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Review: Mark Z Danielewski at the Burgess Foundation

by Sarah Jasmon

the experimental author Mark Z Danielewski

  • the experimental author Mark Z Danielewski

Mark Z Danielewski is part novelist, part rockstar. I think this was said in the introduction of tonight’s event at the IABF, but I didn’t note by whom. It’s true. He has It, just like Jo Nesbo has it. The difference is that Danielewski’s groupies tend to have PhDs. They are here in force, staking out the front seats, and primed with weighty questions. Luckily, in-depth knowledge is not essential for the evening. One of the joys of live book events is finding something new. I hadn’t, as so many of the audience had, studied The House of Leaves for my doctoral dissertation. By the end of the evening, though, I had added The 50 Year Sword to my reading list. Or to my audio list. Danielewski has a lovely reading voice.

The 50 Year Sword is what we’re here for this evening. Just as in previous works he has ‘remediated’ other forms into novels – film in The House of Leaves and music in Only Revolutions – in this novella, Danielewski has taken the campfire story and woven it into a multi-voiced tale. Five voices narrate a Hallowe’en ghost story, voices which, in the text, are indicated by autumnally coloured speech marks. We can’t see this at a live reading, and it takes a moment to settle in to one voice reading all five. A strange thing happens, though: Danielewski reads, and I picture shadows coming and going on the canvas side of a tent, as the occupants lean in to scare each other witless.

The book should be read in one go on the night of Halloween. Last year, Danielewski conducted five voices doing just this in a live performance. It was for him, he said, a way of stitching the narrative together. Stitching is important here. The main protagonist of the novella, Chintana, is a seamstress, and the art of stitching is a beautiful and visual part of the physical book.

We move onto the Q&A, discussing the letting go of narrative tropes, the place of myth, whether there is a right way to read. A novel is finished when it ‘consumes the point of its own origin.’ Danielewski’s self-coined phrase ‘Signoconic’ is a combination of sign (text) and icon (image), and explains the space in which he is exploring, the space between text and image. His is a visceral process, in which ‘the universe escapes through the cracks in me.’ I lose the thread somewhat when we get into Derrida, picking it up again at the wonderful phrase, ‘I don’t bring up quantum theory haphazardly.’ When did you last hear that at a literary reading?

What I took away was a sense that, however seriously Danielewski’s work can – and is – taken, it should also be a lot of fun. It involves no small skill to get experimental work right. As the man himself says, ‘There’s such tripe out there as well.’

And I want to finish with a shout out for the supporting act, Nicola White. The extract she read from her prizewinning debut novel, In the Rosary Garden, hooked me thoroughly. It’s set in the Ireland of 1984, a time when it was ‘not a great place to be a young woman’, and follows the discovery by a young girl of a murdered newborn. It’s at the top of my reading pile. I can’t wait.

Sarah Jasmon lives on a boat on the Leeds to Liverpool canal. With an MA in Creative Writing, her short stories and articles have been published in journals and magazines, and she runs interviews with other writers from the North West on her website. She is currently in the process of editing her first novel, ‘The Summer of Secrets’.