Mark Danielewski – Literary Revolutionist by David Robson
At times English Literature can be seen to be plagued by the mundane and mediocre. Books studied in schools and universities, in my experience, can often be tedious and uninspiring whilst ‘bestsellers’ in book stores seem to lack ingenuity. With critics describing him as “turbo-charging” narration, Mark Z. Danielewski is the antithesis of the banal. His work is evocative and pushes the boundaries of how we perceive books, yet I have encountered few people who have read his incredible work. In this article I will try to give you an idea of how Danielewski has achieved his objective of seeing “the book reintroduced for what it really is”, so you are driven to go out there and read his work for yourself.
Born in 1965 in New York City, Danielewski had an idiosyncratic childhood where he was actually, in his own words, “immersed in the cinema from an early age” as opposed to literature. His father was Ted Danielewski, a Polish-born American film director whose work consisted of a multitude of genres; from advertisement to the avant-garde. Ted Danielewski’s passion for film was passed onto his family through the range of films they would watch together and the 16 mm. prints that he brought home, and more importantly the “discussions those films inspired” following their viewing. This goes some way to explaining the almost cinematic atmosphere his work creates when it is read. Sadly, in 1993 Ted Danielewski would pass away due to cancer and Mark Danielewski would begin his first book.
In 2000, a whole seven years later, House of Leaves was released. But House of Leaves is not your conventional book. The simplest way of explaining it is that it is a story about a man who finds his house is ¾ of an inch bigger on the inside than on the outside, and the ensuing horrific discoveries he makes. However, the story is actually much more than that. It contains three other narratives; of an L.A. party boy, a blind pseudo-academic and a mentally-institutionalised mother. These narratives are woven into one great interconnected tapestry of a story, presented to you in various discourses; academic journal, scribbled footnotes, interviews, letters and poems from different characters. Danielewski doesn’t simply capture his characters and story through plain writing; he presents to you a number of ways to piece together a unique perspective of the story. His writing is much more akin to how we study things in the present day. We don’t simply read a book on a subject. We search on the internet, we read articles, we look at figures, we hear about it in the news; we gain understanding through a number of mediums and Danielewski achieves this modern concept through his exquisite writing and structure.
The typography of House of Leaves is not strictly conventional either. Passages in the book do not stick to traditional paragraphs either; although in some cases font and paragraph structure are conventional, sometimes Danielewski will sprawl sentences and words across the page to convey the feeling these words are attempting to capture. On occasion a page may be dense, almost like a maze with hundreds of footnotes and paragraphs, whereas one hundred pages later you may have barely three words to a page. On top of this, the author makes you participate with the book. Layers of seemingly pointless footnotes are hidden with codes for the reader to find that will enhance their understanding of the events and characters in the book if they so choose to find them. Bizarre and interactive, House of Leaves was a novel that was difficult to put down and spine-chilling at the same time.
In September 2006, Danielewski released another piece of work that is recognised for its flare and originality. Titled, Only Revolutions, the novel chronicles the adventures of forever sixteen-year olds Sam and Hailey as they travel through November 22nd 1863 to January 19th 2063 in America in a number of different iconic cars. What is intriguing about Only Revolutions is that both front and back covers appear to be the beginning of the book. The green cover is Sam’s story beginning in 1863, and the other gold cover being Hailey’s story beginning in 2063. Danielewski once again plays with the significance, interrelationship, and number of narratives; and what is so incredible about his writing (true for both House of Leaves and Only Revolutions) is that it creates a unique experience for everyone who reads his novels as understanding comes in different ways to every reader.
Aside from his work, Danielewski appears intriguing as a person. He travelled around Europe on a Euro-rail pass but with very little money. Every time someone gave him food, water, or showed him charity he would write them a poem promising it would end up in a book. They ended up being in House of Leaves under ‘The Pelican Poems’ section, eerily being connected to the story itself. Describing his books as “his tattoos”, Danielewski seems only to certify that an incredible book is made even more interesting by having an idiosyncratic yet relatable author behind the novel. The only drawback (minus Biffy Clyro affiliating themselves with the book Only Revolutions) is that Danielewski is a believer in “big books”, taking his time to write them. His publications are not that often with five years being the shortest between completely new projects. However, on September 15th 2010 he did announce an epic 27-volume serialised novel with a new instalment being published every three months beginning in 2014. Centred on a 12-year old girl who finds a kitten, it is Danielewski’s most ambitious project yet and it will be something to look out for. Danielewski is one of the authors who captures the age he lives in – like Eliot in the early twentieth century and Jack Kerouac in 1950s America; to not read his work would be to miss out on one of the greatest literary innovators of our period.
“It may be the wrong decision, but fuck it, it’s mine.”