The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski – review

This review is not going to do The Fifty Year Sword justice in many ways, because I just don’t have the time to tear it apart the way I want, to map it out, etc. because it’s a library book, it’s new so I can’t review it, and it is due tomorrow. And this is something that I think is made to be torn apart, almost on a literal level of pulling the book from its cover and pulling the thing apart to look at the binding and everything. That’s with a pretty barebone story that seems pretty straight forward and short, if taken on a purely “here’s the story” sort of level.

Off and on for the past several months I have brought up Building Stories and its thinginess. Whenever you talk to someone who loves books, the actual physical things, it always come down to the tactile experience of the object, and Building Stories goes about this with this vast array of forms and styles. Danielewski has approached the idea of thinginess from somewhat of a different angle. House of Leaves was a textual feast. Danielewski toys with text, twisting and turning it, physically shaping  the formatting  to tell as much of the story as the words themselves. With The Fifty Year Sword Danielewski brings the same textual tricks to the table, and he plays around some more with quotation marks. In fact, the quote marks are really significant to this story, because it is told through a series of quotes, where it’s like you are sitting at a table at a diner and five people are all telling a story to you and they continually bounce off of each other, taking up the thread of narrative for a moment or two before someone else jumps in and does their and the entire novel is told in this round robin sort of way.

What lets you know when a different person takes up the narrative is the color of the quotation marks. Something that I really wish I had the time to do is to go through and map out what each colored quote mark says throughout the novel, and see if there is a story being told by each one, and how exactly each one “speaks.” To make things more complicated there are moments where one color quote seems to be quoting another color quote. Oh, and did I mention that occasionally there are larger question marks that appear to be stitched? And, if I had better eyes, I wonder if the smaller quotes are also stitched. I think there is a good chance that they are, and that’s something else that stands out in a big way when you start looking through the text.

The photos in the book appear to be rather high quality. I think the quotes are pictures of actual stitched quotation marks. With the larger quotes you can see the individual threads. Throughout the book are a series of stitched symbols or just stitched art work that sort of defies explanation other than to say that they are metaphorical takes on places being talked about in the text. And with the photos of the stitches, you can see the threads but you can also see the areas in the paper or material that is exploded up where the need punched through it. in areas where paper is folded, you can see all of the little creases and dents and shadows.  in pictures where cardboard has been ripped, you can see the layers of the cardboard where the rip wasn’t clean.

There are also parts where the stitching looks drawn. Where they drew a line and then just plopped down a heavy blot of color every so many millimeters to signify those dots, and it could open up a whole discussion about the significance of that, and authenticity and how that relates to the text.

And there are some physical things to the book that stands out. The orange cover has all of these tiny holes punched into it. Unfortunately, the dust jacket is taped on, so I can’t really get a good luck underneath of it, but it seems like there are more printed stitches on the cover. And the binding of the the book is done in the gorgeous red thread.  It makes me wonder if they used five different colors of thread to bind different editions or print runs, so while I have a book bound in red thread, yours might be in orange or yellow or brownish. And I wonder if there can’t be some significance to that and how the text can be read.  Maybe the color of the binding thread can be interpreted as the color of the “real” narrator and the fact that everyone could say something about how the story isn’t any one person’s story but is shared equally among the five narrators (who I take to be the orphans mentioned in the story, but that’s just me finding reason).

Alright, so, should you buy it? I want to say yes because I want stuff like this t be supported. At the same time, it is clearly not meant for everyone. Leaf through it at Barnes and Noble or the library. What I wouldn’t do, under any circumstance, is bother with a digital copy. Unless they chocked a bunch of extras into the digital edition, I think you would be missing out on a key piece of the experience of the novel. get a physical copy of it, and enjoy it.

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