When fiction goes experimental
by Elizabeth Willoughby
Experimental fiction has been around for centuries, but not the way Mark Z. Danielewski writes it. In May, LMU’s Junior Year in Munich students presented the first conference ever devoted to MZD’s works, aiming to provide a deep literary assessment.
In Mark Z. Danielewski's experimental fiction, things like typography and colour are employed to carry meaning, aiding in the creation of a fictional world that would otherwise be carried out through words alone. In May, LMU's Junior Year in Munich (JYM) students presented the first conference ever devoted to MZD's works, aiming to provide a deep literary assessment.
The cult following that began after MZD wrote House of Leaves saw the author take the old experimental fiction techniques and make them bigger and better. In HoL he applied such methods as using different typefaces for different characters, arranging text densely and upside down to make it as arduous for the reader as for the character working through a labyrinth, and putting only a few lines per page forcing the reader to fly through an action sequence.
"It would not be an exaggeration to say that MZD's work is considered the most exciting development in American fiction in the new millennium," says Dr Sascha Pöhlmann, a postdoc at the Amerika-Institut, which collaborated with LMU's JYM students to put together a conference devoted to the assessment of MZD's major works.
The two-day conference focused on two of Danielewski's books: House of Leaves, published in 2000, a horror story about a space that appears in a house making the inside larger than the outside, and how its growth influences those who learn about it; and Only Revolutions, a love story and road novel divided into two narratives read eight pages at a time alternately from front to back and back to front. At the free conference open to the public, professors and doctoral students came in from various countries to speak about the books' text construction, issues of genre and the reading process, offering new and varied viewpoints and ideas.
Exciting and challenging
Only Revolutions was translated by writer and poet Gerhard Falkner and artist Nora Matocza, a husband and wife team. Due to its strict and unique format, Revolutions took the couple 1.5 years to translate. "Danielewski is the most difficult thing we ever translated," says Matocza. "He uses words that have so many different meanings and so many allusions; they don't have a German translation. We had to have 90 words per page, but German needs more words to say the same thing. Danielewski himself combines several words into one; we had to do this too. Sometimes we had to leave words out because it was important to keep to these 90 words, otherwise the sense is gone."
JYM Meets MZD
The success of the conference was greatly due to the enthusiasm of the students involved. Lisa Terrio, a highly motivated JYM student, is one of them. "As a member of the undergraduate research team, I helped with many of the organizational details of the conference," says Lisa. "I was also in charge of compiling the JYM database on experimental literature. I really enjoyed being able to work with so many different people and couldn't wait for the actual conference. It was very rewarding to finally meet people face-to-face." She stresses that being in JYM is to be a regular LMU student attending the university's curriculum, not simply a guest.
Now she's looking forward to the anthology in the making with pieces from the conference speakers, and JYM student papers on MZD will also be considered for inclusion. It's invaluable, she says, "to see literature being made every day. One does not need to wait 20 years before reading about it."
Originally published at insightLMU, June 2011
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