«Haunted House—An Interview with Mark Danielewski (Take Two1) Remember those dire, pre-Millennial pronouncements about the alarming marginalization ...»
Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory
Haunted House—An Interview with Mark Danielewski (Take Two1)
Remember those dire, pre-Millennial pronouncements about the alarming marginalization of reading
and writing in our increasingly visually-oriented, digitalized Internet era? Or the claims that the ascendancy
of visual media—most notably cinema but also television, video, and photography—had eclipsed the novel
as our culture’s preeminent means of providing a means of modeling and interpreting contemporary experience? Or the related insistence the that Internet, hypertext, and other new forms of electronic writing capable of combining text, sound, and image have already made old-fashioned print-bound books, with their cumbersome physicality, increasingly unlikely to survive at all within the global village’s electronic system of communication, with its bewildering proliferation of lingoes, databases, and 57 channels?
In the following interview, Mark Z. Danielewski dismisses such concerns with an almost audacious sense of casual self-assuredness that might seem arrogant were Danielewski not the author of House of Leaves, a stunning, mind-and-genre expanding work which is not only arguably the most impressive debut since Thomas Pynchon’s V. nearly forty years ago but which certainly renders any such commentary about irrelevance and obsolesce of the novel instantly irrelevant and obsolete. Like Melville Moby Dick, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Nabokov’s Pale Fire (to cite only the most obvious comparisons), Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a grandly ambitious, multi-layered work that simply knocks your socks off with its vast scope, erudition, formal inventiveness, and sheer story-telling skills, while also opening up whole new areas of the novel as an art form. It’s also many different kinds of books rolled into one—part horror novel (and a truly terrifying one at that), part psychological study, part send-up of academic criticism, part family saga, part metafictional and metaphysical speculation, part meditation on the nature of fear (and the ways that fear is projected outwards into hatred, anger and sadomasochism impulses, and part reflection upon the ways in This interview is a “second take” of an earlier interview we conducted with Mark Danielewski in Hollywood in July 2000.
which the technologies of reproduction have already profoundly transformed our relationship to memory, ourselves, and “reality” itself. House of Leaves is also a book deeply concerned with exploring the whole issue of what a novel is (or might be)— and with demonstrating that novelists have as yet barely scratched the surface of story-telling options that have always been available to writers.
Unfolding as a maze of competing texts, idiosyncratic voices, commentaries and footnotes, typographical designs, poems,collages, letters, drawings, photographs, and other documents, House of Leaves is a work whose many formal innovations are perfectly suited for our own information-dense age.
Like any groundbreaking art, it makes new demands on its audiences that may seem initially daunting. Here instead of requiring readers to follow their familiar, linear, progression through a novel—left-to-right, topto-bottom, first page to last—Danielewski offers them multiple pathways into a new kind of textual space whose successful navigation requires multi-processing (think of a multi-storied house, with many stairways and elevators offering different entryways and exit points, with each room connected to other rooms by various doorways—and with a secret passageway leading down a long winding staircase into an impossible large, utterly black cellar). While certain readers are surely not going to be up to the challenges involved in moving through this literary labyrinth, it also seems likely that today’s readers—which is to say, people who have grown used to parallel processing huge amounts of information from magazines, television, data bases, cell phones, radios, CD players, not to mention word processors aren’t going to have any greater difficulties reading this novel than they encounter every day routinely logging onto the Internet.
At the center of this book’s Chinese-box-like narrative is a Blair-Witch-like horror story every bit as creepy and psychologically resonant as anything by Poe, King, Lovecraft, or (perhaps a more relevant comparison) Kubrick. Will Navidson (a photojournalist of some renown who once won a Pulitzer Prize for a photograph he took of a young girl dying of starving in Sudan), his wife Karen Green, and their two children, move into an old house in Virginia. Struggling to mend his dissolving relationship with Karen, Navidson decides to create a film that will document their reconciliation by recording the family settling into their new home, making a new beginning for their lives, putting down new roots. But before long Navidson’s cameras begin to record some minor but unsettling events: Navidson notes some discrepancies between the house’s inside measurements and the outside. When repeated efforts to resolve the contradiction measurements fail, Navidson bring in help, first his cheerful, dope-smoking twin brother and mirror opposite, Tom, and longtime friend, Bill Reston, a gruff, black engineer and paraplegic. Somewhat later, when a dark, door less hallway appears out of nowhere, he contacts two professional spelunkers.
