“And now,’ cried Max, ‘let the wild rumpus start!”
~ Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things Are
When I first read Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, I barely got through 50 pages before I stopped doing what most would call “reading” and began to do what most would call “browsing.” While I was indeed playing across the book’s surfaces, flipping rapidly back and forth from one page to another, I wouldn’t describe my experience as a superficial one. This was a browsing that felt more like a frantic burrowing. I didn’t absorb every word, not more than a mere fraction of them, but I was building something substantial nonetheless. My first encounter with the text was a series of glancing blows, a play between the words, the spaces between them, and the shapes the words and spaces make together on the page. Reading the book that first time was more like venturing into the site of an archaeological dig. To this day, when I pick up House of Leaves, I feel like I’m still moving dirt, burying one thing as I uncover another. In this way, the book is about the acts of reading and interpretation, about the various ways we organize data and our own experiences of that data. House of Leaves is about matter and affect — about how we move stuff and how that stuff moves us.
House of Leaves demands what Laura U. Marks, in Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, calls “haptic criticism.” A haptic interface is one that engages our skin before our intellect, our body before our brain. Certain media devices could be described as peculiarly haptic (such as the Xbox Kinect or Apple’s iPad), but all media have the potential to be (or necessarily are) haptic. A book has an odor, a certain weight in our hands, a tactile pleasure at the turn of a page. The film strip has an audible clack as it moves through the projector, and the emulsion dissolves sweetly before our eyes. And, even if these media are rendered mostly intangible, books and films will always have a physical impact on us, causing us to recoil, sigh, bristle, and scream. For Marks, when we write about literary texts, “the task is to make the dry words retain a trace of the wetness of the encounter” (x). Roland Barthes writes similarly in The Pleasure of the Text, “Text means Tissue” (64), a nod to the literal substances from which books are made (pulp, rag, and animal hide), while also alluding to the materiality of language. When we read, we engage the physical object of the book in an intimate way, each of us handling books with our own idiosyncrasies. Some readers will delicately cradle an open book in two hands, whereas others will forcefully bend the cover back and pinch the book violently between the thumb and forefinger of one hand. How we handle a printed text effects how we encounter and interpret its contents.
Barthes continues, “What I enjoy in a narrative is not directly its content or even its structure, but rather the abrasions I impose upon the fine surface” (12). His use of the word “abrasions” suggests there is indeed something violent about how we interact with a written text. And the act of reading, for better or worse, is something we “impose” upon a text. Thus, Barthes talks further about how “applied reading” (12) disrupts the “integrity of the text” (11). The word “integrity” is italicized (by Barthes), drawing attention to its polyvalency. Applied reading doesn’t just disrupt the value or moral character of a text; applied reading tears at the text’s cohesive fabric, punctures its skin, rips its pages and paragraphs, dissects its innards. This is not only what reading can do, for Barthes, but what it must do. The goal of reading is “not to devour, to gobble, but to graze, to browse scrupulously, to rediscover” (13). We metaphorically engage the flesh of a word when we focus on the typographical choices that govern how a word looks on the page, but we engage the flesh of a word even more literally when we notice and concern ourselves with how a word feels as it comes out of our mouths. Each word has a shape, a part of our mouths, lungs, throat, or gut that it tickles or mobilizes into action. We don’t just gobble words, but also expel them. This is a biting criticism of another sort; but my work here is about a kind of criticism that bites back. The violence we do to a text is minor when compared to the violence a text can do to us, if we let it.
Texts are Monsters of Affect
In House of Leaves, Danielewski, refers to this “thing” (the corridor, the Navidson Record, the book itself) that is “beyond the grasp of my imagination or for that matter my emotions” (27). Several words in this short bit (namely “thing,” “grasp,” and “matter”) draw attention to the objectness of literature. Whereas we might otherwise think of literature as making an abstraction of a tangible thing, turning matter into story, Danielewski reminds us of the fact that literature makes a thing of a thing, turning matter in the world into the matter of the page and into the matter inside our skulls. Books are a decidedly monstrous sort of matter. Truant writes: “I felt certain its [the book’s, the corridor’s] resolute blackness was capable of anything, maybe even of slashing out, tearing up the floor, murdering Zampano, murdering us, maybe even murdering you” (xvii).
