Mark Z. Danielewski by Christopher O'Riley

BOMB 122 Winter 2013
BOMB 122
Mark Z. Danielewski

Mark Z. Danielewski. Photo by Emman Montalvan.

I came to know and admire Mark Z. Danielewski’s work, initially, as with legions of others, through House of Leaves. I remember browsing at Barnes & Noble in Manhattan—the book’s dark, rune-embossed cover put me in mind of the Necronomicon, a favorite, though entirely imaginary, tome of Lovecraftiana. In the only time I’ve ever seen a bookstore clerk break impassive character, I was applauded and encouraged in my choice of this cult horror novel. My first traversal of House of Leaves hooked me. Luckily, by then, Only Revolutions had already come into the world, a prose poem–road novel with archetypal teen lovers accompanied on their journey by an epic, and epigrammatic, History of the World.

Mark and I became friends in the bygone era of MySpace, with my stating my admiration of his work and inviting him to a concert I was playing at the Hollywood Bowl. He was convinced I was a counterfeit Christopher O’Riley until tickets did indeed appear with his name on them at the box office, and my image was writ large on the bowl Jumbotrons. Since then, we’ve shared meals and favorite writers. I have Mark to thank for introducing me to many great books, most memorably those by Roberto Bolaño, with which we have a mutual obsession.

It is Mark’s deep appreciation of music that makes our friendship inspired and reciprocal. He speaks a musician’s language and feels the communicative effect of the unspoken. And so when considering a more thoroughly musical setting for his 2005 novella, The Fifty Year Sword, Mark asked me to provide a complete score and soundscape. It was essentially a summer project. I made improvisational forays against the backdrop of a slowed and retuned gamelan orchestra (evocative, I thought, of The Storyteller’s mystical apprenticeship with The Man With No Arms in the novella), sending Mark clips and passages of character-associated motives and melodies. We then focused upon which themes needed to be assigned and be recognizable to each character group, sending sound files back and forth, eliciting reactions and further direction. Mark was always clear, as if he already had the music in his head. In fact, one of the final grand motives was absolutely a Danielewski compositional contribution with my turning it upside down and inside out, thus illuminating the root, fruit, and course of his musing.

All this was done with the idea of providing a musical scrim for the live reading of The Fifty Year Sword , but Mark soon folded this into his already burgeoning ideation involving the evolution of the e-book format into an active and animated format, so that enlivened text on the page was to be accompanied by sound clips of our various musical motives. Just as he invigorated the book’s graphic possibilities in the printed format, Mark is trailblazing in making the e-book version of The Fifty Year Sword into a vanguard work of the medium.

We met for breakfast one morning in Hollywood, a preface to another of our marathon work sessions at my home in the hills.

Mark Z. Danielewski Can you hear my voice?

Christopher O’Riley I can hear exactly what’s coming in; I can hear everything in high fidelity. So, people say, “Write what you know.” How much of your life is part of the work and how much of it is something you’ve come up with?

MZD Well, “what we know” is always a complicated assertion because we’re mostly under the impression that what we’ve managed to cobble together in our minds and in our hearts really does go together. (Server brings scrambled egg whites.) Writing and the arts are particularly privileged in this way. They’re exercises affording a more intimate glimpse into understanding what and how we know. It’s a human preoccupation—assembling the narratives of who we are and how we live—to create something that coalesces and communicates what we know. So the act of knowing is seldom far from the act of discovering what we know.

CO Is it also a question of not being what you know, but who you know? I mean, it sounds to me that the human equation presupposes a sense of character as totality, as reality. Each one of your characters is not just a voice, it’s also a point of view. That presupposes a certain amount of depth—where does that come from? Does that come out of a sense of responsibility to your reality and all of its components?

