The unfinished house

1 09 2011

Houses can be enclosed worlds. With their intricate layout of passageways, staircases, windows, living rooms, dressing rooms, foyers, and so on, a house can operate like an organism, its owners circulating through its space like blood vessels, unaware that there is life outside their property.

Many fictions use this scenario with the aim of depicting solipsistic, self-absorbed, deluded, and possibly crazy behavior, belonging, for example, to socially irresponsible members of the high class. But the best fictions suggest a more far-reaching phenomenon. Miss Havisham in Great Expectations or Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard – two aging ladies sinking in decadent mansions, wrinkled and elderly, and yet unwilling to notice the passage of time, reluctant to stand firm in the present and acknowledge the years that have settled upon them since the bygone age when they stopped checking the calendar – are simply grotesque exaggerations of common experience. Despite the eccentricities inherent in their characters, we can approach their lives by remembering our simpler, more conventional cases of self-inflicted house arrest: a sticky Sunday afternoon stretched out over a lifetime; three months of summer boredom dragged to despondent old age.

Houses catch anecdotes as if they were fireflies, hide them in a closet or an attic, snare them into a painting or a model boat. Every crack or smudge on the floor, every portrait or hanging vase on the wall, every piece of furniture, every armchair and divan, every dusty organ, every coffee table and flower-patterned china set is the starting point for a hidden narrative, almost none of which, in a movie of sensible running time, can actually be developed. But we can imagine that they might be, or sense that there is a story to follow, even if the camera will never go there. These unsaid anecdotes float on the screen like heavy air, an undeniable presence we cannot locate in a specific time or place, but which permeates each scene.

In our own houses, we are more aware of these hidden narratives. A nostalgic grandpa might have described to us in detail how he came upon a wooden chest, and every time we cross the hallway and glance through the open door of his bedroom, we see the chest and his story flutters through our mind like a sudden gust. We deposit stories everywhere in our houses, and many of these stories enter our daily habit. From the groaning faucet, to the ill fitting electric output, the squeaky front door, the spider-webbed corners of the garage, and the cheesy ceramic sculptures of cherubim. We have a narrative for everything. We see an object and remember where we bought it, or we pass by a lamp table and instinctively leave our wallet there when we come in and pick it up when we walk out. This combination of family history and quotidian habit sediments a house with multiple layers of storytelling. Reposed on our beds, staring at the spotted ceiling crisscrossed by an abstract painting of smudges and discoloration, we might forget ourselves in thought, both daydreaming and dreaming of previous daydreams, our imaginary escapades commingling with the entire encyclopedic breadth of all the daydreams we ever conjured up, most of them written on the dirty surface of the ceiling, the upturned stage of our greatest struggles and wildest leaps of whimsy. A house, then, becomes the repository of our own biography, a library where every niche sends us back to the past, even as we might add new information in the present, so that the house turns into a book we’re always writing and redrawing with self-referential texture.

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