Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves as a Metaphor for American Colonialism

The eponymous house of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, published in 2000, is different things to different people. For some, such as Karen and Tom it is a threat, while for others, like Navidson, it is a dark fascination. The only quality of the house that appears immutable is that the house is something unknown to those who encounter it. This treatment of the house as an unknown, previously unexplored space takes a new meaning when the story’s context is taken into account: that is, the story’s deliberately American context. Throughout the novel, Danielewski makes a point of centering the story within an America-centric viewpoint through use of explicit references to American culture and the “American mindset”, as well as more covert references. This newly understood context combined with the fact that the story of The Navidson Record is essentially one about exploring uncharted territory suggests that the house functions as a metaphor for American Colonialism. Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) is a useful text for framing this topic, as he discusses how Western scholarship has historically characterized unknown, “unclaimed” territory as inhabited by primitive “others”, justifying its colonization; just as how the “monstrous” nature of the creature in the labyrinth vindicates its destruction.

The book wastes little time establishing itself within an American cultural context. The very first pages of Johnny Truant’s introduction place him within the United States by mentioning the California cities he had been staying in (pg. 11) as well as including distinctly American references in a seemingly unimportant, yet bizarrely violent and ultimately crucial, exchange between Johnny and his previous landlord. Through this exchange, which results in Johnny’s eviction, Danielewski not only establishes Johnny’s cynical, dark sense of humor by having him tell his landlord, who believes he is Charles de Gaulle, that “the thought of a 757 landing on him was not at all disagreeable” (pg. 11), but is also referencing an American made aircraft familiar to most anyone who has taken a commercial flight in the United States[1],  the identifying number of which just so happens to also be the telephone area code for southeast Virginia, which is not only the very place where the Navidson family encounters the infamous house, but also the site of the Jamestown colonial settlement. Jamestown is notable for its status as the first permanent English colonial settlement to be established in the Americas[2], therefore a quintessentially American setting, but is particularly important in the context of the book. Later in the novel, a journal by an occupant of the Jamestown colony is discovered and it is revealed that a set of stairs were found in the woods nearby, by a group of men. Two of these men turned up dead, and one was never heard from again, suggesting the existence of the house as an all-consuming entity even as far back as the 17th century. This reference is the most explicit connection in the novel between the house and American colonialism. Its inclusion, along with the other, more quickly digested reference points easily introduce the novel as contained within an American context.

The American references continue with the introduction of Zampano, and move into the realm of historical commentary. The very first sentence describing Zampano states that from what Johnny could gather “he was an American” (pg. 12). Even before Zampano’s name is given in the following paragraph, his supposed nationality is given. This positioning gives it emphasis, although Johnny does not mention why he feels the need to emphasize this. This statement is combined with a mention of those who knew Zampano having detected some hint of a foreign accent, “even if they could never say for certain where it came from” (pg. 12), and yet Johnny still insists upon Zampano’s American-ness. He even goes on to doubt Zampano’s real name. He states “Who knows where the name really came from. Maybe it’s authentic, maybe made up, maybe borrowed…” (pg.12). Johnny’s reasoning is further confused by the fact that, as we later discover, there are no personal records of Zampano in his apartment to confirm or deny his name or nationality. Even though the only personal information Johnny can gather from other people about this man is his foreign-sounding name and purported accent, it is all irrelevant; to Johnny, Zampano is American. There is no reason given for this assertion within the novel, but it adds to the list of components that lend the novel an objective Americentrism. Johnny exemplifies this when he rejects the notion of Zampano’s “foreign-ness” in favor of branding him with a generic American identity with no evidence to spur him on, and through this is participating in a type of cultural erasure similar to that imposed upon the “foreign” native peoples of a colonized space. Any foreign cultural identity Zampano might have had is wiped out by Johnny in an instance of inner-textual revisionist history. As Zampano’s narrative is framed by two other narrators, Johnny and the editors of the “found” texts comprising House of Leaves, information about him is susceptible to “hidden revisions” such as the one made by Johnny on page 12, where he only adds one word – “water” – but makes no editor’s note of it until after the reader has accepted it as canon. This highlights the uncertain nature of Zampano’s personal history by calling all of it into question, since none of it is communicated (to our knowledge) by Zampano himself, while much of Johnny’s background is written by his hand, according to the font. This “reclaiming” of a supposedly foreign individual’s history is a significant detail when considered in parallel to the “reclaiming” of the foreign space of the house by Navidson and his crew.

