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The novel House of Leaves stands as a prime example of Espen Aarseth’s definition of a “simulation”. In their article, “Genre Trouble” Aarseth goes into extensive lengths about the art of “simulated” game space, and how a virtual world bound by its own set of rules fosters healthy academic study. Based on Aarseth’s standards on what constitutes a “simulation” versus a narrative, House of Leaves fulfills not only the positive traits of a simulation, but also embodies the weaknesses of one.
While Aarseth indeed chose to focus on the merits of computer games and digital literature – a particular statement he makes about hypertext fiction frames House of Leaves under an intriguing scope, “In the case of hypertext fictions, we are explorers, but without recognizable rules, there is no real game.” While it is true that House of Leaves is by no means meant to be experienced purely through a digital medium, as is customary of hypertext literature, the novel does carry the important facet of the hypertext genre – mainly, to inspire more interactivity from the readers through the usage of textual and bibliographic codes. Danielewski subtly transforms his readers into “explorers” and allowing for them to create their own subjective “rules” as they experience his work. In this sense, Danielewski’s is a literary “simulation” where instead of concrete rules and boundaries that tie a computer game’s world, there are instead bibliographic codes and a myriad of secrets; and these become the true substantial content of House of Leaves: the experience of embodying and performing the madness and paranoia-induced thirst for answers that the novel’s protagonists experience. On the other end of this spectrum, House of Leaves also carries the negative characteristic that plagues simulations, as Aarseth puts it, “When it is there at all, the story in these games is superficial, like a bored taxi driver whose only function is to take us on to the next ludic event. In the case of Heroes of Might and Magic, story fragments pop up at specific times in a level. They are completely superfluous, like illustrations in a storybook, and ignoring them will not affect the gameplay at all.” This fits the novel perfectly, as House of Leaves progresses it steadily becomes less and less about a concrete narrative, but rather the pursuit towards truth while sifting through hypertext-styled components that could possibly be lies.
Danielewski’s House of Leaves is the equivalent to a novelized simulated space – where readers become conspiracy addled explorers in the descent into insanity. The supposed story becomes a means to an end, a backdrop used to paint the stage for readers to “perform” their roles.
The novel House of Leaves stands out as a medium of literature that breaks the standards and confines of a “printed novel” prominent in our lifetime. To analyze the way that this book breaks out against the grain, the analysis of its supposed medium as a “novel” and representation of “narrative” are crucial. In the most common of definitions, a “novel” is regarded as “A story or lie, an invention” (Oxford English Dictionary Database) or even a “long narrative, normally in prose, which describes fictional characters and events, usually in the form of a sequential story” (Wikipedia). While it is indeed true that House of Leaves contains various falsehoods and illusions in which both the main characters and the readers experience – stemming from the footnotes, unreliable narrator, and questionable source material; it is also important to remember that none of these non-truths serve to cohesively build a sequential story – a far cry from the style of the average printed novel.
To better frame House of Leaves to a category, if any, a connection to the genre of “Interactive Fiction” would be an apt fit. An Interactive Fiction piece can be described as “any story that allows reader participation to alter the presentation or outcome of the narrative…” (JHGDM, 289). While this genre is more often relegated to video games, House of Leaves offers up a substantial amount of “participation” for the reader to engage in that substantiates the requirements for this genre. The intrigue and mystery behind which information is credible and which isn’t alone in the story allows the reader to be involved. While one could argue that House of Leaves suits the name of “Interactive Narrative” better, due to the representation of the plot and characters stemming from various narrators and perspectives – it fails to deliver in terms of giving more control to the readers participating, where as Interactive Fiction already dictates a confined space and story for the readers to be their “playground”. In this way House of Leaves does not suffer from the “interactive paradox” of balancing between the desire for control between author and reader (JHGDM, 291).
In short, this book succeeds in being different than that of the usual print novel of today’s standards by offering a different genre: Interactive Fiction – offering up a playground of interactivity and participatory engagement that breaks free of the confines of a sequential story novel or narrative.