Mark Danielewski | The Fifty Year Sword (Pantheon)

In terms of writing, The Fifty Year Sword is a story that almost begs to be read aloud.

 

 

 

285 pages. Pantheon, 2012. $26.00 (hardcover), $100 (collector’s edition with slipcase). With illustrations by Regina Gonzales, Claire Kohne, and Michele Reverte.
 
How do you place a value on a weapon? Do you judge it by how many lives it can extinguish? How efficiently it can take them? Suppose someone forged a weapon sharp enough to rend a memory in two, powerful enough to destroy a season in a single stroke; how much would such a blade be worth? These are the questions posed at the end of Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword.
 
The Fifty Year Sword is a tale of suspense, murder, and intrigue that begins, of all places, during a party at an East Texas ranch house. An unsuspecting seamstress named Chintana finds herself thrown into the role of chaperon for a rambunctious group of orphans. However, just as the children begin to rise beyond her ability to control them, in walks a storyteller, a mysterious man carrying a long, narrow, sealed box. Soon after he sits down, Chintana and the children find themselves drawn into a tale that takes them through lands both strange and dangerous in pursuit of a weapon to surpass all others.
 
In terms of writing, The Fifty Year Sword is a story that almost begs to be read aloud. The wording has the feel of standard novel prose but the format is reminiscent of contemporary free verse poetry, with an amalgamated word thrown in now and again for good measure. Danielewski spaces out his sentences in unconventional ways, sometimes splitting them between lines or paragraphs, sometimes even in the middle of a word. This experimental story format has the effect of forcing the reader to remain consciously engaged as they read each line to better measure each word for importance and meaning, yet at the same time it prevents the reader from losing themselves in the story. They must tell the story to themselves as if reading to an audience.
 
The story’s illustrations were just as unconventional as the story they illuminated. The images, referred to as “stitchings,” did a wonderful job of highlighting the abstract nature of the story. When you examine them, they look as if they were literally bound into the text. At times the stitchings are woven through the text, and at others they are off to the side, but they are always a part of the story. They provide greater color and depth than words alone can supply.
 
In the end, this is a story that, while requiring a greater level of focus to read, is also a tale any reader is unlikely to forget. This is the kind of story that you could see being read around a campfire or in some shadowed room on All Hallows Eve. But wherever you read it, there’s no denying that it’s perfect for this season of strangeness, shadows, and spirits. | Brent Mueller

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