BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Mark Z. Danielewski
Filed under: Literary, Other
I’m inclined to tell you that I’m not the audience for this, to brush off my dislike of it as a case of subjectivity, and shrug. But I’m not sure that’s true. Danielewski’s latest (though it was first published in 2005, more on that below) is a bizarre, experimental work, a semi-metafictional fable whose appeal lies as much in its presentation as its content.
And the thing is, I’m a pretty good audience for that. (I won’t say a “perfect” audience, since I didn’t like it at all, but a pretty good audience.) I love Nabokov’s Pale Fire, I love Robert Coover, I love John Barth (his “Lost in the Funhouse,” a quintessential metafictional work, remains my favorite story of all time), I even like knockoffs of these classics, like Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects.
Compared to those works of genuine, intelligent experimentation, The Fifty Year Sword reads like a children’s book. Its experimentation is often forced, unnecessary, and/or redundant, serving to obfuscate the story being told more often than illuminate it.
Sometimes brilliant eccentrics come up with works of stunning genius, and sometimes they come up with works of overcooked nonsense. You might get an idea of which this is if I quote from a short note regarding the history of this story: “Originally published as a large-size limited edition and subsequently performed only on Halloween night as a live shadow show, The Fifty Year Sword is finally available as an eBook and in hardcover, complete with newly stitched illustrations and autumnal quote marks.”
Beyond the silliness of the “live shadow show” portion of the history, this note also mentions the book’s two most notable experiments: stitched illustrations and colored quote marks. The illustrations are stitched because the “protagonist,” Chintana, is a seamstress, and because stitching is portrayed as the opposite of cutting, which is what swords do. (To make sure that you do not forget these themes, Danielewski incessantly uses stitching and cutting verbs throughout the narrative. The first line is, “No matter how you cut it” and it never stops. To my mind, this is one small notch above punning.)
Then there’s the matter of the “autumnal” quote marks. In another note, Danielewski refers to this book as a ghost story, and so, in another burst of literal-mindedness, it’s geared toward Halloween. And so the colored quote marks are “autumnal”: red, yellow, brown, orange, and darker brown. These quote marks are colored so that you can tell the difference between the five narrators. At the party, Chintana finds herself looking after 5 orphans who are being told a story by a mysterious “Story Teller.”
The book itself is narrated by these five orphans, and the quotes marks are colored to delineate “their respective and independently conducted interviews,” which happen years after the events. A problem arises: it’s nearly impossible to tell the narrators apart from tiny, similarly colored quote marks. Here’s a sample:
Luckily, the book reads much more smoothly if you simply ignore the differences between the narrators and read them as one voice. Since their narration often consists of lots of tiny phrases stitched (forgive me) together, it’s also nearly impossible to tell the difference between their voices. Nor is it important to the story. You might ask, why are there five narrators, instead of one? My guess: either a vestigial remnant from the shadow show that should’ve been changed, or another reference to cutting (from each of the separate interviews) and stitching. The five-piece narration illuminates nothing.
In the “enhanced” ebook version, there are also animations, music, and textual actions. The music is atmospheric and simple: a single piano scoring different pages as it might a film student’s thesis project. The animations are pretty cool, though questionably necessary. The textual actions are usually repetitive. When the Story Teller describes The Forest of Falling Notes, letters drop off the page (see a video of that here). When the Story Teller describes a flurry of slashing cuts, lines cut through the text. Etc.
These animations feel geared toward small children learning to read. They literally illustrate what the words are saying, as if we wouldn’t be able to imagine it otherwise.
If you can get past these issues, the story itself is a bit chilling, if ultimately disappointing and nearly entirely divorced from our supposed protagonist, Chintana. Chintana basically just watches while the Story Teller tells the five orphans a story about his own search for a dangerous sword.
If you wish to dig into the symbols and allusions, there are some interesting echoes and reflections, but none of it has anything to do with the characters, especially not with Chintana. And, if you’re digging that deeply, you’ll also uncover a whole trove of questions regarding the soundness of many of these authorial choices. Why do there need to be five orphans, again? For that matter, why does Chintana need to be there, when all she does is watch? If these five orphans were interviewed, who interviewed them, and why is he assholishly transcribing each of their misstatements (“probely,” “fortipify,” etc.)?
In the end, this plodding, effortful novel feels more contrived than anything. It certainly doesn’t deserve a place next to Coover and Barth.
Similar reads: Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov; Noir, by Robert Coover; Lost in the Funhouse (and other stories), by John Barth