Monday, April 27, 2009

Artistic Abandonment

The more I write, the more I find I identify with Leonardo da Vinci: "Art is never finished, only abandoned." I make no claim about whether any of my writing qualifies as "art," but I can attest that everything I write never gets finished. It gets abandoned. I've written about this recently--how, when it comes to my writing, I am a bad mother. The sort of mother who throws her paper-children out into the world--sometimes without thinking about whether she has corrected their most egregious errors, about whether she has given them the proper vocabulary to express their ideas. The sort of mother, in short, who tosses her words out into the word and often leaves them to fend for themselves.

Inevitably, of course, my professors return the "children" I write for their classes--sometimes covered with pen in a good way (positive commentary, pleasant surprise) and sometimes covered with pen in a bad way (commentary about their utter confusion about what, exactly, I may be arguing, unpleasant surprise). And I am discovering that a part of graduate school involves revisiting some of these "children." In rereading them, I discover some of them didn't fare so badly when they were sent into the world. And others fared badly indeed.

The ones that do not fare badly have one characteristic in common: I enjoyed creating them. And it showed. The others? Well, the opposite. Obviously. Despite being a week shy of successful completion of a whole year of my grad program, I have not yet discovered how to invest myself in topics I don't care about. Perhaps the coming two semesters will teach me something in that regard.

Because apparently, when I care, I don't abandon my unfinished works too soon.

This post is part of the Blue-Beta Blog Coordination, a continuing series of content coordinated by theme or motif with posts from Confuzzled of I Keep Wondering, Gromit of The Dancing Newt, Redoubt of Redoubt Redux, Third Mango of Funkadelic Freestylings of Another Sort, Yarjka of Sour Mayonnaise, and Xanthippe of Let’s Save Our Hallmark Moment. This week's theme: 'Finished'.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Propriety and Impropriety

I can think of a handful of reasons my parents used to supply about why I should do what they told me. "It builds character." "I asked you to." And the perennial parental favorite: "Because I said so." There were more, but interestingly enough, when my mom told the child-me not to misbehave and I'd ask why, she invariably gave the same answer: "It's not becoming."

One day I got plucky, and I asked, "It's not becoming what?"

She replied, "It's not becoming for a lady."

"But what if I don't want to be a lady?"

Desire had nothing to do with it. Proper was proper, improper was improper. Or rather, improper was unbecoming. Eventually, I settled on a compromise that often seems not uncommon to other members of my family as well. I try to be as proper as possible in public: it's proper to be quiet in a library, it's proper to be kind and polite to the people serving you in any capacity (including, but not limited to, cashiers, clerks, waitresses, and salespeople). It's proper to speak when spoken to.

It's improper, in public, to act too terribly undignified--although being charming and quirky is allowed. It's a tough tightrope to cross, but it's manageable. It's improper to talk too loudly, carry on a terribly long (non-emergency-related) cell phone call when in the presence of other people. It's improper to ignore people once they've said your name.

My compromise is this: I will be as proper and polite as I have been taught when I'm dead center in the public eye, when I'm out and about, and when I really don't know who might be watching.

But I will be improper as I please once I get home. Propriety, after all, becomes more fun when I treat it as I would clothes: when I try it on for auspicious occasions. And then, when I unceremoniously dump it on the floor of my bedroom as soon as I can pull it off.

This post is part of the Blue-Beta Blog Coordination, a continuing series of content coordinated by theme or motif with posts from Confuzzled of I Keep Wondering, Gromit of The Dancing Newt, Redoubt of Redoubt Redux, Third Mango of Funkadelic Freestylings of Another Sort, Yarjka of Sour Mayonnaise, and Xanthippe of Let’s Save Our Hallmark Moment. This week's theme: 'Improper'.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Some Things in Life Are Bad, They Can Really Make You Mad...

Periodically, I find I have to remind myself that I choose my attitude. In the midst of long, frustrating, terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days, it becomes all too easy to blame my tendency to slip into a dark blue funk on my external environment. On my current struggles in the land of academia. On anything, in short, but me choosing to let my environment and struggles drive me into a dark place. (Metaphorically speaking. But also, physically speaking. Sometimes I come home from school and crawl into bed while pulling the covers over my head.)

