Writing Should Be a Continued Exploration
Mark Z. Danielewski discusses how the interplay of words and images can open up new ways of perceiving both literature and the world.
By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Karl Ove Knausgaard, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.
Some books teach you how to read them as you go. When I spoke to Mark Z. Danielewski—whose bestselling 2000 debut, House of Leaves, used a meta, multi-stranded narrative to lure the reader inside a shapeshifting haunted house—we discussed Richard McGuire’s Here, a graphic novel that employs a unique visual language to show a single plot of land changing over thousands of years. We discussed Danielewski’s attraction to books that invent their own narrative grammar, and why he’s committed to writing books that combine image and text without privileging either.
Danielewski’s latest project is a whopping, 27-volume series called The Familiar, of which the first volume, One Rainy Day in May, comes out Tuesday. The book is a visual feast, and no two pages look alike. Throughout, Danielewski blurs the line between text and image, with full-spread illustrations made up of tiny letters. Images and epigraphs abound. There are nine narrators, each with a unique font and color-coded quick-reference tab. And Narcons—a fleet of artificially intelligent robots that serve as the book’s “objective” narrative device—butt in with factual asides. On the surface, the plot is simple—an epileptic 12-year-old named Xanther goes to buy a family pet and comes home with a creature we suspect is very dangerous. But as the narration stretches from Los Angeles to Singapore to Venice, Italy, there’s something else at stake: Danielewski wants to show the awesome, terrifying scale of a single earthly day.
Danielewski’s previous novel, Only Revolutions, was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award. He lives in Los Angeles and spoke to me by phone.
Mark Z. Danielewski: Here is one of those books that just kept murmuring to me in the background. After I published my Only Revolutions—which features two teenagers moving through two hundred years of time—people kept mentioning this 1988 strip by Richard McGuire. I remember filing it away in my mind somewhere. Oh, that’s an interesting idea: being, as a reader, localized in one place and yet accelerating through an enormous amount of time.
Then Here, the book version, was published, and I started to hear from friends. I got a text from Gus Van Sant asking me if I’d read this book. I asked him what he was talking about, and he told me all about it, but I was in the middle of something and promptly forgot the conversation and went about on my merry way. Then I was in the offices of Pantheon, talking with Andy Hughes about various production details—and he started talking about Here.
It was at this moment that I just felt sort of embarrassed—the sense of shame you get when you know you should have read something a long time ago.
So I started to read. And when I realized how rapidly I was moving through it, I purposefully stopped. I understood that I could swallow this whole thing at once, so I decided to only read 10 pages a day. It became this slow, incredibly enjoyable experience for me. In the midst of the enormous amount of stress that goes with not only preparing Volume I [of The Familiar] and finishing Volume II, I found I could lose myself. I could transpose myself into the same place and a different place, and I loved sitting on the couch reading and looking out the window, imagining a kind of similar historical logic to everything around me.
I’d describe the book as looking at a corner of a room and imagining all that took place there, whether it was the year 1553 or 1203 or 500,000 B.C. or 1955 or 2015 or 2315. Inset panes open up inside the room allowing us glimpses into what was happening in that very spot years ago, or years from now. The corner is also materialized by McGuire’s placing it almost always in the center of the spread: Since we usually hold a book so its pages are at an angle, we physically create the room’s walls when we open the book. We create physically that experience of this dead-end corner, and yet through it we not only open up the room of the book itself, but also see through the book into the wider world. And I think Here is very much about that. As much as it materializes opacity, it constantly pushes towards transparency—windows, and mirrors, and panes through which to look.
It’s very much like music in that you can quote music in terms of its melodies or its themes, but in order to really appreciate certain passages you need to experience them in context:
I’d call this excerpt the arrow passage. It starts with a Native American man hunched behind a large log or rock, getting ready to fire an arrow—presumably at prey. Then over the next few pages, we track this arrow as it flies through space. As it moves from left to right across the page, this arrow is also moving through time and space in a linear fashion. So it’s this unifying idea of directionality, of temporality—but at the same time, there’s a sense of humor about it because, as the arrow floats across the page, we’re also privileged with glimpses at what it looks like in 3,500,000 B.C., or 1870, and 1920, while children play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.
On every page, there are all these visual echoes going on. The pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game and the arrow seeking its mark. The deer (presumably) being shot at, the deer being hung on the wall. In fact at the end of this sequence the taxidermy replaces a clock—an interesting comment on time itself.
Concurrently, you have this Native American woman in 1352, approaching a lake. And instead of being transfixed by her image in the water, she dives in—the water isn’t a reflective surface, it’s something to plunge into, through. That’s what the book as a whole is constantly refiguring: As much as we can find our reflections in these panes, we can also dive into them, past them. That’s the potency of Here—a room is far more than the walls we’ve built; it’s a here and now alive with transcendent echoes of a world that’s constantly and continuously changing.
