112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

“What’s in the Empty Flat?”: Riddling the Hauntologies of Specular Identity and Semantic Absence in Neil Gaiman’s Coraline

Maryna Matlock, The Ohio State University

The protagonist of Gaiman’s Coraline subverts and yet cannot entirely escape the narrative in which she is scripted—and neither can we. As Coraline picks apart the webs of a fabricated otherworld—where signifiers miscarry as so many broken eggs, soulless husks, button eyes, and evacuated I’s—we expect Coraline to resolve her boredom; instead, however, we find that she has never been quite so board(ed)—bound by frames and windows and mirrors that likewise conscript the very essence of ourselves.


To mark the release of the cinematic version of Neil Gaiman’s award-winning novel Coraline, a sinister abecedary sprinkled its eerie alphabet cards throughout the digital technoscape like so many tantalizing treats or bewitched baubles designed to entice and entrap. As intimated by the pervasion throughout the Internet of this “dangerous alphabet” (an intertextual reference, perhaps, to the title of another Gaiman work) as well as by its invocation of wicked witches and myriad other fairytale tropes, the novel’s Coraline likewise finds herself ensnared not only in webs of the inter- and metatextual variety but in a rumination upon the significance of words, letters, and writing. However, while the allusive abecedary of the Selick film markets itself as a recipe for the movie’s mise en scène, graphological play within the novel is illusively framed, reflected and refracted in perpetual and (t)autological mise en abyme. As Coraline’s mother explains to her about the “big, carved brown wooden door at the far corner of the drawing room,” these (double entendric) passages don’t go anywhere: “The other side is the empty flat on the other side.” Mrs. Jones’s peculiarly recursive (mirrored) language puzzles Coraline, as well as Coraline’s critics, who all—in some fashion or another—proceed to ponder the resultant riddle: well, then, “What’s in the empty flat?”  


In a text so unabashedly evocative of Carroll’s Alice books, it is no wonder to find Coraline a work itself riddled with ontological quandaries: “what [does] the cat . . . mea[n],” “what [does] that [tea leaf] signif[y],” and—of course—“[w]hat’s in the empty flat”? My paper will argue that the riddling of intertextual, metatextual, and specular moments within Coraline concerns itself not merely with Freudian or Lacanian parables, but with the muted unbearables shadowing such masculinist epistemologies; not merely with textual topologies yonic or oneiric, but semiotic; and not merely with the negotiation of ontological borders, but with the agitation of narratological boards and frames. Coraline’s perpetual boredom is, essentially, a board-dom, plagued by an ideologically induced myopia that boards her in and bounds her up. Coraline may circumnavigate the story-web by reading/weaving old scripts into new tapestries of an alternate aesthetic grounded in l’écriture féminine, but the loom itself is an indispensable apparatus. Ultimately, therefore, Coraline’s (and Coraline’s) alternate form of writing re-signifies existing cultural signifiers in the patriarchal economy only to evacuate those signifiers altogether and reveal a postmodern divulgence of miscarried meaning. To discover “[w]hat’s in the empty flat,” then, becomes an exploration if not an invocation of the Saussurean “two-sided” model of semiology wherein, if signifiers and signifieds comprise the obverse faces of an “individual” sheet of paper (in the Derridean sense), perhaps what “sentences” Coraline to/in muteness is itself “empty” and “flat.” Consequently, Coraline’s core-alignment along patinas of glass and paper, borders of frames and worlds, reveals Bruner’s assertion that “narrative organizes the structure of human experience,” that narrativity constitutes reality, and that there is nothing beyond our perception of the world but (an)other wor(l)d.