Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Review: The Fifty Year Sword

Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon, 2012
288 pp.

Strictly speaking, in terms of length, Mark Z. Danielewski's The Fifty Year Sword is not a novel (the word count puts it solidly in short story territory). In terms of scope, though, it's so much more. Danielewski has long been an experimenter, playing with notions of what fiction is, what it should be, and what it can be. This, his third book, is the perfect synthesis of his first, House of Leaves, and his second, Only Revolutions. The use of multiple narrators and occasion illustrations recall both, the color-coded narration OR, and the typographical quirks HoL. I wouldn't go so far as to call him a genius because of his approach, though I don't think it's out of line to label him an important innovator. 

The reason I hesitate to endow him with the laurels of genius in this case is because of the uneven writing craft on display in FYS. On the one hand, the five-plus narrators of this story act as a sort of Greek chorus, mimicking the strophes and antistrophes of classical plays such as Oedipus Rex, their voices barely distinct from each other and often overlapping as they interweave their dialogue. On the other hand, the reason such a device is necessary remains unclear to the reader from start to finish. Furthermore, as ghost stories go, this one is what one might consider standard. Yes, there is tension. Yes, it falls outside the realm of "ghosts," though it is certainly supernatural. However, it doesn't expand the genre in the same way House of Leaves did over a decade ago. Some might reply that if the genre isn't broke, we should not fix it; however, in this age of upheaval, the time is ripe (as Danielewski himself proved with HoL) to plumb further depths. 

But FYS is not without its merits. Danielewski's language is, by turns, cummings-esque, Whitman-esque, and--most importantly--Poe-esque. After all, what kind of writer would Danielewski be if he didn't pay homage to experimental authors of the past? FYS also has the distinct advantage of being less dense than its predecessor, Only Revolutions, which I must admit I never finished reading thanks to its complex eight-pages-at-a-time structure (those of you who have encountered it will understand this; those who have not might heed my warning to give it a wide berth). And it perhaps serves as a gentler entrance point for anyone interested in Danielewski's work. After all, House of Leaves is a complex and intimidating tome that--if I am to be honest--scared the hell out of me, though I'm not known for my fortitude when it comes to horror stories, though I'm not sure I'd be so impressed with Danielewski if I had started with FYS instead.

Ultimately, Danielewski still makes me want to be a better writer, or at least a better book designer. His imagination is boundless and labyrinthine, his tics unmistakable, and his influence undeniable.

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