With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.
The Reader: You don’t have to ask yourself whether you’ve read a book by Mark Z. Danielewski; his books are so distinctive, from the stories to the layout of the page, they could not have come from anyone else. Breaking onto the literary scene with House Of Leaves—an exhilarating read that deals, in part, with a house larger on the inside than it is on the outside—he moved onto Only Revolutions, a National Book Award finalist, and The Fifty Year Sword, his unique version of a ghost story. His latest work is Into The Forest, which will be released this week. The book is the second volume of The Familiar, an epic work with 27 planned parts, as well as the latest Danielewski effort to both disturb and amaze. On that note, Danielewski offered The A.V. Club a list of five other books that are both unsettling and beautiful.
The A.V. Club: This is a collection of blog posts by a Saudi Arabian man who spoke out against his country’s fundamentalist interpretation of Islam and was sentenced to both jail and extended caning. Did you select this because of the quality of the writing or the back story?
Mark Danielewski: This one I would probably frame slightly differently and say it’s the timeframe in which the book is placed. It’s a living document. When you read it, so many of the sentences constantly spiral into the thought that Raif is still in prison, suffering not 1,000 lashes at once, but 50 lashes parceled out over a long period of time. I’ve done a bit of research on canings that go on in Singapore, and while I don’t think we have any witnesses to what Raif endured, canings can be pretty gruesome. In Singapore, sometimes lashes are delayed because the prisoner is deemed too fragile, and the whippings could kill him or her.
So when you’re reading chapter three—which satirically calls into question the sharia’s perspective on astronomy and how maybe we should just throw away what astronomers and NASA have done for hundreds of years—it’s one of those small moments that connect you to what the consequence can be from the written word, and from what you dare to think.
I’m only slightly dodging the question, but I would probably side with story as I didn’t chose it because of any particular craft with the sentences. But at the same time, it isn’t really a story; it’s a blog. I don’t want to put it into a certain spot or category, because the voice of blogs are evolving and it would be unfair to that development to characterize this book as one thing or another. Even if you look at Andy Weir’s The Martian, that book carries with it the same kind of voice of his blog.
Here, it’s a lot more gruesome. There’s a lot more engineered humorous stuff, and unfortunately this prison that you have to enter. You have to understand the enormous price he had to pay because he had ideas that are practically meaningless in the culture of the United States. We hardly blink at what he’s defending or satirizing or tweaking. I would like to see what else he could write, or how the culture and future of Saudi Arabia plays out in response to this thing. For me, it’s unsettling in the way that it doesn’t provide you with what a classical horror book does. Those isolate you from the story by putting it in the context of the narrative arc. Here, the pages themselves are liquid, they connect to other dialogues that would occur on a similar subject. Raif’s results would be very different if he was writing in this country or Western Europe.
AVC: It’s hard to appreciate how writing can be such an act of bravery given our protections for speech and press.
MD: And maybe it’s because I’m a writer and you’re a writer, but it seems important to expose oneself to works that have such consequence. We may end up reading the books we do because what makes it on a bestseller list or gets five stars on Goodreads, and we can lose track of the fact that even voicing certain reasonable inquiries can lead to such mortal consequences.
AVC: Is that where the beauty of this choice comes in? The bravery?
MD: Beauty for me is a complicated word; I don’t use it in terms of that which is appealing. I do find that literature is beautiful when it unsettles, when its roots drive up the calm causeways of our social intercourse and breaks it apart and it looms up above us all. That is ultimately inspiring. The beauty comes from its example, and from the point that we don’t need the fineries of what we can view the world of letters to be about. The world of letters can include a brave blog. I recent finished reading The Changing Light At Sandover by James Merrill. He’s an extremely gifted poet, with a colossal skill at putting syllables together, yet I can’t think of another example where thinking goes so awry. Despite all his brilliance, all the awards he’s won, the work itself collapses on inane thinking. This is the inverse. There is very solid thought and inquiry and challenges in 1000 Lashes, and how they’re posited is not really relevant.
AVC: You also chose a book about race relations that incorporates a lot of poetry into it. I assume you don’t think this one collapses in on itself in terms of its expression of ideas.
MD: No, no. But here’s another book saying things that in a different time and culture could have resulted in who knows what repercussions. What I like about it—there are many parts of it I like—but coming from how I work, I appreciated enormously the visual elements being explored. The juxtaposition of images. There’s a quote I’m fond of that Claudia quotes toward the end of the book. It’s from James Baldwin: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.”
I think that starts to get at what I’m thinking about when I bring up beauty, when I talk about ripping up the sidewalk with new roots or moving out into the sky. Writing like this disturbs the answers it creates space for new ideas and new questions. The book itself is composed in terms of space. It has this obvious black-and-white imagery on every page, but it also has an enormous amount of white space. That to me suggests how Citizen is speaking in terms of the pervasiveness of white, and also to how in writing, a black pen can take a note, or even a different color pen. It provides space for more of a dialogue, for more of that personal identity. Every book has invisible narratives, between the book’s narrative and the narratives of the author and the reader, and all are given place in this book.
AVC: Moving onto a satire about race relations, where a man attempts to reinstate slavery and segregation, and no one notices.
