Revolution 2: An Interview with Mark Z. Danielewski

Revolution 2: An Interview with Mark Z. Danielewski

Kiki Benzon

Kiki Benzon and Mark Z. Danielewski discuss his 2006 book Only Revolutions at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto.

You won’t be using your bookchair, but you might want to fire up the turntable. That’s because Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions (Pantheon, 2006) demands a certain amount of physical maneuvering - rotation, to be precise - in order to grasp the two narratives that are juxtaposed and inverted on each page. The reader turns the book like a steering wheel, alternating between Sam’s story, which begins at one end and spans the years from 1863 to 1963, and Hailey’s story, which begins at the other end and runs from 1963 to 2063. The converging, upside-down narratives become progressively smaller typographically, rally numerous fonts, and thematically intertwine despite the years that separate them. Adding to the textual collage are lists of historical events, which line the inner margins and roughly correspond to the dates of the main narrative entries. Sam and Hailey are lovers, “allways sixteen,” and spend 200 years zooming around America in a Model T, a Mustang, a Porsche, a Geo Metro, and a Toyota. The perennial teens go to parties, hospitals, diners, mountains - ever conscious of a threatening force that is referred to only as “the peril pursuing US.” Their narratives - 180 words per page for 360 pages - are lyrical, audacious, whirling, paranoid, and urgent. Both narratives are launched by the epigraph “You were there,” suggesting the reader’s complicity in Sam and Hailey’s spiraling quest.

In Only Revolutions, which was short-listed for the National Book Award, Danielewski continues an experiment in visual textuality that he began in House of Leaves (2000), a monstrous academic-cum-biographical “report” about a documentary filmmaker, a tattoo-parlor assistant, and a physically impossible house. But while the structural and pictographic elements in House of Leaves are wildly unsystematic - the work is a commotion of poems, letters, interview transcripts, distorted/inverted phrases, footnotes, drawings, and medical reports - Only Revolutions presents a much more regulated and refined formal system. In short - there is a system, an unbending order in the novel’s pagination, word count, colour scheme, and general layout. There are bookmarks: yellow for Hailey, green for Sam. And the formal changes that do occur (like the diminishing font size) happen at a fixed rate - as unassailable as 2Πr itself. What is volatile, whimsical, and untethered in this otherwise regimented format is the story of Sam and Hailey, whose lurches, gasps, and poetic unlogic continually pummel the established framework from within. In pushing the thresholds of language and form, Only Revolutions recalls the works of Ginsberg, Cortazar, Borges, and Joyce. But there is also something of Sonic Youth here, the White Stripes video for “The Hardest Button to Button,” Griffin and Sabine - had they carried out the correspondence on crystal meth.

In October, 2006, Danielewski read from Only Revolutions at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. I spoke with him at the Westin Harbourfront Castle.

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Kiki Benzon: Do you find there’s something odd about live readings? Do you like performing your work?

Mark Z. Danielewski: It varies. Sometimes it’s very strange. I joke that it’s like coming to watch a boxer play chess. Or better: a chess player get boxed. Because you’re coming to watch someone do something that they don’t do. It’s a totally different hat: I’m reading. Fortunately, I do come from a theatrical background. My father was a filmmaker. My mother was an aspiring actress when she met my father. I’ve been always surrounded by performers and the professionalism of that. But it’s not writing.

KB: It’s a totally different space, with different expectations.

MZD: When I’m writing I’m in a totally different world. It’s solitary. The muses are talking or not talking. There’s lightening. That’s where I’m at; that’s what I do. Doing this is ancillary. It’s the dog and pony show. But I do understand in a way that, as much as I’ve just painted a picture of how disconnected they are, with this book in particular [Only Revolutions], there is a music to it. And I think primarily my influences and my attentions are to music. My sister’s a musician. My father was an amazing singer, you know. There’s a lot of musicians that are in my family. There are a lot of friends of mine who are musicians, some incredible composers who put together symphonies. And in many ways when I was writing this, and House of Leaves, there was this musical element.

