- •Contact us
- •About us
- •Advertise with the FT
- •Terms & conditions
© The Financial Times Ltd 2013 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
October 26, 2012 7:16 pm
The Fifty Year Sword, by Mark Danielewski, Pantheon Books, RRP$26, 288 pages
The Fifty Year Sword first appeared like a half-glimpsed phantom in 2005. A thousand copies were printed, in the Netherlands, and quickly disappeared into author Mark Danielewski’s enthusiastic fan base.
A second edition of the book, also of 1,000 copies, was briefly spotted in England the following year. But these, too, were almost immediately lost from view. There were occasional sightings on eBay but for prices well in excess of $1,000. The US author allowed it to be dramatically performed a handful of times – fittingly, as a shadow play – but getting your hands on an actual copy of the book was like trying to grab a wisp of smoke. Until now, that is. The Fifty Year Sword is finally getting a mainstream release, just in time for Halloween.
On a late October evening at a Texas ranch, a mysterious storyteller holding a long thin box is invited to tell five orphans, under the care of a seamstress named Chintana, a story. He chooses to tell them about his quest for the titular weapon, a sword that inflicts wounds that appear only when the victim turns 50 years old. Candles are blown out, windows swing open, dares are made, revenge is spoken of. It is both a familiar ghost story and a quite unique one, for the book is also filled with delicate illustrations – of butterflies, candles, mountains – all produced by sewing machines on paper. It is, literally, a yarn.
Danielewski is best known for his 2000 novel, House of Leaves, a tour-de-force Gothic novel whose central conceit was devilishly simple: a family moves to a new house which is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. This work stretched the haunted house motif to the farthest limits of post-modern profundity. Not only was the book a genuinely scary read, but the disorientation felt by its inhabitants seeped into the book’s design and typography. Blank pages appeared in the text, whole pages were printed upside down, different fonts battled for narrative dominance, and readers had to twist the book around in their hands as they desperately tried to follow the story. To anyone who was watching, it looked as if they were grappling with a clothbound homunculus.
House of Leaves and his full-length follow-up, the National Book Award finalist Only Revolutions (2006) – in which two different narratives begin at different ends of the book – cemented Danielewski’s reputation not just as an ingenious writer, but as a master of the book form itself. His novels cannot be replicated online or electronically. Indeed, it could be said that no author has made a greater case, through their writing, for the book’s continued relevance.
Typographical innovations also run throughout The Fifty Year Sword. Filled with interjections, snippets of songs and words slipping in and out of meaning, the story is told in a tumbling jumble of words by five narrators (separated by differently coloured quotation marks) amid hugely unconventional page layouts. While Danielewski can easily conjure a genuinely sinister air, this time the author’s stylistic tics don’t necessarily help. Indeed, his attempts at Joycean wordplay can make it feel as if the text is desperately trying to respond to the pagination, rather than vice versa.
“Only when he finally sat down on the floor did the orphans seem to relax,
“enchanted quick enough by the manner of his diminishiding,
“so crossing his legs, folding himself into himself,
“refolding until right before their eyes he no longer seemed
“hrowling or gulking but sat quietstill,”
As letters go adrift and words meld into one another, you half expect the book to fall apart, or to flap its leaves and fly away. Indeed, the book’s greatest problem may be more conceptual than stylistic. Over the past seven years this volume’s physical rarity added to the story’s spectral allure – what could be better than a ghost story that barely exists? The book’s full-blooded release can’t help but disenchant.
George Pendle is author of ‘Death: A Life’ (Three Rivers Press)
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.