MD: It’s very funny and incredibly accurate when it comes to Los Angeles. And at the same time, very unsettling in where one lays one’s alliance. If you’re siding with a racial voice and you’re white, you’re invoking a kind of criteria, and if you’re not siding with it and you’re white, you’re invoking a different set of criteria. If you’re black and you side with it, etc., etc.
Here, it’s done so legitimately that you realize the turn is toward laughter, but it’s not a dismissive laughter. It’s so attuned so its subject matter and the zaniness of its proposition that you have to, for a moment, consider for a moment what the propositions are saying and what the reality is around one’s self.
What I mean by that, speaking personally, is that I’m impressed by Los Angeles. I have been for a long time, and am especially impressed when I observe the city outside the confines of its own mythology—namely the media—and look at it in terms of its architecture and parks and its various industries and thriving cultures. All of that is bountiful and wonderful. But at the same time, you have to see what a segregated city it is, and how many problems there are despite a population that’s in favor of all sorts of progressive changes. The city itself has these kinds of fortresses around its various ethnic identities, and it’s not like there are invitations for everyone to just roam around happily. Paul Beatty really brings that out by presenting this fictitious agrarian pocket called Dickens.
Another thing I really like about The Sellout that’s a little different from the points we’re exploring is that, racially charged as it is, as sociologically charged as it is, it’s also very much in the vein of writers like Charles Dickens or Thomas Pynchon. There’s a playfulness with names like Cheshire and Hominy, as well as these wonderfully evocative paragraphs that are not entirely part of what’s being set forth thematically.
AVC: I haven’t read this collection, but I am familiar with “The Screwfly Solution” and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”, both of which take on gender issues in the way your previous choices examined issues of race and religious extremism.
MD: The book is a collection of stories dealing with the idea of identity. I came to James Tiptree [as a pen name of writer] Alice Sheldon, but it must have been quite an experience to read this and think it was a man who had written these stories, especially a man who had been praised as being the most charismatic, macho writer around. That adds to the layering of the experience.
The book is somewhat beautiful in that regard, as it was written at a time when a lot of prose didn’t reflect the kind of gender dynamics that were emerging. You read books from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and there’s a lot of demeaning language—referring to women as “little girls,” for instance—and here you can see a kind of hyperawareness in the writing. There’s a buoyancy and a question about gender dynamics, as in “Houston,” where men have been removed from the equation.
But it goes beyond that, and Sheldon goes beyond that. The story “We Who Stole The Dream” is about an enslaved species that overcomes its tyrants barely enough to steal a ship and fly to unknown coordinates, where they discover that their people are in control of their sector of the universe. They’re greeted as heroes, but slowly begin to understand that even though they’re treated well, their people have become the same kind of gluttonous, violent oppressors they escaped from. It makes for a wonderful look at the systematic problems that are at stake in the world. As gruesome as many horror stories can be, they’re typically framed with one villain, or with something that can be vocalized. Great horror moves away from that, kind of unsettling that vocalization. When you start looking at how any group evolves into a civilization, you see how that systemically may result in something that is tyrannical and violent. That’s a horrible idea, but it’s actually a pretty good segue for us to get into:
MD: When I see something that’s horrible and unsettling, as exists in all four of the book that we’ve discussed so far, there’s a flip side in the idea that there’s something beautiful in bringing awareness or light to these difficult points. The books provide awareness, and they can also give you a moment where you’re free to choose whether to be part of that ugliness or not. There’s where the beauty and sublime aspect comes in.
AVC: So this choice, a collection of zen kōans, is more of a reaction against those disturbing works?
MD: Oh, no, I think the kōans are the most disturbing! It’s the constant awareness—especially for a writer, someone who makes a living at words—that words are irrelevant. They are a delusion in and of themselves and have to be shaken free of. The great scholars are the ones who don’t get in the way of the reality that surrounds us. One has to be very cautious about words. One thing I explore in Only Revolutions—well, I try and do it in all my books, but more visibly in Only Revolutions—was a practice of what I loosely call anti-materialistic linguists. In other words, the language itself was put into the practice of letting go of material objects. We practice a kind of materialism in the way we write; we hold onto certain nouns or certain grammatical structures. One of the things that was key to Only Revolutions was that my characters were moving so fast that they let go of everything around them, including language. The language itself had to constantly let go of itself.
In many ways, what was important there had nothing to do with story or visual appeal or construction, but the kind of linguistic submersion which, if you’re going to enjoy the book, will inevitably require you to let go of these kinds of material objects. The Mumonkan takes it even further. They’re about how we need to let go of not simply language, but of the thought that causes language. We need to look at things in a way that may release us entirely from the project at hand.
Of the many translations, I do like Katsuki Sekida’s because it has these obscure little kōans followed by better-known ones, and it has these very spare but informative notes. He also brings in more about the time period and the various nuances of these cases. Those become fulfilling in their own way, but that doesn’t really answer your question. So perhaps that’s a perfect kind of kōan answer.
For me, I would read a kōan every morning; it was something of a ritual. I would read a couple of pages and think on it before I did other reading or any writing. For me, it wasn’t about the subject but about the practice of intellectually learning to let go and hold on, as well as the constant observation of that. In many ways, that’s what all these books are about: If you get too caught in a tough sentence in 1000 Lashes, you’re hiding in the kind of linguistic expectation that you have for a book and therefore not allowing a larger truth to be part of it.