KB: That’s clear. You speak of symphonies - highly formalized, rigid structures, within which you get lyrical movement. This book is so much more constrained by the parameters you set up than, say, House of Leaves. There are only so many words per page; there are the symmetries, the increasing and decreasing narratives. The constraints govern the narrative - as in Ouplipo. In writing Only Revolutions, did you establish a structure before you worked within it, or did the structure and content evolve simultaneously?

MZD: Simultaneously. The thing about Oulipo, as much as I admire the work, it tends to be about the constraint. It’s almost like alcoholic writing: it tends to be about the drug, you know. It’s deQuincey’s opium, it’s Kerouac’s benzedrine, it’s Fitzgerald’s booze. They tend to be about that liberating substance, whereas Oulipo tends to be about that constraint.

KB: I used the word “gimmick” once and caught heck from another reviewer.

MZD: I would love to hear your thoughts about what is a gimmick, because it’s still something that doesn’t make sense to me. I guess if it is for its own purpose - if it’s only green so that it is green, and attracts attention, I guess it’s gimmicky. I don’t really know.

KB: Apart from its structural intricacies, then - what is Only Revolutions about?

MZD: At the heart of it are these two kids. They were two kids that I came across. They were impertinent, they were courageous, they were penniless, and most important, they were parentless. They were without anybody. They were sitting on a corner begging for change. And they loved each other. They held onto each other, they looked after each other, they lusted after each other they protected each other. They were each other’s world. And the fact that they were without anything was so inspiring. Because they were bold. Maybe they were Homeric gods in disguise. Maybe they truly were Mendicants. But there was something magical about them for me - that absolute attachment to each other. And I looked at them as kind of American Romeo and Juliet. But later I realized that they really weren’t - because they didn’t have the Capulets and the Montagues out there to separate them, to chase them. There’s Bonnie and Clyde, Natural Born Killers. They have the law - they have Harvey Keitel - there’s someone who pursues them. These two are unpursued. So, you know, for me what became interesting was that ongoing discussion, meditation if you will, exploration about freedom and love. Because freedom is ultimately the quest from anything - to be unrestrained by your circumstances, by your society, by even your own body - whereas love is all about attachment. It’s all about the involvement with someone else, which is the opposite of freedom. And yet love allows you to transcend certain things. So, as I was working on this book - and now this is getting back to your question - I realized that I wanted to set them up in a way where they were constrained, they were limited, because their entire quest is how to free themselves.

KB: It’s like Sartre’s notion of freedom and facticity: there’s no such thing as freedom without factical things to be free against.

MZD: Yes, so the word component - the number of words, the structural component - is only part of it. Their freedom is from nature, from society, from work, the road system - you can go through the whole book and start to see all these thematics, add then you can add to that the freedom from -

KB: Time -

MZD: Time, the freedom from history, the freedom from the number of pages there are, the number of words there are. All of these are chains that bind them, which they’re constantly trying to get out of.

KB: That makes sense in terms of the unyielding structure of Only Revolutions, compared to a book like House of Leaves, where it seems - and this might be one of the problems with it - that it is too free. But then it has an amorphousness that speaks to the amorphousness of identity -

MZD: I see House of Leaves as a journeyman’s piece. It’s very connected to the authors I studied, whether it was Borges or Nabokov, Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath, whether it was Bukowski, Fuentes or Kerouac. There are all sorts of obvious predecessors to it. There’s a lot of classical stuff and litcrit in there. But for me it was a synthesis of all that. Only Revolutions is different. It goes beyond what you can anticipate in academia. It requires a new kind of nomenclature, I think, to address it. It asks a lot of the readers. But it’s a much more refined piece, a lot more work went into it. It’s a lot scarier, when you get into its depths, than House of Leaves is.

KB:. It has a fugal quality.

