Documenting the (Un)official Kevin Carter Narrative: Encyclopedism, Irrealism, and Intimization in House of Leaves

Author: Jason S. Polley, Hong Kong Baptist University, Hong Kong
Published: August 17, 2018

Citation: Polley, J. S. (2018). Documenting the (Un)official Kevin Carter Narrative: Encyclopedism, Irrealism, and Intimization in House of Leaves. IAFOR Journal of Media, Communication & Film, 5(1).


Mark Z. Danielewski extends his critique of reliability – to the “destabilization” of “center” and “origin” and “totality” that Derrida famously exposes in “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” in 1966 – to all of House of Leaves’ paratexts, even to the narratives readers traditionally approach non-ironically or -critically, like the copyright page, the index, the cover blurbs, and the footnotes. Danielewski’s much-studied encyclopedic 2000 novel features a mise-en-abyme of competing “narrators,” thus compelling readers to encounter every text in and about the main text with critical suspicion. This unconventional, formal remove, however, is apparent to any reader who simply thumbs through Danielewski’s text. Paradoxically, beneath this deconstructionist instability, the novel is anchored in a form of stability, namely connection. Protagonist Will Navidson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo-journalist and documentary filmmaker modelled on actual Pulitzer Prize-winner (and 1994 suicide) Kevin Carter. At stake here is how Danielewski blurs classical boundaries between fact and fiction, between reality and its reportage, in order to reclaim a modernist centre based on “readerly” identification. Danielewski’s encyclopedia of the famous Carter photograph comes to un-complicate the complicated subject positions post-structuralism first exposed. Speaking to this un-complication of complication by way of the irrealism and intimization that recent documentary theory propounds, the article considers House of Leaves as a case study about belief. Realism, which documentary theory shows is all about artifice, has no affective bearing on belief. Belief, Danielewski illustrates, can transcend binaries like official-unofficial and fiction-nonfiction.


House of Leaves, documentary, deconstruction, paratexts, remediation, irrealism, readerly identification