A review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD

by Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

You can accuse an idiot of being an idiot, but this accusation will only dimly register in his primitive consciousness.  He will shrug his shoulders and continue being an idiot.

This raises the question, “Why criticize idiotic books at all?”  It is unlikely that a sharp-minded critic will improve a dimwitted writer.  And who will do the criticizing?  There are very few intelligent people left in the world, and in the country in which I reside, the United States of America, intelligence is condemned as a vice.  Nevertheless, we the intelligent must band together and identify idiocy whenever we come across it, especially when idiotic books such as Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD (2012) are praised by THE WASHINGTON POST as works of literature, if for no other reason than to secure the concept of “literature” and to protect it from abuse.

THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD is undistilled swill, and it is impossible to understand how any serious person could defend such a book.  I am using the word “book” somewhat glibly, since what Danielewski and Co. have given us is a collection of blank pages, drawings (stitchings, really), and limp doggerel, all stitched together.

It might be useful to taxonomize the text into four categories.

Pages 2, 11, 13, 15, 17, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 31, 33, 39, 41, 43, 45, 47, 49, 51, 53, 55, 57, 59, 65, 69, 71, 73, 75, 77, 79, 81, 83, 85, 87, 99, 107, 117, 119, 121, 125, 127, 139, 143, 147, 149, 151,  155, 159, 169, 171, 175, 177, 181, 183, 185, 189, 193, 195, 199, 201, 205, 207, 209, 211, 233, 234, 235, 237, 243, 245, 247, 249, 255, 257, 259, 261, 263, 265, 269, 273, 281, 283, and 285 are entirely blank.

On pages 7, 8, 9, 19, 35, 37, 61, 63, 67, 89, 91, 93, 95, 97, 101, 103, 104, 105, 106, 109, 111, 112, 113, 115, 123, 129, 131, 133, 135, 137, 141, 144, 145, 153, 157, 160, 161, 163, 165, 167, 173, 179, 187, 191, 197, 203, 213, 215, 217, 219, 221, 223, 225, 227, 229, 231, 238, 239, 241, 251, 253, 267, 271, 275, 277, 278, and 279 are unaesthetic stitchings that look like food stains.  No words to speak of.

Pages 18, 66, 88, 92, 94, 96, 98, 100, 108, 114, 116, 122, 124, 126, 128, 130, 132, 134, 136, 138, 140, 142, 152, 154, 158, 162, 164, 166, 168, 172, 174, 176, 178, 184, 186, 188, 190, 192, 196, 212, 214, 216, 218, 220, 222, 224, 226, 228, 230, 232, 242, 244, 246, 254, 266, 270, 274, 276, and 284: Printed on each one of these pages is a single ill-formed sentence or phrase and nothing else besides.  On some of the more generous pages, there are two ill-formed sentences.  On some of the more meager pages, there is a single word or two words.

Pages 12, 14, 16, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42, 44, 46, 54, 56, 58, 60, 62, 64, 68, 70, 72, 74, 76, 78, 80, 82, 84, 86, 90, 102, 110, 118, 120, 146, 148, 150, 156, 170, 180, 182, 194, 198, 200, 202, 204, 206, 208, 210, 236, 240, 248, 250, 252, 256, 258, 260, 262, 264, 268, 272, 280, and 282: Erratically indented, badly written verse, approximately fifty-sixty words per page.  Multicolored quotation marks, single and double.  The orange quotation marks seem to refer to the character Tarff.  The mauve (?) quotation marks seem to refer to the character Ezade.  The red quotation marks to Inieda, the brown to Sithis, and the yellow (?) to something called “ittle Micit.”  Often, it is difficult to distinguish one color from the other, one character from the other.

Let’s tally up the numbers.

83 out of the book’s 285 pages are entirely blank.

67 of these pages are polluted with “illustrations” (for lack of a worse word).

This means that approximately 52% of the “book” is wordless: There are more blank pages and pages of imagery than pages with words on them.

And what of the words that Brother Poe stitches together?  What is it like to actually read this book (such as it is)?

Reading this “book” is as pleasant as eating sand.  The lines are atrociously stupid, abnormally boring, and excruciatingly illiterate.  Let me pause over some of the language, since it is the most offensive thing about this intolerably mushy mishmash of bad verse, blank pages, and ugly pictures.  Here are three examples:

1.)  “A few times a year Mose would generously serve up booze / and sweet / to fortipify the many strangers against the expected strangeness of her minglings…” [24].

