

Conclusion

Ultimately House of Leaves and “Haunted” are tributes by loving children to their father. He was a man who loved them but who also loved his professional reputation and loved ideas. Sometimes that love made them feel second best, and ignored. Absent that assurance, they often sought their mother, but found her unable or unwilling to help. They soothed each other but couldn’t understand or bear the fact that they had been set aside, set beneath abstractions and ideas. Of this pain they created the “Haunting” and elegiac “House of Leaves” mythos. For their vulnerability and openness I feel truly lucky that my life lead me to enjoy these works.

As a programmer and as the very obsessive blogger who wrote these posts I realized that I, too, was in my House of Leaves. It’s why I needed to tell this story. I have always wrestled with that “there’s more to do” there’s “more security to find” there’s “more to learn.” I am vulnerable to the Faustian / Dr. Doom / Will Navidson / Tad Danielewski / Barton Fink / Richard Corey flaw that makes the siren song of the life of the mind a distraction from being in the present. It hurt me to write these words, to know that I was descending even as I wrote about the dangers of descending. What a work that can make us feel that even as we re-live the roles in the book that we know we ought not! For this it is a truly sublime creation and Mark Danielewski will assuredly be noted as one of the most clever and important authors of the early 21st century.

Ultimately the work ends with a warning about our seductive, logocentric houses. “Beware” says Karen, “there’s nothing there.”

Footnotes

  1. As we find out in the conclusion of the book, the House offers Karen a shortcut to the deepest part of the labyrinth via her babies' bedroom!
  2. I’m reminded of Piers Anthony’s Macroscope where a puzzle to kill intelligent people had been devised such that as the intellectual watched the “proof” unfold they would unknowingly “ingest” a mind altering formula that would render them vegetables
  3. A House of Leaves, a book, leaves of paper bound together. A book with an ever-expanding gyre of depth. This book you have in your hands. The books that populated the Father’s office that drew him deeper and deeper and further and further away from his family

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