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MARK DANIELEWSKI’S HOUSE OF LEAVES AS  HYPERMEDIA, by David Vichnar. First published in VLAK 4 (September 2013): 22-29.


The cause célèbre surrounding Kenneth Goldsmith’s “Printing Out the Internet” project can be regarded as the (unecological) reversion from screen and bytes to paper and ink, as the (nonsensical) revenge of text upon hypertext, or as a belated symbolic end to the “digital decade” of the 2000s, the ten years in whose course the Web spread indeed world-wide. In this context, the essay proposes to treat the momentous, monstrous novel House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, published at the decade’s start in 2000, as an earlier fictional counterpart and precursor to Goldsmith’s artistic undertaking – a print novel for the digital age, a book that privileges print while tapping into the digital network, a printed text that exists hypertextually. But first an historical excursus into how text came to be hyper-.[1]

In 1965, Theodor H. Nelson coined the term “hypertext” to denote “non-sequential writing – text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen. As popularly conceived, this is a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways.”[2] His development, three years later at Brown University, of the Hypertext Editing System, secured Nelson—together with and alongside Douglas Engelbart, who devised his own hypertext interface at roughly the same time at Stanford—the status of one of the two founding fathers of the medium. The next small step for the medium, but one giant leap for mankind, took place two decades later, between March 1989 and December 1990, when Tim Berners-Lee, then based at the CERN organisation, elaborated on his earlier hypertext database system ENQUIRE to create the system of interlinked hypertext documents enabling automatic information-sharing, the network called the World Wide Web. Later, in August 1991, the Web became a publicly available service on the Internet. Media theorists were quick to spot the immense potential offered by the new media for not only communication and information dissemination, but also for literature and the cognitive processes entailed in the act of reading in general. The bearings this technological transformation might have upon the operations and functioning of literature and writing can and did appear momentous. Especially as long as the literary canon continues to be conceived of as an archive of written texts, which according to Jay D. Bolter function as “stable record[s] of thought” whose stability resides precisely in the texts’ “physical medium: clay, papyrus or paper; tablet, scroll or book.”[3] In this view, the potentially liberating instability of hypertext lies in its ontologically unstable writing space, where “the space is the computer’s videoscreen where text is displayed as well as the electronic memory in which text is stored” – its conceptual innovation consists in what Bolter terms topography, referring to “mapping or charting – that is, to a visual and mathematical rather than verbal description,” in which “electronic writing is […] not the writing of a place, but rather a writing with places, spatially realized topics.”[4] It was also Bolter who, in 1987, developed the Storyspace software programme, designed for creating, editing and reading hypertext fiction – Bolter’s collaborator, Michael Joyce, created the first piece of hypertext literature, Afternoon, a story.

One of the more interesting aspects of the above outline is that for all its novelty, electronic hypertext came very early on to be regarded, by its theoreticians and practitioners alike, as less a radical break with than a continuation of its printed predecessor, in confirmation of Walter J. Ong’s ancient assertion that despite “occasioning a change in cognition,” new media “only transform, never eradicate their precursors.”[5] For hypertext theorist George P. Landow, electronic writing becomes a vantage testing ground on which to evaluate theories of textuality developed independently thereof: “Electronic linking, which provides one of the defining features of hypertext, also embodies Julia Kristeva’s notions of intertextuality, Mikhail Bakhtin’s emphasis upon multivocality, Michel Foucault’s conceptions of networks of power, and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s ideas of rhizomatic, ‘nomad thought.’”[6] This was by no means restricted to theory, as one of the earliest hypertext practitioners, Stuart Moulthrop, made clear when pointing out that hypertext is a text which devolves upon “affiliation, correspondence, and resonance” and thus, presents a mere “temporally extended network of relations which successive generations of readers and writers perpetually make and unmake,”[7] in a fashion highly similar to the one required by e.g. the “spatial form” of modernist literature. And so in the early-to-mid 1990s, another testing ground on which to theorise the new medium was found in the canon of avant-garde modernist fiction and poetry, now reconceived as “anticipatory” hyperfiction – first and foremost, Ulysses and Finnegans Wake by Michael Joyce’s famous precursor and namesake.[8]

