Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Fifty Year Sword

     The rundown is as follows: While The Fifty Year Sword is a great book and a good example of Mark Z. Danielewski's unique way of telling a story while turning it inside out, the gimmick of five separate narrators overlapping with different-colored quotation marks actually takes away from the story. By cluttering the relatively-short book with an unneeded visual gimmick, Danielewski does himself a disservice and creates a minor turn-off for people who would normally be into this kind of book. In its favor is the fact that it's essentially a children's book for adults, and hiding under the simplistic language is a genuinely creepy story that even when you guess the eventual ending manages to hold its tone and deliver something chilling. Despite the gimmick, the childlike language coupled with the eerie imagery creates a horror story that is at once instantly engaging and easy to understand. 

           The bad bit of course is the gimmick, which obscures a really cool book by having five people talk in nested quotation marks to tell a story. Please, once and future authors who read this blog, don't ever do this. Don't ever have your narrators narrate nested like this. More, as always, below.

"Ah, your heart is blacker than will ever be told. But that is why you are here."

             Constant readers of this blog (all two of you) will of course remember Mark Z. Danielewski from his unhinged classic House of Leaves, an unnerving tale involving a house that keeps growing told within a film within a critical essay within an edited manuscript. Hell, even non-constant readers have probably heard of the book, as it's continued to gain success and acclaim via word of mouth, at least in the circles I travel in. So when I was in The Strand back at the beginning of January, when I saw a new book of his sitting on the shelf next to the usual copies of House and the somewhat-forgettable (at least to me) Only Revolutions, I was intrigued. It sounded like a return to the unnerving territory of House of Leaves and intrigued me in a way that few books are able to. Upon researching it, I found precious little information on it at first, but what I did find told me enough about the book to know I wanted to read it. Possibly even own it. So, upon my next visit to the library (Seriously, the guys out here are on the ball. Very on the ball.) I found it in the "new books" section (next to the next Demi-Monde book...which I will get around to shellacking eventually) and immediately took it home along with last week's book, Lunatics. And it is...well...interesting.

             The Fifty Year Sword is the story of a seamstress named Chintana in East Texas. On Halloween night, she's invited to the Halloween party of Mose Dettledown, a hundred and twelve year old woman who (it is said) throws the best parties in town and is something of a social hit. Mose has, as it also turns out, invited Belinda Kite-- the woman who broke up Chintana's marriage with her husband. While Chintana tries to avoid the rather boisterous and boozy Belinda, she finds herself entangled in the antics of five orphan children and their social worker. The children seem entirely unable to sit still, even with the promise of a storyteller there to tell ghost stories. But finally, Chintana and the orphans find themselves up in Mose Dettledown's attic, where a tall man in black decides to tell them a very dark story, one connected to the long black case he carries.

And then things get weird

            The case is said to contain the man's Fifty Year Sword, a blade that can cut through anything, but whose damage will not show until the fiftieth year of its subject's existence. And as the man's story of how he came by the fearsome blade continues, the orphans begin to open up the latches on the long black case, leading to a moment that will linger in the memories of the participants...

             I suppose the main strength of the book is the way the story is framed. With its thread illustrations (every picture in the book is either done in watercolor or sewn using a colored needle and thread), its simple language and odd place names, it feels like a children's book. Even the nested story sounds like a children's story, where the Storyteller goes to see the Man with No Arms to get a sword for an unknown and rather black-hearted purpose. It is this idea-- the story as a ghost story or a rather twisted children's book-- that makes the story appealing. I have a thing for books where it seems like it's a forgotten folktale, or an urban legend that people haven't told as often. It's what brought me to the phenomenon known as creepypasta. Danielewski both sets his story in a place where a lot of legends come from, and then follows through by matching in tone and word choice in a way that manages to actually be fairly chilling. And, since it is effective, it's a definite plus.

             The other strength of the book is the imagery involved. Between the story and the thread illustrations, as well as the way that Danielewski plays around with text, the images help tie you in. And since the characters are vague shadows at best, the imagery counts for a lot-- you can see Chintana simply from the descriptions given about her, and the titular case is actually depicted on the page, with its five latches standing out from the dark background. This really helps draw the reader in, and between the imagery and the framing, the story has a very good, foreboding atmosphere. Even the text placement adds to this, creating isolated space on one page, or fragments of words when something falls apart. While it's similar to the way Danielewski used words to create atmosphere in House of Leaves, it actually works better here, as the style in which the book is executed is more primed for it*. 

         But it is these things that lead me to the biggest weakness of the book: The main gimmick. Having the five sets of quotation marks actually does nothing to aid the story. In fact, the story actually stumbles by having the quotation marks there...unless you finally ignore them, they actually serve to do more harm...each person is reading a line of the story, but do I follow them as five different voices, or do I read them as voices telling the story? In researching the book, I came up with the interesting nugget that it used to be a performance piece, and in this case it makes sense. If read as a script, the different colored quotation marks actually serve to add to the story, as each person comes in at different times, and the nested quotation marks start to make sense as people reading the line at the same time.

        In the end, though, whether you ignore the question marks or not, what you have is a slight, if brilliant read. It hits all the right notes, it's a spooky story with the right hint of fantasy to keep the tone from going completely grim, and it hits the same notes for me as a Sid Fleischman book used to, but with a much more mature and creepy bent. Instead of the possibility of death, there is at least one very real, very violent death contained within. I like this book, but as it is a very thin volume with a distracting gimmick, I'm going to suggest taking it out of the library or ILLing it if you want to give it a read. It's still worth giving a look. And, if anyone has any link to the performance piece, please put it in the comments below. I'd really like to compare.

- A return to the Culture with Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
- Transition by Iain M. Banks


*I apologize for that last sentence.

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