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one small islet in the sea of digital text
January 30th, 2013 by Heather Asbeck

Literary Labyrinth


source:  wikimedia commons

How do you read a book?  Do you start at chapter one and read straight through to the end of the story?  Do you read the publishing information or the title page first?  What about the dedication, foreword, or introduction?  Do you begin reading, then skip to the last chapter to peek at the end before either continuing the story or abandoning the book?  Reading a book is usually a linear process:  start at page one, read straight through.  The end.  Of course, end notes, appendices, or glossaries can alter this somewhat, but the order in which we read a book is not usually a topic we devote much thought to, unless the book is one of the Choose Your Own Adventure sort of gamebooks.  But gamebooks are written with the idea that although the author has written multiple paths and endings to the story, the reader chooses which path to follow.  If you were like me, you chose each of the possibilities in turn and read all of the alternate stories.

Mark Z. Danielewski, the author of House of Leaves, takes the reader on a labyrinthine journey through his book.  In a book whose characters include an award winning photographer who creates a documentary, Danielewski plays the part of the director, focusing and refocusing the gaze of the reader in a non-traditional, non-linear journey through the book.  The text of the book becomes a maze, directing the reader first one direction, then another way, until the reader reaches a dead end.  After backtracking to the place of departure, the reader then begins again, taking the next suggested route until another dead end is reached.  The way this plays out with the text begins in the normal way: by reading line after line as the story unfolds, until the reader encounters a superscript number or symbol that references a footnote1 at the bottom of the page, before resuming reading from the point just proximal to the previous digression. Because the reader is following an elaborate maze of text, combined with the different voices that comprise the text (denoted by differing fonts and writing styles), the story takes on an Escher-like2 quality that calls into question the nature of reality, and how we perceive and interact with the world around us.  The constant direction and redirection of our gaze becomes conspicuous, as if the author is earnestly trying to make us see what he sees, but – like Escher’s stair climbers – it takes time for readers to acquire the same perspective, while the author continues to build overlapping layers of story.



{ labyrinth }
source:  wikimedia commons

1 The reader then looks to the bottom of the page and reads the footnote. The note may be short, like a bibliographic reference, or it may continue on for several pages. When this is the case, the reader must read ahead, then turn back to the point of departure and continue reading. Or the footnote may direct the reader to an appendix for more than fifty pages of supplemental text.
2 M. C. Escher, Dutch artist.


4 Responses to “Literary Labyrinth”
  1. Jessalyn says

    I first would like to say that I too would go back multiple times in the choose your own adventure books, wanting to know what I had missed with the other choices.

    Looking at the labyrinth picture that you have put in your post, there are multiple paths to take in the labyrinth itself, but also in the overarching view of the labyrinth itself, sort of difference in the aerial view. I think that perfectly accentuates the complex layers of labyrinth in reading House of Leaves, where not only the footnotes and main text creates a labyrinth, but also the depth of meaning in that structure creates a labyrinth of meaning, in and of itself. This makes finding singular meaning in House of Leaves even more difficult, but all the more rewarding.

  2. I did the same thing as Jessalyn…going back to read the other choices in the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. I couldn’t stand the thought of not knowing all the different possibilities!

    I really like the way you explained why “House of Leaves” is like a labyrinth. It makes it very easy to understand. Your mention of Escher caught my eye because in my Crossing Boundaries class last year, we read an excerpt from Escher’s “Recursive Structures and Processes”. I don’t remember a whole lot from it, but I would like to go back and look at it in terms of “House of Leaves” now!

  3. I thought I would enjoy “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, but once they killed me I was over them. In Danielewski’s “House of Leaves”, it was the appearance of the labyrinth, with the book following suit that finally clued me into what was going on all along. The book makes use of a space that isn’t normally supposed to exist, or isn’t supposed to exist for the purpose it is being used for at least, much like the house described in the book has a space that isn’t supposed to exist, though the space in the house that isn’t supposed to exist isn’t put to much use, except by the children who find it is a fun place to play until they are told not to. When the space in the house became a labyrinth and the text followed suit, that was when the correlation between what the text was talking about and how the text was being presented finally made sense to me. So now my question is, which is the house and which is the space that isn’t supposed to exist? Is the house the Navidson Record or is the house the ramblings of Johnny Truant?

  4. Joshua Mc Quary says

    I honestly don’t know and probably still won’t understand this pure nonsense of a book but it is adventure and I like to go on them. The epic level just keeps on increasing the further I get into it because the author just keeps on changing the rules

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