The novel’s parallels with American colonialism only become more apparent with the explorations of the house. Despite the danger it presents, the group’s devoted explorers still commit to the act of “conquering” the house through mapping it out and in doing so attempt to strip it of its identity as an “unknown” space. The framing of the “unexplored territory” as a house Navidson has just moved into gives a sense of entitlement to the explorations. When the first hallway within the house finally opens up into a wide expanse of darkness that surpasses the limits of Navidson’s understanding of the previous corridors, Zampano makes the statement, “Only now do we begin to see how big Navidson’s house really is” (pg.64). The house is still referred to as “Navidson’s” house, despite him being unable to lay any viable claim to this new space. Navidson didn’t even know that this place existed until this moment, but as soon as he peers into the vast “undisturbed blackness” (pg.64) looming in front of him, in an imperialistic move, Navidson’s narrative claims it as a part of “Navidson’s” house, in spite of not fully comprehending what he can only understand to be a preexisting presence within the house in the form of the “beast”. Navidson sees no other “people” within the unexplored region of the house, and so he assumes the role of pioneer; the first to see the land and thus its rightful “owner”. The other presence felt within the house, that of the “beast”, manifests as a disembodied utterance described as “a faint growl, rolling through the darkness like thunder” (pg. 68). The noise is almost always described specifically as a growling noise, and the animalistic connotations of this lead the reader to believe that it must belong to some beast stalking our explorers. This, along with the characterization of the noise as being naturalistic “like thunder”, gives a distinctly “wild”, or at least “uncivilized” persona to the growl. Whomever, or whatever, is with them in the depths of the house is thus defined as a being of primitive nature. The image of the rugged, male explorer team venturing into an unknown, threatening landscape inhabited only by feral, primitive beings strongly evokes the mythology of the American pioneers. Said, in his work, discusses how Western scholarship of places inhabited by “othered” populations rendered them as inherently inferior beings. This logic is also present in the justifications for colonialism, creating a formula in which the “superior intruder” is meant to dominate and the “irrational native” is to be assimilated or eliminated. This rhetoric plays a crucial role in the novel in establishing a clear historical link between the Navidson explorations and acts of a colonialist or imperialist nature.

The deliberate positioning of the novel and its characters within a distinctly American mindset as well as the parallel between the explorations of the house and those of the American pioneers create a clear parallel with the American Frontier experience, the characters’ fascination with exploring the house mirroring (or perhaps echoing?) the Manifest Destined desires of the American pioneers. If the metaphor wasn’t obvious enough, the novel also throws in offhand information like Johnny’s birthday being July 4th (pg.181) and the recurrence of the colors red (the color of the passages referencing the minotaur myth), white (the color often associated with Johnny’s mental breaks and various characters’ dreams) and blue (the color of the word “house” throughout the novel). In this way, House of Leaves seems to propose the idea that the desire to conquer the unfamiliar does not always lead to glory as the American mythos would have you believe, but can also lead to trauma and loss, as experienced by the characters in the novel. However, it also suggests that the outcome can never be known upon entering unknown territory, just as no light can pierce the darkness in the depths of the house. By having the pioneer figures as our protagonists, we can see a kind of heroism in their actions. Perhaps it is as the great Charles de Gaulle himself once said, and “Greatness is a road leading towards the unknown”.

[1] The Boeing 757 aircraft was a popular passenger aircraft in America during the years of its production from 1981-2004 (Linares, Luis. “Flashback Friday: The Boeing 757.” Airchive. Airways International, 22 May 2015. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.)

[2] “Jamestown Colony.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

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Pferd: A Short Story

Pferd: A Short Story”*

Editors Notes

*Seeing as you forgot to name the bundle of tattered paper I found abandoned on my desk last Tuesday, I have chosen to grant it a most captivating working title. You’re welcome.

