Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski

The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski

Brief Synopsis: A mysterious storyteller regales a group of orphans and some adult birthday party-goers with the tale of an invisible sword that always finds its mark, but which reveals no wound until the victim reaches his or her fiftieth year of life. The back of the book gets to the point better than I can.

Published: Trick question! This book was first published in 2005 as a VERY limited edition of 1,000 copies. It was then published commercially in 2012.

Format Read: Hardcover

Comparison: It is rare that I can compare anyone to the inimitable Walter Moers at all, much less cross-genre, but if there was such a thing as a horror version of The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, Mark Z. Danielewski would be the guy to write it. Both Danielewski and Moers have declared war on the plain page, attacking it from angles and avenues that must make their typesetters put extra bottles of Tums in their desks. Moers is darkly funny, while Danielewski is just dark, but they both employ a kind of artful whimsy that makes me gape at each new storytelling device like the kid from A Christmas Story staring down his Red Ryder bee-bee gun: "Whoa!" followed by a mind-clearing headshake and a solid nod of respect for these new kind of authors, these word-artists. Of course, in calling them a new breed, I've got to give a nod to a notable progenitor: e.e. cummings. His poetry pushed the envelope in a number of ways, but his unconventional use of word placement on the page to add dimension to his work changed the game.

Review: The next time you're sitting around and trying to decide if you should rewatch the last episode of Game of Thrones or flip through that last issue of Entertainment Weekly you forgot to cancel, just don't. Go to a bookstore (indies rule!) and get this book. You will be able to read it in the same amount of time as it takes your food to arrive at a nice restaurant, and it is so much better for you.

Before I dive into the story, I have to point out the beauty of the book itself. This book, maybe more than any other I can readily think of, makes use of its very form as a way to suck you into the narrative world. It manipulates the third dimension, of which you, reader, are a part, and does not allow you to be a passive consumer. Of course, you won't know that until you read the book, but it's still a darn nice package. The dust jacket is pricked with pinholes, a nod to the photographic stitched illustrations in the book and the "protagonist" (if there is one, besides the sword), Chintana the seamstress. Beneath the dust jacket, the book itself carries the theme with tangled blobs of red stitching enfolding it.

The total package, including the glossy pages and unusual illustrations, is as much art book as novella, and will have you staring at it with new eyes once you've read the final pages. If you want to know how blobs of thread pictured on a bookcover can be a spoiler, you need to experience Danielewski.

The book is narrated by five rotating narrators, identified only by different colored quotation marks. The story itself is told as if it is a children's tale, a simple hero's journey that grows in tension and terror with every page turn.

I studied the text at first, trying to discern which speaker might be which. I didn't want to miss anything hidden between the lines, and there's no DOUBT Mr. Danielewski hid stuff between these lines. Before long, I lost the point of the story by thinking too hard about it and trying to diagram the narrative like it was rocket science.

It isn't. Just read the book. Don't worry about the quotation marks, don't worry about anything. Just read the book and it will do its job.

And it is quite a job.

I love books like this. I love them. This book had me using every one of my five senses to experience a story with less actual words in it than some Facebook posts, and it impacted me. It made me PROUD of the author. He exercised such planning and restraint, creativity that seemed to simultaneously run wild and hold its margins to create a complete, concise story to sock you in your gut. It gives me prickles in my darkest creative parts, the places that need waking up sometimes to provide shadow and highlight to my work and ideas.

I love it.

In the end, this book is not for everyone. I had trouble even writing a decent synopsis for it because I don't know where to start. It's hard to review because I don't know how to describe it. Is it a short story? Novella? Poem? Art-piece? Who is the main character, really? Who is who in those blasted colored quotation marks?

I'm okay still having those questions left in me after having read the whole book. A lot of people aren't. I haven't read tons of other reviews on this book, but I know it was divisive among Danielewski's fans. Personally, I didn't feel gypped or dissatisfied, I felt challenged. Then I felt silly for feeling challenged by something so straightforward and simple at its core.

Then I just shut up and enjoyed it.

You enjoy it, too.

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