Loading themselves with provisions, camera, video cameras flashlights and a high-caliber rifle, the men begin exploring the dark, ever-shifting labyrinth beneath the house; as they make their descent, they begin to hear the roar of some kind of monstrous Minotaur. Like Ahab’s quest, like Dante’s descent, like Jonah’s entry into the whale, their fabulous journey into the unknown becomes a confrontation with their own personal demons, fears, and obsessions, a point literalized here by the tendency of the enormous subterranean corridor to expand and contract in response to the characters’ inner emotional states.
But, wait, there’s more. Navidson’s documentary film, "The Navidson Record," doesn’t actually exist, even within the world of the novel; rather it’s being invented, described, and commented upon (and this is surely the most inventive use of the language of cinema to be found anywhere) in a manuscript of the same title by an old blind man—an eccentric genius named Zampanò, who may be quite mad and may have once been a character in a Fellini film. When Zampanò dies mysteriously (his cats have all disappeared, there are enormous claw marks of unidentifiable origin on his floor), a twenty-five year old tattoo artist, orphan, and former poet named Johnny Truant discovers the old man's jumbled, incomplete manuscript in a trunk. Truant spends most of his nights cruising LA’s decadent, sleazed-out club scene in search of alcohol, drugs, and one-night stands. By day, however, Truant begins painstakingly assembling “The Navidson Record” and before long he finds himself being drawn more and more deeply into Zampanò 's imaginary maze. Soon he starts to have nightmares and horrifying flashbacks of his own traumatic childhood and begins to add rambling, often pages-long footnotes to Zampanò’s already extensively footnoted book that depicts his own spiral downward—and his own eventual confrontation with his own personal demons as well.
In developing this monstrous novel, Danielewski draws upon an astonishing array of sources, including a host of non-literary forms such as architecture, painting and other visual arts (Ken Burn’s documentaries, video games, Escher’s "House of Stairs" and other depictions of impossible spaces, Susan Sontag’s On Photography, digitally altered news photographs, even the Zapruder film all figure prominently), history, psychology, and philosophy (Marx, Freud, Derrida's Glas, Heidegger, Bachelard, numerous theorists associated with Danielewski’s alma mater, Yale). The range of literary allusions and borrowings is equally impressive—Poe, Melville, e e cummings, Pynchon, Nabokov, Borges, O’Neill, Joyce, the King James Bible and Shakespeare (the two most important sources), and dozens of other authors and works make important contributions. But perhaps the most significant influence evident here is that of film and the enormous body of film theory that has appeared as the cinema gradually became recognized as a unique art form. is hardly surprising that the cinematic medium had such a major role in shaping his literary sensibility is hardly surprising; indeed, as Danielewski recounts in a series of fascinating anecdotes about the ways aspects of his family life filtered into his novel, given the prominent role that films and filmmaking have played throughout his life it would be almost impossible for the cinema NOT to figure prominently in his work.