MZD That’s a wonderful way of bringing in the importance of character and perspective: responsibility. The key to character is ultimately voice, and voice is not necessarily something that harmonizes, let alone equals, what another voice says or sounds like. There’s nothing more detrimental to character/voice than an encircling by like voices, trapping oneself in an echo chamber, and hearing only one’s own views and passions reiterated over and over. Character—especially in Elizabethan times, not to mention when this country began—centered on how to negotiate, handle, observe, and learn from discrepancies in different points of view. On how to grant entrance to the mind to those ideas antagonistic to our views, and not just by developing a certain endurance—and definitely not an obduracy toward new points of view—but on how to actually cultivate those voices which seemed to be antinomies to our sense of self. And yet it was only through those internal challenges and objections, even atypical whimsy, that a compassionate, more encompassing, and, I would like to think, responsibleself could emerge.

CO In that sense, the antimony sort of becomes the central force through which each character assumes weight and trajectory and is able to evolve. Do you think a story can come from that kind of yin and yang setting up of literally opposing forces and letting them ride out that tension and gravity?

MZD Without question. I don’t think it needs to be so antipodal. We don’t need a black versus a white, a positive versus a negative. Just by exploring the acute differences between characters, between their motivations and directions, all sorts of revelations begin to proliferate. All great novelists recognize this—it is one of the gifts that novelists bring to the world. They aren’t like philosophers or even historians who maintain a singular voice. Novelists set loose on the stage of the page, or the literal stage, or the screen, a series of voices that are very different from one another. The great authors of those creations don’t merely usher forth these personages; they also allow those personages to be themselves, to surprise their creator with new actions and new motives and new means of handling situations. Certainly Shakespeare is one of the great authors of multiple voices. He created hundreds of potent and minor characters.

CO In some ways idiosyncrasies are what set them immediately apart; characterful degrees and shadings of tone, personal tics …

MZD I always say personality lies in the asymmetrical.

CO It takes a real master to do not just, as you say, the antinomy or the antipathy between characters, but also to portray them as whole entities and to have them evolve. When you think of it, Charles Dickens was a master political cartoonist, but in terms of his characters changing, they were who they were; they were set on a path and basically fulfilled their destinies. It takes somebody like Henry James—Anthony Trollope has this too—to get a sense of the evolution of the character, of the way people change. People do change, they’re not just their essences; they’re rendered by the path that they take.

MZD We’re drawn to that, to how we transform—how does a voice bring from itself the same voice until suddenly there is a new voice. Consider Cormac McCarthy and Philip Roth, two writers who were immersed in a kind of youthful density. You know, baroque, rococo … look to a stunning work like Blood Meridian. Yet both of them in their later lives transformed themselves into these spare, wise writers. Whether you’re looking at The Humbling, or The Road, or the astonishing Nemesis, these are beautiful books that reveal how substantive change is possible. More inspiring, I find, than self-help edicts that instruct how to change: the dreaded how-tos (that people who have read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance will recall is a tricky territory) versus texts that without having to invoke the word actually enact change. What a privilege and a pleasure to watch two masters usher forth a new voice. And sure it’s the same species, but, at the same time, we’re astonished by the vibrancy and the originality. The subject matter makes no difference—such newness in such lateness becomes a morning star on our horizons, especially as those horizons darken.

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Deluxe 2012 edition of The Fifty Year Sword.

CO We have, in your work, a constant shifting and stretching of boundaries, in the idea of the book. There’s a simple trajectory from the way text is manipulated on the page in House of Leaves, to the timelines and the yin and yang way that Only Revolutions is set up, to The Fifty Year Sword, which involves all kinds of other images. There’s always something that makes it more than a book. Is this a product of necessity? Is this something you had in mind when you started? Is there a certain part of your writing that says it has to be not just the word, but also the manipulation or the projection of the word on the page? Where does that come from?

MZD The role of image in my life has always been central, even as it’s an antagonism too. It’s this understanding of how text can offer a music that is free of the shackles of shape and hue. At the same time, the image in my mind seems so light in its air of irresponsibility toward the labor of text—the brickwork, if you will. Writing is so much about laying down brick after brick, and yet you can’t just stack bricks, because then you’re making a tomb. There has to be this mortar, and that mortar, as we can see for ourselves, right now even, is the space between words.

