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American Literature 74.4 (2002) 779-806
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Saving the Subject:
Remediation in House of Leaves
N. Katherine Hayles
Is it possible to save the subject now that it has been imploded by Jean Baudrillard, deconstructed by Jacques Derrida, and pronounced dead by Fredric Jameson, only to be revived as a schizophrenic? (Not to mention its re-creation as an infinitely malleable information pattern by biomedical practices like the Visible Human Project.) For writers who hope to make a living from their work, the problem with such high-tech and high-theory exercises is that the majority of mainstream, nonacademic readers continue to believe they possess coherent subjectivities; moreover, they like to read about characters represented as people like themselves, which the recent success of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections demonstrates. In House of Leaves, Mark Danielewski has found a way to subvert and have his subject at the same time.
Camouflaged as a haunted-house tale, House of Leaves is a metaphysical inquiry worlds away from the likes of The Amityville Horror. It instantiates the crisis characteristic of postmodernism, in which representation is short-circuited by the realization that there is no reality independent of mediation. Rather than trying to penetrate cultural constructions to reach an original object of inquiry, House of Leaves uses the very multilayered inscriptions that create it as a physical artifact to imagine the subject as a palimpsest, emerging not behind but through the inscriptions that bring the book into being. Its putative subject is the film The Navidson Record, produced by the world-famous photographer Will Navidson after he, his partner Karen Green, and their two children, Chad and Daisy, occupy the House of Ashtree Lane in a move intended to strengthen their strained relationships and knit [End Page 779] them closer as a family. Precisely the opposite happens when the House is revealed as a shifting labyrinth of enormous proportions, leading to the horrors recorded on the high-8 videos Will installed throughout the house to memorialize their move. From this video footage he made The Navidson Record, which then becomes the subject of an extensive commentary by the solitary Zampanò. When the old man is discovered dead in his apartment, the trunk containing his notes, scribblings, and speculations is inherited by the twenty-something Johnny Truant, who sets about ordering them into a commentary to which he supplies footnotes, which in Pale Fire fashion balloon into a competing but complementary narrative of their own. Zampanò's commentary, set in Times font, occupies the upper portion of the pages while Johnny's footnotes live below the line in Courier, but this initial ordering becomes increasingly complex as the book proceeds.
Equally complex is the ontological status of objects represented in the book and, ultimately, the status of the book itself. In his introduction, Johnny Truant reveals that the film The Navidson Record, about which he, Zampanò, and others write thousands of pages, may in fact be a hoax: "After all, as I fast discovered, Zampanò's entire project is about a film which doesn't even exist. You can look as I have, but no matter how long you search you will never find The Navidson Record in theaters or video stores. Furthermore, most of what's said by famous people has been made up. I tried contacting all of them. Those that took the time to respond told me they had never heard of Will Navidson let alone Zampanò." 1 Yet as the voluminous pages testify, the lack of a real world referent does not result in mere absence. Zampanò's account contains allusions, citations, and analyses of hundreds of interpretations of The Navidson Record, along with hundreds more ancillary texts. Johnny Truant's footnotes, parasitically attaching themselves to Zampanò's host commentary, are parasited in turn by footnotes written by the anonymous "Editors," upon which are hyperparasitically fastened the materials in the exhibits, appendix, and index (which like the index of Nabokov's Pale Fire turns out to be an encrypted pseudonarrative of its own).
To make matters worse (or better), this proliferation...