I have described before to friends and other gamers that The Beginner’s Guide is a paradox, and was made to be so. With The Beginner’s Guide, and specifically its attitudes towards how it should be interpreted, I found myself thinking of “The Raven”. The Raven is a logic paradox where you take the two statements “All ravens are black.”, and “If something is not black it is not a raven.”, and see them as having complete logical equivalence. On its own, it’s easy to see how this would make sense. The problem then comes from someone looking at a green apple, saying “This apple is not black, therefore it is not a raven. This proves that anything that is not black is not a raven, which then proves that all ravens are black.” Through association, we have proved a theory about ravens by looking at an apple, which out of context would make no logical sense. There’s a chance that you’ve heard this thought experiment before, but with different examples than ravens or apples. In many of these cases, the response is typically a resounding:
What both of these paradoxes (The Raven and The Beginner’s Guide) have in common is that they express a criticism of inductive reasoning and the way it can be abused. Inductive reasoning is the method of taking previous experiences and using them to predict trends or solve problems that seem similar in nature to these past events. It’s also one of the fundamental parts of reasoning as a whole and proves a useful method of prediction in many aspects of life. The counter to using experiences to predict a natural rule is deductive reasoning, where we use a well-known natural rule (Man is mortal), turn it into a workable premise (Socrates is a man), and lead it to its logical conclusion (Socrates is a mortal). While the Raven paradox establishes the absurdity that improperly used inductive reasoning can have, The Beginner’s Guide highlights that absurdity and applies it to a more niche setting. When combined with other criticisms that focus on the nature of intellectual property and “Death of the Author”, The Beginner’s Guide becomes an experience that is not only unforgettable but nearly inconceivable in its interpretation.
But the actions that the narrator takes in-game do more than just tell a story about an individual with no concept of boundaries. They also express a point that says taking large leaps of logic based on smalls shreds of evidence is not the correct way to create concrete conclusions.
This is not the first time that I have used this argument on myself just so I can focus on other creative works. The Beginner’s Guide does not want to be scrutinized in the same way that it does want to be scrutinized, and when someone does try to analyze a piece of them is taken away as the inevitable projection of the theorizer comes forward. Yet despite my many attempts to shake off my obsession over it, I keep coming back with more questions. How do you interpret this game? Are we supposed to interpret it? Should I define this game not by what happens in the narrative, but by its emotional message? What is its emotional message? Is it my place to know?
So, I’m not going to talk about The Beginner’s Guide. At the very least, that won’t be what this whole post is about. Instead, I’m going to talk about House of Leaves.
Right around the fall of 2010, I would’ve been 13 years old and in the throes of what I’ll lovingly call “Genital Hell”. Like many pubescent demons, I needed an escape from my own body, and soon fell into all genres of horror. Movies, comics, manga, webseries, and most importantly books. I was about halfway through yet another Slenderman series when I first saw House of Leaves, and I purchased it soon after. The fact that I would spend over a year studying it, when I had only been in my horror buff phase for a few months, says enough about how I feel towards it.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is a perfect example of how an old medium of art can be turned into something original with enough creative ingenuity. In layman’s terms, House of Leaves is a lot like a puzzle book, if that puzzle book was constantly trying to threaten your sanity and the only answers came from a consensus of people who are constantly trying to solve the puzzles themselves, rather than from the author. Without giving away too much of the plot, I can tell you that the book is about a house that was featured in a documentary which was reviewed by a man who died shortly before he was discovered by a tattoo artist who may possibly be the most unreliable of unreliable narrators that have ever existed (and yes, I am including a certain video game narrator). Oh, and the man who reviewed the documentary was blind, and the documentary itself doesn’t exist in our universe. Yeah, it’s that kind of novel.
But in my opinion, the beauty of House of Leaves doesn’t just come from the intertwining narratives, or the six levels of metaphors, or even the carefully crafted characters that speak and act just like real people in their situation would. The real gems in House of Leaves stem from two main ideas: the hidden potential of physical media, and the fragility of reality in fiction.
Just by holding the physical book in one’s hand, can others understand my first point. And I mean it literally when I say “physical”, as it is not possible to recreate the experience of House of Leaves on an e-reader, and with the exception of the audio clips created by Danielewski and Poe (a talented musician and Mark’s sister), it is even more difficult to understand the concept through an audiobook. The book’s cover is smaller than the rest of its pages, there are passages that are stuck inside of small boxes that are fitted around other passages. Footnotes upon footnotes that cut off and contradict each other fill whole pages where you wouldn’t expect to find them, a whole chapter that is nothing but a few words on each page. I can’t remember whether or not I had to take the book to a mirror at some point, but I wouldn’t be very surprised if I did. And that’s not even getting into some of the more structural oddities about the book, such as the table of contents, the page of dedications, or the index.
Then there’s the fact that on a metafiction level, House of Leaves is the kind of monstrous manifestation of mystery and mind breaking media that Inception wishes it was. To start off with, there are the three obvious levels with their own main characters going on in the novel, but none of these levels are completely cut off from each other. Further than that, there are characters that are outside from the main narratives of the book that make references to characters that they should have no idea even exist. Further than that, there is heavy implication that the book that is the main catalyst for the conflict in the documentary (which reportedly doesn’t fucking exist) is House of Leaves itself. Pouring over the book the second and third time let me to the realization that a large part of the horror of the assault came from the idea that I knew this was a novel about metafiction, and the characters didn’t. To make matters worse, the characters that were aware of it were not very well off in the story itself. This can lead someone to start to wonder what would happen if they questioned their own reality, and what kind of consequences they would face if they stopped believing what they were seeing with their own eyes.
At times the book left me feeling dizzy, confused, and uneasy. I had never felt claustrophobic as others had, but I still remember the overarching sense of dread that I had as I finished the novel, and long after I decided that I would stop looking at it entirely. While I had still been that impressionable teen when I finished the book, I don’t think I was the only person who didn’t like having it in their house, let alone in their sight. Currently, the copy that I purchased is still loaned out to a friend, mostly because I want as many people as possible to read it, and only a little bit because I’m still scared of the novel itself. I hold pieces of media that can have such an effect on me on the highest of pedestals because of how rare this phenomenon occurs.
House of Leaves is a masterpiece because it works to revitalize a medium of writing that is slowly being pushed away by advancing technologies. It stretches the limits of what physical media can do, and, *ahem*, “Becomes sort of a calling card for its creator”. Looking at his other works in a bookstore, or simply doing a google search will show you that pushing the boundaries of the physical novel is his strong suit. As of the date of posting this, the fourth volume of “The Familiar” is currently in stores, and it’s just as artistically fascinating as that debut novel from 17 years ago. Seriously, just go look at the book on Amazon. He plans on making 27 volumes, and I plan on buying the other 23, so every bit of attention makes that dream all the more real.
And… this is where I have to go back on my word because there is something to comment on when discussing the comparisons between House of Leaves and The Beginners Guide. But this got a little long, so I’m going to split it up into two parts. In the meantime, try to remember inductive and deductive reasoning. It’ll be on the test in the next post.
(This post was not sponsored, I’m just a giant geek. Also, link to Mark Z. Danielewski’s website is here: http://markzdanielewski.com/)