MZD: Great. Bach was so necessary for this book.

KB: Especially if you imagine, the voices are simultaneously active. You’re engaged with the diminished voice, and the main one, then historical chorus -

MZD: And another kind of fugal, because there are four moments of history existing at the same spot on the same page. But you’re absolutely right.

KB: So maybe the language is there.

MZD: But as you’re drawing on music, which is great place to start, there’s also the language of art, the formal language of how you look at composition on a single plane, how things are juxtaposed, etc. Usually you don’t have to deal with that, so people who write about books aren’t necessarily familiar with the language of composition. For instance: fonts with serif, versus fonts next to sans serif, and the size and shift of those. And there is a language of juxtaposition, parataxis if you want.

KB: The typography itself: you’d have to know something about it.

MZD: And how the colors work, how they’re related, their symbolic history. You’re asking for an access to a multiplicity of vocabularies. Maybe you’re right, maybe music is the key. But I always joked that it is a quantum book. The first word of Sam is related to the first word of Hailey, which is related to the last word of Sam and the last word of Hailey.

KB:. So geometry is important as well. And the narrative as a “quantum” system. Having the right “nomenclature,” as you say, to access the various meanings of Only Revolutions requires a certain interdisciplinary knowledge. Do you see that the novel right now, one of its demands - one of its functions, even - is to erode the boundaries between supposedly discrete areas of learning?

MZD: I’m going to answer that question twice. The first answer would be I don’t know. I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on what the novel is and trying to place that. In many ways I feel like that’s your job. And it’s an exciting job. There’s a way of evaluating this in a larger stream of events, in a larger range of comparison, and developing new words, and it’s very exciting. It’s where academia has a place. If you’re just parodying what Derrida said, or what Lacan said, or the Marxists vocabulary, then you’re just kind of a drone, you’re having a miserable life, making the same old honey.

KB: Yeah, you’re a jargon mill.

MZD: But if you’re actually coming up with your own jargon, your own structure, then you’re presenting a new hive to the world, and it’s exciting. And it’s exciting for me: I mean, I love reading stuff from the academic world that embraces all of this stuff. I don’t think that way, though. And now to answer your question a second time. I really try to focus on what I love. It’s how quantum science was invented, how quantum mathematics and physics were seeing. Those theoreticians, Planck for example, decided they would look at the world the way it was - not the way the formulas set it up. They would just go back again to the beginning and see the way the world was for them, right? And for me I can look at the novels and the way novels have been criticized, and I can base my writing on those writings.

KB: Or against them.

MZD: Or against them. But then it gets to be like an undergrad who’s relying totally on secondary sources. So my feeling was, I’m going to read all that stuff, but now I’m going to go out into the world and see what I see there.

KB: And let it germinate for itself.

MZD: Yeah. And I hear things out there. I hear things. I hear music, and I see movies, and I see theatrical work and performance art. I see amazing pieces, whether it’s or Bjork or Matthew Barney, or whoever the hell you want to name. Goldsworthy or Durrell. I see things and I feel things. And I talk to people. And so then I try to put that into a book. This is getting back a little to the House of Leaves comparison. House of Leaves is what I would call a centripetal book. It’s about interiorities and history and progeny and ancestors. Now this [Only Revolutions] was pointedly a centrifugal novel. It was about getting outside. It was about looking at landscape. It was about addressing what the open was. It was about - not only an academic level - reading Agamben’s “The Open” and readdressing what Heidegger was talking about with “the open.” Looking at the naturalists, looking at ecocriticism. It was also about physically living that role, personally saying, “Mark, you have to get out of the house. You have to go talk to people about what it was like to be sixteen, and talk to them about their experience of history.” Addressing the online community and saying, “Hey, give me your input here: what was your favourite historical moment?” So it’s not just my personal history, but histories that go beyond what I can perceive when I’m looking at thousands of books.

