Mysterious story: a family by a campfire in New York state, 2010. Photo: Getty
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Heavy meta: The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z Danielewski

At the heart of this book is a tense fireside tale, in which a storyteller is invited to entertain five orphans at an adults’ birthday party.

The Fifty Year Sword
Mark Z Danielewski
Cargo, 285pp, £20

 

“America’s most successful experimental writer” is the type of epithet proudly placed, crown-like, on a young writer’s head for their debut novel – but that later slips and becomes a millstone around their neck. Fourteen years since his inventive and exhausting debut, House of Leaves, signposted a new route for the American horror novel, 49-year-old Mark Z Danielewski is wearing that description, taken from a New York Times review, well. The key is perhaps in the words “most successful”, the implicit point being that anyone can be an experimental writer but few ever achieve critical, much less commercial, success. Danielew­ski, whose current book deal is reportedly worth a million dollars, has done so.

Signed in 2011, the deal is for the first ten parts of a forthcoming 27-volume novel entitled The Familiar, due to be published in quarterly instalments from some time in the next year. Claiming he wants to bring the “water-cooler moment” that the best of contemporary TV inspires to the world of literature and citing The Lord of the Rings, Moby-Dick and Dickens’s episodic novels as particular inspirations, Danielewski is tight-lipped about this epic work’s contents. His US publisher, Pantheon, reveals little more than that it features a 12-year-old female protagonist who saves a cat.

Everything about the presentation of his career to date (and presentation is an intrinsic part of his work) seems geared towards selling Danielewski as a water-cooler writer – that enigmatic Z in his name; a Twitter feed recently consisting of photos of distant galaxies (and the occasional cat); a general air of contrived mystery.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, popular culture has responded accordingly. He once supported Depeche Mode in concert and the Scottish rock band Biffy Clyro wrote a hit album about – and named after – Danielew­ski’s novel Only Revolutions, a tricksy road-trip tale of two teenagers travelling through American history that is told through a dual narrative to be read alternately from both physical ends of the book. Did B S Johnson or David Foster Wallace ever inspire a top-ten hit?

It is this milieu of writers – reaching back to Calvino, Joyce and Sterne – to which Danielewski loosely belongs, those whose entire output can be condensed into four words: “What is a novel?” In the case of The Fifty Year Sword, which was first published in Holland in 2005, the answer is a desirable objet d’art (the story was also staged in 2010 as a large-scale shadow-puppet show in LA on Hallowe’en).

Visual trickery abounds. Danielewski’s initially playful language is delineated throughout with colour-coded speech marks representing different interwoven voices. Many opposing pages are left blank. At the heart of The Fifty Year Sword, though, is something quite traditional: a tense fireside tale, in which a storyteller is invited to entertain five orphans at an adults’ birthday party held by a woman called Belinda Kite in east Texas. He brings with him a weapon capable of inflicting wounds that become visible only as the victim turns 50. The sword has a “type of blade – milky white/glossy/and cold, like/a fog creeping low across a morning before/a funeral”. You don’t need telling how old Kite is.

The narrator, Chintana, a divorcee whose husband may have had an affair with Kite, is a seamstress and it is threads that hold this book together – literally in the binding of the US edition and the reproductions of bespoke stitched illustrations; symbolically in the strands of dialogue that are often left dangling. As the clock strikes midnight for Belinda Kite, The Fifty Year Sword becomes a novel about “holding it together”.

Danielewski is less a linear writer, more a weaver of mixed-media narratives. Fortunately his attention to aesthetic detail is matched in his occasionally masterful use of language; without it, The Fifty Year Sword would be a lavishly disposable distraction in a hipster design company’s toy box. Instead he creates an oppressive and stifling world, his prose tightening like a boa around a rat. It’s a one-sitting read.

The effect is akin to Stephen King rewriting Richard Brautigan, or Poe’s stories broken down for the Twitter generation. It would be a smart executive who signs up Danielewski to see what he could concoct in an era when American television drama is seriously challenging the novel for narrative supremacy. In the meantime, Daniel­ewski continues to take literature into bold new directions.

Benjamin Myers’s novel “Pig Iron” (Bluemoose, £7.99) won the 2013 Gordon Burn Prize

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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