 

Dear Author,

I don’t normally accept editing requests from people who don’t bother to at least email me to ask before shoving their works-in-progress in my face, but your “story” (we can talk about format in future meetings) has a…rawness that I can appreciate. It’s a little rough around the edges, but I think it has some real promise. Thus, I write to you now with my critiques.

First and foremost: the “villain” of your story. Does it have to be a horse? If you’re aiming for horror, as I’m assuming you are (nice touch with the “blood stains” on the last pages, by the way; we’ll likely end up rearranging them so as not to obscure so much of the text), I’m not sure that would work for a modern audience. You know it’s mostly the kids who read this “spooky” stuff nowadays, and kids today aren’t afraid of horses. Maybe if the horse destroys the Wi-Fi of all those who encounter it, or deletes their Twitter or something. I remember when my niece came to visit and I told her we don’t get internet out in the sticks, her little eyes just about popped right out of her head. That was real fear.

However, if you’re stuck on the horse I’d recommend looking into the works of Jake Epstein to flesh out your mythology a bit. His anthology, Dark Hooves: Equine Monsters throughout History, would be a great place to start. A little dry, but he has some great material. If I remember correctly, there’s even a mention of a horse-like beast with no mane or tail, like the one in your story, although I believe it’s one of the shorter entries.

Next, we are going to have to discuss your protagonist. Are we really meant to believe that she is twenty years old, as specified in your “police record”? The activities she describes in her journals and the way the teacher talks to her implies that she is much younger. Does your character perhaps suffer some mental illness, maybe brought on by some past trauma that causes her to have a younger state of mind? Mental illness is a popular topic, but is rarely handled with the delicacy it warrants. If you decide to go that route, I suggest looking into Traumatic Irony: The Pain After the Pain by Pennie King; it’s a really interesting exploration of trauma theory and common psychological conditions that develop as a result. Vastly underrated. It’s a crime that so few authors get the recognition they deserve. Maybe when’s she’s dead, eh?

Any further notes I would prefer to discuss with you in person, over coffee maybe? I promise I won’t bite. If we’re going to continue a professional relationship I’d like to get to know you a little better; maybe that’s just the country in me.

Incidentally, you didn’t need to leave such a cryptic note in front of my office. My secretary would have been more than happy to take down your address. I realized when I saw it where the map you drew led, but had I not been from around these parts I might not have known. I pass by that clump of apple trees every day on the way to the office, so I shouldn’t have too much trouble figuring out where to send this letter if your house really is right nearby. Heck, if the postman can’t understand my directions, I may just drop by there myself.

 

Your future editor,

Female Objectification in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Female characters in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are few and far between. Of these few, the most significant in terms of relevance to Victor’s story would be his adopted “cousin” Elizabeth – his “more than sister”. Elizabeth’s status as the predominant female character in the novel gives her an exceptional importance with regards to the interpretation of gender roles in the novel. The character Elizabeth functions as representative of the novel’s perception of the “ideal femininity”, which here is one that will stifle itself for the benefit of others. The ideal woman is a subjugated woman, a woman whose needs are ignored in favor of those of the people around her. My analysis will focus on the last few paragraphs of chapter one, where Victor describes Elizabeth coming into his family, and how this introduction reduces her character to an object whose purpose is to be a vessel for the pleasures of others.