The second interesting coincidence is a temporal one: most of experimental post-war fiction that has come to be regarded as “anticipatory” hyperfiction originated simultaneously with Nelson’s research: Raymond Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes (1961), Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Julia Cortázar’s Rayuela (1963) rank among the most frequentexamples of this “genre,” this by generating texts composed, as if in anticipation of Nelson’s definition, of a “series of text chunks connected by links” which require of their readers the employment of “non-sequential” reading techniques. More importantly, in the course of 1960s, the book as object and material container of text as information came to be transformed in the work of some of the key avant-gardists of the period in Britain and the US. Both B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969), the famous novel-in-a-box, and Raymond Federman’s Double or Nothing (1971), whose typographical extravaganza makes it one of the inaugural texts of concrete prose, partake of and transform the book-as-object tradition for which Katarzyna Bazarnik has coined the term liberature and defined as that kind of textual production in which

the typography and shape of the book, or its bibliographic code, becomes a peculiar stylistic device deliberately used by authors […who] go beyond mere words, using typography, images, kind and colour of paper or other material they find more suitable for their purpose, sometimes even modifying the very form of the volume into a leporello, a book-in-the-box or a scroll in a bottle.[9]


Skipping from Nelson to Berners-Lee and from the late 1960s to early 1990s, the development in the medium and theory again seems to bring about similar flurry of activity in practice. And so after the early 1970s wax and 1980s-90s wane of textual and typographical experimentation, a similar resuscitation of innovation aiming to expand the visual possibilities of textual organisation and the material properties of book as medium takes place in works like Goldsmith’s conceptual works Fidget (1997) and Soliloquy (2001), or, more recently, in Steven Hall’s Raw Shark Texts (2007) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes (2010). However, nowhere is the medial interplay more complex and more far-reaching, on both material and conceptual level, than in Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, composed over the course of the 1990s and published in 2000.

It was perhaps with regards to this extremeness of Danielewski’s first published 709-page text that Bret Easton Ellis made the radical claim that it “renders most other fiction meaningless,” imagining “Pynchon and Ballard and Stephen King and David Foster Wallace bowing at Mark’s feet, choking with astonishment, surprise, laughter and awe.”[10] In a more reserved manner of praise, critics have endeavoured to capture House of Leaves’ originality by various metaphors, mostly topological, like Martyn Bedford, who observed that whilst “too often, reading a novel is a bit like strolling along a safe and familiar path,” reading Danielewski, “you feel the exhilaration of entering the fictional equivalent of an earthquake zone.”[11] The most concise description of the book’s narrative structure, provided by New York Times Book Review’s Robert Kelly, that House of Leaves is “a story about a story about a story about a film about a house with a black hole in it,” already reveals it as one of multiple remove and framing – and hence also the notion of House of Leaves as textual labyrinth, pervasive throughout its literary criticism, which always, in one way or another, seeks to provide precursors, labyrinthine authors anticipatory of Danielewski’s project. Two examples:

Mark Danielewski’s debut novel, House of Leaves, is a work of experimental fiction [… whose] roots can be traced back to familiar themes and important literary predecessors, most notably Jorge Luis Borges. Danielewski’s use of the labyrinth as a theme, symbol, and form, and the mise-en-abyme structure of the text within a text within a text, as well as more direct allusions, underscore his debt to the work of Borges.[12]

While these narrative games are all good fun, House of Leaves adds up to more than playfulness. As it should be in such a nightmarish fantasy, what appears to be a barrier is actually a gateway. Like Joyce […], Danielewski isn’t rejecting narration as much as customizing and turbo-charging it.[13]