Funny how songs always seem to speak to me at times like this. But it has been a particularly trying week, and I felt a random urge to listen to the Spamalot soundtrack last night as I tidied my room up a bit. Mostly, I just wanted something to laugh at. But "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" reminded me of a recent resolution I made about being optimistic.

Needless to say, I haven't been the best about it lately. One of the lines in the song states that "Life's a piece of shit when you look at it," and while I don't think the line always applies, there are definitely times I feel that it's true. But not as true as the lines that actually struck me most: "If life seems jolly rotten, there's something you've forgotten--and that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing."

As I hurled things with a vengeance in my garbage can while dancing around to the songs, I realized it had been a while since I had done that: since I had taken time, on my own, to smile and dance and sing for no audience but myself. To act like an idiot for my own benefit instead of for the benefit of others.

It made me feel better. Less mad. Less liable to let the things in my life make me swear and curse.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Now, I Don't Normally Like Being Touched . . .

. . . but sometimes, sometimes, sometimes . . .

I wish that someone (and I should probably qualify: someone who doesn't weird me out, someone I know well, someone who knows me well) would recognize how completely overwhelmed I feel without needing to be told.

And sometimes, sometimes, sometimes . . .

I wish that recognition would result in a hug.

This post is part of the Blue-Beta Blog Coordination, a continuing series of content coordinated by theme or motif with posts from Confuzzled of I Keep Wondering, Gromit of The Dancing Newt, Redoubt of Redoubt Redux, Third Mango of Funkadelic Freestylings of Another Sort, Yarjka of Sour Mayonnaise, and Xanthippe of Let’s Save Our Hallmark Moment. This week's theme: 'Touch'.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Conferencing It Up

So the title refers, I suppose, to two things: I'm greatly looking forward to General Conference, which will be starting approximately nine hours from right now. And also, I presented at my first academic conference on Thursday. Symposium, actually. Same/difference. But I'm glad to announce that I presented a paper to a wider academic community than those kind souls who currently take the same classes as I do. And I'm even gladder to announce that my paper was well received. They laughed in the right spots, were attentive to what I said, and asked highly intelligent questions about my paper topic.

I want to do it again. Right now. Mostly because it's just a great new way of learning interesting things and speaking with new people. Stepping outside of my comfort zone in the best possible way. I'm not going to lie: it's nice to have people ask me to talk more about a novel that is quickly threatening to become a pet project of mine. Without further ado, here's what I presented. (And if you ever decide to read the novel, beware: profanity abounds and there are mentions of sex.) It's titled "House of Leaves: How the Fictional Can Become Its Own Reality." I'll even italicize it for you.

In a notable and often quoted passage from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Thoreau discusses a moment when he was hoeing beans—how, at a certain point, he became unsure whether he was hoeing the beans or the beans were hoeing him. Readers of Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel, House of Leaves, may feel much the same. By the time they finish, many readers will likely wonder whether they read the book or the book read them.

House of Leaves ironically comments on its own genre-slipping nature when it describes the genre-slipping nature of The Navidson Record, a fictional documentary central to its plot. “If finally catalogued as a gothic tale, contemporary urban folkmyth, or merely a ghost story, as some have called it, the documentary will, sooner or later, slip the limits of any one of those genres. Too many important things in The Navidson Record jut out past the borders” (3). As a hypertext of a novel, House of Leaves continually expands and informs its plot through various interactions with its readers. Notably, readers are required to become physically involved in the process of reading the text; in doing so, readers occupy a position both inside and outside the narrative. This novel demands that readers become both intellectually and physically engaged. It also requires readers to make choices—choices that ultimately determine not whether the plot will bleed from fiction into reality, but that determine the degree that fiction will bleed into reality.

Five different narratives are simultaneously at play in this novel: The Navidson Record, a fictional documentary about the spooky house inhabited by Will and Karen Navidson and their children; Zampano’s text, which recounts and amends details about the making of The Navidson Record; Johnny Truant’s footnoted text, which both amends the Zampano record and tells Johnny’s story of how Zampano’s text begins infecting his thoughts; and notes from the editors which translate foreign-language passages and periodically comment on their interactions with Johnny Truant (interactions which significantly happen by mail—not in person or by telephone). The fifth narrative, of course, is the narrative constructed by readers themselves.

