«Haunted House—An Interview with Mark Danielewski (Take Two1) Remember those dire, pre-Millennial pronouncements about the alarming marginalization ...»
MZD: I’m afraid my record remains unchanged, but I applaud you for your insight, both about that page as well as what it suggests about the broader issue of how textuality operates in the book. In the case of that letter from Johnny’s mother, of course, someone must have intervened here by physically altering or representing in some way her original letter. But remember, this isn’t the only instance of this. There was a big debate a while back in a House of Leaves chat room about the passage where Johnny mentions in a footnote that he added the word “water” to the text of The Navidson Record to make it read “water heater” instead of just “heater.” People were very disturbed when they realized that Johnny has changed the text of The Navidson Record—because once you see how Johnny’s intervention works in that case, it starts to hit you that maybe such trespasses could be occurring in other parts of the book.
SG: No wonder they were disturbed! Suddenly you’re faced with the possibility that nothing here is “authentic,” and all the texts, including the letters, have been transformed somehow, whether by Johnny or somebody else.
For a discussion of a crucial early instance of this sort of editorial modification or intervention, see the WATER HEATER entry of the Appendix.
See FORGIVE ME in the Appendix.
MZD: Perhaps. Let us say: there is no sacred text here. That notion of authenticity or originality is constantly refuted. The novel doesn’t allow the reader to ever say, “Oh, I see: this is the authentic, original text, exactly how it looked, what it always had to say.” That’s the irony of the mother’s letters: at first you probably just assume that, OK, this is the real thing, but then the artifice of the way they look starts to undercut everything, so you’re not sure. Pretty soon you begin to notice that at every level in the novel, some act of interpretation is going on. The question is, why? Well, there are many reasons, but the most important one is that everything we encounter involves an act of interpretation on our part. And this doesn’t just apply to what we encounter in books, but to what we respond to in life. Oh, we live comfortably because we create these sacred domains in our head where we believe we have a specific history, a certain set of experiences. We believe that our memories keep us in direct touch with what has happened. But memory never puts us in touch with anything directly; it’s always interpretive, reductive; a complicated compression of information. In House of Leaves you’re always encountering texts where some kind of intrusion’s taking place. The reason? No one—repeat: no one—is ever presented with the sacred truth, in books or in life. And so we must be brave and accept how often we make decisions without knowing everything. Of course, this poses a difficult question: can we retain that state of conscious unknowing and still act or, in order to act, must we necessarily pretend to know?
LM: Johnny’s reinsertion of the discussions of the Minotaur that Zampanò apparently had decided to omit from The Navidson Record is an arrangement that allows this material to be introduced AND deconstructed right before the readers’ eyes.12 MZD: Zampanò’s deleted Minotaur sections are important, as is Johnny’s decision to “rescue” that section.
But for readers to gain a deeper understanding of Johnny, what they need to consider is just what that “something” is in particular which Johnny has rescued. Unfortunately, having me at this point supply any answers to that question would move us into the territory of explicating the book, which I cannot do. I am See MINOTAUR in the Appendix.
willing though to offer a few small hints here and there about topics like this Minotaur business or the significance of the blue house, and so on, but nothing more.
LM: And we said earlier in regard to the issue of point-of-view, that’s only as it should be. Too much input on your part would be doing readers a disservice by taking away some of the enjoyment of working through these possibilities on their own.
MZD: Exactly. I think it’s important to have on record that I do not want to talk about certain areas. It’s not that I regard the issues you’re raising as intrusive or unimportant—it’s your job as interviewers to ask such questions, and in fact, I’m delighted you have recognized how crucial topics like Zampanò’s Minotaur are to any sort of deeper understanding of the book. But it’s my responsibility as the author to say that I’m ultimately not going to provide any definitive answers.
LM: You’ll notice that Sinda and I have probably already set a record for the longest running interview that has NOT included a question about what you meant by having every reference to “house” in your book appear in blue. And just to clear the air, you can relax: it’s never seemed our job to ask authors to interpret their own works.
MZD: For which I thank you. I’d hate to use one of those awful dodges authors usually employ at this point, like “I don’t address the matter of meaning in my work. I’ve spent the last decade writing the book, you can spend the next twenty figuring it out.” SG: What is the difference between your own refusal to interpret features of House of Leaves and say the classic Joycean refusal?
MZD: As I indicated earlier, I’m simply unwilling to compromise the thrill which comes when a reader privately uncovers a meaning not yet circulated. It is an experience both intimate and profound and one I’ve personally relished my entire life. Furthermore I should add I would consider it criminal to abuse the reader’s faith with the promise of a sense of meaning or significance which the author knows does not exist.
LM: Can you give me an example of honoring the reader’s faith?
MZD: A simple illustration can be found in the way the word “snaps” appears on pages 294-296. Now a reader who has faith in what I’m doing will look at that word and say, “Ok, I’m willing to put down a little money that Danielewski didn’t just randomly divide up the word, and in looking over the pages more carefully they’ll probably soon notice the way these 3 pages incorporate both cinematic and thematic ideas.
They’ll discover for themselves how the breaking rope is visually represented in the way the word “snaps” itself comes apart—a simple literalization—so here on page 294, you have “sn,” then you have the canted “a” on page 295, and then the “ps” on 296. Not only is the rope snapping, the word itself is snapping; the passage is not only showing what physically happens but also how words, themes, associations can break into fragments which in turn will allow for a new assessment of that particular combination of letters.
