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Hybrid Novels at Their Finest with Danielewski’s "The Fifty Year Sword" - REVIEW

THE FIFTY YEAR SWORD by Mark Z Danielewski. 100 pp. Pantheon Books, 2012. $26.

As we have come to expect from Danielewski, a novel (or novella) for him is not just about the written story but also about how it is presented, one influencing the other and vice versa, both threading a unique and almost otherworldly experience. Like House of Leaves, The Fifty Year Sword (republished by Pantheon in 2012) possesses an intellectual play of contrasting styles, this one presented as a folktale about a seamstress at a party who listens to a mysterious man that tells a spooky story to five orphans. What ensues is a haunting ghost story that took me by surprise and stirred my very being.

It is indisputable that any terrifying, bone-chilling ghost story uncovers a lot more than just its titular ‘ghost.’ This also applies to the mysterious man that disappears after finishing his tale just as fast as he materialized. His story is in itself uncanny— perfectly balanced on the verge of fantasy and reality— but the shining moments are the emotional threads connecting Chintana and her people, the community as a whole. Thus, in actuality, the ghost is but a passing figure, a catalyst for inner reflection, a mere harbinger of mortality.

Danielewski's style of telling his story is the first indicator of an unnatural narrative, and it is surprisingly compelling. The book is presented as a retelling of past events from five anonymous speakers, each speaker marked with a differently colored quotation mark. This form sprinkles some confusion into the mix as all five participants have similar autumnal hues and their speaking patterns only vary slightly (one is more likely to use unconventional grammar than the others, another loves portmanteaus), but the line distribution masterfully mimics the realism of people talking at the same time or over each other. I tried reading only the passages of one speaker, but that did little to satisfy me since the intertwined, communal effect is apparent only with all five instances bundled together. That is the precise reason why the speakers are so deliberately modulated into almost merging into one chaotic entity; they — as singular beings— do not represent the story, but their emotional ties do: “one [...] / slept with / another [...]; and the last / of whom from a prison of a / later life hates them all.” Still, no matter the unnatural narrative style, we as readers get accustomed to it, which then turns the unnatural into natural. But then, with finesse and precision, Danielewski jars this new convention by adding untagged speech or shifting the warm color scheme to cold blues. All of this can be missed but, when noticed, the effect is arresting and— as stated in the preface— “only the worst should be assumed.”

Part of this ‘signiconic’ piece (from Danielewski’s perception that ergodic does not quite fit his works) is the latter half “icon,” defined here by both diffused illustrations and overall pagination. The text scatters on the page, almost mimicking free verse, cascading from ordered dialogue to even a single word on a page. This ties in with the overarching theme of ‘stitching,’ the visual markers (i.e. words) going in and out as the story unfolds. At times, the illustrations follow the speakers’ pacing and the story’s tension, but other times they entirely disrupt the pace through empty spacing. Unsurprisingly, these visual aspects created by Atelier Z are enthralling, but they are also invaluable to the story because they weave the ethereal, almost magical experience with the actual text. So, no gimmicks here.

Another element of pure authorial precision is the musicality of the story. As folktales are communal, verbal experiences, their inherent rhythm— pacing, repetitions, inhales and exhales— shape the narrative. The same thing happens here but is made all the more apparent by the theatrical adaptation conducted by Danielewski. The play combined actors’ dialogues, foley sounds, and a shadow show. While watching the performance, Danielewski’s vision became crystal clear as everything merged seamlessly. Clunkier passages like Speaker 1 - “Fact is what Chintana had discovered / since the divorce was that most everything / required” Speaker 2 - “Force!” Speaker 3 - “Opening her eyes, her hands [...]” Speaker 4 - “Forced!” Speaker 5 - “Force open the can of bitter tea leaves [...]” now flowed into one another until the source of the sounds nullified, but the power of those sounds lingered on like a ghostly conjuring.

It is safe to say that I was astonished by this reading experience, something that altered my action of reading into one of living within the story. The entire journey is sublime and sprinkled with all the human emotions on the specter, horror seeping through the cracks of the narrative, always present underneath the seams of our rational world. My only regret is that I could not read the novella with all the illustrations, so half of the conjoined uncanny atmosphere was missing, and painfully so. Still, I would confidently recommend it to everyone, with the strong suggestion to read from a physical copy; only then will the woven image be complete.


“What’s real or isn’t real doesn’t matter here. The consequences are the same.” - M. Z. Danielewski

My Rating: ★★★★☆ (closer to 5 than 4)



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