Those of you who know me fairly well know my love for House of Leaves, the debut novel by Mark Z. Danielewski (and a book I eventually plan to re-read and review/write out all my thoughts on at some point in the near future). Danielewski is a writer who likes to challenge the reader. His books are intricately designed to invite re-reading to discover hidden gem. As much as I loved his debut, his second work, Only Revolutions is one I just could not get into.
So when it came to The Fifty Year Sword, I was a bit trepidatious. Instead of three narrators like in his other books, there are six in this one. And five of them are all speaking at once, only separated by color coded quotation marks. It’s a bit overwhelming at first. However, it’s easier to go through this upon first read as though it’s one coherent train of thought, because basically, at it’s heart, this is a poem masquerading as a ghost story. Each one of the narrators starts a sentence with another continuing the story. It’s prose posing as dialogue.
The plot concerns a Thai seamstress named Chintana living in East Texas with a chip on her shoulder against Texas native and bully, Belinda Kite, who had an affair with Chintana’s husband. The affair led to their divorce. The story opens as Chintana finds herself invited to a Halloween/birthday party held by the 112 year old Mose Dettledown, in which Belinda Kite will be in attendance. Out of polite respect Chintana attends the party and tries to put her feelings towards Little on hold; and it helps her to be distracted by the appearance of a an unnamed social worker and the five rambunctious orphans in her charge. The social worker has brought them to hear a story-teller who is supposed to show up.
Things are not what they seem, however, as the storyteller is a dark figure who describes himself as an evil man. He has brought a box with five latches, all of which one of the orphans must help open. Inside the box lays the weapon of the books title. But before that disastrous event, they must listen to the story of how such a blade was obtained, and this is the most entertaining part of the story.
Danielewski has a way of making books meta. His works are meant to make the reader as much a part of the story as the characters. As the story-tellers tale becomes more and more intense, stichwork drawings begin to litter the pages. Slash marks appear as the sword cuts through some as well. And then the five latches of the box are opened by the orphans — and the reader — page, by page.
What happens next is subject to interpretation.
It’s a very intense and surprising work. And probably Danielewski’s most accessible book to date; but don’t let make you think this is simple. The format and writing technique, while engaging, are probably too challenging for the casual reader (which is a staple of the author). There is a lot of things going on in this story and it requires more than one read through, but I read the book in probably a little over an hour in one sitting though, so it makes the multiple jaunts a bit simpler than in Daniewlski’s other epic works. I’m still a bit torn on how I feel about it, it’s a very fun read, but there is so much implied from the five multiple narrators (the novel hints they may be the orphans recanting the events) to the reasons behind the story of the book that it seems either everything is pregnant with meaning or just a bunch of clever bull crap meant to confound the reader into thinking there is more to this than there actually is.
If you’re interested or inclined there is also a shadow spoken word play (in five parts, of course) of the story which I’m including for your enjoyment and convenience below. I have not watched it as of this writing but I intend to do so later in the evening. I’m sure it’s pretty good, and will help differentiate the five voices telling the story.
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