Many people who pursue a life in the arts have felt at some point that they needed to choose between becoming a photographer or a painter or one dedicated strictly to words. An interesting question perhaps to pursue with other artists: Did they ever face this choice? I remember pointedly not making that decision. Certainly that exists in the character dilemmas of Sam and Hailey in Only Revolutions. They do not want to decide. They are that rapacious young spirit that says, “I will have it all. I will have my cake; I will eat it too. I will take left and right. I will have all the girls, all the cakes, all the guys, all the cars. All of it.”

I can remember specifically when I was running around Europe right after college and I had these wonderful journals from France, I think. I was noting everything. I had reached Greece at last—I had gone backward through the ages—and finally I was in Athens, and I remember writing notes, poems, and sketches. At that time I began to conceive of a wedding present for my brother who was about to get married. In a very sort of Pynchonian way I was devising an opera that would take place in Central Park, and I didn’t have enough room in the journal because I was running out of pages and back then I didn’t have the unlimited offerings of digital storage. So I wrote one act and it kind of went in at an angle, and then I wrote another act, and it kind of went out at another angle, and then I began to have all these other acts—I think five in all—going this way and that, and I compacted them into a whole page, and the writing began to create a shape, a shape which could codify the whole thing, which for now I’m going to keep to myself, since, who knows, maybe one day I’ll actually write that opera.

And so as I explored how the narrative itself could be this shape, I began to think, What if also words had different colors? In this way you could, with just a glance, know where the characters were. For example, let’s say if one character was always tangerine, then if that little fleck of tangerine appeared in another section, you’d know you could find him in that scene—let’s call him Count Stereo McEderal in deference to this piece of technology before me. (Points to digital recorder.) I remember that had a guiding power to it, and it wasn’t derived merely out of a whimsy for font or even a whimsy out of the creation of this libretto that never took place in Central Park, that I never finished (it was far too ambitious). It was no doubt influenced by the museums that I was walking through, and all those paintings and incredible architectural structures, and understanding the history of all of it—the engineering complexities, the material requirements of those canvases that I was lucky enough to see at the Prado, or the Louvre, or the Uffizi. What is fascinating, and I still hold to this, is that our aesthetic development doesn’t always require a well-delineated lineage of ideas and experiences that you’re aware of at that time. Just exposing yourself constantly to cultural events and happenings begins to create a compost, if you will, of ground out of which things—specific things that are particular to you, that you know and do not know about yet—can finally grow. Which is to say that at that moment I thought I was creating an opera, when what I was concretizing for myself was the importance of the shape of text, even the shape of my own handwriting.

Handwriting … this is an aside, maybe a footnote, a jagged piece of text softening and spiraling away. The hand, this personal shape and signature, is actually very important in The Fifty Year Sword: five orphans, five fingers, the personalizing hand, our personality in all that it can and cannot do … Did you know there are speculations that the opposable thumb is partly responsible for the way our mind is organized? That some language instincts are a tangential result of all the neural programming necessary to calculate a reach, a grasp, the ability to manipulate objects, all in turn possibly enabling us to manipulate abstract objects in our minds? (See Frank R. Wilson’s The Hand: How Its Use Shapes the Brain, Language, and Human Culture.)

The notion that I had in Greece, in Athens, when I was wrestling with image and the sort of linear path that language must take—that music must take—was to seek out a way to also subitize novels. Subitize means that you count without counting, so if we look at the side of a die and it has five dots on it, we don’t need to count. We recognize immediately by the shape that it’s five—we subitize. We want to be able to subitize information, because it’s quicker. The image taunts us with this possibility. Language … there’s no one who looks at a thousand-page novel and doesn’t go, That’s a lot of work to get through! If only I could subitize that. At the same time, we frequently look at a very dense painting, say, The Last Supper, and thinkwe know it, when in fact we haven’t seen it all. We go, Ah yeah, it’s a bunch of people eating dinner, and there’s someone who’s important at the center. But if we take the time, we begin to see something else, we begin to realize how much of it has been carefully calibrated, and to what effect, designed to create an aesthetic and emotional communication. For many this may be dismaying because some paintings we still need to read with the focus and diligence that we would give to a thousand-page book.

