Pick up Mark Z. Danielewski's latest book, Only Revolutions. Open it. Odd format? You have text half way down the page and, turn the book upside down, text going the other way halfway down. And in the left margins, lists of political events. One side of the book, color coded, is marked S for Sam, and the other side is marked H for Hailey. You are asked to read eight pages, turn the book over…okay, what on earth do we have here? How am I supposed to read this odd format over breakfast or at the airport waiting for a flight?
Don’t. You’d miss too much. Because you not only read right side up and upside down, but deeper and deeper. How deep you read depends on what you bring to the book. Give it a quick three weeks and actually you’re better off near a computer so that you can Google a word or a name, because you will have questions. Why is always spelled always? Why is us always US?
Challenging? You bet. No surprise that with this second novel (his first the intriguing New York Times bestseller House of Leaves), Danielewsky was one of the five finalists for the National Book Award.
Before we begin our conversation with Mark Danielewsky, for those who have not yet read this remarkable book: On the surface, Sam and Hailey, two 16-year-olds, take a road trip across America–changing cars, having fun, having sex. Time: if you read the historical notes on the left, from the Civil War to the future. These kids? You decide who they are, what they are, where they went, what they found, and you decide the meaning of the conclusion, which is actually in the middle of the book–where each side comes together. And when the journey is over (is it ever over?), you realize you’ve read one of the important political novels of this decade.
So, saying all that, let me introduce you to Mark Z. Danielewski. Yale educated, a youthful 41, personable, easy to talk to, but…listen hard.
Clare Elfman: Okay, why so complex?
Mark Danielewski: One of the things key to both books is that, despite the importance of events as they are perceived by the reader, whether we categorize as plot points or characterizations; despite the surface mechanics of the books, the reason that they take so long to write is the great amount of effort placed on those effects that impact the reader on an unconscious level.
CE: At recent book store talks, you always begin by discussing the relationship of Hailey and Sam, these two 16-year-old kids speeding across country in their ever-changing cars, and yet, to me, this is a political novel.
MD: The politics of the novel is the key to the book. How to put this succinctly….if you were Hailey and I was Sam…we are all Hailey and Sam. At some point, we have all had this crush that takes us away from kith and kin and clan to desire the company of another…outside our family, outside our religion–an other we wish to throw our lot in with–an incoherent, irrational attraction outside of self. So what Only Revolutions concerns is that dream taken to its completion. We have all had this experience. Very few of us actually see it to its logical conclusion. We ultimately cannot see that desire to its final end.
CE: You mean this as an exploration…of what?
MD: Exploration–that longing fused with the longing which has been defined as the American Dream. The dream has to be resituated or reoriented to something that goes beyond our self-absorption, our narcissism, our denial of the rest of the world… I mean longing. The dream has the youthful quality of freedom, happiness…it’s an adolescent dream, this idea that it can, in some ways, be completed at the tit of the Statue of Liberty–the idea that there is a simplistic answer to these desires.
CE: That we tend to feel that one single thing?
MD: Right–that one leader, one lottery ticket…your longings cannot be answered by one thing… Or the psychological–the breasts, the infancy, our cries being answered by mother’s milk… Unlike Sam and Hailey, we cannot live on honesty. And we cannot propel our vehicles on the fumes of affection.
CE: What about the names of characters, the others of this book?
MD: What others is complicated. We require complex relations between others–the negotiations of value, the significance and limitations of commerce…
CE: At the last reading, you read us the conclusion…
MD: I am doing something appalling by reading the end, but as much as it reveals the tragedy that befalls them, they find themselves on a cold mountain–desolate, devoid of community, of assistance–ultimately facing the most harrowing… We cannot do it alone. And this is spoiler-ish. The middle, though they are no longer moving in their car, they are in St. Louis…or all cities. This is a place of commerce, wages, hierarchy–a somewhat malevolent and somewhat benevolent boss, flirtations with a new guy, and there are customers, relationships with the cooking staff, the city, and the river… At this point, where Sam and Hailey see each other more clearly, the other world more clearly, and in some ways it becomes…it calls into light a criticism of the nature of revolution.
CE: In fact, that is what I read in the book. I think every reader reads according to his own understanding of the world.
MD: It is affirming the social value of the community, and yet, at the same time, it does bring in the plight of urbanism–animals strangely dislocated in the scene–no fusion, yet our natural surroundings. We see certain exotic animals in zoos or gardens waning and dying. The relationship between Sam and Hailey, to their context–social or natural–is significant.
CE: Why is it that American reviews rarely mention the political nature of the book, and yet European reviews do?
MD: Americans are less aware of their historical involvement. It may be the nature of the industry. I think that the buck can still be serviced, as long as you are aware that a book requires a different marketing process–longer, more complex… We have a characterization of youthful exuberance of Sam and Hailey–their ability to fly on honey and, as I said, the fumes of their affection, and how, in the beginning, an incorporation to the rest of the world, but as they proceed, their youthful desire without evolution, without maturation, there is a greater denial at the expense of the world. Their love for each other is open to debate. Are Sam and Hailey ever in love? Or was it just lust and egotism? But toward the end, we see the literal fall of their seasons, the fall of their snow, of their identity, until they are just a small portion of the page.
CE: And what of the historical columns, which, to me, are so revealing…?