House of Leaves asks us to (and sometimes forcibly demands that) we consider the ways a book or film can reconfigure us, turning insides into outside, puncturing, bursting, even murdering the reader or viewer. In this way, the book hovers between the genres of horror and science fiction; both are genres that explore epistemological gaps in our thinking about what it is to be human. And both explore the messy stuff that happens to flesh when thinking fails or runs rampant. One imagines a monstrous future; the other uncovers a hideous present. One stops; the other becomes. The skin and bones of House of Leaves (its form) are science fiction; its guts (the messes it makes on the page) are horror. And horror is a genre of affect, and ultimately HOL is a book about affect — a book about the limits of knowledge and about how distortions of what we know (or think we know) impact us and our bodies.
For N. Katherine Hayles, in Electronic Literature: New Horizons for the Literary, the monster growling at us from inside House of Leaves is nothingness. Hayles writes, “Combining an unrepresentable topography with an uninhabitable space, the house confronts those who enter its mysterious interiors with the threat of nothingness that, far from being mere absence, has a terrible ferocious agency” (179). Her last three words, “terrible,” “ferocious,” and “agency,” suggest that the hole at the center of House of Leaves is only a nothingness when considered from the perspective of interpretation. The hole, at the level of affect, is rather an abundance, the same abundance that frustrates our reading experience not because we can’t make sense of the book but because the book actively resists our attempts at meaning-making. Hayles continues, “Above all else, the characters in the text, like the humans who read the text, are meaning-seeking animals” (184). The monster in House of Leaves is not a lack of meaning but a festering, not a sorting of matter but matter itself, separate from and always anathema to our crude attempts at representation.
So often, monsters are figured as metaphors, as pure representative allegories. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen alludes to this when he writes, in “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” that “the monster’s body is a cultural body” (4), suggesting that our monsters are a reflection of culture, abstracted and hideous analogs for real human problems. Cohen writes further that “Monsters are our children. They can be pushed to the farthest margins of geography and discourse, hidden away at the edges of the world and in the forbidden recesses of our mind, but they always return…” (20). Monsters are offspring sent off into the world, detached and disfigured copies that return home to roost. It is exactly this incessant “returning home” that suggests to me that monsters are not in fact metaphors; they are metonyms, chunks (not copies) of us, partially torn away, leaving tough meaty strands that connect us to them. In this respect, horror is not an escapist genre, and House of Leaves is not an escapist text, for there is nothing to (or that we can) escape from; HOL’s horrors do, instead, allow us to explore and revel in these sinews. Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of this Planet: Horror of Philosophy vol. 1 makes a similar argument when he writes, “for us as human beings, there is no simple ‘going over’ to the side of the non-human,” a relationship he describes as “something like metonymy” (31). The monsters of affect proliferate, virus-like, from the inside, making for what I might call a ruptured metonymy.
Thacker begins his book with the words, “The world is increasingly unthinkable,” and I’m caught by the very first three letters, “t,” “h,” and “e,” particularly his choice to use the word “the” and not “a” as a first encounter with the premise for his book. This distinction between the world and a world is explored subtly throughout the rest of the prologue, but it’s his choice here, at the very opening, that fascinates me. A world is an indeterminate place, one particular but undefined locale amongst many possible locales, an oasis of sand in a much larger desert of sand. The world is an altogether more determined and definite sort of place, one locale amongst a dearth of other possible locales, just a finite amount of sand, a lone puddle. While a world is terrifying for all it might allude to, the world is altogether more terrifying for all it excludes. I find myself wondering if his first word is a declarative “the” or a worried and threatened “the,” and I think (and hope) the latter.
And the subsequent word, “world,” is notable for the way it forces my lips and teeth to grapple with it even as my brain fails to. My mind spins listlessly in a failed attempt to unearth exactly what the word itself contains, as my lips pucker, part, slowly wrap around a drawn out “r,” tongue dancing with a barely annunciated “l,” before my teeth close upon the word’s tail end. What’s most beautiful, though, about the word “world” as I say it, is the way it pops open my lips and teeth after it’s been uttered, leaving me eager, at the ready for what follows.
The Fifth word, “unthinkable,” suggests that Thacker’s book is about thought and failures of thought. As distinct from feeling, which is not mentioned and barely alluded to throughout the prologue. Like House of Leaves, Thacker’s book is about what can’t be reasoned, what can’t be believed, what can’t be morally reconciled. Thacker suggests that horror must (or “deserves to”) “be considered as more than the sum of its formal properties” (8). It is in the excess of the formal that Thacker finds and insists on the affective life of horror, attained not through generic properties but through their meticulous modulation. In this way, Thacker’s work moves from metaphor to metonymy in its most materialist dimension, in which thought — what once inhabited us — is uncovered as matter, wild, amorphous matter: “mists, ooze, blobs, slime, clouds, and muck. Or, as Plato once put it, ‘hair, mud, and dirt’” (9).