A “sentence” that was clearly “inspired” by Joyce without any of Joyce’s elegance or genius.  When Joyce invented neologisms, he did so with a purpose.  The awful coinage “fortipify” neither enhances nor enlivens the text.

2.)“It was even in the falling apart of the breeze (though is there a breeze / if I can still feel it on my face?)…” [110].

Here, we have a non sequitur that does not even rise to the level of a simple paradox.

3.)“Where / upon / he began to swing the handle in a wide but deliberately / slow / arc as if to pass a long blade through the wicks of those five / candles nearly six / feet away where indeed a yellow panic there, / perhaps by extraordidinary coincidence, momentarily cowered / into small rounds of blue and drowning smoke” [240].

This is the sort of verse that only a bananahead would like and respect.

And if I were a bananahead, I would find THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD impressive.  In truth, Mark Z. Danielewski is not a careful writer, and he does not have a feeling for words.  Blame should be also given to the seamstresses at the Atelier Z, who did a terrible job of stitching the stupid thing together.

Dr. Joseph Suglia

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HOUSE OF LEAVES by Mark Z. Danielewski / WHEN DID WRITING STOP HAVING TO DO WITH WRITING? – by Dr. Joseph Suglia

 

WHEN DID WRITING STOP HAVING TO DO WITH WRITING?
by Dr. Joseph Suglia

When did writing stop having to do with writing? Of the many attempts to communalize literature, none is more dangerous than the sway of the current ideology: the consensus, and consciousness, that writing has nothing to do with writing. You will hear readers talk about “plot” (in other words, life). You will hear them talk about the “author.” But writing? Writing has nothing to do with writing. No one cares whether a book is well-written anymore.

* * * * *

Mark Z. Danielewski is not very much interested in language. He cares more about graphics than he does about glyphs. No words live in his House of Leaves. It is a house of pictures, not of words. It is a house in which words only exist as blocks of physical imagery.

Allow me to cite a few not unrepresentative sentences/fragments from House of Leaves:

1.) “A hooker in silver slippers quickened by me” [296]. Danielewski, scholar, thinks that “to quicken” means “to move quickly.”

2.) “Regrettably, Tom fails to stop at a sip” [320]. I convulse in agony as I read this sentence.

3.) “Pretentious,” too often, is American for “intelligent.” It is a word that is often misapplied. However, in the case of House of Leaves, it must be said that Danielewski uses German pretentiously. In a book that is littered with scraps of the German language, shouldn’t that language be used properly? “der absoluten Zerissenheit” [sic; 404 and elsewhere — a Heideggerean citation] should read “die absolute Zerissenheit” — the genitive is never earned. “unheimliche vorklaenger” [sic; 387] should read “unheimliche Vorklänge” and does not mean “ghostly anticipation.” Whenever Danielewski quotes the German, he is being pretentious — that is, he is pretending to know things of which he knows nothing.

It is impossible to escape the impression that Mark Z. Danielewski does not want to be read. Noli me legere = “Do not read me.” The House of Leaves is a book at which to be looked, not one that is to be read. Its sprawling typographies and fonts distract the reader from the impoverished prose.

Words are reduced to images, to pictures.

* * * * *

When did writing stop having to do with writing? When novels became precursors to screenplays. With the rise of mainstream cinema came the denigration of literature. The visual overthrew the verbal. Around the same time, imaginative prose began to be dumbed well down. There are two infantile reductions at work, both of which are visible in House of Leaves: a dumbing-down of language and an accent on the optical (as opposed to the verbal).

Such infantile reductions are everywhere in evidence whenever one picks up an American novel. We can thank America for the coronation of the idiot and for an all-embracing literary conformism. Even stronger writers, these days, morosely submit to the prevailing consolidation of a single “literary style.” A style that, of course, is no style at all. And these same writers, listlessly and lifelessly, affirm in reciprocal agreement that the construction of a well-wrought sentence isn’t something worth spending time on. Or blood.

How self-complacent American writers have become! The same country that produced Herman Melville, William Faulkner, and Saul Bellow has given birth to Mark Z. Danielewski. Nothing is more hostile to art than a culture of complacency.

