In Person: Mark Z. Danielewski and Poe
at Borders South Monday, Nov. 13
I imagined Mark Z. Danielewski as "one of the roughs," because his novel, House of Leaves, is saturated in the tattoo-parlor demimonde of Los Angeles. He turns out to have the elegant lines and slightly stilted manner of an Ivy League grad student, with no skin art in sight, and a nice sweater.
He's touring with a new book, The Whalestoe Letters (Pantheon, 86 pp., $8.95 paper), which extracts a section of House of Leaves that contains letters sent to the protagonist Johnny Truant from his mother, a woman who has ended up in a nuthouse. Johnny Truant, in House of Leaves, holds approximately the same position as Charles Kinbote holds in Nabokov's Pale Fire -- he's the rather crazed collector and annotator of a stolen manuscript. Like Infinite Jest and Lookout Cartridge, House of Leaves is about the making of a fictitious film, around which the plot weaves an ever more fantastic commentary. It's fiction squared.
Danielewski is touring with his sister, Annie, who, under the name Poe, has become a star on the alternate end of MTV's Weltanschauung. For the first time ever, I interviewed an author -- usually a semi-harried beast, lucky to have a roof over his or her head -- in a tour bus. Damn, even Tom Wolfe doesn't command a tour bus!
It's Poe the prom-age crowd at Borders has come to see. These are ruly kids -- their disaffection never shades quite into dysfunction. They clutch their newest Poe CD (Haunted) and absorb homeroom orders from the Borders manager ("Those who have brought Poe's CD must take the inner sleeve of the CD out of the jacket for Poe to sign, those who have bought the CD at Borders may present the CD jacket to be signed."). Poe, a lanky young blond woman wearing black and a yellow rain slicker, sits on a table with her brother. Their performance space is simple: There's a screen, a soundman, and a DJ, Cody Peyote, who with two record players plies a few fractaled sounds. The onus of the performance is on Poe.
What works for Poe, who concluded her set with tears, doesn't work so well for her brother. His part in the performance is, at first, to compliment (and not complement) Poe. But after the audience has gotten the taste of Haunted they came for, Mark enlarges on his role, reading pieces from The Whalestore Letters. The reading makes one thing clear: Stripped of the formal obstacles that make House of Leaves brilliant and elusive, The Whalestoe Letters is a huge aesthetic mistake. When the terror is stripped out of madness, you get a romantic, soft-focus version of it -- madness as the state of being massively misunderstood by, but in reality being groovier than, everybody else. This is, for obvious reasons, an enormously attractive message to Poe's audience, but for me, an older guy, listening to Danielewski reading his prose as if it were poetry (always the sign that something has gone majorly wrong), it was too, too sad. Danielewski only read once from House of Leaves. It was from a section involving some sexual groping. The reading was done ô deux, as Mark supplied the rising intonation and Poe the female crooning. This pressed ever so lightly on the incestual subtext that always accompanies brother/sister acts (Donny & Marie, the Carpenters). It was the most interesting moment in Mark's part of the evening.
Poignantly, at the end of the set, Poe asked if anybody in the audience had read House of Leaves. There were three hands raised. Combining audiences for these siblings surely comes at a price. So the shout-out goes like this: Mark, you abandon the modernist muses -- cruelty, dissonance, and, most of all, distance -- at your peril. The alternative, alas, is pap.