In this introduction to the idea of Elizabeth as a part of the Frankenstein family, she is only ever discussed in terms of her significance to others. To Victor, Elizabeth is “the beautiful and adored companion of all [his] occupations and…pleasures”, to her former guardians, she was “a blessing to them”, and to Victor’s mother, she is “’a pretty present for my Victor’” (Shelley, pg.37). It is discussed how “Everyone loved Elizabeth”, and how “all regarded her” with “passionate and…reverential attachment” (pg.37), but nowhere in these introductory paragraphs is there any mention of how Elizabeth feels about being brought into a new home, or about what these new people in her life mean to her. She is made into an object for others to fawn over and cherish, one apparently without feelings of her own. The description of Elizabeth as “a pretty present” is particularly telling, directly comparing her to an inanimate object defined by its intention for, and value to, another person. This diction effectively commodifies her character and the endless praise that is bestowed upon her thereafter implies that this commodity status is something commendable, since no explanation of what Elizabeth does to receive this praise is included. All we know about Elizabeth is that she is pretty, or as Victor phrases it, “a child fairer than pictured cherub–a creature who seemed to shed radiance from her looks” (pg.36), and that she exists in their possession. Based on this knowledge, it can be concluded that, as a woman in Frankenstein, to be valued as highly as Elizabeth is one need only exist as someone’s beautiful possession. Victor even goes as far as to refer to her as “a possession of my own” (pg.37), which he attributes to “childish seriousness”, but it is difficult to find fault with him when his mother introduces her as a “promised gift” (pg.37), the phrasing of which already implying some sort of future entitlement to a person he has never met. Again, nothing is offered from Elizabeth’s perspective, and by the lack of protest from her we can only infer that she is blankly and passively accepting the fate that has been decided for her, for which she is endlessly “cherished” and adored.

The characterization of Elizabeth in her introductory passages sees her praised for essentially letting herself be objectified by the people around her. She is by far the most “beloved” female figure by the other characters in the novel, and this status signifies a level of value placed on her as a woman. Through Elizabeth, the novel defines a woman of “value” as one who rejects any feelings of her own in order to serve some purpose to others, or one who simply doesn’t have any feelings to stifle. Whether or not Elizabeth is making a conscious effort to do so is unexamined in the novel, and ultimately irrelevant because she would be treated the same either way, as a trophy on the family’s mantle.

Respectable Femininity in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

“I gazed on the picture of my mother which stood over the mantel-piece. It was an historical subject, painted at my father’s desire, and represented Caroline Beaufort in an agony of despair, kneeling by the coffin of her dead father. Her garb was rustic, and her cheek pale; but there was an air of dignity and beauty, that hardly permitted the sentiment of pity.”

Frankenstein, Page 79

The female characters in Frankenstein are few and are generally relegated to the background, as are most of the secondary characters, as the majority of the novel centers on Victor and his creature. However, unlike the male secondary characters, the only prominent women of Frankenstein are almost always depicted as long-suffering saints, whose nobility and composure in the face of adversity are their most attractive traits. Notably, Victor’s mother, Caroline, is portrayed in this manner. This depiction of the female characters in Frankenstein reflects the idea that a femininity characterized by suppressed pain, particularly one dampened by grief, is the most attractive a woman can possess.

Victor’s mother, Caroline, is introduced as the daughter of an ailing man, a friend of Victor’s father, who does all in her power to support him until his eventual passing. It is within this context that she meets her future husband, who, “came like a protecting spirit to the poor girl”. She is therefore rewarded for bearing her struggles, remaining a dutiful daughter and serving a traditional role in a patriarchal system. Within the span of two years she transitions neatly from a caretaker to her father, to a wife and caretaker of a child. It is mentioned briefly that Caroline had been “shaken by what she had gone through”, but her grief at losing her father to disease in relative squalor is never fully explored. From that point on the only emotion she shows is concern for others, going on to be described as “a guardian angel of the afflicted”. She ends up contracting a fatal illness by refusing to be stopped from nursing Elizabeth when she takes ill, and the one-sidedness of her character only continues with her death. Of his dying mother, Victor says, “On her death bed the fortitude and benignity of this best of women did not desert her”, and Caroline’s final moments are spent telling Victor and Elizabeth that she wants them to get married, and then she dies “calmly”, “and her countenance expressed affection even in death”. She never has a moment where she is without poise or composure, even as she knows she is about to die, and she is held up by Victor as “this best of women”. This woman, who we never get to know as a full-fledged character, serves as the pinnacle of idealized respectable femininity in the novel. She is charitable and kind, always thinking of others before herself, and when she has served her purpose (nursing Elizabeth from illness) she dies quietly and without incident.