Readers must first choose which narrator (aside from themselves, of course) they believe and the extent to which they believe them. This choice is illustrated early in the text when Johnny admits that he has altered parts of Zampano’s manuscript in order to better correlate with his own narrative. Karen and Will Navidson conclude a brief conversation when Karen mentions the water heater has been acting up. In the footnote Johnny Truant amends to the conversation, he recounts a story about water heater problems of his own. “Now I’m sure you’re wondering something. Is it just coincidence that this cold water predicament of mine also appears in this chapter? Not at all. Zampano only wrote ‘heater.’ The word ‘water’ back there—I added that” (16). This admission forces readers to become hyper-aware of choices they make in believing or disbelieving the narrator, because Johnny could be manipulating any part of the text. Furthermore, if Johnny may be manipulating the text, a nagging suspicion arises: that any or all of the narrators may be manipulating the text.

Johnny Truant, as a narrator, seems the most suspect and he is certainly the most vulgar, but ironically Johnny also has the most personal narrative. He is the only narrator recounting his own story, and he is the only narrator who frequently uses second-person address. The repetition of the pronoun “you” leads readers to feel Johnny addresses them directly, assuming their involvement in the story. In this sense, readers become involved in the text because they are implicitly told to be involved. Other narrators are more subtle in their means of causing readers to inject themselves into the plot; Zampano, for example, provides blanks that are ready to be filled in whenever information from his gathered documents are missing. This applies equally to footnotes and to the text itself: sets of inviting lines beckon the reader to write in their own information. Not entirely unlike the game MadLibs, the words surrounding the blanks give readers enough context to have a general idea about the category of word (noun, verb, adjective) that should occupy any given blank. Adventurous readers may try to impose their own narrative, while other readers will simply skim the existing words, skip over the blanks, and move onto the next paragraph. In some ways, it seems like a strange sort of litmus test that defines how much of themselves readers are willing to invest in the novel.

The blanks, at least, give readers a choice about their participation with the text. Other interesting innovations require the reader to become more physically involved as the text progresses. Readers who want to follow the story have no choice but to start rotating the book when the main text becomes framed by two outside columns of texts that face in two separate directions. When the text begins to mimic the action of the plot, readers have no choice but to play follower to the text’s lead. As words become spaced out on the page, the book begins to dictate the rate at which readers’ eyes track the text and at which they turn the pages. After managing the tempo of the reading, the text becomes discontented with simple turns between two directions. Those who would like to follow the narrative are required to turn the book at every imaginable angle—upside down, sideways, and even at diagonals—in order to continue following the story. This constant twisting, turning, and reader-required manipulation disorients readers and serves to remind them they cannot always control their movement in relation to the narrative.

When boxed windows of backward text appear, readers who want to be able to read within the windows are required to hold the novel up to a mirror. The passages of the novel which require the reader to hold the book up to a mirror show not just a reflection of the writing, but also of the reader. As Will Slocombe notes in his interpretation of House of Leaves, “Within the text, mirrors force the reader to face the text and realize that they are seeing what they themselves place within it. The idea of the mirror is simultaneously a reflection of the reader and an image—an opposite image—in its own right” (99). The act of holding the book up to the mirror shows readers how connected they have become with the book: although they see a reflection of the book and themselves as separate entities, they are also watching themselves in the act of reading the book.

Readers, at this stage, have become simultaneously characters and observers. In a further complication, Navidson becomes trapped in the ever expanding “house” behind a doorway within his house and needs something to provide light. He discovers he has brought a book and a lighter with him when he set out to explore the five-and-a-half-minute hallway. By reading a page and then lighting it on fire, he provides himself with light. The book he is reading is entitled House of Leaves. His copy matches the exact specifications of the print copy, and reality and fiction blend even further as readers realize they are reading a character who is reading a novel they are reading. If, as Zampano mentions some critics believe, “the house’s mutations reflection the psychology of anyone who enters it” (165), such a scene certainly indicates the house’s mutations could reflect the psychology of readers. Such a perspective places readers in the same character position of Navidson, who seems to make few to no choices about the overall narrative structure.

