Fiction beyond Form and Familiarity: Mark Danielewski

Posted on Jul 18, 2019

Signiconic or visual writing is a modern literature genre that transcends typical writing form, with the author exploring different typefaces, page layouts, and even font colors to convey the simplest or most complicated of stories. With the use of signiconic writing to create metanarratives that shock, astound, and even horrify readers, Mark Danielewski is known as the author who made a name for himself and defied the boundaries of modern surrealist fiction.


Danielewski was born on March 5, 1966, in New York City. His father, Tad, was a Polish avant-garde film director, while his younger sister, Annie, would become the singer-songwriter known as Poe in the mid-nineties. During Danielewski’s childhood, his family moved to several countries—from England and around the United States to Switzerland, Spain, India, and even Ghana—for Tad’s various film projects before settling down in Utah, where Danielewski and his sister attended high school.

In 1985, Danielewski went to Paris to stay with his older brother, Chris. Here, Danielewski found a manual typewriter and spent countless nights typing away at it, drinking lots of coffee, forming an unfinished story entitled “Where Tigers Dance,” and eventually falling in love with the process of writing. He later attended Yale to study English literature, graduating in 1988. When his father was dying of cancer in 1990, Danielewski stayed at his bedside and soon developed the idea for his first novel. For three sleepless days, he wrote a hundred-page story that would be the basis of his most renowned novel to date.

House of leaves

It took Danielewski ten years to finish writing his debut work, House of Leaves (2000), a novel of unusual structure containing convoluting footnotes, various typeface changes, perplexing layouts, countless cultural references, and a story as vast and mysterious as the very pages that entrap it. Upon its publication, House of Leaves made waves in the literary scene as a game changer in ergodic or experimental fiction and became an instant cult hit.

In the novel, tattoo artist Johnny Truant discovers a lengthy academic study of a documentary film called The Navidson Record, written by a deceased (and blind) old man named Zampanò. The film study recounts the unexplainable and terrifying experiences of the Navidson family, who discovers that their house is physically growing into a maze. As the house’s occupants and explorers, as well as Johnny, attempt to unearth the mystery behind its transformation, some of them fall into madness and despair.

Danielewski admitted in a later interview that the influence behind the novel’s “visual” form was mainly film and his knowledge of “cinematic grammar,” especially as his father was a filmmaker. "That had been the design from the very beginning: to use the image of text itself . . . to increase the reader's experience as they progress through the book." Danielewski would thereafter collaborate with his sister in creating her album Haunted, heavily inspired by the House of Leaves.

Only Revolutions

Six years later, Danielewski released his second novel, Only Revolutions (2006), employing the same unconventional style of visual writing that would have readers flipping the book upside down to understand the whole story. In Only Revolutions, two immortal teenagers named Sam and Hailey travel through time and alternately narrate their adventures as they breeze through human history. Feature writer Jonathan Russell Clark explains, [House of Leaves] felt claustrophobic, while [Only Revolutions] seemed to shoot outward into an endless expanse.” Only Revolutions was nominated for the National Book Award in 2006.

Fifty year of sword

Between writing his two novels, Danielewski published a novella entitled The Fifty Year Sword (2005), popularly described as “a mature ghost story disguised as a children’s book.” In the novella, a divorced seamstress named Chintana recounts her experience with a mysterious storyteller who wields the eponymous Fifty Year Sword, a precise weapon with lethal sharpness whose cuts inflict the victim on their fiftieth birthday. On the Halloween of 2010, Danielewski arranged two sold-out productions based on his novella at the REDCAT Theater in Walt Disney Concert Hall, which consisted of live readings and shadow play.

Danielewski now resides in Los Angeles and is reportedly constantly seen outdoors wearing a cat shirt. He is currently working on a twenty-seven-volume novel collection of The Familiar, which is about “a twelve-year-old girl who finds a kitten and sets off a chain reaction with global consequences.”


Disclaimer: Images are not ours. Credit to the owner.

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