I finished House of Leaves. What a crazy book. I fucking loved this book.
It’s really funny to read it as an academic, because of course in large part it is intended to be a parody of academia. It largely succeeds, and I admit I laughed ruefully a bunch of times. HOWEVER! I would say this leads me to the two places where I felt like I could see the Actual Mark Danielewski peeking out accidentally from the pages:
1. His parodies of academic literature, which were super jaded and cynical yes but which totally also revealed that Danielewski maybe doesn’t actually know much about academia beyond some superficial, albeit precocious, undergraduate-at-Yale-style posturing. Like, yeah, it’s easy to make fun of Camille Paglia, obviously. It’s easy to write comically in the style of Derrida. It’s easy to make fun of the way academia picks stuff apart down to the most insanely minute details. But one of the ways he misses his mark, regarding academia, is actually the second place where I could see him peeking out through all the layers of made-up other voices:
2. LITERALLY CRAZY AMOUNTS OF SEXISM! The treatment of the female character in this book, by the made-up academic writing in this book, is OUTRAGEOUS. I kept waiting for him to reveal it as a subtle joke or commentary but he never did. And I know this must be Danielewski himself, doing the characterizing, because on the one hand, even outside of the academic writing, every man in the book is referred to by his last name, and every woman in the book by her first name, which, what even is that??? (Even going so far as to only call Will Navidson “Navidson” and his partner “Karen,” EVEN THOUGH SHE HAS A DIFFERENT LAST NAME) And secondly, and more importantly, because of the way every single one of his made-up academic excerpts take the characterization of the novel’s main female character as a given.
All the academic writing he “quotes” (a) takes the “genius” of this fictional filmmaker as a given and (b) takes the characterization of his wife as a hysterical, helpless, co-dependent, clinging shrew as a given. It’s like even the feminist scholarship he excerpts is only concerned with WHY she’s such a dumb broad–not with the characterization of her as a dumb broad ITSELF. Danielewski totally reveals his hand here, because these are two things that would never happen in (decent) modern academic writing.
(a) Academics never all agree on anything, whatsoever, ever, under any circumstances, which is kind of the whole point of scholarship
(b) They CERTAINLY never agree on a given artist being a genius. Legitimate academics don’t talk like this anymore, and haven’t since like the 19th century. Real academics–reputable, modern ones–no longer EVER just write glowingly about an artist. I mean, maybe this is even a criticism of academia. But it’s totally true. The way every one of his excerpts takes Navidson’s amazing brilliant manly genius as a total given is absolutely unrealistic. Especially in film studies–which makes up the vast majority of his excerpts–nobody writes about filmmakers this way. Any self-respecting film theorist would rather die than just go on and on about what an amazing eye some filmmaker has or whatever. In my experience people in film studies don’t even seem to LIKE films very much (snap! Disciplinary burn!). Film studies is generally way more concerned with something like, I don’t know, a Marxist reading of the machine-as-eyeball or whatever, than they are with just pointing out how great some shot is because of the wonderful courageous man’s eye who composed the shot.
(c) and finally, modern academia is generally super sensitive (or tries to be super sensitive; or parts of academia are sensitive to the other parts in this regard) to issues of misogyny and the characterization of women in film/literary/music/whatever criticism. The idea that like 80 individual academics would all completely unthinkingly echo this interpretation of the main female character as a shrewish hysteric without a thought in her head is absolutely untenable (especially because this characterization doesn’t seem obvious AT ALL from the description of the film)–it would just never happen, not in the late 90’s when this was all ostensibly written. If someone did write a paper characterizing her this way, there would immediately be TEN papers picking apart how misogynist and fucked up that first paper was.
I think all of these things happen in JOURNALISM. But they tend not to happen unilaterally in academia. They definitely happen, but then the field sort of responds to itself in pointing it out. Anthony Lane writes about women in a way that no currently-living academic I’m really aware of–at least, no legitimate one with a real job somewhere reputable who is not 70 years old–would ever even dream of writing. So in this way it’s like, okay Mark Danielewski, you got your BA from Yale and now you think you understand Harold Bloom or whatever.
Maybe I am crazy, or just insanely sheltered in my academic life and/or discipline (although, ha!!!! <---musicology and gender, am I right guys??). But I read some of these excerpts also to my old man, who actually is in the field of film studies, and he too died laughing. "THERE IS NO WAY." Other than this (pretty major, I guess) complaint, I really have to say that I have not enjoyed a book so much in years. It is just an incredible feat and Danielewski is clearly some kind of a brilliant prodigy or something, like, how can this be his first novel??? I am totally blown away. It was also so fun to read the book as someone who is sort of on the outskirts of film studies, due to the aforementioned film scholar with whom I am shacked up. Danielewski is also a filmmaker, and went to film school at USC, and his crazily discursive footnotes on the use of silence, or blackness, in film, or the difference between documentary and hollywood cinema, were awesome. I can't imagine how hard I would laugh if I were one of the real academics he makes up excerpts from. It would be pretty joyful and hilarious, unless I were just a turd. I especially laughed at the part when the editor of the main text (also a fictional character) says he tried to contact Camille Paglia to confirm her quotes and she just sent back a postcard with "Get lost, jerk" scrawled on it. The descriptions of the fictional film are just amazing. Just completely riveting. I mean, that element of the book is just straight-up excellent film studies writing. It makes you feel so weird that the movie doesn't actually exist. That this guy made up the whole movie just in his mind and then wrote a 700 page critical exegesis of it that is completely compelling to the point where I could not put the book down very often. To the point where I FEEL LIKE I have seen the film--I have image-memories of it burned into my brain. Indeed I read the book in like 4 days even though I'm supposed to be getting my final grades submitted (don't worry, I did it). There's also a bunch of shit I didn't understand. So many codes to be broken; so many oblique little hidden jokes to uncover. I don't get the "coincidence" Johnny Truant refers to w/r/t Zampano's striking-out of all mentions of the Minotaur, for example. If someone can explain it that would be awesome. From wikipedia:
Many things are hidden within the text of the book. Going through the first letter of footnotes 27 through 42 spells the author’s full name; the first letter of footnotes 46 through 54 spell his surname. Portions are written in alternating short and long paragraphs which turn out to be Morse code that correspond to the text. A seemingly random list of names on pages 64–65 (Second Edition) produce a code when the first letter of each of the individual’s last names are added together, spelling out the phrase “A LONG LIST [o]F VISI[o]NARIES” A letter from Pelafina to Johnny on pages 620-623 (Second edition) contains seemingly randomized capital letters strewn throughout it, which, when combined, spell out the phrase, “A FACE IN A CLOUD NO TRACE IN THE CROWD.” (House of Leaves 621-622) Some codes, like the author’s name, are simply fun to notice. Others actually have an impact that gives greater depth and meaning to the portion being read. One of Pelafina’s letters includes a coded message apparently addressed to Zampanò, which reads: “My dear Zampanò, who did you lose?” (House of Leaves 615)
Also the index is insane. It reads like a beautiful strange poem. So many words included that do not appear in the book! And then, like, the word “and,” with some page numbers listed. WTF
I want to know how he actually composed this book. It could not have been done in a Word document, but did he have to dedicate like an entire wing of his house to the piles and bulletin boards and post-it notes with strings connecting them to one another, or what???
I strongly urge you all to read this book.
In other news I got my first-ever thank you note from a student today!!!!!!!!! And even more awesomely, it was my favorite student. YOU CAN’T FAKE LOVE.