“The Familiar is a sprawling mess of a book, and it’s hard to find anything positive to say about it besides that it’s printed beautifully,” says Michael Schaub in his review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s long-awaited new novel for The Guardian. “But a novel that appeals chiefly to people who like to look at books rather than read them isn’t a meaningful contribution to the world of literature, and it’s hard to imagine why Danielewski would release a book so impenetrable and willfully obtuse.”
I’ve not read The Familiar – I don’t even own a copy (yet) – but reading Schaub’s highly entertaining and voluble review yesterday evening reminded me of what I did already own: a copy of Danielewski’s novella The Fifty Year Sword, purchased on impulse on my first visit to the new Foyles last year and as yet unread. It’s a fat little book – 284 pages in all – but there aren’t many words on each page (or even on all of the pages) and Mr Schaub’s review made me feel like sampling some Danielewski there and then. (Negative reviews are like that sometimes, especially when they’re as well constructed as Schaub’s and present a contentious argument – they egg me on.)
If you glance at the online reader reviews you’ll see that The Fifty Year Sword divides opinion (as it divides everything else, apparently) which is pretty much par for the course with Danielewski. Some have loved the book, revelling in Danielewski’s obsession with innovative formats (as well as the ‘stitched’ illustrations, The Fifty Year Sword utilizes a system of differently coloured quotation marks to differentiate between the – allegedly – five distinct narrators of this single story) and his everywhere-evident love of the book-as-object. Others have thrown it aside in disgust, dismissing it as a gimmick and a con, a mostly uninteresting short story tortuously stretched to ten times its natural length.
It took me a little under half an hour to read The Fifty Year Sword. Here are the notes I made (I’ve taken to doing that this year) immediately after finishing it:
I know I shouldn’t, but I loved this. So much depends on the book-as-object, that is clear, but this is also a perfect and gorgeous piece of poetry as it stands. A book from a true original. Wonderful story!
Thinking about the book again this morning – well, there you go, I’m still thinking about it. Pared back to its basics as a horror story, The Fifty Year Sword is short and simple and packs a fair punch: a woman unwillingly attends a Hallowe’en party where, to her horror, someone from her past is also present, someone she very much does not want to see. She is tempted to leave right away, but stays on out of politeness, and so as not to disappoint the children, five orphans under the care of the very old and, one supposes, very rich host. A story teller arrives, ostensibly a Hallowe’en entertainment for the children. Ancient-Mariner-like, the bard recounts his tale. The adults are sceptical, the children enthralled. A horrific, and touching, and persuasive denouement ensues.
‘Here,’ he blinked quickly at a blade at least four feet long tapering to a blunt tip. ‘This one took me three winters to make. It kills the taste of salt. The one next to it kills the smell of Wild Lupine, Blackberry Lily and lush Evening Primrose. There’ – turning to a fat blade suspended in the buzzing grey – ‘that one kills the colour green.’
Shorn of the unusual formatting and intricate illustrations, this would still be a great little story, a tale with a classic feel, rather like ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ or something similar. But it wouldn’t particularly stand out. What makes The Fifty Year Sword into something special is Danielewski’s transformation of the text into an art installation. And like most conceptual art, its success or failure depends on how far the reader – the viewer – is prepared to enter into a personal relationship with it. This is how all art functions, of course – a work that leaves you unmoved (whether to joy or to anger or to perplexity is of lesser importance) has fallen short. But in the case of Danielewski, it is not just his words you must fall in love with, but the way he has chosen to arrange them. Those coloured quotation marks – do they tempt you, even slightly, to go back through the text and read each strand of narrative in isolation, as the author has hinted you should? I’m tempted, but I haven’t done it yet – if I were writing a paper on Danielewski I suppose I’d have to. For the moment – and because the narrative works perfectly well without having to dissect it in this way – I’m content to feel intrigued that the option is there.
It should perhaps be noted at this point that The Fifty Year Sword the physical book is a beautiful artefact. It is gorgeous to hold, to weigh in your hand. The paper is of a refined and lovely quality. The illustrations – all taken from actual embroideries designed by Danielewski and stitched by Regine Gonzalez, Claire Kohne and Michele Reverte of Atelier Z – are stunning to behold. The book even has a red stitching in the binding, glimpsed periodically as you turn the pages. This book is a privilege to own, and I don’t know precisely how I feel about that. My own tendency is to believe that text should stand without adornment, that a book could and should make as much of an impression as a plainly bound ARC as it does in its sleekly jacketed finished state. But there’s also no doubt in my mind that The Fifty Year Sword the book does something to you. It reminds you of what a ‘book’ actually is, metaphorically, symbolically. It reminds you of the unique magic of turning pages. It reminds me, in particular, of how I felt when I was eight years old, turning the pages of a beautifully illustrated pop-up book of The Arabian Nights my gran used to own. Of how the book was a treasure chest, of how the stories inside were more than just the text, they were the text plus my own questions and wondering about it, the acceleration of my heartbeat when I came to the fold-out illustration of the elephant and the tiger.