There was, I’m sure, something very refreshing about Charles Bukowski in the 1970s, when the vestiges of a literary academism still existed. Mr. Bukowski, I am assuming, would be dismayed to uncover the kindergarten of illiterate “literati” to which he has illegitimately given birth. His dauphin, Mark Z. Danielewski.

Weaker students of literature might feel invigorated by the Church of Literary Infantilism, yet even they know that the clergy engenders nothing sacred or profane. This explains their virulent defensiveness when anyone, such as myself, dares to write well or explore another writer’s engagement with language. “Writing doesn’t matter,” you see. They have never luxuriated in the waters of language; they have never inhabited a world of words. Words don’t interest them; people do. And literary discussions have degenerated to the level of a bluestockinged Tupperware party. If you like the main character, the book is “good.” If a book is warm and friendly, that book is “good.” If a book reassures you that you are not a slavering imbecile–that is to say, if you can write better than the book’s “author”–that book is “good.” If a book disquiets you or provokes any kind of thought whatsoever, that book is “bad.” If a book has an unsympathetic main character, that book is “bad.” If a book is difficult to understand, that book is “bad,” and so forth and so on. Whatever exceeds the low, low, low standards of the average readership, in a word, is blithely dismissed as “bad.”

Things grow even more frightening when we consider the following: These unlettered readers are quickly transforming into writers. That would be fine if they knew how to write. And if the movements of language were valued, culturally and humanly, their noxious spewings would find no foothold. The literature of challenge has been supplanted by the litter of the mob, with all of its mumbling solecisms and false enchantments. The problem with mobs, let us remind ourselves, is that they efface distinctions. They do everything in their power to make the distinguished undistinguished. And so instead of James Joyce, we have bar-brawling muscleheads (e.g. Chuck Palahniuk), simian troglodytes (e.g. Henry Rollins), and graphic designers / typographists (e.g. Mark Z. Danielewski).

Instead of poeticisms, we have grunts. We have pictures. We have graphic design and cinema.

* * * * *

Someone said to me: “I am a good writer, but I don’t know how to spell.”

Someone said to me: “No writer is better than any other.”

* * * * *

America is responsible for the production of more linguistic pig **** than any other country in the world. There is absolutely nothing surprising about this statement. After all, America is the only country that celebrates stupidity as a virtue. How could things be otherwise?

At the poisonous end of the democratization-process, which is indistinguishable from the process of vulgarization, every jackass on the street sees himself as an “author.” His brother, his grandmother, and his step-uncle: they, too, regard themselves as “authors.” After all, they think–inasmuch as they are capable of thinking–“Writing has nothing to do with writing. If Mark Z. Danielewski can be published, so can I!” (Yes, their desire is “to be published,” as if their lives would be inscribed on the page, disseminated, filmed, and thus rendered meaningful.) We live in an age of all-englobing and infinitely multiplying cyber-technologies, where stammering imbeciles mass-replicate their infantile scribbles, but let us not deceive ourselves: If a “writer” is simply one who writes, then they are writers; however, one should reserve the word “author” only for those who are profoundly committed to the craft of verbal composition.

* * * * *

Judging from a purely technical point of view, House of Leaves is consistently faulty, fraught with excruciating Hallmark banalities and galling linguistic errors. Hipster Mark Z. Danielewski is seemingly incapable of composing a single striking or insightful sentence. It astonishes me that anyone ever considered his tinker-toy bromides to be publishable. The House of Leaves is a house that is neither well-appointed nor ill-appointed. It is simply not appointed at all.

* * * * *

Who cares about language anymore? No one in America even questions the assumption that good writing does not matter. And this assumption is no longer limited to America — a horrific logophobia is spreading throughout the globe. The impetuses that motivate this tsunami of “literary” vomit are the following ideological assumptions: The fallacy that 1.) everyone is entitled to be an author (this is a particularly nasty perversion of the democratic principle), and that 2.) the visible improves on the verbal. American letters have been reduced to the gibbering and jabbering of semiliterate simpletons, driveling half-wits, and slack-jawed middlebrows. It’s only a matter of time before the English stop caring about language, as well.

When you live in a culture of complacency, a culture of appeasement, a hypocritical culture that assures you that you write well even if you don’t, there is only one way out. There is nothing for the strong and serious student of literature to do but to write for himself, to write for herself, for his or her own sake.

Dr. Joseph Suglia