These traits are echoed in Elizabeth, who, after Caroline’s death, “indeed veiled her grief, and strove to act the comforter to us all”, and Victor even claims that “never was she so enchanting than at this time”; that is, never was Elizabeth so appealing than when she was suppressing her own unexplored feelings of grief and possibly guilt at having been nursed to health only to see her caretaker killed by that same illness which afflicted her, to appease the people around her. We see a similar treatment of Justine who, is not only rendered “exquisitely beautiful” by the “solemnity of her feelings” upon being on trial for murder, but is described as a “saintly sufferer” who “assumed an air of cheerfulness, while she with difficulty repressed her bitter tears” trying to comfort Elizabeth on the eve of her own death. These women are attractive when they are denying their own emotional needs for the sake of those around them, at least in Victor’s eyes.

This idealized feminine suffering is made especially clear when Victor returns to his family home and looks upon the painting of his mother described in the quote above. This portrait, displayed prominently on the mantelpiece, is how his father wanted to remember her: sobbing over her father’s grave (where he first met her and, perhaps, fell in love with her). Her pain is romanticized to the point where her depiction in the portrait “hardly permitted the sentiment of pity” because her suffering is just so darn beautiful.

His Face All Blood Orange: On the Unreliable Narrator of “His Face All Red”

“I can no longer sleep.

I have dreams.

His legs limp.

His face all red.

And twice I have woken 

and seen my brother

digging.

Is this guilt?

Or is this my brother, whole, not a double?

And if so…

Why won’t he turn to look at me?”

“His Face All Red”, a comic by Emily Carroll, follows the story of a man who murders his brother in the woods near their town, only to have him return alive and apparently unscathed three days later. The story is ambiguous about whether the “man” who returns truly is his brother, or if he is somehow connected to the mysterious beast who, up until recently, had been attacking the town’s livestock; but what is equally ambiguous is whether the protagonist himself is altogether trustworthy. The way the main character is portrayed throughout the story implies that he may be an unreliable narrator, and whether or not the reader decides to trust him shapes their interpretation of the events that follow.

From the beginning of the comic, the protagonist, who remains unnamed along with the rest of the characters, is portrayed as an outsider. In social settings he is always shown sitting off to the side by himself while his brother mingles, and he is never depicted with friends or companions of his own. When he first volunteers to hunt down the beast that has been threatening the village, the townspeople all laugh until his brother offers to go with him. It is never specified why the townspeople treat him this way, but it is clear that he does not hold their respect. The protagonist’s social isolation and probable low social status within his small village communicates that there may be something “off” about him that causes others to distance themselves.

Another hint is the paranoia the protagonist displays both before and after murdering his brother. When the pair first enters the forest to kill the beast, our main character describes passing a tree “with leaves that looked like ladies’ hands” and a stream “that sounded like dogs growling”, which his brother dismisses as simply a “common oak” and a “babbling brook”, respectively. The fact that he perceives these things as somehow vaguely threatening despite having lived next to this forest his whole life is strange to say the least – and quite telling of the protagonist’s mental state, not to mention the fact that he goes on to murder his brother without a second thought (and without changing his facial expression).

After he murders and disposes of his brother he claims that he “feared another attack”, which comes across as odd since his brother had already killed what he thought was the beast, and he himself had just killed his brother. Who does he think is going to attack him? At that point his brother had not returned from the woods, so it is unreasonable to assume that he’s afraid of his brother retaliating. These demonstrations of paranoia paints the protagonist as someone whose perceptions of things may not be entirely accurate.

Finally the twist ending – the main character finds that his brother’s body is still in the hole where he dumped it despite his brother having returned to the village safe and sound. This forces the reader to decide: is the protagonist crazy, or are there supernatural forces at work? It’s entirely possible that the “brother” the protagonist sees return to town is a manifestation of his own guilt over killing his brother in cold blood. Seeing that he never really interacted with the people around him all that often to begin with, it doesn’t seem implausible that he is imagining these events, where the townspeople rejoice at the return of his brother from the presumed grave, as a coping mechanism, and that his fantasy remains unchecked because of his very limited social interactions. Or, alternatively, he may never have killed his brother at all, and he only imagined that he did because of the intense jealousy he feels for him: the fact that his brother’s “corpse” appears to move at the end of the comic may be alluding to it being another one of his nightmarish perceptions of what is in actuality something commonplace. Either way, the comic makes a solid case for an unreliable narrator, which makes for a thought-provoking reading experience.