I’ll add this: one of the great things about text is that it’s much more difficult to cheat.

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Interior from deluxe 2012 edition of The Fifty Year Sword.

CO Well, the cheat is at the center of some really great pieces; Barry Lyndon being the first and foremost unreliable narrator. You’ve given great service to the responsible narrator, or the responsible character, and yet a couple of different disparate readings of the The Fifty Year Sword might take the whole story from the realm of the supernatural to it being a matter of Chintana’s internal ravings, emotional turmoil, and ill-wishes toward her antagonist. It’s arguably all in her head.

MZD You’re a very keen reader, Chris, and, you know, without divulging too much … yes, there is a reality there. You’re cued from the beginning that this story has been reassembled, that bits have been taken out of context and stitched together, but that maybe it’s necessary to do just that in order to create a narrative, however fantastical it may seem, that compresses a lot of information, a lot of emotional pains and pleasures, which enables us to subitize something that is far too complex to access readily. I find this especially present in the fantastical: a house that’s bigger on the inside than the outside in House of Leaves, two 16-year-olds who never age in Only Revolutions, a blade that visits its severing consequences on the victim’s 50th birthday in The Fifty Year Sword. Such strangeness compresses a great deal of information and, at least in theory, allows the reader to quickly access the emotional and informative content of the novella, which may not be so fantastical after all.

Of course it’s tricky. The fantastical can lead people astray and that’s not the point. The point is to grant a distillation of a lifetime, which can be learned from and even enjoyed in a fraction of a lifetime. A simple example might be a pill that renders a certain ailment no longer active. This is, for the layperson, a green little thing with a little indentation, perhaps stamped with a number. We pop it under our tongue and suddenly we are relieved of pain and distress, or of a bacteria that 100 years ago would have killed us. Yet think of the complexity, not just of the chemical properties but the industrial requirements that go into manufacturing those chemical components. Think of the individuals and the history of people who have slowly developed all of this science to create this tablet. The same should be true of literature. There is a great deal of knowledge that is brought to bear and eventually concretized within the confines of a very small package. In this sense, 20 hours, 100 hours, or even 2,000 hours is not a huge amount to ask of a reader, if what is given in return are lifetimes.

CO That’s a great image because the creation of the pill involves not only the chemical parts but also all the various permutations of the pill that didn’t get made. The inherent effects and side effects, the universal knowledge of the human body, a wide cross section of potential patients, etcetera—all of this is in the pill.

MZD Oh, that is so beautiful because what we’re talking about is that every pill, every book, every musical composition is also a nonmusical composition, a nonbook, a nonpill. It’s all those things that didn’t come to fruition. It reminds me of a Hebraic saying that I learned from Harold Bloom: “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

You and I have been working steadily on the original score for The Fifty Year Sword, a book that you’ve read closely numerous times. You’ve also read House of Leaves and Only Revolutions closely. How do you experience this interaction between words that you know well and notes always escaping the cage of words?

CO You know, the only instrument that I know is the piano, yet there are so many parts of The Fifty Year Sword that sound like they need more than the piano or musical instruments. It’s a matter of necessity dictating what elements and what means will be used to get atmospheres or effects—that has led to a lot of altering of found objects, sound-wise. I mean, there’s quite a lot of the piece that has piano-generated sounds in the background; other instances are sound files that I’ve manipulated. “The Forest of Falling Notes,” for example, necessitated utilizing digital means of creating that cascading sound sense; using synthesizers with pitch-bend capability and then layering that with live manipulation of the piano strings in a similar cascade, like a blues guitarist using a slide.

MZD You’re not revealing the multitude of soundscapes that you’ve created out of that instrument. But I am curious, as someone who reads a great deal—and there are many artists who are silent, they study painting and they don’t read books, or they study music and they don’t see paintings, or they read books and they don’t pay a lot of attention to the visual arts—what do you find is the relationship between text and music?

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Detail from deluxe 2012 edition of The Fifty Year Sword.

