The Ws

As a Danielewski virgin, I read the first 199 pages without any preconceptions apart from those mentioned in the lecture requesting volunteers to the project. Therefore, once I started reading I was uncertain if the whole book was going to be made up of what appears to be random snapshots of various communications possibly aimed at an ADHD/MTV readership. These seem to be unrelated, but are probably part of a puzzle that needs deciphering. My worry is that as this is the first of 27 novels that the puzzle may not be solved until the last novel, which is quite a big commitment.

The ADHD snapshots appear to have some relation to the protagonist, who has some unknown learning (I don’t want to call it a disability as I think she is more advanced in some ways despite her family finding her immature) syndrome? So at this point in time I feel as though she is an ‘Indigo child’. And the way that the story is presented to us, the reader is being treated as an Indigo Child too and, are made to feel that we too should be asking all the ‘w’ questions in order to make sense of what is going on.

As for the voices in peoples head, I believe they are Gods or aliens watching how the characters are thinking and acting. These omnipresent voices are from the early chapters. It is quite difficult to work out the pattern of how many there are but it would appear from the different parenthesis used that there are at least four. Are the voices, supernatural familiars, ghosts, something we know but have chosen to forget?  The trouble for me is whether to write all these things down and try and work out the pattern or to just go with the flow and trust Danielewski to tell me in his own time what is going on. However, with the patterns I am worried that I might miss something crucial and this is with the actual patterns made up with words as well. For instance the lovely rain drop patterns, I was so worried that I would miss a hidden clue that I felt I needed to read each word even though you could see that they were repetitive.

As I am not multilingual, how much am I missing by not being able to read all that is being said? And not only is it what is being said but some characters also, think certain words or phrases in language other than English. Am I still able to get the gist of what’s happening or are these vital pieces of information? Should I chose to google everything or ignore? How much like the protagonist should I be?


5 responses to “The Ws”

  1. Jim Hutchins says :

    I have read House of Leaves, so I can try to help based on my experience with that novel.

    For me, the trick with Danielewski is not trying to absorb too much. It’s like catching every raindrop to count them 😉 {or maybe 😀 or :-P}. Like showering in a rainstorm, just let it wash over you.

    There are so many layers to this novel, or any other Danielewski work. I am making some decisions now as to how I want to drill down and what aspects I want to focus on. Everyone, as far as I know, has to do this with his work. Just focus on a couple of things that you like, a character or voice or metaphorical device, and sing a little song to yourself every time you see one.

    As always, your mileage may vary. (That is, each of us has an individual experience of the book and you will have to find yours.)

  2. Robert Dorenbusch says :

    I think you pose an important and interesting question. In fact, reading the first 199 pages, I asked myself the same sort of questions: “Is deciphering the ‘side activity’ [similar to what you described above] in the novel worth the added distraction from the story at hand? And with such an immense and broadly spanning story how much do the ‘little things’ matter?”

    To answer this question for myself, I found the first episode between Xanther and her father on the rainy day to be the most helpful. Though Xanther’s mind wanders beyond its own limitations, being left with far more questions than answers, she does not seem to get hung up, or impeded, by these endless questions. Yes, they confuse, frustrate, and literally suffocate her at one point, but it is not long after such questions introduce themselves to her frantic mind that she realizes she can open the window of the car, feel the “warmth” of the fresh outside air, and bask in the spray of the rainy downpour that caused the unending questions in the first place. Her father’s words then echo in her mind to remind her of the triviality of her confusion: “‘Remember: they are only questions,’ Anwar has told her many times. Like he’s also told her: ‘Remember: they are only answers'” (71). Perhaps, as the reader, we are to take these words to heart when the novel incites in us the same, never-ending cascade of questions. Whether we suffer these questions or not the words will still exist on the next page and the story will still move on.