The issue is not whether Danielewski’s Borgesian or Joycean literary ancestry—to some extent acknowledged by himself—is or isn’t relevant for and has or hasn’t direct bearing upon House of Leaves in the form(s) of direct textual allusion, structural parallel or aesthetic/thematic affinity. These two (and many other similar) critical identifications of Danielewski’s literary ancestry underplay or outright miss that, first of all, what connects Danielewski with writers like Joyce or Borges is their shared preoccupation with the book as material medium participating in the precipitously progressive technological condition of modernity—the textual presentation contained therein as endowed with distinct visual properties—and with narrative as, to revert to Nelson again, “a series of text chunks connected by links,” with text as hypertext. Second of all, and more important: what makes House of Leaves different from, and visually and typographically more extreme than, both Borges and Joyce is its temporal placement, not before, and thus merely in anticipation of, but after, and thus in full embrace of, the culture of hypertextuality and the internet medium.

A possible synopsis outline for House of Leaves would run as follows. The novel is comprised of an extensive narration of a film by a blind man, Zampano, who dictates his critical commentary about the documentary film “The Navidson Record” shot by photographer Will Navidson. The film details Navidson and his family’s terrifying ordeal living in a house whose insides gradually grow larger than its frame; the house’s hallway mutates into a labyrinthine black hole that devours sound, light, and eventually human beings. Zampano’s ekphrasis of the film is a scholarly one, incorporating analyses and judgments from literary critics and scientists, both real and imagined. After Zampano’s mysterious death, his scholarly manuscript, The Navidson Record, is discovered by one Johnny Truant, a psychologically damaged but highly literary maverick who, in one of the book’s many self-descriptive passages, encounters Zampano’s text as a collection of multimedia scraps: “Endless snarls of words […] on old napkins, the tattered edges of an envelope […] legible, illegible; impenetrable, lucid; torn, stained, scotch-taped” (HL, xvii). Piecing together these disparate fragments, Truant weaves them in his own narrative layer through a set of footnotes that describe his hyperactive sex life, traumatic childhood dominated by a deranged mother Pelafina, and devastating experience with the editing of Zampano’s text. Truant’s version of Zampano’s Navidson Record is then edited by the corporate entity, “The Editors,” whose presence is noted by the monosyllabic “-Ed.” Proceeding in an objective tone that contrasts with Truant’s highly emotive commentary, the Ed. produce an additional set of editorial commentary, footnotes demarcating emendations to the text or acknowledging missing information.

Of equal importance is the book’s graphic outlook and textual presentation. Each of these narrative voices is identified by a different font and is associated with a specific medium: Zampano’s academic commentary appears in Times Roman, the font associated with newspapers and the linotype; Truant’s footnotes are in Courier, imitating a typewriter’s inscription, and, as critics have noted, thematically identifying him as the middleman, the “courier” of the manuscript; the terse notations from the Ed. are appropriately presented in Bookman. Furthermore, House of Leaves forms a central node in a network of multimedia, multi-authored forms that collectively comprise its narrative: the House of Leaves website (www.houseofleaves.com), The Whalestoe Letters (an accompanying book by Danielewski containing a section from the novel’s Appendix) containing Pelafina’s letters to her son from a mental asylum (in the Dante font), and the musical album Haunted by Danielewski’s sister, the recording artist Poe. Thus, Katherine Hayles was correct in identifying House of Leaves as an example of a “Work as Assemblage, a cluster of related texts that quote, comment upon, amplify, and remediate one another.”[14] Before its publication by Random House, House of Leaves was posted online, twice. Indeed, House of Leaves is not only a layered narrative with multiple narrators, set in an elaborately visual, concrete manner; it is a book conceived as material object constructed collaboratively by multiple authors and transcription technologies.

