In late October, I dragged a friend to the Swedish American Hall here in San Francisco for a reading of The Fifty Year Sword, a novella that reads like a children's ghost story for adults. Mark Z. Danielewski walks up the center aisle towards the stage with Pianist Christopher O’Riley, holding a composers wand and wearing a trench coat with an embroidered cat on the back.
The lights dim. Danielewski stands at the podium, wand in hand, and looks around at the audience slowly, as if we’re not quite ready for what it is he’s about to tell us. And so the night began. And it was fucking awesome. When Danielewski speaks it’s deliberate. Calculated. Words fall off his lips hypnotically. The story itself focuses on a seamstress called Chintana attending a woman’s 50th birthday party in Texas late one evening, she finds herself under the watch of five orphans and a mysterious story teller who presents them with a long black box. Immediately I felt as if I were one of those orphans, listening intently about a mythical, seemingly blade-less sword that wouldn’t reveal it’s inflicted wounds until the fiftieth year of ones life.
The Fifty Year Sword is illustrated with decorative stitching and colored quotation marks litter the pages with ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and molasses. Sound odd? Danielewski’s works aren’t conventional.
His debut, House of Leaves is an unconventional literary beast and one of my favorite books ever. Released in 2000 by Pantheon books, the book first circulated around on the internet in small bits and not long after the release the book had become a New York Times bestseller and Danielewski had gained himself a cult following. House of Leaves is about a tattoo apprentice in L.A. who finds himself in possession of a book written by an old blind man, the book which is masked as a documentary about a family who moves from New York City to a house in rural Virginia. The house they find, is much, MUCH larger on the inside than the outside.
The word house is always in blue, minotaur in red, and occasionally there's a splash of purple. At times you’ll find yourself turning the book in a spiral to read sentences. Some pages only have a word or two printed on them, sometimes upside down, struck through, or deliberately misspelled.
Only Revolutions, released in September of 2006, was just as typographically complex if not more so. The novel follows Sam and Hailey, forever sixteen and free. Time literally flies by as the two teens meet and explore their own egos, the world, and fall in love. Sam’s story is on one side with a mostly green cover and if you flip the book over you have Hailey’s side of things, a predominantly golden yellow cover. The binding provides two colored coded book marks and every 8 pages you can hop between the two. The text changes sizes, there are 90 words on a page, per half story, making the full page 180 words and two pages 360 words, or degrees rather, you see, making a full revolution.
Yes, I know it’s all quite complicated but that’s the thing, Danielewski isn’t writing your typical John Grisham novel. He’s pushing the boundaries of what it is to evoke emotion and intrigue in your reader. An artist, not necessarily just an author, you might say, Danielewski is a prime example of what it is to think differently. His next piece of work is titled The Familiar, a 27 volume serial about a girl who finds a kitten, and not only as a fan of Danielewski’s previous works, but also as a lover of my own feline companion, I just can’t wait for it.