Mark Z. Danielewski, The Fifty Year Sword


You’re reading it online, but know that I’m writing this review longhand, from the corner booth of Patty’s Family Restaurant, on the southern edge of Red Deer—a sidewalk-less truckstop village called Gasoline Alley. I’m staying at a nearby hotel; it’s a work thing.

So I’m away from home, which is vaguely sad and depressing in the way these things usually get described. My one silver lining, though, was the prospect of several uninterrupted hours of reading time.

Which turned out to be the perfect way to read Mark Z. Danielewski’s (curiously hyphenless) Fifty Year Sword. I think it took me 90 minutes, all told. And it felt even quicker, thanks to its extra-narrow pages and its cornucopia of aesthetic flourishes—no text on the right-hand/recto pages, colourful quotation marks to indicate different speakers, and occasional stitched illustrations.

Apparently, T50YS began life as a “live shadow show… performed only on Hallowe’en night.” What’s amazing is how well this abstract yet intensely visual ghost story works in its new life on the page. Danielewski uses his visual ammo—which I remember all too well from his debut House of Leaves, and which you may remember from his reversible sophomore novel Only Revolutions, if you, unlike me, actually read it—to extend, slow down, and enhance the basic beats of his story. The whole package may not be terribly sophisticated, but it was a perfect way to spend a solitary evening, eating a gigantic bowl of apple crisp and guzzling diner coffee.

Lately I’ve been thinking about a micro-genre of Literature as a Gateway Drug. These are books that you could give to a skeptical teenager, say, and use to convince them that books can be much more than homework. Murakami and Vonneugt would easily qualify; so would Jesse Ball’s The Curfew.

But I think the ur-text has to be House of Leaves, with its visual pyrotechnics, as well as the pure audacious scope of Danielewski’s tail-swallowing storyline. If that’s not around, maybe slide ‘em a copy of T50YS instead. Then set your watch for an hour and a half later, and wait.

(review originally appeared on the back of a piece of paper about team-building exercises)

Pantheon, 288 pp, $31, hardcover

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