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Danielewski, Mark Z.: The Fifty Year Sword

The Fifty Year Sword (2012)
Written by: Mark Z. Danielewski
Genre: Fantasy/Poetry
Pages: 288 (Hardcover)

Why I Read It: I've never read Danielewski until now. That's impressive, because my husband has been badgering me to read House of Leaves for years, but because my husband is so obsessed with the author and his work, I'm fully aware of just how difficult Danielewski can be to read. It requires time and lots of patience, and I knew that I wouldn't read House of Leaves until I was in the right mood for it. I always assumed that would be the first thing of Danielewski's I read, but my husband recently finished The Fifty Year Sword, thought I'd like it and insisted it'd only take an hour for me to read, and because he so badly wanted to discuss the book with someone, I decided to give it a go.

The premise: ganked from In this story set in East Texas, a local seamstress named Chintana finds herself responsible for five orphans who are not only captivated by a storyteller’s tale of vengeance but by the long black box he sets before them. As midnight approaches, the box is opened, a fateful dare is made, and the children as well as Chintana come face to face with the consequences of a malice retold and now foretold.

Spoilers, yay or nay?: Nay. This is not really the type of book/story that you can really spoil, so feel free to keep reading, unless you're in a hurry, and in that case, skip to "My Rating" and you'll be fine.

Discussion: Truthfully, I have very little to say about this book. Danielewski, more than any other author I've heard about or read, is an artiste, and yes, I'm saying that with a hard "t" and no real sarcasm. I will say he's the kind of artist that will turn down millions of dollars just to preserve his artistic vision, which is fine, but he's also the kind of artist that borders on the line of being difficult and annoying, in that while you're reading, there's a chance there's a part of your brain wondering why this can't be written like any other book.

Of course, if it were written like any other book, I don't think Danielewski would get the acclaim he does. And for that matter, especially with The Fifty Year Sword, story and format go hand-in-hand. You could type this out like a traditional-looking poem, or even put it in prose format, but there's a lot that would be lost.

Because Danielewski is nothing if not deliberate. And now that I've read this, albeit the shortest and quite possibly the easiest to read of his works, I understand why fans are driven to sheer obsession analyzing every. single. little. thing. that goes into a Danielewski book.

In this case, I would kill to hear this read aloud. It's a poem for goodness sake, and it's one told in five voices, though those voices are only distinguishable by the color of quotation marks used, and even then, those colors are in the same color family, so even distinguishing some of the colors takes great patience. Of which I had none while reading, so I gave up trying to look for meaning in the choice of "speakers" and just read it as a poem. But still: an audiobook with a different speaker for each "color" presented in the text? That would be fucking awesome.

There's a rule of five in this book, something that struck me when I was close to the end. I can't say this with any certainty, but I would not be surprised if one were to sit down and count all the sets of five that appear in this book, if we wouldn't end up with ten sets. Because 5 x 10 = 50. And the title is, of course, The Fifty Year Sword. We've got five orphans, five speakers, five candles, five windows, five latches on a box…. yes, it seems like the kind of think Danielewski would do. A kind of game within the book, or perhaps rather an Easter egg. It's something I would make a point to look for if I re-read it.

I don't want to talk about the story itself. I do want to say that despite the appearance on the page, it is NOT a difficult read. It's quite fascinating, actually, to pause where pauses exist, to admire the illustrations through out the book and note the movement from page to page (some pages are blank though, and even that is worth consideration). And the writing itself reminded me at times of Catherynne M. Valente. Phrases like on page 154 (I'm not going to reproduce the formatting. Sorry):

And right then the Story Teller also jerked back, his two hands pale as February

There's more poetry to the above line, of course, when you read it in the book, with all its various breaks, but the description alone is just delightful. One might even call it lovely. And that's just a hint: there are many swords described in this book, and that passage is so Valente-esque that I was giddy with delight (page 174):

"that one kills the color green."

And page 194, which I will not quote, rather cumulates the whole notion of sword-making, and it's just a powerful passage and page. Please, when you read this, take note.

My Rating: 7 - Good Read

I was tempted to rate this a "6 - Worth Reading with Reservations," but honestly, one should always read Danielewski's work with a great number of reservations. Not because he's a bad writer, but because he's a very intentional, deliberate writer, one that demands the full and total attention of his readers. Pity the reader who stumbles onto Danielewski blindly, who does not know what they're really in for. I think, with this author, that preparation is half the battle: once you know what you're in for, you can make sure you're in the right mood to read him, unless you're already a hard-core fan and such concerns do not apply to you.

The Fifty Year Sword was a quite enjoyable gateway into Danielewski's work. I'm no stranger to prose-poetry in novel format (if you haven't yet read Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow, you should really correct that), and this was a breeze to get through once I picked up the rhythm and format, and it didn't take long. I'd warn many readers that it may be better to get this from the library first: if you're not already a collector of this author, you might not feel the hardcover price is worth your money, simply because the story itself is told only on the left pages, leaving many of the right pages completely blank, or allowing for various illustrations. Also, be prepared for words that are mashed up in ways that aren't common, as well as intentional misspellings. The latter was rather interesting, because at times it brought the accent of the characters to life. Other times, my eyes glazed over them, reading the word for what it was and not actually sounding it out in my head.

This is why I think an audiobook of this would be fabulous. Especially an audiobook in five voices.

Cover Commentary: Pretty plain and boring, to be honest. But if you remove the dust jacket (which does have an interesting texture, as though holes have been poked through the entire thing), you get a much prettier and more fascinating cover to look at. See?

Next up: Every Day by David Levithan


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 21st, 2013 06:05 am (UTC)
I really liked House of Leaves, but it was a hard slog. I have been meaning to read this for a while. I think I will skip his other work, Only Revolutions.
Jan. 21st, 2013 12:56 pm (UTC)
My husband tried reading Only Revolutions when it came out but finally gave up. It's insanely difficult. However, since reading The Fifty Year Sword he's giving it another go. So far, so good. We'll see what the verdict is!
Jan. 21st, 2013 05:34 pm (UTC)
Interesting! I love House of Leaves; I'll have to give this one a go.
Jan. 21st, 2013 06:05 pm (UTC)
Definitely do! Be sure to share your thoughts. :)
Jan. 21st, 2013 10:17 pm (UTC)
I tried reading Only Revolutions when I was 19 (four years ago) and just... couldn't do it. It's very stream-of-consciousness and uses all kinds of made up words and I just couldn't make any of it out. I may try this out though, just because it's so short (and I'm still interested in trying House of Leaves too.)
Jan. 22nd, 2013 12:33 am (UTC)
This is a good gateway. My husband, who's read House of Leaves twice, couldn't get into Only Revolutions the first time he tried. He's trying again now. :)
Jan. 22nd, 2013 12:44 am (UTC)
Maybe I'm a weirdo, but I didn't find House of Leaves difficult at all. I mean, yes, it's narratively weird and sometimes you have to flip the book upside down or whatever, but the prose is readable smooth and the story is straightforward in the middle of all the flourishes (and pretty conservative, as horror stories tend to be). You don't have to read it if you don't want to (and I'll admit that I found Only Revolutions to be completely impenetrable) but if you're curious, don't let the hype scare you away!
Jan. 22nd, 2013 12:47 am (UTC)
I've really just been psyching myself out, but I think this Halloween I'll give it a go. I always like to read something scary in October!

My hubby gave up on Only Revolutions when he first tried reading it a few years ago. But he's trying again now, and so far, so good.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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