    It is my belief that with a carefully planned storyline in whatever episode with which we are presented Danielewski will also station us next to the window we can roll down as Xanther does, allowing us to relish in the fresh air and realize that the foreign character marks and illustrative formats (such as the sentences that fall across the page like raindrops) are “only questions” and their solutions are “only answers.” This “only” causes them to stand alone as distractions rather than foundational, constitutive aspects of the narrative as a whole. We may have them or we may not and they may be interesting and informative of facts outside the narrative, yet, like Xanther, we will still keep being driven through the rain with the familiar and realistic companionship of an Anwar, evident most in the overarching storyline, to our final destination.

    In short, I believe they do matter to some extent in providing an innovative dynamic to the novel, but at its heart is the traditional story which is meant to come across regardless of whether we are “multilinguists” or not.

  3. Conor Lloyd says :

    This is actually one of the more interesting things about this book for me, and I want to decipher as much of the language as I can. Obviously, this is not really going to be something that I can do alone, and as such I feel like a sort of centralized translation post on this site would be pretty helpful. While on the one hand the majority of the language I have been able to decipher by myself hasn’t been terribly helpful in regard to understanding the plot, such as it is, it has been helpful when understanding characters and their motivations.

    This ties in to your main questions of whether or not you are missing anything. The problem is that it appears to be a bit hit or miss. For instance, on page 108 in the first Zhong perspective chapter we see two phrases in Chinese, one phrase in Russian, on phrase in Japanese, and a closing statement in English “not in english”. I know enough Japanese to decipher the phrase into “nihongo de hanai”, which roughly translates to “not spoken in Japanese”. From that I can only assume that the other phrases say something to the same effect. In this case, we can figure out what’s going on mostly by context.

    However, the problem is that this is not always the case at all. The most prevalent instance of this outside of the Zhong chapter early on is the first Anwar chapter, where sporadic Arabic appears throughout his internal monologues. I have absolutely no background in Arabic and it’s very hard to figure out what’s being said here. It is of course telling that Anwar maintains a bit of Arabic within his conscious thoughts, but I feel like there is too much I’m not getting by being unable to actually read the Arabic. Is there a common theme to the thoughts that appear in Arabic? Are they mostly stand alone words or are they full phrases/ideas?

    I feel like at least some translation is going to be necessary for really understanding this text to the fullest. With how many people we have together on this forum I really see no reason why we can’t fully decode this book.

  4. dlevy33 says :

    It becomes difficult to read all of these responses and try to figure out what the true, or perhaps best, answer is because I agree with all of them! I thought I would mention a bit about my own experience, which has been aided by class discussion, about the potential importance of specificity and the adoption of experiencing the book as a volume sensitive puzzle. I say specificity primarily because I have spent a lot of time, just as you all have, thinking about the direct meaning of the fonts. However, this thinking was always slightly off, simply because the ultimate question of ‘why?’ would rear its existential head and haunt me. The importance of exploring the meaning of the fonts, in itself, was something that was didactic and purposefully placed by the author in order to underhandedly train us readers into ‘searchers.’ And, once we become searchers, we may reach an inconclusive, yet simultaneously conclusive end, in which we realize that the search was conducted to merely act as a search. Ill try to develop something in a couple of pretty free written paragraphs, although it does get difficult to completely collect every detailed thought on my general idea of these themes.

    What I’m thinking is that it makes sense to say that we may need to wait for all 27 volumes to come out in order to truly take in the entire mystery. However, that very same expectation of solving the mystery could ultimately lead us into a realm very much like House of Leaves, in which our expectation is answered with more questions that ultimately leave us with an eternal maze. I do have a feeling that my second theory may prove victorious.

    On another note, our very nature is defined by the lack of ultimate consciousness, a human capacity for error, and emotion-things that we have tried to absolve by means of technology. Technology is specific yet satisfies a condition that humans are not capable of. This condition is that of coherence, it is something in which we can be constantly correct or can contain expansive amounts of information without falling victim to emotional fallbacks or error. It can give us exact coordinates and fonts that never deviate unless we tell them to, and yet we are always left with the ultimate question of our own, non computer consciousness. It seems ironic that we have the perfect, perhaps emotionless being available at our fingertips, yet would vastly prefer the answers to our own emotional ‘Being.’