KB: That brings up a question about the individual and the community. There’s a problem with groups, with family, for example, in your fiction: in House of Leaves you have Pelafina, Truant’s parents, the Navidson clan, the Minotaur myth. Families are fractured and guilt-ridden and implosive. Characters are alone, turned in on themselves. One finds a kind of solipsism there - in Navidson suspended at the center of the house, Zampanò just dying alone, blind. Are there communities, or simply collections of individuals?

MZD: It’s hard. This heads into tricky territory. I won’t interpret my own works, I mean I’ll kind of get into some of it. The observations you’ve made are not unfounded, and yet at the same time, there is a counterpoint to that separation in House of Leaves. Not “snapping” but “spanning.” Where Pelafina’s voice ultimately comes across to reassure Johnny through her letters -

KB: It’s a transcendence -

MZD: That becomes a transcendence. He realizes that he has the strength to get out of the house. He’s no longer a footnote; he finds his voice. He actually, for the first time, has a chapter of his own in the book. And even: one of the words, the rope that Navidson uses to bind himself to the surface snaps, and you literally see the word “snaps” - s n a p s across two pages. But if you read it the reverse way, which is allowed because of the way the letters are positioned, then it’s “spans.” What you’re pointing out, I think, is more of a tension in House of Leaves, of things that snap - these relationships - but at the same time, they span. And, interestingly enough, that is part of Only Revolutions. That is part of the dilemma. Like I was saying earlier - the exploration of freedom versus love. Freedom is taken to its nihilistic extreme - ultimately, absenting yourself from everything, cutting yourself off from everything, so you are without attachment. Freedom to its extreme. And I’m not talking about freedom that is nuanced by, say, the American constitution, or the American founding fathers’ desire for freedom in the name of the pursuit of happiness. I’m just talking about if you are free from everything, you are free not to eat or drink anymore, etc, whereas love is about attachment. So it’s how these two things work.

KB: And yet in this novel, they’re working in concert. This could not be a novel about one person. There must be a dyad. And so the love, if it is attachment, is also the means to freedom for them.

MZD: Absolutely. That’s its transcendent quality. It’s through love that you have the greatest amount of freedom. You need attachment.

KB: You know Arcade Fire?

MZD: Uh-huh.

KB: You know the first song on Funeral - “Tunnels”? It reminds me a lot of this book.

MZD: You know, someone just told me that! I have to go and listen to it. I haven’t heard that song since it came out.

KB: It shares that sense of disenchanted youth, ditching the built world - like, let’s get out of this confinement, Thoreau kind of thing. Seems to be a theme working its way in from the fringes.

MZD: And looking for real sources of empowerment, real sources of freedom. Not simply becoming part of the rock-n-roll revolution, which has already been corporatized by these cannibalistic groups that orchestrate and entangle teens, sell them this idea that they’re liberating themselves.

KB: Punkwear at the Gap.

MZD: Exactly.

KB: Commodifying the rogue.

MZD: What’s the album again?

KB: Funeral. “If my parents are crying, then I’ll dig a tunnel from my window to yours. / You climb out the chimney, meet me in the middle of the town. / We’ll let our hair grow long and forget all we used to know… “

MZD: So strange that you’re the second person that’s mentioned this song to me.

KB: You’ve become something of a spokesperson for disenfranchised, non-party-line youth. Sam and Hailey, perennially sixteen, and Truant, a maverick Gen-Xer. Why are you interested in the experience of young people?

MZD: That’s a great question. I don’t have a really satisfying answer for you, or even for myself. I can give you little fragments that at some point might make sense to you, or to me. On a personal level, in Los Angeles, we get these pictures in the mail, these slips of paper in this pale blue ink, and they have pictures of missing children. And they have the dates when they were last seen, you know. And I can’t throw them away. I have a big box full of them. So there’s an attachment there. Obviously, there’s something that has to do with, probably, my own youth, something that’s unresolved. And there’s something that I know I inherit from my parents, who, on the negative side of things, were narcissistic, sensualistic, self-indulgent. But on a positive side, they were very open-minded, very youthful. They never got staid. My father was willing at the age of 70 to take up a new sport and listen to new music, and if he were alive today he would have an iPod. I certainly have to recognize that a part of me is shaped by the culture I live in, the United States.

