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“I find it unfair when people say I’m an experimental novelist”

INTERVIEW. Cult writer Mark Z. Danielewski on Only Revolutions, his second tome since the ground-breaking House Of Leaves.

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Photo by Emman Montalvan

On March 19 cult American writer Mark Z. Danielewski will be reading in Berlin at the launch of the German translation of Only Revolutions, his second tome since the ground-breaking House Of Leaves. But how does one read from a visual novel?

In 2000 Mark Z. Danielewski took the world of American literature by storm with a very unconventional book, House of Leaves, a 700-page novel that stunned readers by the audacity of its experimental format, changing typography and multi-layered structure.

The book deals with and is visually reminiscent of a growing labyrinth, but it reads like a horror novel. Half conceptual artwork, half literature, House of Leaves strangely enough became a bestseller, endowing its author with an avid cult following.

Only Revolutions came out four years later with as much ambition but less ado. This complex and very dense poem-hymn about America’s psyche is made up of 360 pages of 90 words each, unfolding in perpetual loops contained in the infinity sign ∞.

Two characters, eternally 16 years of age, tell their 200-year-long love story, in a unique cryptic language and framed by a double timeline of historical events. The twin narratives progress from opposite sides of the book, forcing the reader to frequently flip it over and change the direction of their reading.

Exberliner caught up with the author for some insight into his work and a preview of his upcoming project The Familiar (due in 2014).

Leibniz said that music is the secret counting of the soul. Is Only Revolutions a musical work of sort?

Lovely, wonderful quote. It gets at the heart of Only Revolutions. When it first came out in the US, all the journalists wanted to talk about was the numeric quality of it, the machinery of it all, and it’s not until recent years that a younger set of readers has realised that that’s not the way you read it.

The way to read it is to forget about the numbers. And now you have younger people who are tattooing some words on their bodies or they are Twittering the little quotes.

Teenagers are familiar with language they don’t understand. They are familiar with playing with language. This is a book that’s constructed out of the language of teenagers as it grew over 200 years of US history.

In some way what’s familiar there is the play. The playfulness and the ability to make things up and just understand that they are in love, they are moving, running away.

Then the language begins to make sense without necessarily having to parse all it acknowledges. This book is letting go of the idea that language is comprehensible.

Once you grasp the minds of Sam and Hailey, then their language is almost incidental, and you begin to understand it much more easily. That’s why young teenagers get it very well. They don’t go to the dictionary; they don’t pretend to know everything; they experience it without trying to count the numbers.

Is this a book for teenagers?

The mother of a friend of mine who’s in her seventies read it, and this was a couple of years after her husband had passed, and she felt reconnected to that love that she had shared with this man for decades…

For me that shows an understanding of what Only Revolutions is really about. It’s not the machinery of it all – it’s learning to let go of that machinery and allowing it to help you into an experience you really can’t get anywhere else.

What I intend to do with a book is to give the reader an experience that is unavailable anywhere else. Sometimes you read a book and you realise, “It’s a movie!”, you can see that movie and you basically get the same experience.

But I want to make colours and create sounds and ultimately evoke feelings and thoughts that you can’t access in any other way, and that makes it worth the money and time that you spend on the book.

Plants, animals, mountains chant a hymn to the two protagonists of Only Revolutions. It’s a pantheist book!

Absolutely. But what you’re touching on is just the starting point. As Sam and Hailey begin their rites of spring, they melt the glacier and whatnot, but then as they begin to move along their journey the animals slowly become quieter – even the text begins to fade, becomes grey. And by the end nature is silent. It’s dying.

Is it about America?

It’s about America’s egotism. In some ways it might be more readable and comprehensible in Germany, with an audience that is able to see that adolescent rage that is evident in US politics today.

It’s absolutely political from start to finish. It’s about ego, hierarchy, perception of what justifies a certain action and what does not, and in the name of what. In that sense it becomes a very complicated book, especially when you begin to understand its relationship or lack of relationship to history.

