By Geoff Wisner
I haven't yet read House of Leaves, the ambitious experimental novel that Mark Z. Danielewski published in 2000. I am unlikely to read Only Revolutions, the even quirkier second novel that Danielewski published in 2006. In his interview with Rick Moody, Danielewski said that Only Revolutions is the book he expects to be remembered by. He also said that it is ívirtually impenetrable,ë and after leafing through it at St. Mark's Book Shop, I have to agree. Only Revolutions makes Finnegans Wake look like beach reading.
A few days ago, however, I did read Danielewski's slim volume The Whalestoe Letters, a spinoff from House of Leaves that incorporates some additional material. Whalestoe is an epistolary novella told through the letters that Pelefina Lièvre, a woman in her fifties, sends to her son Johnny Truant from the mental institution where she is confined.
Pelefina is highly intelligent and highly literate (unlike the self-satisfied Whalestoe functionary Walden D. Wyrhta — a name too peculiar not to have a hidden meaning — who mentions in his foreword to the book that he was puzzled by her reference to ísomeone named Mulligan who was apparently quite plumpë). Her son, to judge from clues in his letters, is a troubled young man who is constantly being moved from one foster home to another, and constantly involved in fistfights.
In its verbal (and typographical) gymnastics, high-level cultural cross-referencing, coded messages, and its framing by an unreliable narrator, The Whalestoe Letters reminded me of Nabokov's Pale Fire. As in Pale Fire , powerful emotions constantly threaten to break through the artful surface. Pelefina is lonely, feels trapped and controlled by the institution's staff, and cannot trust her own mind and memories.
Oddly, in an interview largely devoted to influences on House of Leaves, Nabokov was a name that never came up. The book was influenced by everyone from Homer to Steve Erickson, Danielewski said. The experiments with styles and colors of type derived from Apollinaire and Mallarmé, and although he hadn't read David Foster Wallace when he wrote the book, he knew about his work with footnotes and endnotes. House of Leaves is in some ways a haunted-house story, and in answer to a audience member's question, Danielewski threw out Poe, Shirley Jackson, Hitchcock, and Stephen King as additional and equally valuable influences.
íI don't know what literature is,ë he said. Genre itself is a ílabile, malleable, amorphous thing.ë
Rick Moody was a relaxed but well-informed interviewer, willing to lean back in his chair while Danielewski unwound a response, and rarely if ever interrupting. This was definitely an interview, not a dialogue, and Moody was perfectly willing to keep the spotlight on the other man. Danielewski is rarely interviewed, so Moody began by saying he would like to explore Danielewski's biography.
íI'm out of here,ë Danielewski joked, rising half-out of his chair, but proceeded to tell quite a lot. His parents were both in the theater. His father, who died in 1993, was a Polish Jew who took part in the Warsaw Uprising. He and his American wife filled their home with art and literature, and when Mark and his sister (now the singer known as Poe ) were small, he would come into their bedroom and recite Shakespeare monologues.
The first real book Danielewski read was Charlotte's Web. At age five or six, he was deeply into the James Bond novels, especially Thunderball. Between seven and twelve he was reading Dostoyevsky and becoming aware of Homer, and at age ten he wrote a novel called The Hell Hole, a lurid tale of drug addiction, prison, sodomy, and revenge. His parents were concerned. At Yale he majored in English, explored Pynchon, Vonnegut, Heller, was rejected from the few creative-writing courses, and had secondhand exposure to the French department's preoccupation with Derrida and the other deconstructionists. Danielewski cited Glas by Derrida as an important influence on House of Leaves.
What's next? Danielewski said he has been working on a project for about three years, but would say nothing about it. Writing Only Revolutions, he said, was a way of íwriting my own freedom,ë he said. After writing that, he felt free to try anything at all.
Published May 4, 2009 Copyright 2009 Geoff Wisner