At the same time, it is a text structured explicitly as hypertext, and this for reasons and with consequences deeper and further-reaching than the use of multiple footnoting and framing superimposition. The technology of hypertextual writing is present on the micro, textual level. Every appearance of the word “house” is blue, the colour of an active hyperlink on the Internet, inscribing the Internet’s interface into the book’s print pages. Besides imitating the interface and navigation structure of the Web, House of Leaves positions itself as a node on the information network before its narrative even begins. Beneath the copyright and publisher’s information is the web address for the official House of Leaves website: www.houseofleaves.com. Sharing the title of the novel and its publication date, the website is its fraternal twin – the point being, as Jessica Pressman has put it, that “the Internet is a constitutive part of not only the novel’s narrative and aesthetic but also its production history,” in that “the digital network that housed the first edition of the novel is shown to be an inherent part of the print novel that emerged from it.”[15] Critic Mark B. N. Hansen has identified the novelty of House of Leaves its enactment of the horror produced by a very real shift in ontological reference due to the influence of digital technologies, as “the novel is about an impossible object, a referent that is absent not simply in the sense of being lost,” which makes it “a realist novel about an object that, for precise technical reasons, cannot belong to the ‘reality’ we inhabit.”[16]

Thus, rather than viewing the central symbol of the text, the eponymous House, as an updated gothic/horror version of a (Borgesian) textual labyrinth, there is evidence enough to suggest that more appropriate is to treat Danielewski’s House of Leaves as fictional conceptualisation of the situation of the book in a digital age. In his introduction, Johnny Truant warns the reader that “old shelters—television, magazines, movies—won’t protect you anymore. You might try scribbling in a journal, on a napkin, maybe even in the margins of this book. That’s when you’ll discover you no longer trust the very walls you always took for granted” (HL,xxiii). It is not just the man-eating house that haunts House of Leaves; it is the mutation of “old shelters” (e.g. books), induced by digital technology. Zampano identifies the digital as the ghost haunting the film “The Navidson Record”: “even though the spectre of digital manipulation has been raised in The Navidson Record, to this day no adequate explanation has managed to resolve the curious enigma” (HL, 335). The real ghost in the film, and the novel that subsumes it, is the “spectre of digital manipulation”—the presence of an invisible network of technologies that infiltrate our existence, our access to information, and our ability to read our world and its narratives. The “horror” effect of Danielewski’s text is achieved through the well-known identification technique – by conflating the House with the book, he casts the novel’s reader in the position of a reader within the text. This is evident in the pivotal scene when Will Navidson’s brother, Tom, struggles to save Will’s daughter Daisy from certain death. The house swallows him into its dark abyss, and in this moment of horror and ontological impossibility, the house is described as a text:  

The whole place keeps shuddering and shaking, walls cracking only to melt back together again, floors fragmenting and buckling, the ceiling suddenly rent by invisible claws, causing moldings to splinter, water pipes to rupture, electrical wires to spit and short out. Worse, the black ash of below, spreads like printer’s ink over everything, transforming each corner, closet, and corridor into that awful dark. (HL, 345)

The “black ash” of the house’s internal abyss is compared to “printer’s ink” whose “transforming” power rewrites every space with which it comes into contact. The house is like a book: made of ink, it becomes a thing to be read and analysed, navigated and referenced.

On a macro level, the novel achieves this haunting sense of a narrative crossover between worlds and walls through its relationship to its multimedia network and in particular to Poe’s album Haunted. As critics have already shown,[17] the clues to deciphering some of the novel’s mysteries actually exist outside the oversized book: in its sibling soundtrack and its paratext, the simultaneously published volume of The Whalestoe Letters, whose “Foreword” is written by a fictional character not present in the novel, Walden D. Wyrhta, whose attention to the letters was triggered by his wife Waheeda. Waheeda and Walden Wyrthta form the acronym WWW, a detail that further connects the collected letters and the framing mechanism they provide to the World Wide Web. The reader who ventures outside the book House of Leaves to Wyrhta’s “Foreword” recognizes an opportunity to “organize, catalogue, index and cross-index” the content contained in the letters from the novel’s Appendix in a new way. House of Leaves promotes a networked reading strategy not only by rewarding the reader with clues contained in its multimedia assemblage, but also by providing, in its central text, a pedagogical example of a reader learning to navigate the system. Truant is the novel’s representative reader, and it is through him that the reader of House of Leaves learns to adopt appropriate reading practices for approaching networked narratives. It is only when Truant adopts a new approach and starts to read beyond the pages of Zampano’s manuscript, and out into a wider geographical and informational network, that he acquires an awareness of the larger issues foregrounded in the text. As Truant writes in his Introduction, surpassing the education he painfully received from his experience with the manuscript, “the irony is it makes no difference that the documentary at the heart of this book is fiction. […] The consequences are the same” (HL, xx).