CO I think it depends on the writer. I find some writers very musical, and there are some that are mystifyingly a-musical. My biggest frustration in life is that one of my favorite writers, Vladimir Nabokov, really hated music. When you read his books knowing that, you hear absolute desolation.

MZD So when you read Nabokov, you don’t hear music?

CO What should I be hearing?

MZD Chris, I feel the same way.

CO Oh good, glad to hear that.

MZD It’s lovely because I know so many writers who just adore Nabokov. Let’s put adoring aside—

CO No, let’s go with adore. I’ll tell you who the other least musical writer is, except he had one great musical moment: David Foster Wallace. Totally, completely a-musical. Except for the hit squad that shows up at the end of Infinite Jest. The hit man’s boom box plays the lone isolated track of Linda McCartney singing backup and playing tambourine in Wings. It’s not a happy singularity. There’s a fragility and embarrassing ineptness, which in Wallace’s hands becomes a symbol of simultaneous disconnectedness and passion (the single voice, though part of a larger, more passionate whole stripped and abandoned in the present isolated context), bitter irony, and a fragile yet sincere and empathic acknowledgement of frailty and futility. It’s just devastating—it gives me chills even to talk about it now.

MZD Can we at least grant David Foster Wallace a Glassian tonality of iterations and reiterations? There is a kind of urban music that rolls through his work.

CO Here’s a quick relation of music and text: There are many plot-driven writers. For instance, I’m reading Alan Glynn’s Bloodlands—he did The Dark Fields, which was made into Limitless, the movie about raindrops. It’s a political crime novel, so it’s set up so that there are four different strands, not divided by chapters, which interweave within one chapter. That is totally, I wouldn’t even say Bachian, but Beethovenian, more instilled with human characteristics. David Foster Wallace is a similarly contrapuntal writer, so his asides are fugues in themselves. They’re really rich.

MZD Well, what would you say is the musicality of Pynchon or Bolaño?

CO That’s more colloquial. Pynchon writes a lot of Tin Pan Alley tunes throughout Gravity’s Rainbow and other novels. So he’s a music hall addict. Bolaño has a similar care toward illuminating the atmosphere of a given scene but usually more cinematically than musically.

MZD Pynchon does have a great ear. You can feel symphonic passages; whether or not you’ve managed to grasp an understanding of the section, you sense a resolution or a pointed lack of resolution. He’s a very sophisticated musical writer. And I do want to get back to Nabokov, because it’s always been one of my problems. (laughter) I know so many authors who will laud him, Zadie Smith to name just one. Make no mistake: his skill is a pleasure to me, his intelligence. I think back to when I was young and I was reading Lolita and Invitation to a Beheading. I’m always struck by how much I enjoyed reading Nabokov, yet I have always found in his verbal brickwork a lack of music—

CO Well Pale Fire should have been music. It was poetry, but—

MZD Pale Fire is wretched. The “music” is so painful to me. Only because of its alliterations and tidy little syllabic moves does it somehow manage to accomplish something “poetic” without offering up a tic of music. Then again maybe Nabokov is in the spirit of H.D.—whom I do find musical—a kind of imagist. Perhaps my desire to hear music in Nabokov is unfair to him; the acute lepidopterist that he was, he was aware very much of image, and that was what he was netting with words. Then again, the painters whom I love created music. You may not think much of Rothko, but there are these powerful notes and broad measures that ring through you when you behold his work.

CO Well, you know, Morton Feldman wrote a whole piece based on the Rothko Chapel in Houston.

MZD You know Chris, let me confess something: sometimes I question the entire project of writing. I’ve talked here about refusing to choose between image and text but maybe I’m the one repressing an even earlier decision when I faced another fork in the path: to write notes or to write without notes. Maybe all my novels are not novels at all but sonatas and fugues, symphonies without strings, trying to find their way back to a language that leaves them uncaged.

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Originally published in

BOMB 122, Winter 2013

Featuring interviews with David Lang, Oscar Murillo, Rude Mechanicals, Cristian Mungiu, Mark Z. Danielewski, Fanny Howe, Alix Pearlstein, and Tony Feher.

Read the issue
BOMB 122