The second stop on the road of my Not-A-Top-5 for Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Novelists That Use Dreams to Crack Your Head Open In All the Right Ways…
Mark Z. Danielewski‘s House of Leaves is a sprawling, convoluted tale of a found manuscript which recounts the exegesis of: a non-existent film and family; a conspiratorial friendship; a young man’s inability to deal with death, intimacy, and hereditary madness; the mutable nature of communication in the shared soul that a home creates; and a house which is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. All of these things are the same thing, and they overlap and intertwine in a tragic, hopeful arc that runs from Virginia to Hollywood, from the Arctic sea to the Mediterranean, and through the minds and lives of three men who may all be the same man, or the man for whom whichever of them is “Real” is searching.
It’s the faulty recall and outright lies of Danielewski’s characters and his ability to craft the world around his people in such a way as they are not infallible, but imminently flawed, which, when coupled with the interwoven themes, places, and states of mind mentioned above, make this entire work an exercise in parsing the memory of dreaming. Each footnote is a step on a giant spiral staircase of the unconscious, and each chapter a landing, and whether you’re going up or down, you find yourself pulled not only into the lives of these people, but into the spaces between them. You find yourself in that hearty darkened hollow in the centre of each of them that keeps them apart, keeps them from seeing each other, and which, ultimately, is the only thing that can help them put themselves back together.
[ad#longpost]Danielewski is extremely gifted in portraying the act of denial. In House of Leaves, each character denies the reality of the situations in which they find themselves, putting their horrifying experiences down to nerves, or miscalculations, or hallucinations (as if that were somehow better), even as they find themselves terrified and paranoid of what comes next. In this, Danielewski describes the feeling of our waking from nightmares, as opposed to when we are In Them: the sense that we are trying to Force the reality of the dream to dissipate, so that we can lessen its impact and slot it somewhere safe…and the intimate sneaking fear that it never works. Danielewski knows that sometimes our dreams haunt us throughout the day, even if we don’t remember the details of them, and that sense of haunted, hunted discomfort is described at multiple points with eye-opening clarity.
The House of Leaves is a sprawling, shifying thing, but it comes with a handy, somewhat static map: The Index. If you look through it for each mention of dreams or nightmares you’ll see that the context of each mention follows a theme. Every time we find a reference to a dream, a nightmare, or a dream-like state, we find it in conjunction with the experience or fear of darkness, blindness, insanity, and/or becoming lost while exploring a vast, often threatening, ever-changing space. The two exceptions to this is when we’re given a glimpse of the dream of our primary narrator, Mr Johnny Truant, in which he finds himself floating free and “bathed in Light,” and when another character ascends into the darkness of a huge spiral snail shell, knowing that, eventually, there will be more light than ever before.
But Johnny’s dream is his hope, toward the end of his convoluted journey, and it reflects the things he’s willing to shed and leave behind. It’s at this point that he’s had to deny himself the reality of his stories, for so long, that he finally has to fall into them, and let them swallow him whole. It’s the only peace he can hope for. And the other dream is still in the vein of being lost, and of a man being swallowed by something he was meant to swallow, only there’s hope, in it; there’s reconciliation and peace, and a sense that it’s all right. These dreams are the kind we have when we’re just starting to understand a new truth, in our lives, and all of the symbols in the whole world are trying to show us how important it is.
Jorge Louis Borges said something like, a work (or an author) creates its (hers/his) own predecessors. Meaning that, in what people synthesise and refine down into their own craft, their own style, Other people will find it and say, “well obviously it was influenced by This artist or That writer, and Surely these books were most influential.” Which, honestly, is bullshit. Not that people will do it, but that it’ll mean anything close to “right,” When they do it. But anyway, if Borges was right, and we’re gonna do it anyway, I will say that Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves owes its existence to Borges and his “Garden of Forking Paths,” as surely as it does to Joseph Campbell, to Carl Jung, to the death of a family patriarch, and to the strange inner workings of human grief. It’s not their direct offspring, but there’s a sense in which it definitely owes each of them its life.
It’s strongly implied in House of Leaves that the only thing that saves the inhabitants of this labyrinth made of horror, miscommunication, animosity, and the terrifying realisation of the personal crosses we bear, is the ability to take ourselves into our Selves, and to refuse to flinch when we get there, no matter the cost. Danielewski’s lesson is that, when we deny the experience of a dream and instead try to run and break through the doors of our unconscious interactions (with ourselves and those around us), the landscape shifts and the architecture changes, and it eats us up, takes us further and further in. When we accept what we are and what we do to each other, when we reconcile our unconscious desires with the facts of our lives, we can accept loss, change, and death, and we can finally realise that, in large part, we build the dreams and spaces in which we lose ourselves, and we can bend them to whatever purpose we see fit. This is self-realisation, and this is some of what dreams can teach us.
And if we don’t, we can go mad, and be destroyed by what we refuse to accept and understand. This is something else dreams can teach us.