It is a difficult book. I’m interested in writing books for people who want to work with their imagination, their minds and enjoy the fruits of it. I love that my publisher has embraced that.

Is your next book, The Familiar, really a 27-volume project?

Twenty-seven volumes about a 12-year-old girl who finds a kitten, yes. And as of a couple of weeks ago, I finished volume eight, and now I’m starting to make headway on volume nine. And I consider it an entire novel, so it’s not a series of separate books; it’s a complete work.

Why 27?!

[Laughs] Consider that you’re asking the author of a book that is exactly 360 pages long, 360 words per page, 36 lines per page… I think that’s enough of an answer.

Did you give yourself new constraints?

Yes, there are some, but they manifest themselves in an unexpected way. There was something about Only Revolutions that for me represented a totality of an author’s experience in the realm of ego.

Two egos intercepting, surpassing, overshadowing each other. The amount of work that was needed for that was enormous. Six years, six days a week, 100-plus hours, an incredibly intense work over which I had complete control…

When I was finished I realised that I could completely change the way I was approaching literature at that point. And I did finally experience that the time had come for something different, very much like the protagonists of Only Revolutions, these young deities, these… I like to say ‘zeitgeist’ in a way… they are kind of ghosts…

So did you change the way you work?

The major change was that I really decided to open myself up much more to ideas from others, collaboration, the back and forth between an assistant, researchers and production systems.

So I have been actually forming an atelier now loosely called the Atelier Z. In some regards I’m planning to follow the model of Rem Koolhaas of entertaining different ideas and making aesthetic choices about how they could be developed. In the end I still write every word.

I’m the one who sits down and originates the text. So, it’s exploring an idea about identity. We are so invested with the authorial… It’s almost a kind of monotheism.

It’s the voice of Proust, the voice of Goethe, the voice of Rilke, the voice of Hemingway – whoever you’re going to pick – that frames the world for us, and when we hear that voice, we seem to feel that the world is assimilated and constructed in a way that holds together.

But it’s a myth. It’s a very monotheistic idea. This is not something radically different from what I’ve been doing. Only Revolutions had maybe four voices. House of Leaves had at least three very strong voices.

A lot of time when people are speaking they feel that it’s their voice, but if you really parse what they say, so much of what they are saying is repeated – it’s handed down from a culture, from a familiar situation – and what really defines them as their own being is a much slimmer portion of the language that they are using.

It is somehow a work about the function of the ‘Logos’…

Sure. One could even deepen it by looking at the relationship between the Greek ‘Logos’ and the Hebrew dabar, both meaning ‘word’ but dabar having a more active sense of prayer, ‘Logos’ being more the sense of stillness and being.

Could one draw a parallel between this relationship and the idea of the self, the idea of the ego? The ego being ‘I’ and the verb being active.

That’s not to say the ego is a negative thing or a positive thing – it’s just an activation of the consciousness, so you have dabar, the active word, versus ‘Logos’, the still word.

And how do those play, interact? We need them both. We need those words that energise, that create change.

How does this relate to the formally experimental aspect of your works? Does it give energy to your words, the way my voice gives hints of sense that pile up with the meaning of the words I use? Are you familiar for example with Apollinaire’s Calligrammes?

I had this conversation with an art critic about whether or not paintings have a voice. You look at the work of Gerhard Richter: is that a voice or is that something else?

Is ‘voice’ a fair word to apply to a piece of visual media? Of course Apollinaire would be an influence… I have to say I find it unfair when people say I’m an experimental novelist.

I’m very well aware of the wonderful kind of work that was done by Apollinaire, Mallarmé, E. E. Cummings – there has been a whole range of exploration of visual textual displays, and to say that I somehow ‘experimented’ or originated this is taking the credit from people who came before me.

Mark Z. Danielewski reading and book launch Mar 19, 20:00 | Haus der Berliner Festspiele, Schaperstr. 24, Charlottenburg, U-Bhf Spiechernstr., in English and German.