The success of the novel’s pedagogical project is evident on the House of Leaves Bulletin Board at http://www.houseofleaves.com. A virtual space where readers form a community based on real-time communication about the novel, as of September 5, 2013, it boasts a fellowship of 34,105 registered members and a trove of 137,795 articles. Through the interactive internet forum, the reader re-enacts Johnny Truant’s rite of passage, becoming part of the network that is House of Leaves: “Just as you have swept through me. / Just as I now sweep through you” (HL, 518). Reading across this network, the reader of House of Leaves, “you,” is not only interpolated into the reading practices of the digital network but also pushed towards heightened awareness of how these technologies inform the literature she reads. The novel’s print-to-Web-to-print publication history is also depicted in the editorial footnotes by the fictional Ed. who annotates Truant and Zampano’s manuscript. One such footnote states, “Following the release of the first edition over the Internet, several responses were received by email, including this one” (HL, 151). The same openness works not retroactively, but proactively. The production of the novel is an ongoing process, for the Eds. not only acknowledge omissions but also promise future editions: “Though we were ultimately unsuccessful, all efforts were made to determine who wrote the above verse […]. Anyone who can provide legitimate proof of authorship will be credited in future editions.—Ed.” (HL, 45). Such fictional promises to amend the book acknowledge that in a digital age, wherein information can be easily altered and updated, the book is never a discrete and complete object but always a node in an ever-changing network of information, interaction, and potential or “virtual” readings. As must by now be evident, the “fall” of House of Leaves (Poe—not only Danielewski’s sister, but also Edgar Allan—is a touchstone intertext) as a narrative comes as an aftereffect of the collapse of text and paratext: Zampano’s The Navidson Record is pure paratext, an ekphrasis on a film; Johnny Truant’s interaction with Zampano’s manuscript provides paratextual commentary in the form of a personal narrative; and the Ed.’s comments on publication serve as a constant reminder of the novel’s processual re-shaping by its paratext.

And the “fall” of House of Leaves as book comes in the wake of its collapse of text and hypertext, creating a textual assemblage that registers the influence of digital media as a source of significant and stimulating transformations for the novel in a digital age. Danielewski’s own pronouncements on the subject of the novel display his broad understanding of textuality that, in accordance with the McLuhanesque tetrad of “laws of media,” becomes enhanced, rather than displaced or obsolesced, by the digital. Thus, if “the analogue powers of these wonderful bundles of paper” might “have been forgotten” in the internet age, “I’d like to see the book reintroduced for all it really is.”[18] What the book “really is,” at the turn of the millennium, is print inserted into a contemporary context and “reintroduced” to a specific readership, one that is digitally literate. This is brought home by the novel’s “envoy” – on the last page of the book, after all the appendices and extensive Index, there is the final textual hyperlink that ends by opening outwards and connecting its print body to the Internet. Following the publisher’s credits and copyright information, the last page of the book contains this “imagetext.”