    The specificity of the text, patterns on the pages, whatever they may be, are very comparable to the specificity that computers are capable of by means of collecting data and providing us with loads of information at the touch of a finger. It seems that this reoccurring theme of specificity that is physically represented in things like text points towards the certain questions technology can answer, but simultaneously reveals the bigger questions that it leaves abandoned. In an immediately gratifying way, we are able to answer why Xanther’s font is called minion, or why the orb is physically represented in a full chapter, yet we will never be able to answer why, as humans, we find this search as something important. Technology has taken us very far, but the very specific type of information that it answers almost mockingly points out our inability to answer the ‘bigger picture.’

    As for voices, it seems that we have a large variety of very individualistic, if not often stream of consciousness narratives that leave us in the dark when it comes to foreign languages. These voices, in their specific, seemingly meaningless functions (I am pointing directly towards non-translated excerpts in the book) accumulate into one gigantic slur of confusion. They echo off of one another, force us to try and meaningfully connect a Chinese excerpt to a Spanish slang phrase, and function in the exact same way that the specificity of our technology does. We access just as many random spheres of the world through our technology. Technology satisfies our human condition for more in which we strive to know the details, albeit when they are easily provided to us. These voices are merely representative of the infinite attention to detail that technology has granted we humans, and yet we underhandedly desire to cast off the non-translated excerpts because for some reason we find them unimportant.

    I guess you should think of a closed room that is filled with thousands of voices and literally all of the information in the world, which these voices and facts are bouncing off the walls, until suddenly the room becomes overwhelmed, and it flat lines into nothing. We have infinite availability in our hands, yet our search almost leads us into complete darkness whilst we literally sift through loads of meaningless information. It somewhat reminds me of the beginning passage, where we are told that our biggest fears are war and death, and we are narrated with very ambiguous white passages that are placed above a dark backdrop.

    We have literally attempted to open Paradise by trying to answer our questions, even though it is something that may always have to remain closed. I think that our search about the specificity of the fonts has to do with this somewhat overarching concept, the why that drives us as human readers, and I hope that I coherently (somewhat haha) explained my general thoughts.

    Can anyone help me to more clearly articulate a way in which the specificity of the fonts relates to our use of technology/the fonts? 🙂

  5. creativekat24601 says :

    I’m so glad to read that someone else felt just as confused about the initial format of the reading as I was! I also have had no previous experience with Danielewski, or the metafictional genre for the matter, and the use of both the language and format of the novel to communicate the story is one that I didn’t have the mindset for when I began to read the novel’s first 200 pages.

    I found that the more I let the story and the metafictional format elements interplay rather than just trying to observe them separately from an objective point of view, the more I was able to process the story telling technique being employed. Although I lack the expertise and language studies to understand the random bits and pieces of the story that are told in a different language, I felt that understanding their presence rather than their literal function was useful in bringing more clarity to both the nature of the story and the characters.

    These characters are speaking in a world where the words on the page are what make sense to them. As readers, I feel like the employment of this metafictional format encourages us to push the boundaries of our own comfortable understanding and tries to pull us more into the depth of the story. It is undeniable that this set of stories is bound to culminate in a massive plot that is capable of stretching over 26 more volumes. Although I’m still unaware as to whether or not the stories featured in this first volume will carry on into the following novels it is apparent to me that in order to fully understand the story being told, it is important to first try to understand the characters and the world in which they are interacting.

    Taking the ride through these events with the characters rather than trying to obverse the events as a third party helps to put you in the mindset for understanding what’s going on, why it’s important, or if it’s even important at all. A lot of the metafictional elements such as the words standing in for raindrops and the use of code in Anwar’s story communicate to the reader not only the personality but the minds of the characters that we’re reading both about and through. To me, these elements serve not as an overall distraction or roadblock, but a useful tool to aid in empathic consideration that becomes easier with time and opens more doors to make sense of the events that the characters are experiencing.

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