FEBRUARY 14, 2020
LOS ANGELES–BASED AUTHOR Mark Z. Danielewski recently published a strange picture book called The Little Blue Kite. The project marks an unexpected pivot from his most recent experimental quintet, The Familiar: Volumes 1–5 (2015–’17), which Danielewski described as a “love letter” to his home city. The Little Blue Kite deserves close attention, as it may indicate a turning point — for better or worse — in the career of a highly accomplished writer with a deeply passionate fan base.
Danielewski’s auspicious debut was the celebrated 2000 novel House of Leaves, which won the inaugural New York Public Library Young Lions award and was hailed by writers like Bret Easton Ellis and Jonathan Lethem. Now, two decades later, The Little Blue Kite marks a new phase in the author’s life and career. During a promotional stop at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, last November, Danielewski spoke at length about the origins of the project, explaining that his recent marriage and the birth of his first child had had a profound effect on him. His comments prompt us to consider The Little Blue Kite not only on its own merits but also as a transitional work that captures an emotional crux in the author’s personal experience.
The Little Blue Kite is a lovely physical object: the paper is glossy, with full-bleed imagery on nearly every page. Flipping through it offers an unfolding kaleidoscope, as a hand-drawn kite moves across a harshly photographed sky. Text is interspersed throughout, with as few as 10 words on some pages and hundreds on others; the full story is probably no more than two or three thousand words.
The story focuses on a young boy named Kai, whom we first meet when he loses his red kite and, shortly thereafter, all of his friends too, as his family “is forced to move to a new place, where Kai [is] a stranger to everyone.” We follow the boy’s attempts to gain the confidence to fly a new blue kite that a beloved teacher gives him in his new grade school. In terms of plot, that’s all we get — eventually, Kai flies the blue kite and, in a phantasmagoric turn of events (with no text, just imagery), actually becomes the kite for dozens of pages. The tale feels incomplete, almost rushed, with the lush watercolor visuals outshining and drawing attention to the heavy-handedness of the story.
The opacity of the prose contrasts starkly with the beauty of the full-bleed imagery. The Little Blue Kite is filled with diffuse, over-stuffed sentences, such as: “Their dismissals hurt but Kai recognizes that great adventures often start in ways that those closest to you can’t commend and those you don’t know won’t even try to comprehend.” Danielewski tells a familiar story of a child growing up and gaining self-confidence, an admittedly welcome and universally appealing topic. But that’s all the book is really “about”: the kite provides a direct visual symbol that reinforces the textual search for self-confidence.
Danielewski does try to offer different levels of meaning for different audiences — as one might expect of an author who produces highly self-reflexive fictions like House of Leaves. The Little Blue Kite purportedly has a tripartite structure, with three options for proceeding through the text depending on the age or ability of the reader. Like the opening gambit in Julio Cortázar’s collage novel Hopscotch (1963), Danielewski includes an explanatory message on the bottom of the inside cover:
[T]here are at least three ways to read [this book]. The first takes only a few minutes. Just follow the rainbow. In fact, if you have a little extra time, you can read it right now. The second takes only a little bit longer. Just follow the words haloed with blue and red and the rainbow words too. For the third way, just start at the beginning.
Instead of helping, however, this reads like an awkward disclaimer, winking to the author’s adult readership while attempting to acknowledge his new youthful audience. I read the book all three ways and found myself thinking that Danielewski should have just picked one audience and stuck with it.
For a parent flipping through the book with a pre-literate child, this story is a gorgeous nightmare; even the youngest readers will likely enjoy the book’s dark magic, its scary imagery of lightning and flames, and its emotions of dread and terror, clearly captured in Kai’s cartoon expressions. Even if the story itself doesn’t succeed as well as it might, the visual poetry of the flowing pages hits the mark.
At his reading in Portland, Danielewski talked about the experience of making The Little Blue Kite along with his partner and collaborator, Regina M. Gonzales. He described sitting with a set of watercolors, in the weeks after his daughter’s birth, and painting the blue kite again and again, as a means of meditative release in response to the new reality of parenthood. There was undeniable power in this emotional confession, this frank acknowledgment of the novelty and terror of fatherhood. If we read The Little Blue Kite knowing these intimate details of its origin, the project may offer a more satisfying experience for Danielewski’s most loyal fans. Reading it in this vein, we see more of the artist’s vulnerability and humanity. Absent this knowledge of the book’s origins, however, the project feels incomplete, unfinished.
Still, Danielewski remains a visionary leader of experimental American fiction. Even with its flaws, The Little Blue Kite is clearly an attempt to create a new kind of children’s literature, a nuanced palimpsest with multiple levels of meaning. The author is obviously trying to stretch himself in new ways, and one can only hope that his greatest literary achievement may yet be ahead of him.