This section has no words:
It’s a woman standing at the window. She may have just closed the window, she may be about to open it. There are no curtains. It’s all in 2014. And we see her shadow cast across the fireplace. In the middle, going across the spread is this beautiful pane that just shows the forest and stream and again there’s this little bit of reflection in the water, inviting us to look beneath it but at the same time denying us. Our bodies cast a shadow, but nature doesn’t—instead, it throws light. That idea is constantly in this book: The natural world casts light on where we are, and who we are, and what we’re becoming, and what we’ve been.
I love the wordlessness of it all, which may be a strange thing for a novelist to be saying. And yet I still find that there is a kind of textuality to it. I feel like there are sentences here, they’re just written out in a language that we’re not yet familiar with. Or we’re intimately familiar with, we just don’t recognize it yet as a language. The experience of the book is that, as you move through these images, you begin to understand there is a syntax. There is a grammar, and as we start to become fluent in it, we behold the world in a greater way.
I love texts that confront us with new grammar in this fashion, teaching us new ways to read and interpret as we go. I mean, we still don’t know how to read the world we’re in. We’re surrounded by a vast, nuanced, complicated text—our universe—and so any work that challenges us to open up the way we perceive things is something I adore. And Here is one book I adore all the way from its concept to its enactment.
What draws me is the dance between the visual and the textual. I don’t think I’m unusual in that way. Developments in the 60s and 70s started making it easier to access colors and different fonts, and things that were always so out of reach were suddenly in everyone’s hands, and I am one of many writers who found that very exciting. School taught us that these are things we can’t do—we have to scribble within the boxes, write cursive on lines—and yet suddenly new technologies enabled us to return to that place before school, when we could draw beyond the boundaries with colored pencils and pens. I was fortunate to be born in a time of such advancements, as well as somehow personally afflicted with a willful orneriness that said—I’m not going to give up writing this way, or exploring this way. The fruits lie before you. Eat if you dare.
People over the years have constantly asked me if I’m a postmodern writer, or a deconstructionist writer, or whatever phrase was at hand. I finally decided I would invent a terminology myself: I describe my work as “signiconic,” which is a word that combines “sign” and “icon.” What signiconic writing does is embrace the possibility of engaging the mind not only on a visual level but on a linguistic level as well, and at the same time, without ever letting either side claim dominance. We can be completely immersed in text. And we can be completely intoxicated by the visual—whether it’s a television screen or an Instagram feed. But by engaging both at the same time, you destabilize both sides, and open the mind up to many other perceptions—even a third perception, if you will. My exploration is with how text and image can approach this place where both of them kind of fall away, allowing the reader to begin to sense a world beyond our purely retinal limitations or our syntactical, synaptic limitations.
At some point I made a choice that my writing would be a journey, an adventure, a continued exploration. Whatever repetitions took place, they would be through the reiterations of my own evolving (or devolving) mind and body. When I finished House of Leaves I had to ask myself: Do I want to stay here? Is this where I live? Is this the territory that I staked out and I’m going to stay within? No, I decided I wanted to move further out. House of Leaves, for me, had a very personal and limited feel—much of it reflecting the experiences of a young man in his twenties, my experience in academia, the books I’d read. Since then, I’ve found my work has moved outside of myself into the struggles of others.
Part of what makes Here so enjoyable is that the perspective is always unified—the view of these various slivers of time is always the same. We aren’t confused by the psychology of the inhabitants, we aren’t forced to see things from the perspective of people or the animals or the plants. It elevates us to a state of godhood, in a way. We can go from 300 million years ago to deep into the future—and we survive it. Our perspective doesn’t change. In The Familiar, I was interested in almost the opposite experience: There, our self is not preserved. In fact, our self is probably under assault. We aren’t granted our own autonomy. We have to filter through the prejudices of one character, the illiteracy of another, the hyper-literacy of another. In Here, you and I and strangers alike will perceive the boundaries of this structure. But in The Familiar, biased individual points of view shape everything encountered.
In The Familiar, I want to look at the vast differences of how we speak to one another, the way we represent the world to ourselves through our various linguistic tricks and errors. People have different vocabularies. They have different cadences. They have perspectives that can be extreme. How do those figures begin to shape a world in an ensemble? As we begin to lose that sense that we have a right to privilege one kind of linguistic approach over another, the whole structure starts to wobble. And it goes beyond the diversity of human beings—what do we do with those creatures that will never have a voice like we demand a voice? Where is that silent partner that we see in trees, or in insects, or in a simple cat? Because animals, and natural systems, do have their own language, in a way—just not one with the verbal accentuations that we have. How might we channel the voice of an animal, or an entire ecosystem?
It’s easy for any mode of writing to calcify into received tradition. When we come across something that works, we repeat it, and ultimately institutionalize it—even though it might come at the expense of other things that might be witnessed or participated in. But one of the joys of literature is that we can always push back against established ways of speaking and seeing—and nothing has to be blown up. No one has to be dispensed with. Huge tracts of land don’t have to be obliterated. By means of these fragile panes of paper, or lighted technological tablets, we start to mingle with other possibilities.