Reframing the Gothic

Ok, I have just sent off my paper proposal for the Hamburg conference in September. Hope they’ll like it!

My proposed topic is called “Reframing the Gothic: Narration and Reflexivity in House of Leaves and The Southern Reach Trilogy”. In one sentence, I claim that both of these works use fantasy techniques to confuse readers. Let me elaborate that a bit:

Nearly all fantasy literature features a secondary world – a complete world which is not crucial for the story per se, but which gives us nice and interesting background information about flora, fauna and all those bits of history in between. In fantasy, this technique is used to make the world appear real.

Now Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach Trilogy both also feature extensive background information that lurks around the corners of the main story. Yet instead of making the worlds of the House or Area X appear to be real, they add to their irreality. Why do we have all those footnotes and excerpts from diaries in House of Leaves? Why do we learn of the true implications of the twelfth expedition into Area X (and what really happened to the eleventh) only when it is already too late?

In both of these texts, the world continues off-page, but you don’t want to leave the marked paths…

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What you absolutely should read: Jeff Vandermeer’s Ambergris cycle

Jeff Vandermeer loves fungi and squids. In a nutshell, this is what his books are about.

Of course, the nutshell twists and coils and turns into a carnivalesque monstrosity that wades through the lichenous streets of the city Ambergris and the stink of the nearby sea, and you’ll enjoy every word of it.

Because Vandermeer shows that Postmodernism can actually be fun to read.

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If in doubt, add another squid. Cthulhu will thank you for it.

Much of postmodern literature is intellectual shadowboxing. You don’t have to be a genius to read it, but some contemporary authors do not even look back if you can’t follow them at their pace. 

Jeff Vandermeer takes another approach. He hands you A Rough Guide to Ambergris and then leaves you to explore the city on your own. Good luck. You’ll meet individual characters and hear their stories, yet you will also learn about the history of the powerful Hoegbotton family or the extensive bloodbath that gave birth to Ambergris. People will tell you not to go undercity and stay inside during the Festival of the Freshwater Squid. You will learn more about the city than you might want to know.

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And you thought that Ankh-Morpork was strange.

It’s all hopelessly chaotic and still lures you in. This is Postmodernism made up of fantasy and myth and travel guide. Taking that last point into consideration, the Ambergris cycle reads a bit as if The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had taken a turn for the weird – provided it’s possible for the book to be weirder than it already is.

So you’re set out on a journey, guide in hand. Thankfully, Vandermeer is seldom so heavy as to burden you on your tour. He writes poetically – sometimes he conjures a perfect fata morgana of Ambergris before your eyes – and then strikes you with a hidden irony when you least expect it. 

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“I might consider buying a bigger pool if you stop poking the chicken.”

I haven’t mentioned the subtle undercurrent of horror permeating the stories or the Victorian-styled advertisements you might encounter in the appendices, but you’d better grab one of the books and explore Ambergris for yourself. Trust me, it’s more than worth it. And if you want to go further than Ambergris, have a look at Vandermeer’s The Steampunk Bible. I yet have to read that one, but the title alone ought to make you buy it. And if not this, then the cover. Excuse me while I go admire it once more.