KB: And L.A.?

MZD: Well, we’ll get to that. But you know, the United States is so youth-driven. Its marketing, all its commercial angles are about youth. And certainly, Los Angeles is even more about that. But there is, again, on a positive side, remaining youthful in our sentiments, our openness.

KB: In reactionary-ness.

MZD: Yeah. The thing that’s interesting is that House of Leaves has become part of that angst-driven youth element. But as much as this is about adolescence, it’s also - and this is what people are starting to bring to me now - it’s about the death of adolescence. It’s a conscious meditation on the United States - its state of adolescence, its unwillingness to look outside of itself. And while Sam and Hailey are pursuing the finality of their journey, we see animals dying on the road, plants falling, petrifying, and rotting. Ultimately, they’re heading towards a mountain, which is ice and the bones of everything else around there. And certainly there’s a critique going on on a political level of a narcissistic lack of awareness that a very adolescent country is currently enacting.

KB: And so at the beginning - or one of the beginnings of the book - for example, there’s Dealey Plaza and the assassination: the death of that president being like the death of adolescence, youth.

MZD: Yeah, and of course, that’s the beginning of Hailey, but it’s also the end of Sam. And not just Kennedy, but his administration, which was described as Camelot, everlasting - you know the corny musical - a place that never changes, where all the seasons are just right. And the further you get into the book, you understand.

KB: I want to ask you about how you see technology now - the accessibility of new forms, new strategies for narrative - how does this impinge upon the novel? Does it have to adapt, given the changing environment?

MZD: That’s a question for you and I would be fascinated to know what you think.

KB: Well, this novel, Only Revolutions, is a mutant. It’s a new phylum. If we’re talking a kind of Darwinian “which species of mediation will survive?” then it seems that a certain kind of “novel” is being selected out. What’s emerging is something of an aggregate. Like House of Leaves, with its emulation of different forms - film, hypertext, and so forth.

MZD: The publishing world knows it’s threatened by all this multimedia. I feel my role is not to be repetitive. My job is to write something that could not just as easily be seen on television or at the movies.

KB: Writing that does what television and film cannot do.

MZD: That’s my point. The comparison would be: what happened to painting when the camera came onto the scene? Suddenly it wasn’t about figurative representational art. It was “Let’s paint the way we feel.” So I view my books as a success if they’re offering an experience that you can’t get in other media. And that fits into your Darwinian idea. Why should a novel survive that takes several weeks to read?

KB: In other words, being sated -

MZD: Much quicker. There’s nothing wrong with quick, by the way. If it’s quick and good, that’s great. If it’s quick and bad, then that’s a problem. So here [Only Revolutions] is something that’s absolutely visual; if you look at each page, it’s like a screenplay. There’s so much action that’s taking place. At the same time, it’s impossible to visualize. Sam and Hailey are all races; they’re all shapes and colours and clothing. How would you actually film that? You can’t. But at the same time we understand who they are. Are people going to expand on that, are they going to toy with that? I don’t know. It’s a lot of work. It’s an expensive process to pour six years into something like this. A lot went by the wayside. Relationships, financial choices. As archaic as it is, with its illuminated text and its ribbons, this book could not exist without technology. Without my G5 and 23-inch screen, with two pages on the screen at one time.

KB: I was going to ask you what software you used.

