Fifty Year Sword, by Mark Z. Danielewski (2012)

One Sword Will Kill A Season…

Fifty Year Sword cover image

The Fifty Year Sword is frequently blurbed as “a ghost story for grown ups”, as if that were such a novel concept. The first layer of truth is that there have long been ghost stories for grown ups; the second layer of truth is that The Fifty Year Sword isn’t really a ghost story at all. If anything, it’s an experimental campfire tale, certainly with aspects of the uncanny but not a specter in sight.

On one level, it’s a fairly simple story. It’s a quick read—the page count screams novel, but the word count whispers novella, at best—and you can seamlessly get from (needle)point A to (needle)point B without thinking too hard about it. But on another level, it’s complex and multifaceted enough that it defies easy explanation.

The tale is told (presumably aloud, then transferred to paper) by five different narrators, each narrator indicated by a different colored “autumnal quotation mark” (the author’s preferred term). These narrators stop each other, interrupt one another, and pick up where the other left off to the point where you cease to notice the quotation marks at all, as they fade into meaninglessness, and they share a single, albeit slightly fractured, voice. They tell us the story of a seamstress named Chintana, reeling over the discovery that her husband has been unfaithful. She attends a Halloween party held by the aged Mose Dettledown, but unfortunately Belinda Kite—the woman her husband had an affair with—is in attendance as well. Rather than play nice with the grownups, she sits in on a story being told to five orphans by the Storyteller, a dark and mysterious man. He recounts the metaphysical journey that he had to undergo in order to get his hands on the titular Fifty Year Sword, an epic weapon of vengeance. And when his tale comes to a close, he opens up a box labeled T50YS and… Well, to say any more would be unfair.

Text sample from Fifty Year Sword

So narrative-wise, we’ve got five people telling one story about six people listening to a story told by one man. Just who are these narrators? It’s never explicitly stated, and is just one of many mysteries that readers of the novel love to debate. It seems likely to me that it is the very same orphans who are characters in the story that are telling the story—but some presume otherwise. Furthermore, the character’s names are all unusual…do they mean anything? Is there any significance to the scents of the candles so lovingly described in the text? And how on Earth could a sword kill an idea? You don’t have to ask these questions as you read the book, but if you don’t you’re missing out on half the fun.

Mark Z. Danielewski’s books are all treasure hunts, puzzle boxes, riddles and word games. They almost demand to be read in physical format, even when there is a digital version available—it’s a very tactile experience (though admittedly The Fifty Year Sword is less so than the author’s previous efforts).

The book is peppered with photographs of knitted illustrations that correlate with the staggered text, and doused liberally with blank pages on the right side of the binding. The dust jacket of the hardcover is perforated, as if punctured repeatedly with a needle. It’s these little touches that make the book a piece of art as much as a piece of literature. It’s these same touches that people also latch onto when they label it as pretentious or pointlessly weird. I’m of the mindset, however, that you can’t set out to create art and still remain pretension-free in everyone’s eyes. As for being weird, all of the weirdness feels as if it has a meaning…even when that meaning escapes me.

I found there to be a definite learning curve to this book—for the first reading, at least, I had to teach myself to shut out the competing voices of the narrators and read them as one unified voice. So the waters began a little choppy, but it quickly became smooth sailing right through to the end. A satisfying, and eventually quite magical, reading experience. It won’t be replacing House of Leaves in general rotation, but I will definitely be reading it again.

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