Danielewski’s House of Leaves defies literature

Smartphones, tablets and e-readers allows for an easier access to literature. Most of the novels are now available in e-book format. But what happens when books test the boundaries of literature and technology?

Back cover of House of Leaves. ©Barnes & Noble

700 pages made of several narrative voices in an original format as complicated as its narration. This is what you’ll get if you read House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. The horror novel published in 2000 is hard to summarize. The main plot is the discovery of a manuscript by the narrator Johnny Truant, but there is also the story written inside by a character called Zampanò, about a documentary called The Navidson Record. The scariest part comes once you open the book and you face pages full of footnotes, partitions, images and texts written in different fonts, colors or scattered across the pages.

This mess creates a tricky but successful masterpiece. The book quickly became a best seller. But if you like e-books, don’t even try to find it: you won’t. What you might find is a PDF version, which would be a simple copy of the pages. Why can’t we find House of Leaves in an e-book format?

Structure, multimodality and meta multimodality

We all had the experience of multimodality as children, with books combining colors, pictures and illustrations with different touches, feelings or sounds. Inside the novel, the word house is always colored in blue as an hyperlink, and there are cryptic elements such as symbols or unidentified writing. You can even find brail, meaning it has texture. The various fonts depend on the character they refer to and make the reading easier according to The Editors (one of the narrators). It is ironical because the pages full of footnotes come right after this explication.

[Multimodal is] both media forms as well as sensory modality, enabling the medial and the modal to be connected to the ways in which human subjects perceive and interact with intermediality

Alison Gibbons in “The Narrative Worlds and Multimodal Figures of House of Leaves: ‘find your own words; I have no more’”.

Now you’re lost and don’t want to read the novel anymore ? Wait for it. Inside this already complicated structure, we can also find multimodal literature, such as calligrams and comics. Nice looking but hard to understand. And that’s the point of the novel : to experiment the limits of literature.

However, everything seems possible thanks to technology nowadays, so it would be possible to digitalize House of Leaves. But then, the effect on the reading would not be the same. 

The influence of the materiality of the novel

Reading House of Leaves is an experience. The structure of the book cannot be separated from the story, as it is a part of it. To convert it into an e-book would change the whole book and affect Danielewski’s wishes. The reader could change the fonts and the background color, and the inches of the format would change according to the size of the device used.

Some elements are only relevant on paper books. It’s a ‘confined space’ and borders appear once you close it. According to online critics, the book has to be read at night if you want to enjoy the full experience of being scared while reading. At night, you need a bedside light to be able to read, while with electronic supports you don’t. 

Des passages entiers sont faits pour être vus autant que pour être lus. Leur sens est lié directement à la configuration matérielle du texte qui […] transforme l’expérience de la lecture en équivalent de l’expérience vécue par les personnages dans la fiction. L’action est sur la page.

Brigitte Félix in « Exploration #6 : Architecture et narrativité dans House of Leaves de Mark Z. Danielewski ».

House of Leaves is an attractive adventure that can be compared to a movie, a video game or an artist book, so everyone can like it besides its complexity. Literature can be analyzed and used freely like any other form of art. It’s amazing and you should read it, print book version obviously.

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