MZD: Adobe InDesign CS. I had - Font Pro, I think - I had like 10,000 fonts, which is also a huge deal to manage. Online resources, certain archival things. OED online so I could race through etymologies quickly, double-check words. In the old days what do you do to find one word? You take down the two volume set, it takes you a while to find the word -

KB: With the magnifying glass -

MZD: With the magnifying glass. You know, one of the things this [Only Revolutions] resists is vision. The word “light” never appears. With the exception of some colors mentioned, it never quite paints those borders, the edges, it’s always resisting the edges.

KB: Which, again, the visual image can’t do; it’s always there.

MZD: Yeah. So the word, for instance, “spectacular” is never there, because it comes from speculare, to see. Words that are about seeing, for the most part, were taken out. I’ve been described - not as dogmatic as Oulipo - but there’s a resistance to certain things. But the resistance allows for the proliferation of other words, which is important to teenagers too, that they invent words. But going back to your question about where the novel is going, where my writing is going: I still see a vast future of possibilities with the book and with language.

KB: As in hypertext?

MZD: Absolutely. The fact is it would be nice to have a Google page in the book, so you could find out where the quotations came from. So: Mao said, “A revolution is not a dinner party” -

KB: Like footnotes but hyperlinks.

MZD: Hyperlinked, yeah.

KB: But then you wouldn’t have the “revolution” of the book in your hands, the 360° rotation that happens when you read it.

MZD: My feeling is that there is going to be a technology that will look like this book. The three dimensional quality is an experience that cannot be done away with one reading tablet. I think what’s going to happen is there are going to be pages that are as thin as this, and you can go to “A plague on both your houses” and you can click on it, and you’ll connect: “Romeo and Juliet. FDR also said it.” And suddenly you have this connected tissue.

KB: Plasma pages.

MZD: It’s still ten years away. Maybe we’ll have to sit around here and look at Only Revolutions, and it’ll have a shimmering screen or something.

KB: What have you read recently that you’ve enjoyed?

MZD: I’ve almost finished Giraffe by J.M. Ledgard, a Czechoslovakian author. It’s sumptuously written, but kind of depressing, because I know something bad is going to happen to the giraffe and I love the giraffe. I recently read Cormack McCarthy’s The Road. Reread Crime and Punishment.

KB: Do you read mainly fiction?

MZD: No. I recently read Radical Evolution, which is a science book about the future, about where we’re going, talking about texts, genetic manipulation, all sorts of things. I didn’t read this recently, but I do have to give it a plug because it was very important for Only Revolutions - Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World.

KB: What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

MZD: Cappuccino maker. A janitor, basically. I was a plumber. I was resetting toilets. I was digging ditches.

KB: I peeled potatoes.

MZD: In the summer heat I am digging ditches. I’m crawling under houses that have leaky toilet pipes. It’s falling all around me. I’ve got black widows.

KB: Was this in service of being a writer?

MZD: I always knew I was going to be a writer. I wrote my first book when I was ten. I was lucky. In fact a palm reader said it was obvious because, apparently this is my fate line. I have a fate line. Let’s see - are you right or left handed?

KB: Right-handed.

MZD: Yeah, see: you have a fate line too.

KB: What does that mean?

MZD: It just means that you know what you’re doing. But it’s pretty strong. You have this bifurcation here. Seriously, a lot of people don’t have that line at all. You must know where you’re going.

KB: Well, we’re all going to roughly the same place.

MZD: Roughly revolutions.

Lori Emerson:

Michael Boyden interviews Oulipian Harry Mathews on ebr; here Mathews traces his own engagement with constraint to 14th century and modernist composers.

Lori Emerson:

David Foster Wallace may also be said to push the thresholds of language and form, as is evident in Benzon’s ebr review of Wallace’s Oblivion.

Lori Emerson:

Further inte(re)views with novelists Harry Mathews and Lee Siegel can also be found on ebr.

Lori Emerson:

As Stephen-Paul Martin points out in his ebr review of Lance Olsen’s novel 10:01, Will Navidson, the protagonist in Danielewski’s House of Leaves, later appears as 10:01’s second character Stuart Navidson.