If The Fifty Year Sword the book allows me to feel those things again, can that be a bad thing? Absolutely not.
I picked up Danielewski’s House of Leaves (in the old Oxford Circus branch of Borders, if you want to know) completely by chance shortly after it was published, not because I was aware of the hype surrounding it – I wasn’t online much in those days and had literally no idea the book even existed – but because it looked to me like a big fat horror novel of the kind I might enjoy and because the cover quote from Brett Easton Ellis lured me in. Since then, I have made three separate attempts to read it. each time grinding to a halt about half way through, not because I’m not enjoying it (I love what I’ve read), but because I find the book so uncomfortable to read. Not psychologically uncomfortable, but physically. The sheer heft of the volume, combined with pages and pages of text that’s too small for me to read without magnification, acres of Courier New and other fonts I find difficult, make House of Leaves something of a visual assault course. I am committed to completing it, though – next time I set out on this journey I am determined to see it through to the end. Not just because I’m stubborn, but because the imaginative landscape of this novel – lost letters, embedded texts, faded polaroid photographs, Johnny Truant, the Navidson Record, Zampano and his insane footnotes – has remained in my mind, important to me even in this, its incomplete state, a book I wish I’d thought of and dared to compile and that I feel glad exists.
There’s this thing with the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Some people look at the smears and splashes and fountains of raw colour and say: that’s just paint flung at a wall. A child could do that. They say the same of late Picasso also and it just isn’t true. To create works such as these, which appear to have been flung together in moments, Pollock and Picasso (and Joan Mitchell and wonderful Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner, who is a much better painter than her husband Jackson Pollock, in my view) had first to develop a relationship with paint, with light, with composition, that was so flexible, so felt, so much an embedded part of them that it allowed them to throw all their shit at the wall (that’s paint I’m talking about here, not literal excrement, although I’m sure some artists have conducted experiments in that direction) and make something new.
Writing demands exactitude, intent, perhaps more so than painting even. And yet so much of writing is feeling, in spite of that. Danielewski has legions of fans, readers prepared to follow him anywhere, who expend pages of thought and deductive effort trying to untangle what it is he really meant by such-and-such, what his novels stand for. He has, I would think, an equal number of anti-fans, perhaps more, people who dismiss him as an unbearable pseud and his books as so much MFA bullshit.
I feel that Danielewski has a relationship with words – with text – that lifts him beyond that. When I read his sentences I get a charge from them, the same charge I get from poetry, the sense that this writer has personally selected this or that word for a reason, that he has placed it next to another, equally specific word for a reason. That I might not immediately be able to discern that reason, or that the reason I imagine for myself is not the same reason as the artist’s, is of lesser importance.
Danielewski has his imitators, of course, and if many of the works that aspire to ‘be’ House of Leaves fall short of that ambition, it is because they are so busy in trying to imitate its surface textures that they entirely fail to grasp the most essential thing: the centrality of the author’s relationship with words. The JJ Abrams/Doug Dorst construct, ‘S’, was just that – a construct, a bunch of surface, Lost in book form. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes was just plain annoying (can’t be bothered to write anything new this year? Why not cut up one of Bruno Schulz’s books instead?) Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, a novel I had high hopes for, turned out to be all surface also, a poor copy of Danielewski’s tropes without any of his genuine weirdness or imaginative reach. Night Film does the imaginative equivalent of leading you down the rabbit hole into a shopping precinct. Dressed up in post-po-mo clothes, the actual story in Night Film is as banal and retrodden as any Monday night ITV crime drama. Night Film angered me deeply, not so much because I felt I’d been conned as because the novel broke my heart in not living up to its potential. Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Tests on the other hand I loved very much. It also has the advantage of being a novel you can read without recourse to a magnifying glass. Hall loses his nerve a bit towards the end though, doesn’t he? Putting it bluntly, Raw Shark could have done with being weirder.
I love what Danielewski does, because it is clear to me that he loves words. The weight and heft of them, the way they look on paper, the resonances they set up with the objects and feelings they represent, the harsh intimacy of their relationship with memory. The thing is, I think he means it, which makes his work, and what it’s doing, interesting to me. Am I planning to read The Familiar? I haven’t decided – there’s twenty-seven volumes of the thing, for goodness’ sake. But I do know I’m glad it’s out there. When Schaub quotes from The Familiar in his review he seeks to mock it as being sub-Joycean, rip-off Joyce, in fact:
“How to get at the whole pluvial thing, another Anwar beaut, which Xanther remembered, pluvial, because it was like this … rainstorm going Plooey! to a town, a ville, a … Plooooooeyville!”
I’m sorry, Mr Schaub, but I kind of like it. I like the idea of a rainstorm going Plooey! to a town. It’s something I can feel, and hear. It’s the sound of a downpour, and a character’s feelings about a downpour, expressed in words I’ve not seen used before, and I like that a lot. In a recent interview for The Atlantic, Danielewski said the following:
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.
I like that, too. You can read the rest of this very interesting interview here.