Danielewski, Mark Z

Tagged: Author

(1966-    ) US author who gained considerable attention for his first novel House of Leaves (2000). It is not technically a work of Fantastika, as the elements of horror (see Horror in SF) in its detailed account of a family's ordeal, in a house that opens upon enormous and sinister spaces (see Labyrinths), prove to be part of a text produced by an unreliable narrator; but the intensity of its dramatization, and the richness of detail in Danielewski's description of these unmappable (and dangerous) chambers and successive attempts to explore them, deeply and complexly inform the work, and account for a large part of its 709 pages. The volume of online commentary that the novel has provoked testifies to its amenability to being read, notwithstanding its postmodern strategies and intertextual structure (see Postmodernism and SF), as a work of horror.

Danielewski's next novel, The Fifty Year Sword (2005; rev 2012), similarly employs the tropes of the ghost story, while Only Revolutions (2006) – published in a Dos-à-Dos format with its two narratives back-to-back – tells of two American teenagers who fall in love and hit the road; the fact that their sojourn together occupies the years 1863-1963 for him and 1963-2063 for her is presented in the logic of dreams or visionary experience (see Timeslip).

It is in his next work, the immensely long novel inaugurated by The Familiar, Volume 1: "One Rainy Day in May" (2015), that Danielewski dramatizes fantastic elements in a "literal" manner. Announced as beginning a novel or sequence eventually to reach twenty-seven volumes, the work appears to be unequivocal sf. Its complex structure comprises nine distinct narratives and various less readily identified interjections, some apparently made by advanced pieces of software (see AI). Although the narratives all take place in the present day, other iterations appear to originate in the Far Future and the prehistoric past (see Prehistoric SF), suggesting enormous vistas whose relationship to each other will presumably become clear in succeeding volumes.

Like Danielewski's earlier work, The Familiar "embraces the textual as much as it kind of resists it" (as he put it in an interview), "and embraces the graphic as it kind of resists it." Its use of typographical novelty (words arranged in shapes and sizes or deployed across the page so as to suggest the objects described or action dramatized) recalls the devices that Alfred Bester employed in the climactic scenes of his sf novels, but Danielewski's embrace of this aesthetic is radically inclusive rather than decorative. This results in a tremendous textual expansiveness: the first volume of The Familiar runs to 839 pages, although there are often few words on an individual page.

The narrative strands of the first volume hint at themes to be developed: the unsuspected power of the new software underlying a Computer Role Playing Game; a Time Viewer capable of bridging time and space, that has driven its creators into hiding from a powerful and malevolent secret organization; strange synchronicities suggesting that the novel's universe of discourse may simply be a construct (see Virtual Reality). The "familiar" of the title is almost certainly a near-drowned kitten that is rescued near the novel's end, and which shows evidence (in the text's closing pages) of supernatural powers.

The Familiar, Volume 2: "Into the Forest" (2015), The Familiar, Volume 3: "Honeysuckle & Pain" (2016) and The Familiar, Volume 4: "Hades" (2017) retain the internal structure of the first volume: nine separate narratives, each with its own typeface, identifying colour tab, and page layout; prefatory sections set in the far future, present, and prehistoric past; and a sequence of credits, running to several pages, at the end. Each volume is of almost identical length, and each concludes with a short story set in a savage world of nature, each ending with an animal killing another. The similarity of these stories to the "credit cookies" included at the end of long credit sequences in big-budget summer movies is unmistakable, although their connection with the rest of the narratives is unclear.

In a section of "One Rainy Day in May" (its pages unnumbered) that stands at the novel's centre, an entity that has been commenting upon the text identifies itself and delivers an aphorism: "There is not space in the universe to tell the universe to the universe. Therein lies the peculiar beauty and sadness of stories: to tell it all without all at all." This may be taken as a hint to Danielewski's readers: he is resolved to tell stories, indeed The Story, and will devote his future energies to giving form to the Matter of Cosmos. [GF]

see also: Computers, Conceptual Breakthrough, End of Time, Invention, Paranoia, Secret Masters, Supernatural Creatures, War.

Mark Z Danielewski

born New York: 5 March 1966




The Familiar

individual titles

  • House of Leaves (New York: Pantheon Books, 2000) [hb/Eric Fuentecilla]
    • The Whalestoe Letters (New York: Pantheon Books, 2000) [chap: a section of the above with some additional material: pb/]
  • The Fifty Year Sword (Amsterdam, The Netherlands: De Bezige Bij, 2005) [novella: chap: hb/P van Sambeek]
  • Only Revolutions (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006) [dos: the two parts of the tale are published back to back, with separate title pages: hb/Ellen Martorelli/Getty Images]


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