Danielewski’s father was originally a Pole who survived the Nazi camps during WWII, then fled to England, and eventually arrived in America, where within just a few years he managed to reinvent himself as a filmmaker who eventually directed everything from avant-garde art works, commercial features, and documentaries; he also worked in television doing television commercials, soap operas, and major dramatic productions in for mainstream American television for the Hallmark Hall of Fame series. One direct result of his father’s film career was that Mark and his younger sister Ann (who has released two stunning albums under the stage name “Poe”) were exposed to films and encouraged to talk about films almost daily. The impact of this near total-immersion in the cinema is evident House of Leaves in fairly obvious ways—for instance, in Danielewski’s appropriations of “content” of various cinematic materials from a disparate array of works (examples include dozens of forgettable B-horrors films, Welles Citizen Kane, Kubrick's The Shining and Riddley Scott’s Alien, classics of the French New Wave and Italian neo-realist era, and Fellini’s La Strada and 8 1/2). Of even greater significance are the ways that Danielewski employs a whole host of the cinema’s formal features for his own literary purposes. The most obvious example of this influence is Danielewski’s typographical experiments, which include some of the most unusual and innovative treatments of visual design ever seen in a commercially published work of fiction. Less obvious are ways are Danielewski’s borrowings from film theory and from the grammar and syntax of the cinema—especially his reliance on principles of montage, and the ways that editing is used by directors to control the pacing of scenes and manipulate the viewers perceptions, point of view and other aspects of the audience’s reactions to visual sequences.
But as is always the case with any book as truly original as House of Leaves, even a truly exhaustive citation of possible influences ultimately seems beside the point. Much more relevant, for example, is Danielewski’s prose—or more precisely, the rich array of idiosyncratic voices and idioms that Danielewski enters into, reconstructs, and projects with such startling ease and joyfulness. On this basic sentence-bysentence level, Danielewski is often astonishing. Consider the following single sentence, one in which
Johnny Truant is describing a sexual encounter:
Our lips just trespassed on these inner labyrinth hidden deep within our ears, filled them with the private music of wicked words, hers in many languages, mine in the off color of my own tongue, until as our tones shifted and our consonants spun and squealed, rattled faster, hesitated, raced harder, syllables soon melting with groans or moans finding purchase in new words, or old words, or made-up words, until we gathered up our heat and refused to release it, enjoying too much the dark language we had suddenly stumbled upon, carved to, not a communication really but a channeling of our rumored desires, hers for all I know gone to Black Forests and wolves, mine banging back to a familiar form, that great reverent mystery I still could only hear the shape of which in spite of our separate lusts and individual cries still continued to drive us deeper into strange tones, our mutual desire to keep gripping the burn fueled by sound, hers screeching, mine I didn’t hear mine only hers, probably counter-pointing mine, a high-pitched cry, then a whisper dropping unexpectedly to practically a bark, a grunt, whatever, no sense anymore, and suddenly no more curves either, just the straight away, some line crossed, where every fractured sound already spoken finally compacts into one long agonizing word, easily exceeding a hundred letters, even thunder, anticipating the inevitable letting go, when the heat is ultimately too much to bear, threatening to burn, scar, tear it all apart, yet tempting enough to hold onto for even one second more, to extend it all, if we can, as if by getting that much closer to the heat, that much more enveloped, would prove...—which we did clutch, hold, postpone, did in fact prove too much after all, seconds too much, and impossible to refuse so blowing all of everything apart, shivers and shakes and deep in her throat a thousand letters crashing in a long unpopulated fall, resonating deep within my cochlea and down the cochlear nerve, a last fit of fury describing in lasting detail the shape of things already come. (HOL, 89) House of Leaves seems likely to have a major impact on the current generation of American authors;
among its other accomplishments, it offers a convincing model for those writers struggling to find a means to use the novel to produce a convincing sense of our age’s exponential increase in sensory input—this blizzard of white noise, data, random codes, and competing narratives which has made it difficult enough to locate anything (including yourself), much less create art about it. At any rate, we would like to conclude this introduction by saying to readers who by now may well have feel that the claims we’ve made for House of Leaves are hyperbolic: Read this novel with skepticism about these claims, read it for the insights into the alienating effects of art and narcissism, into the nature of the unknown or unrepresentable, or for the poignancy and brutality of its depiction of the deforming power that parents have over their children, read it to see where the novel has been and where it is heading, read it to scare yourself silly. But read it.
Larry McCaffery: House of Leaves gives every indication of having had a complex gestation period.
Could you talk a bit about its origins and evolution?