I’ve taught House of Leaves twice and presented on it twice, but I’ve never finished the book. It would be easy for me to excuse myself critically by saying that the book, by its nature, can never be finished. That is true, but by that definition and by any definition, I haven’t finished the book. I estimate that I’ve read about 40% of the words of the book, looked at 60% of the pages, and have read less than half of 1% of the marginalia the book has produced online. This is the stairwell I now find myself at the bottom of — the stairwell of not reading. Sometimes, it’s a lovely, decisive space, a site of willful resistance. But reading and not reading HOL are not, for me, acts of knowing volition. Sean Michael Morris writes, “We do not read House of Leaves. It reads us.”
I’ve spent more time not reading House of Leaves than I’ve spent reading other books. The book haunts me — hits me sidelong when I least expect it. It bubbles to the surface at inopportune moments. And there are holes in the text I haven’t yet fallen into. Holes in the text I probably never will fall into. All the while, the book incessantly urges me and its other readers to examine our looking away — and to examine our compulsion to avoid thinking about or theorizing that looking away. An interactive criticism takes as its subject criticism and so must be unabashed about the many lovely (and not so lovely) shapes of that criticism. Sometimes, the shape of that criticism is a hole or a gap, one we can only hollar into.
Analysis and critical thinking are like eating, things lively and voracious, things that drip and reel. This is the exact sort of work I hope to inspire here — an interactive criticism that considers not only how our work engages a text but also how that text (sometimes forcibly) engages us. Laura Marks calls this kind of reading “mimetic: it presses up to the object and takes its shape” (xiii). Danielewski, writing in the voice of Zampanò, calls it “echolocation” (48).
As a teacher and scholar, the work I do (and the words I speak) are both performative and perforative. Collaborating with students in a peer-driven classroom (or virtual learning space) changes the register of this work. Interactive criticism is, in fact, dependent upon collaboration, both between reader and text and among a cacophony of readers. Murmur breaks to echo when multiple voices resonate at just the right frequency. In this way, the act of reading itself becomes metonymic, as words about words pile one on top of another, not in sense-making linear sequence, but in a metonymic chain of signifiers nonetheless. (The real work of criticism happens in slush piles — in parentheticals, in tangents, and in footnotes to footnotes.) Words have terrain much like the house on Ash Tree lane. Like the house, a word is bigger on the inside than on the outside, and its insides don’t stay politely contained. The inside of a word is the part not about linguistic signification but about guts, not about narrative pathways, but about intestinal ones. As our words unravel, and weave one into another, so do we.
House of Leaves begins with a taunt, “This is not for you,” five little words left alone on the page, followed by an abrupt and declarative period, left to haunt the gap between the front matter of the book and its guts, between the figments we see on the page and the meat in our brain, five words and a period that hover in the space between representation and understanding. This is affect, the moment where apprehension meets alarm, the moment where what we see just barely touches but does not yet become what we know or believe. A few pages later, Danielewski, in the voice of Johnny Truant, writes, “Hopefully you’ll be able to make sense of what I can represent though still fail to understand” (xv). Like Todorov’s fantastic, interpretation gives way to a dance between the disruption and reconciliation of knowing. HOL revels in the broken flesh at this edge, sometimes protruding like a herniated organ. Our critical encounters with a text, then, must be less about knowing and more about a visceral not knowing. An interactive criticism must not take for granted: the refusal to read, the refusal to know, the vague and impressionistic turns of our encounters with a text. An interactive criticism lures us down a text’s endlessly long hallways and loses us there. An interactive criticism is always only half-written.
Further pedagogical reflections inspired by this piece have been published in a follow-up piece, “The Pedagogies of Reading and Not Reading.” The video atop this piece, “Viscera,” is a project by Rachel Blume, who made a TrueType font inspired by HOL. Rachel was a student in my 2013 Digital Humanities course. The article was also inspired by a 2012 co-presentation with the amazing Rebekah Sheldon. Here and elsewhere, her brain has found its way deep inside my sentences.