Mark Danielewski and POE in Dallas
Last year, Pantheon Books published a novel it thought would appeal mainly to scholars of postmodern literature and the skater/surfer set. Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves is about a house that is mysteriously larger on the inside than on the outside; the space inside the house also tends to multiply and change shape.
House of Leaves is full of typographical errata, an aesthetic that is also practiced by Danielewski's rock star sister POE. House of Leaves features fonts of varying size, the word "house" in blue throughout the text, words backward, sideways, and in the margins, and copious footnotes, appendices, and occasionally bars of music. Many people describe House of Leaves as a "challenging" text, and the critical response, as well as the commercial, has been rather adulatory. In April, the New York Public Library awarded Danielewski its first Young Lions Fiction Award, for authors 35 or younger, because of "the experimental nature of the work, the multi-layered narrative voices that were brought together into a single aesthetic whole, and the major risks the author took in breaking with literary patterns of the past," according to library president Paul LeClerc.
Because of its popularity, Pantheon has produced a pamphlet about House of Leaves called a "reader's companion" that is intended to spark discussion about the book in book clubs. It says:
For lack of a better term, we'll call House of Leaves a novel. It is more of an "experience." This is a book about a book about a film about a house that is a labyrinth. Collapse all this and what do you get? -- a book that is a labryinth.
The reader's companion is full of questions like "What is the significance of the blue type in the book?," questions that in a typical discussion might make someone pipe up with theories and ruminations.
When Pantheon sent Danielewski to Dallas on July 16 to discuss House of Leaves with his many fans in Dallas, it wasn't exactly a typical discussion group. POE happened to be in Dallas opening for Depeche Mode and since her CD Haunted mines similar thematic territory as House of Leaves, she came to the discussion, too, though her participation wasn't announced before the event. There was some fear that the mingling of Danielewski's fans and POE's fans would overwhelm the Fretz Park Branch of the Dallas Public Library, where the event was held in suburban Dallas.
House of Leaves has flourished in Dallas, and the reason, mostly, is Jessie Jessup, a popular deejay at 102.1 The Edge who has talked about the book repeatedly on the air and played POE's song "Hey Pretty (Drive-By 2001 Mix)," which features a passage from House of Leaves. Han Cao, a 19-year-old student at the University of Texas at Dallas, was standing in line to get into the auditorium at the Fretz Park branch. "She just kept ranting about it," Cao told me. "I heard her rant for like two months, and I was like, Shut up about the book! And then I said, Okay, I'll read it."
Jan Gifford is the public affairs director for the Dallas Public Library system, and she was at Fretz Park, too. She said that after Pantheon Books contacted her about sending Danielewski to Dallas, it took her about "three clicks of the mouse" to realize what a wonderful idea that was. "This is an audience that maybe grew up with a library but kind of fell out of it or is real into the Internet or may come back to the library when they have kids," she said. "So it's real neat to get them into the library so they can see, Hey, the library is more than just those books I used to check out when I was a kid."
The auditorium was bursting with fans, Danielewski and POE arrived, and Danielewski removed the podium so that he and his sister could interact with the audience in a more meaningful way. Jessie Jessup was given the honor of asking the first question. Unfortunately, although it was an intelligent question since House of Leaves involves several possible "authors," it was not one that Danielewski was going to answer. In fact, it soon became apparent that any question remotely resembling a question in the reader's companion would never be answered by Danielewski.
"So the question was, Who wrote the book?" he said. "You know, I can't answer that question. But I can applaud the direction of the question, and I can say that I'm put in a very tricky position here." The awkwardness Danielewski was feeling emanates from his insistence that the reader is a co-author of the book. "There is a pact, there is an oath, that I have personally taken to guard that particular relationship between a book and the reader, so it's your understanding of the book," he said, and later, "In fact, right now we are all determining the shape of the house." He laughed when he said, "You're always going to get in trouble with me when you start out a question, 'Did you? ...'"
Because of this, most of the people attending the event didn't obtain the answers they were hunting for, but that didn't seem to bother them, and occasionally, someone would merely make an observation instead of attempt to unravel the book's riddles from its author. That was what Danielewski and POE seemed to like best because they could respond without breaking Danielewski's oath to his readers. Jessup also got to ask the last question, which involved Nietzsche and the heady observation that Danielewski and POE are "clearly both profound spirits." "I would say that Nietzsche was a great trickster," Danielewski said, after his sister had responded. "Because the fact is that everyone is a profound spirit and we all have masks. The question is just to see your mask clearly."