The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski

One sword will kill a season. One will kill a country. One I’m making now will even kill an idea.

The Fifty Year Sword is a short novella that was originally released as a highly limited run in 2006, and was later turned into a live performance piece; it was finally reprinted in a wider release in 2012. The story concerns a seamstress, Chintana, who attends a 50th birthday party – which turns out to be thrown for the woman who broke up Chintana’s marriage. Rather than face the other people attending, she instead attaches herself to a group of five orphans who are waiting to see a storyteller – the man that arrives is strange and dark, and tells them a tale of revenge and a search for a sword, which he carries with him in a long box with five latches. It is, in essence, a kind of ghost story. The man is unexplained, his reasons for revenge mysterious, his story perhaps inappropriate for the children but exactly right for Chintana.

The story is told in a jumble of fragments, a series of colour-coded quotation marks attributing the words to five different speakers – anonymous, but perhaps the children from the story-telling recounting the events much later. I tried to keep track, at first, of which colour spoke each part, but the lines are too fragmented to really make sense of the individuals behind them, and I found in the end it was much easier to simply let the story carry me along without worrying much about what these five voices meant. I imagine the live performance of The Fifty Year Sword must have been quite something, with five actual speakers lending their voices to this jumble.

The quotes do lend an extra layer of unreality to the already strange story: if the introduction is to be believed, these are fragments of five separate interviews, along with the occasional unquoted interjection, cut up and rearranged and put back together into a “perhaps altogether alternate history of one October evening in East Texas”.

The book itself is a piece of art. It seems every Mark Z. Danielewski book is in its own way. It’s not just the words on the page, it’s the format, the layout, the colours – the entire presentation of the book in its physical form. This book is illustrated throughout with stitching, shapes in coloured thread that reflect and enhance the content of the story. The threads appear as if stitched into the pages themselves, surrounding and sometimes severing the words. When the story-teller travels in valleys, the threads form mountain walls around the words; when the forest closes in around him, the threads form an increasingly chaotic tangle of branches and streamers. Blades in the story appear as slashes in paper, stitching forming the hilts. The red stitches of the book’s own binding become visible at regular intervals along the central seam. This is real evidence of why paper books will never be totally replace by digital ones.

It is a beautiful book, and I enjoyed it thoroughly, brief as it is. I found it much easier to get into than Only Revolutions, Danielewski’s most recent novel, and it now comes pretty close to his superlative House of Leaves among my favourites.

[Interior image from book taken from this blog post, where you can see several other images of its excellent design.]

Words WordPress “proofread” doesn’t know: unquoted, attaches.

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