In Scandinavian mythology, Yggdrasil, the tree whose branches hold together the worlds of the universe, is believed to be ash – the last of the innumerable self-reflective moments, referring to the hyper-walls of the house on Ash Tree Lane. In a final punning moment, this allusion is not only ancient and metaphoric but recent and material: for Yggdrasil was the name of an early, mid-90s, version of the Linux Operating System. This subtle reference thus links a cultural myth explaining the universe as network to a computer operating system structuring our Internet culture, a reference that is further enhanced by the presentation of a large, bold O beneath the stanza describing the Yggdrasil tree as an invisible network. As Pressman has argued convincingly, “the open O corresponds to the dark dot at the top of the page and represents opposing states—absence/presence, zeros/ones—the bits of patterned information that construct the digital world.”[19]

House of Leaves is simultaneously revolutionary and representative of the state of the contemporary novel in enhancing Bakhtin’s observation about the novel’s constant – its conscious relationship to and incorporation of emergent forms that is “the most important thing: the novel inserts into these other genres an indeterminacy, a certain semantic openendedness, a living contact with the unfinished, still-evolving contemporary reality (the openended present).”[20] House of Leaves elaborates on this novel-genre constant by enacting it on the level of the medium itself: presenting the book of the 21st century as printed medium open to, and evolving into, its digital and electronic contexts – a singularly relevant project of, to paraphrase Goldsmith, “Internetting the Printed Book.”

[1] For the following constellation, credit is due to the following works: Donald Theall, James Joyce’s Technopoetics (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1997) and Louis Armand, Techné: James Joyce, Hypertext & Technology (Prague: Karolinum, 2003).

[2] Theodor H. Nelson, Literary Machines (Swarthmore: Self-published, 1981) 2.

[3] Jay D. Bolter, “Hypertext, Hypermedia and Literary Studies: The State of the Art,” in Hypermedia and Literary Studies, ed. George P. Landow & Paul Delaney (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994) 3.

[4] Jay D. Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing (Fairlawn: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1990) 11, 25.

[5] Walter J. Ong, Interfaces of the Word (Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1977) 82.

[6] George P. Landow, “What’s a Critic To Do?: Critical Theory in the Age of Hypertext,” Hyper/Text/Theory, ed. George P. Landow (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994) 1.

[7] Stuart Moulthrop, “You Say You Want a Revolution? Hypertext and the Laws of Media,” Postmodern Culture (vol. 1, no. 3: May 1991): 19.

[8]For an overview of the Joyce-hypertext relation, cf. Hypermedia Joyce, eds. David Vichnar & Louis Armand (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2010).

[9] Katarzyna Bazarnik, Joyce & Liberature (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia Books, 2011) ii.

[10] Bret Easton Ellis, back cover of Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (London: Anchor, 2000) – all further references are to this edition, marked as HL passim.

[11]Martyn Bedford, “Novel of the week: House Of Leaves,” New Statesman (July 17, 2000, Vol. 129 No. 4495): 57.

[12]Natalie Hamilton, “The A-mazing House: The Labyrinth as Theme and Form in Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves,” Studies in Contemporary Fiction (Fall 2008, Vol. 50 No. 1): 3.

[13] Michael Sims, Interview with Mark Z. Danielewski (Bookpage, Sept 2, 2007), online at http:// www.bookpage.com/).

[14]N. Katherine Hayles, “Translating Media: Why We Should Rethink Textuality,” The Yale Journal of Criticism (2003, Vol. 16 No. 2): 278.

[15]Jessica Pressman,“House of Leaves: Reading the Networked Novel,” Studies in American Fiction, Spring 2006 (Vol. 34 No. 1): 108.

[16]Mark B. N. Hansen, “The Digital Topography of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves,” Contemporary Literature (2004, Vol. 45 No. 4): 607.

[17]Most convincingly of all, Jessica Pressman in her“House of Leaves: Reading the Networked Novel.”

[18]Sophie Cottrell, “Bold Type: Conversation with Mark Danielewski,” Bold Type (April, 2002) online:


[19]Jessica Pressman,“House of Leaves: Reading the Networked Novel,” 120.

[20]M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981) 7.

About Equus Press

EQUUS was established in 2011 with the objective of publishing innovative & translocal writing.


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“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for?…we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us” // Franz Kafka, letter to Oskar Pollack, 27 January 1904
June 2014
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