It’s a disturbing little tale, but isn’t that what we’ve come to expect from Mark Z. Danielewski? We’ve also come to expect visual trickery, this being the man who colored every instance of the word “house” blue in House of Leaves and required you to spin the book in your hands to follow the text as it climbed the sides and spiralled inward.
His latest story is no less intense, no less strange, no less visually captivating. The Fifty Year Sword is a ghost story of sorts, told in one night in East Texas. A stranger arrives to tell a story, and that story is relayed to you through five different narrators, who swap out mid-sentence, mid-word sometimes. The text of the story resides on the left hand side. The “sinister” side, he reminded me, if you want to bring in Medieval superstitions. On the right hand side there are some blank pages. There are mountains of thread that crumble and shift. There are abstract embroidered creations and vague impressions.
Read Bookslut on Michael Taussig's 'Beauty and the Beast.'
It makes for a strange reading experience, and that seems to be exactly the point. But the story doesn’t live only on the page. It's been performed live in Los Angeles for a few years now, with five actors narrating, an original soundtrack and a host of other strange guests.
I caught up with Danielewski at the Texas Book Festival, a few hours before he gave a reading under an almost full moon in the Texas State Cemetery.
Was there anything particular about East Texas that made you set the story there?
As you probably expect, I’m not going to answer that question directly. What fascinated me about that portion of the country the few times I passed through it, and actually talking to people from there because I have friends from Texas, is that strange confluence of dialect. How the English language is presented spoken. For me, it gave me a certain right to be less formal about the language, playful about the language. That helped pull me into the larger themes of whimsy. I haven’t really spent time there. East Texas is a whole other thing.
East Texas is a whole other state in itself.
That’s what I kind of do, I realize. I vie against the old writing adage of “Write what you know.” Everything I write seems to be about what I don’t know.
Right. I wouldn’t exactly describe your books as realist autobiographical fiction.
You wouldn’t? How mistaken you are! It’s only one night in East Texas. So maybe there was one night in East Texas that was very peculiar.
I’m really interested in the fluidity of The Fifty Year Sword. Is it a different beast when it’s being staged? Does it change at all, or do the actors stick to every word on the script?
They read what’s on the page, but it’s probably closer to the book you’re reading now because the book learned about the tempo shifts by the way it was read, the pauses that came in. Those words that were all by themselves on the page came a lot from that performance. It does actually incorporate in its blankness the way someone reading it would emphasize or transition to another part. I don’t know if I can really answer that question. I think it’s a great question to ask the people who have seen it. What do they take away from it?
That is the question that’s come out of this book tour, and there is no answer. What is lost from the experience of reading the hardcover when you read it as an ebook? But what is lost from the experience of reading the ebook when you read it as a hardcover? All of that applies to the staged reading. I think it’s a compelling inquiry because there are gains in the electronic format. And there are gains in the hardcover format. And there are gains in the staged reading. It’s between this triumvirate where we can see what really matters to people when encountering a book.
I think that’s come up with some graphic novelists that I’ve talked to. Trying to train the audience to read it differently than, okay, I’ll read what’s in this box, and then I’ll read what’s in this box. It’s an interesting relationship with the reader. It’s much different, I think, than just text on the page. When you bring in images, the way the reader is going to respond to it is going to vary more widely.
Absolutely. You look at someone like Chris Ware for example, who is phenomenal. Sure, you can follow Jimmy Corrigan or the story you want, but you also have to be willing to step back and look at the whole compositional frame of it, and look at the colors, and look at the juxtapositions of shapes. Look at how those elements combine to create, reinforce, perhaps play a certain irony against what’s happening literally. I think the thing is we tend to look at images as being easy because it’s so quick to the eye. It grants us such an immediate, effective relationship with that encounter. And yet you can still read image, just like you can read text. You have to stop, you have to meditate for a minute about what’s going on, on the relationship, on the placement of things. There’s a story there that’s being told.
Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.