Suddenly this word that’s so broken and bent can be considered from above and from below. It can be read forward and it can be read backwards, and sure enough when we read it backwards we discover another word—the word “spans.” In other words, a word that “snaps” and “spans” at the same time; and so as it turns out that the word is a literal, thematic, and semantic representation of all that’s happening at that moment in the novel.
LM: Many of the reviewers and commentators have understandably devoted most of their remarks to “The Navidson Record” and the footnotes Johnny Truant supplies to it that produce his own narrative. But there’s also a way that this focus basically distorts what’s occurring in House of Leaves because, as is true of hypertexts and other forms of electronic writing, the novel isn’t arranged linearly or hierarchically—that is, what appears in the Appendix isn’t necessarily of lesser significance that what you find in the “main part” of the book, and isn’t even necessarily supposed to be read afterwards. There are several examples of materials appearing in the Appendix whose significance hasn’t as yet been noticed, including Zampanò’s poems and perhaps most notably, “The Pelican Poems.” Not only are several individual poems in both sections quite wonderful, irrespective of their relationship to the rest of the book, but several also anticipate and foreshadow key topics and motifs that Zampanò and Johnny will write about later on. So “The Pelican Poems” provide yet another entryway into Johnny’s personal background and inner life; and as literary works created by Johnny a decade before he began annotating The Navidson Record, they provide crucial evidence concerning Johnny’s literary background as well—the sorts of themes, motifs and formal issues he was drawn to earlier in his life, that help us gain a better perspective on his later narrative. Without trying to respond to this barrage of interpretations I’m tossing out here, could you talk about how “The Pelican Poems” came to be written, and about how you see the section being situated in relationship to the rest of the novel?
MZD: You’re asking me to enter dangerous territory here because I have a very personal attachment to “The Pelican Poems” which has as much to do with the circumstances under which they were composed as with the way they function in House of Leaves. I’m, therefore, very aware that what I’m going to reveal about “The Pelican Poems” could be used by some to reduce their significance and role in the novel. And I certainly don’t wish to say anything that would diminish their importance. That said, I won’t dodge because I think their history is worth telling at least once.
Just as you recognized that “The Pelican Poems” reveal various things about Johnny’s background and interests, so one could also say they reveal something about me and my own development as a writer.
When I departed for Europe, I brought very little except my Euro-rail pass, a few clothes, and a copy of the King James Bible and the tragedies of Shakespeare. Although there was a great deal to see and enjoy, I had so little money it proved a very difficult and trying time for me. Consequently, I spent a lot of my time riding the trains, reading the Bible and Shakespeare, and writing poetry constantly. Most of these poems were written for myself, almost as exercises, but some were written for people who had given me a piece of bread, a glass of beer, or sometimes even a meal. And so I handed them a Pelican poem and promised them that one day it would end up in a book, because I wanted to memorialize their act of kindness. It pleases me immensely to think that there are people all over Europe who’d once been given a piece of paper with a poem on it which now resides in a novel. Of course, I’m sure most threw that piece of paper away, but I like to think that at least a handful kept the poems, and that maybe even a few of them will someday read House of Leaves and discover inside, there in the back, a promise kept.
LM: Could I get you to say something about the page I always point to as being my favorite in the entire book—p. 205.13 It’s a moment that encapsulates what I would describe as an almost casual audaciousness, a bravura display of technical control over materials, and fearless risk-taking that most writers would never even consider. On page 205, we have the conclusion to what may be the most dramatic moment in the novel—it’s the scene where Jed seems about to be pulled to safety out of the dark hallway when suddenly his head is ripped open by a bullet fired by Holloway. When I first read this passage, my first reaction was of course surprise and then laughter—the juxtaposition in tone and emotional content between what’s being presented in the “main text” and the footnote is so startling that it struck me as being funny. But this passage illustrates other features of this book: its control of different sorts of discourses and lingoes, its precise rendering of technical matters which only makes the awfulness of what it’s describing have an even greater emotional impact, the use of montage that operates in a truly cinematic manner. But above all, what struck me was how much confidence you must have had to be taking such an enormous risk—interrupting what may be the single most powerful moment in the novel with this footnote. I mean, most writers would never have been able to develop such a scene in the first place, much less be willing to undercut their presentation of it.
Having said all this, let me simply ask if you have any recollection of what sorts of things you were considering as you were composing this passage? Weren’t you concerned about ruining the overall mood or flow of what you had so meticulously constructed up to this point? Or is this one of those moments where you assumed readers would be able to do the parallel processing necessary for them to respond to the pathos of the scene AND the absurdity and humor splicing this together with this pedantic editorial “correction” of the passage’s grammar and syntax?
See “TO BEGIN WITH” in the Appendix.
MZD: All of the above. I was much like a composer introducing different harmonies and chord structures that demand resolution but are denied resolution until the very last possible moment. One of the rules I made for myself early on was not to underestimate the intelligence of the reader. I would write for the reader who gets it all, who can suspend it all, until the last possible moment before it must necessarily resolve with that final chord. During the ten years that went into making House of Leaves, I never flinched from that, and gradually this idealized reader I addressed came to life in my imagination, taking in every single note, noticing every twist of phrase, appreciating all the intrinsic complexities of my narrative, understanding every modulation and harmony, hearing the ways the different parts came together to form a single melody.
And with that kind of an audience, the rest was easy.
You know, the past hour or so of this interview it keeps occurring to me that here we are, three people sitting at this table, and one of these is a younger man, and another is an older man, and in between us we have a very beautiful woman, and the three of us have been engaged in a dialogue about this dark house, with its shadows and many hallways.
LM: Once again life imitates art.
MZD: So it seems—at least sometimes. Strange how that works out, isn’t it?