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