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Review: The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski

Another of the author's high-concept graphic explorations in storytelling is a better notion than a narrative

Photograph: Jonathan Aprea

By Mark Z. Danielewski. Pantheon, $26.

Mark Z. Danielewski’s experimental texts offer either elaborate, maddening gimmickry or a revolution in literature. Regardless of what side you’re on, you’ll have to agree that the author puts more thought into the physical design of his fictions—the tome of swirling text that was House of Leaves and the National Book Award–nominated double narrative Only Revolutions—than some writers put into their entire books.

Danielewski’s latest, a modified reprint of a novella whose initial printing was only 1,000 copies, is his easiest to digest. Nursing wounds of spousal betrayal, seamstress Chintana attends the 50th birthday party of her rival, Belinda Kite, and winds up playing babysitter for five orphans. A storyteller, invited to entertain the children, tells an inappropriately dark tale about his “black-hearted” quest for a special weapon that he just may have in a latched case beside him. Did we mention that a wound made by this, the Fifty Year Sword of the title, reveals itself only after the victim turns 50?

The hook here: Danielewski echoes the oral tradition of ghost stories by employing the voices of the five orphans to take turns narrating. The book itself is stitched together like the story; thread is used to illustrate certain plot points. The writing itself occasionally hits on a detail disturbing enough to fall like freezing water down the reader’s spine, but just as often, its attempts to unnerve induce eye-rolls. These moments ensure that The Fifty Year Sword remains more curious than unsettling, and more of a fun concept than a stellar story.

Mark Danielewski reads at St. Joseph’s College Mon 22.

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