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The Fifty-Year Sword

by Mark Z. Danielewski

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The Fifty-Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski
© Pantheon
Pantheon, October 2012

The staggering glory of Mark Z. Danielewski's first novel House of Leaves has unwittingly smothered each of the author's subsequent books. House of Leaves snuck onto bookshelves in 2000 with a dearth of mythos already around it: a haunted house story at its core, Danielewski crafted a claustrophobic reading experience like no other. Text swirls around the page through meta-textual frame stories and dizzying annotations, all amounting to one of the most genuinely scary reads out there. The mere existence of House of Leaves feels concerning, as if a certain madness somehow seeped from author to page. Danielewski's full-length follow-up, Only Revolutions (2006), feels like it is written in an unbreakable code. The story grows simultaneously from the back and front cover, towards the center, and readers are instructed to flip between the two every eight pages to experience the optimal text.

The Fifty-Year Sword, originally published as a Dutch limited edition in 2005, is similarly confounding. Expanded and illustrated, Pantheon has re-released Danielewski's elegiac ghost story as a full-length tome. More straightforward than his previously published output, The Fifty-Year Sword shows a more calculated and artistic author, albeit with mixed results.

In traditional ambitious Danielewski fashion, The Fifty-Year Sword is a textual anomaly: written for five voices, the story crumbles down the page in a series of fragmented quotations. Each quotation mark is color-coded to indicate which of five orphans is speaking, a visual feat that is far more pleasing to the eyes than ears. There's surely a way to untangle the myriad of voices in The Fifty-Year Sword, but the brevity of the text and relative simplicity of the actual story will urge readers to surrender to Danielewski's flow of words. The story reads like a Greek chorus around a campfire and is as puzzling as it is enchanting.
Centering around a seamstress named Chintana, the events of The Fifty-Year Sword take place during the fiftieth birthday party of Belinda Kite (ironically the same woman that Chintana's husband had been having an affair with). Set in a foster home, a storyteller arrives (with a long black box) to entertain the five orphan narrators during Kite's birthday party. Much of the book is a transcript of the storyteller's tale recounting the journey he took to find the eponymous sword, which may actually be contained in the box set before him:
"I am a bad man with a very black heart. And it was only that badness and blackness which forced me to seek out what I have / carried now for many years and brought this night for you. / Because you are young I will tell you I went in search of a weapon. / But also because you are young I will not tell you why I went in search of such a weapon, though in truth while I could speculate, / I am no longer capable of recalling the details myself. / When you are older you will be able to imagine what drove me on such a / quest. / You will know then more than me."

The fable that follows is one of quiet, philosophical vengeance and about one's constitution breaking apart at the seams.

As an objet d'art, The Fifty-Year Sword is an exceptional piece. Throughout the story, text only appears on one side of the gutter, opposite mesmerizing stitched artwork by a group called "Atelier Z." Certain thematic images (sword slashes, harvester butterflies) are rendered beautiful in zig-zagged, mutli-colored threads. These illustrations feel as essential to Danielewski's story as his own text and provide an essential new dimension to The Fifty-Year Sword. Without the aesthetic experience of reading The Fifty-Year Sword, the text may feel too slight to have any lasting impression. There's plenty thematic depth to the book (including a number of hat-tips to Nabokov's Pale Fire) but as a whole there's a thinness to The Fifty-Year Sword that will not consume readers like Danielewski's other two works. While House of Leaves had fans scouring the Internet for clues on its origins, the most readers will do with The Fifty-Year Sword is simply read it again in hopes of finding elements they might have missed.
Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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