The Fifty Year Sword
Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon, Random House
Mark Z. Danielewski does not write novels. He creates experimental visual art that morphs into and weaves through each of his brilliant stories. The playful and unique way he approaches every one of his books is remarkably inventive and what he creates is unlike any other writer working today. His other works, House of Leaves and Only Revolutions, have been characterized as visual writing or Ergodic literature and The Fifty Year Sword is no exception. Yet, if we strip away the word play, the colored words, quotes, and paragraphs, the book flipping, side-bars, stitchery, typography, and marginalia what we find at the core of every one of those books is an entertaining tale. And isn’t that what we, as readers, ultimately crave?
Experiencing, or participating in, one of his stories (notice I did not say “reading”) is a unique entertainment. This is the third distinctive “piece of art” of his that I've read in the past few years and still, all I can think to say is that this is another totally amazing piece of creative genius. The Fifty Year Sword is not so much a linear novel as a patchwork piece of poetic dialogue that when stitched together creates a dark, unnatural, and malevolent story. Mr. Danielewski plays with words like a master poet and some of his creations are brilliant - "a sudden blue jay avirarity," "gratefullyaccepatating," "consecawence," "sputstuttersobbed," and “s/word.” These are only a few of the more mischievous phrases you’ll find here yet, in context, they flow into the story and feel as if they’ve always been part of the English language.
In addition to the manipulation of language and the compelling story the book is filled with colored line stitching, needle punching, embroidery, and fabric art - the main character is a seamstress - making The Fifty Year Sword not only a pleasure to read but visually pleasing to touch, view, and experience, as well.
The first twenty pages or so set the tone, describe the scene, and introduce the main characters but when a mysterious Story Teller arrives at a Halloween Party and begins to weave his cunning tale The Fifty Year Sword comes to life. Five children and two adults assemble to hear the entertainment provided by the host. The Story Teller speaks of his search for an uncommon weapon, though he never tells us why. No knife, rope, explosive, or gun will do. The weapon he needs has to be extraordinary. One day he meets a homeless man who tells him of a weapon maker of unusual skill who sells curious tools of destruction but “never for money.” The Story Teller begins his quest to find this mysterious artisan of arms because he knows this man has exactly what he seeks.
The Story Teller travels from the Valley of Salt, to the Forest of Falling Notes, to the Mountain of Manyone Paths, hunting for the uncommon weapon he so desperately covets. And when he finds the weapon maker, a man with no arms (pun intended?), he barters "A memory you have which would have outlived you" for a Fifty Year Sword which causes no physical damage until the last second of the fiftieth year to whoever is struck.
And the Story Teller, a “bad man with a black heart” has come to this party to kill....
Of course, I'll not spoil the best part of the story except to say that the circuitous ending which is somewhat expected happens in a completely unpredictable and surprising manner to an unsuspecting character.
File with: E. E. Cummings, blood and gore, word-play, Stephen King, experimental textile art, poetry, The Brothers Grimm, visual writing, and stitchery. (Did I really just say stitchery?)
5 out of 5 stars