I wrote a piece for the New Statesman on Mark Z. Danielewski.
The Fifty Year Sword
Mark Z. Danielewski
Cargo books, 284pp, £20 hardback.
Heralding one of their own as “America’s most successful experimental writer” is a bold claim for any publisher to make. It’s the type of epithet proudly placed crown-like on a young writer’s head for novel number one but which turns into a millstone around their neck. Fourteen years since his inventive and exhausting debut novel House Of Leaves signposted a new route for the American horror novel and 48 year old Mark Z Danielewski is wearing the description – actually 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 doing so. Re-mixing words on your own blog does not an innovator make. That is mere typing. Yet his press file and a new book deal worth a reported a million dollars suggest Danielewski has both.
Signed in 2011, the seven figure sum is for the first ten parts of a forthcoming twenty-seven volume novel entitled The Familiar, due to be published in 2015 in quarterly instalments. Claiming he wants to bring the “watercooler moment” that the best in contemporary TV inspires to the world of literature, and citing Lord Of The Rings, Moby Dick and Dickens’ episodic novels as particular inspirations, Danielewski is tight-lipped about this epic work’s actual contents, his US publisher Pantheon revealing little other than that it features “a 12-year-old female protagonist who saves a cat.” This surely makes it one of the most profitable book pitches in the business.
Indeed everything about the presentation of his career to date – and presentation is an intrinsic part of forty-eight year old Danielewski’s work – seems geared towards selling him as watercooler writer: that enigmatic Z in his name, a Twitter feed recently consisting of photos of distant galaxies and the occasional cat and a general air of contrived mystery.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, pop culture has responded accordingly: he once supported Depeche Mode and Scottish rock band Biffy Clyro wrote a best-selling album about and named after Danielewski’s second 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. As far as I can tell, a Top 5 hit is not something that Shandy, Joyce, Calvino, BS Johnson and David Foster Wallace ever inspired.
It is this milieu of writers to which Danielewski loosely belongs – those whose entire output can each be condensed into four words: “what is a novel?”. In the case of The Fifty Year Sword, first published in the US in 2012, the answer is a desirable objet d’art first conceived as a large-scale shadow puppet show performed in LA on Halloween.
Much trademark visual trickery abounds, Danielewski’s initially playful language 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 fire-side tale, in which a story teller is invited to entertain five orphans at an adult’s birthday party held by one Belinda Kite in east Texas. He bring with him a weapon capable of inflicting wounds that only become visible as the victim turn fifty. 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 – both literally in the binding of the American edition and the reproductions of bespoke stitched illustrations, and 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 writer then, than a weaver of cross-format narratives. Fortunately his attention to aesthetic detail is matched in his occasionally masterful use of language; without it this would merely be the latest lavishly disposable distraction in any hipster design companies’ toy-box. Though a one-sitting read, it is an oppressive and stifling world that he creates, his constrictive prose tightening like a boa around a rat. The effect is akin to Stephen King re-writing Richard Brautigan or Poe’s stories broken down for the Twitter generation. It would the smart executive who would sign up Danielewski to see what he could concoct in an era where US TV drama is seriously challenging the novel for narrative supremacy. In the meantime he continues to take literature into bold new directions.