Readers, however, still have other choices in regard to reading the text. House of Leaves also contains several appendices that extend the story—the appendices include letters Johnny’s mother wrote him from an insane asylum, a collection of photos and collage, information about the non-existent The Navidson Record DVD, a collection of quotes Zampano collected in the course of compiling his manuscript, and the Pelican poems—poetry presumably written by Johnny Truant. The first two-thirds of House of Leaves is the narrative text; the last third is the material in the appendices.

Throughout the narrative, readers have a choice about when they will refer to the information in the appendices: several of the editors’ footnotes in the text indicate times readers may want to refer to particular material in the appendices. These notes present two different ways of reading the text—by reading the referred-to appendices at that moment or by reading all of the appendices together at the end of the novel. Reading the appendices and then returning to the novel creates a different perspective than simply reading straight through the novel and then reading the appendices. Either way, it is possible to make connections between the narrative itself and the appendices that follow; however, whether or not the appendices become a part of the narrative—and to what extent—is a choice left entirely to readers’ discretion.

Likewise, the appendix full of quotes invites readers to create their own meaning for the novel they have read. (Or may, in fact, still be in the process of reading . . . depending on when, in the course of their plot, they choose to visit Zampano’s quote collection.) While reading this appendix, a variety of themes begin to emerge. Perhaps all of the quotes are meant to thematically tie to the novel and to indicate that any of the themes perpetuated by any of the quotes are valid. Perhaps some of the quotes are included as red herrings in the great mystery of what, exactly, the relationship between the narrators and characters of the book may be. These pages allow readers to choose their own epigraph for the novel. Instead of assigning any particular quote, this appendix leaves readers to ponder any number of themes that may or may not apply to the novel. This quote collection stands in stark contrast to what actually acts as the epigraph of the novel: “This is not for you.”

The distribution and continued discussion about this novel suggests otherwise. At the very least, it modifies what acts as the epigraph: this novel may not be for us as readers; it may become part of us as readers as we simultaneously become part of it. It was originally distributed online and via word of mouth. Its popularity in that forum led to its eventual publication as a book, but the Internet-influenced qualities of the book are inescapable. The printing of house in blue echoes a hypertext quality: the book taps into readers’ ideas about the house even as readers’ ideas about the house are adapting according to descriptions of the five-and-a-half minute hallway that is part of the expanding “house” within the Navidson’s house.

And just as the “house” within the house keeps expanding, an online Internet forum located at acts as home to 10, 218 readers who continually discuss several mysteries propagated by the text. Popular discussions include whether Zampano and Johnny may be related, whether Zampano and Johnny may be the same person, or whether this may all be one grand master narrative written by a mentally unstable person. Another popular discussion thread features nightmares, dreams, and reactions readers have experienced while reading the text (it seems laughable, to some degree, but readers become aware of their heightened experiences as parts of the text and often find themselves doing otherwise unjustifiable things; in one particular scene, the interior and exterior measurements of the Navidson house do not correlate—the interior measurement is larger than the exterior. I, an otherwise fairly rational human being, had recently moved into an older house prior to my first reading of the novel and had to fight from grabbing a measuring tape and making sure the measurements to my house were normal).

Some of these discussions have continued (some of them to great success; others, to not so much success) for seven to eight years. And they show few signs of stopping. House of Leaves creates a dimension of such fictive reality—or realistic fiction—that many readers find it difficult to stop discussing its vast potential and its many mysteries. Johnny Truant said it best in another statement about the documentary that applies equally to the entirety of House of Leaves: “the irony is it makes no difference that the documentary at the heart of this book is fiction. Zampano knew from the get go that what’s real or isn’t real doesn’t matter here. The consequences are the same” (xx)

So there you have it. Actual academic work of mine. Part of the reason I finally feel that grad school, though not as easy as I first imagined, is the right place for me to be after all.