Writing In, and Around, the Box

The “dream within a dream” narrative device of Inception is nothing new—writers have been nestling stories within stories for years. But while literary techniques come and go, few authors have stretched the definition of a novel farther than Mark Z. Danielewski.

Twisting the haunted house trope onto its head, Danielewski’s premier novel House of Leaves recounts the found story of a drug addict drawn into investigating a recluse’s cluttered papers, whose pages documenting the case of a peculiar house in Virginia, which is slightly larger on the inside than it is outside. From that tiny discrepancy, the reader is drawn into a horrific claustrophia. Footnotes run sideways and upside-down, blot marks grow in the corners, real and fake quotes from real and fake people, with every ‘house’ in the novel printed in blue, House of Leaves brings paranoia and chills to its readers. But despite those challenges to literature and typography, Danielewski pushes the envelope further.

Currently, he is engaged in a 27 volume long series on a girl and her cat. Featuring nine different narratives, each book is more a thematic sequence of art pieces, as paragraphs are remade into computer code, rain, and orbs. The first of the series, One Rainy Day in May, was released in May, while the second was published in October. Danielewski, with a team behind him, has planned to release a new novel every three months for the next seven years. Will the project succeed? Reviews so far of the first two novels have been mixed, but it is an ambitious effort nonetheless.

Will Danielewski’s expansion of the form lead to the death of the novel, which is so often predicted? I doubt it. What his corpus has done is add to the literary devices and styles in the writer’s toolbox. And for those who fret that typographical literature may overrun the normal fare, don’t worry: House of Leaves took Danielewski ten years to stitch together, and very few writers have the prestige and finances necessary to even attempt such a long and complicated series as The Familiar. But just as Inception wowed audiences with its intellectual peculiarities, the typographical innovations found throughout Danielewski’s works add to the rich American literary tradition a bit of entertaining and strange intrigue.

Will Hertel

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