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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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder