THE FIFTY YEAR SWORD is an odd duck. It's a ghost story. It's a narrative poem. It's a word game. It's needlework art. It's experimental. And it's also pretty cool. Mark Z. Danielewski, who wrote the novel House of Leaves, has created a successful work out of loose odds and ends bound together in a rich tapestry. But again, it's pretty peculiar.
The best term I can think to describe the 284-page novella is "topographical." Prose runs on the left pages like a narrative poem, while most of the right pages are glaringly blank—as white as ghosts that lurk in the subtext. The story is indented and line breaks are frequent. Sometimes only a phrase shows up on a page. So it looks like the micro-fiction that arty girl wrote in freshman writing class. But Danielewski is a master of pacing, and this otherwise eye-rolling format complements the story's twists and turns. What sets The Fifty Year Sword apart are the accompanying illustrations—stitched throughout are colorful, embroidered needlework pictures that are evocative, at times delicate and violent, detailed and abstract, and used to striking effect in a vivid denouement.
Plotwise, newly divorced seamstress Chintana is invited to a strange Halloween gathering in Texas. And who should be there? Only the asshole chick who stole her husband—"eyeing Chintana's entrance with shearing scrutiny, more redeyed than a coyote sniffing a saltblock in drought, banglerattle arm twisting rattler mean into her side." And to add to the dark and stormy evening, Chintana inadvertently finds herself in change of a herd of five orphans who are crishcrashing around the joint, eager to hear the ghost story told by a mysterious storyteller who shows up with a huge black box. His story is dark, filled with vengeance and death, a ronin's journey to find the perfect weapon, which can only be assumed to lurk in the cruel narrow box before him.
Back to Sword's trimmings—the book has colored quotation marks throughout to signify which orphan is recounting the story. Ignore. It didn't add anything to Danielewski's well-paced book to figure out which ragamuffin was saying what. Just let the campfire tale build and build. Plus Danielewski loves to play with language—this would be a great work to see performed live—with his mashed-up words and little "Jabberwocky" games, but unlike Carroll's portmantone poem, The Fifty Year Sword is loaded with plot, and plenty of other extras. It's a pretty delightful rabbit hole to fall down.