MD: Now we have a significant other book in this book. The historical columns, those chronosomosaics, are actually half of the book–same length as the book; the exact amount of words minus the end pages. Hailey reaches the end of her historical moment. The point in time hasn’t been reached, but as the book gets older, it becomes her past, yet it still remains her future–always a future. Even though words don’t exist, a reader could examine the historical record and supply ninety words.
CE: So where do we begin with all this?
MD: The first way to start is with the Internet. These historical columns–this other half of the book–is dense, opaque. It’s not as palatable, it’s not strung together as narratives. We respond to narratives more than we respond to databases. We are capable of memorizing narratives, retaining them, and passing them on. Computers are able to do large databases, but we have a relationship and we can begin to untangle, to decipher the significance of that database. We can see how Ghandi’s death does affect US. We may be putting in a date and uncovering that this is a reference to Ghandi’s death. How does it relate to Sam and Hailey? We are part of history and not part of history. What is our relationship to events outside ourselves? So that becomes a larger issue in this unseen, complex narrative that runs beside them. Whether that relationship is ultimately solved with a conclusion is irrelevant. And there is a conclusion, but its significance is understanding our relationship to history, our relationship with that which is outside of us.
CE: You mentioned themes of the unconscious.
MD: Getting back to those themes: The impact, by working on this book, by reading it, by engaging yourself actively, is that it highlights our relationship to history–that which is beyond ourselves and our egos. Two complex narratives which exceed the narrative, that which organizes and grants relevance to events and to date points compiled in the database.
CE: So that the act of reading the book…
MD: Exactly–the act of reading the book is the act of engaging in the excavation of our own egos, the practice of lingual anti-materialism, and also our relationship to defining events which act invisibly on us.
CE: Can you explain anti-materialism?
MD: Lingual anti-materialism is practiced in Only Revolutions. We don’t preference and iconosize a word. We recognize that there can be a materiality and an idolatry in our insistence on repetition. Example: Sam and Hailey constantly deny repetitions. They reach for a glass, they pick up a mug. They take a sip from a flute and they put down a bowl. Words themselves are letting go of their materiality.
CE: Give another example.
MD: A book must look a certain way; a respectable human being must look a certain way. When you pick up a book and you give up the prejudice of what you expect from your daily life, or when you give up your prejudicial expectations…the point is that by reading the story, what ultimately comes to bear in someone’s life is not necessarily the layout. The systematic mechanics put into practice a kind of anti-materialism, anti-prejudicial thinking…it allows a greater flexibility. It requires a greater amount of imagination, and here is the key point in both works…
CE: You mean the importance of imagination.
MD: By putting into practice the imagination, one puts into practice inherently the act of empathy. Without imagination, we cannot begin to conceive the woes and pleasures of another. It allows for us to conceive and empathize with someone who is not us.
CE: And the largest question for you…
MD: The largest question is: How do we make choices? How do we decide to do one thing over another thing? In music, for instance, certain rules applied. In the key, for instance, and those rules were broken with atonal music. Why choose the next note as the next note? And so, with words, in the western canon of literature–choices: We direct our lives–how we are to navigate the time we have which limits our amount of choices. Germane to Only Revolutions, take Sam and Hailey. At the outset, they are everything. They are capable of doing whatever they want, of experiencing what they want. But as they mature and as they head toward the epicenter of their journey of this book, that releases a temblor across their passions and direction. Ultimately, they face the act which is the center word of the whole book, which is: choose. So they choose each other. Maturity comes with the act of making reasoned, difficult, complex choices. Can’t have all the cars–choose one. Can’t have everything–choose what is important to you. Much as you prefer one thing, not to do it at the expense of another. The crudest choice: Sophie’s Choice. We make choices which inflict pain at the expense of another. I want paper, I cut down a tree. Hard choice. I’m not a saint…I’m going to use hemp, which can be re-grown.
CE: I’m sure you’re often asked by new writers about writing.
MD: I was raised on the same adage: write what you know. My problem was that I didn’t know anything and I wanted to write–about planets I had never seen, about things I would never own. I gradually understood. The better adage: write what you love well, and you have to know what you love. You have to research and investigate and listen. Writing is a wonderful way of exploring intense affection for the world beyond me.
CE: When you hit a low point, what carries you through?
MD: To know who I am…and I still don’t know. How we embody our identity… If you let go of things, if you’re not defined by labels… (I have worked as a plumber.) I don’t love digging a ditch or resetting a toilet. The question is: what defines someone’s identity? Take away things, locations, and certain vocabularies–those things that compromise our identity.
CE: Do Sam and Hailey have an identity?
MD: We define by clothes, the accent of their speech, propensity for certain actions… Take away clothes, vocabulary, and what defines identity is generosity, cruelty, etc. For instance: When I was eleven, we moved to Provo, Utah. If we were Mormon, great. But my sister and I were immediately outcast. We didn’t share religious beliefs, and that was harrowing. It annealed me to have the strength to have differing views. In the desert, I became Jewish. I was referred to as a gentile.
CE: And what about the politics of the book?
MD: Reality is every book that anyone has written. If you peek a little farther, it becomes a political book. For instance, look at the copywrite page. It reads: The democracy of two set out chronologically arranged.
CE: I can’t resist–considering the unique formats of your novels, and since I know that you are a film buff, which are your favorite directors?
MD: Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher.
CE: …to be continued.
'Only Revolutions', 'House of Leaves' are both in stores now from Random House.