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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Why Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were a real horror couple

BBC Radio 4's My Muse sees Kathryn Williams explore the eerie side of Plath's life.

The first in a three-part series in which artists describe the figures that have most inspired them (Mondays, 4pm) followed the English singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams as she went, first, on a pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath’s grave and later to a favourite spot of the poet’s atop Parliament Hill. Williams has written an album devoted to Plath and we heard bits from it – but those weren’t the moments that conjured up the poet. It was when Williams approached the grave in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire – and thunder clapped from nowhere as she reached the headstone (with its inscription from the Chinese: “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted”) – that this story really got going. “It’s baking hot,” she croaked, “and there’s thunder behind me!”

Occasionally we heard Plath herself reading from poems, talking in that Katharine Hepburnish way, a way you can’t quite believe she spoke in actual life, oddly decelerated and lustrous, slowing into a relentless and deeply uncanny imperiousness. Then, just as Williams visited the bench on Parliament Hill where Plath sat wretchedly after a miscarriage in 1961, a rat ran past her feet. “Wow! Look! What is going on?” By now both presenter and programme were deep into the boding mood that Plath can put you – the sort of mood where you’re bound to meet a million portents and omens. Someone mentioned a woman who thought she saw a picture of herself in the newspaper one day . . . and only after some time did she realise that it was Sylvia.

A more spooky Plath-Hughes ­experience you couldn’t make up. Both poets, masters of the harbinger. Sylvia pulling the worms off her body (“like sticky pearls”) after coming to, following a childhood suicide attempt, lying in a nook under the ­family house. Ted with his horoscopes and his dreams, recalling the howling of wolves in the aftermath of Sylvia’s death (London Zoo was just down the road from him). They were the great horror-writing couple: it is an abashingly real element, vital to their appeal. “Need”, “want”, “an addictive pull”, “moon” and “sea” – those were the sorts of words Williams used in speaking about Plath, in her kind and curious Liverpudlian voice, and with her songwriter’s noticing eye. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser