The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski

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Reviewed by Max Dunbar

I first read House of Leaves as a teenager and fell in love with it: a grunge-emocore memory palace of a novel, about a suburban home, that gets bigger and bigger on the inside, develops long winding corridors, chasms, deadfalls; the house has been bought by acclaimed photojournalist Will Navidson, who sets off with ropes and camera to explore the interior expansion, leaving behind a journal or record, which becomes a sensation and is devoured by battalions of academics and reporters, whose musings run along the main body of the narrative as footnotes, throwing off debate, argument, speculation, factions, prurience just as the mysterious house grows ever inward, exploring world upon world of darkness. Navidson’s record itself is told by a hipster drifter, who has discovered it in the home of a dying friend, and the story of his addictions and traumas adds yet another compulsion to the mix. House of Leaves was published in 2000, and what a shame in recent years to see it claimed by the postmodern left, when really it is nothing less than a classic in the American gothic.

The Fifty Year Sword is more like a fairy tale. Like all fairy tales, it’s terrifying. While House of Leaves was like a collapsed star, sucking everything in, The Fifty Year Sword is brief, told as a prose poem, something like Stephen Dobyns or William Carlos Williams. And like a good poet, Danielewski knows the power of emphasis. This is the moment where the seamstress Chintana, hurting and recently divorced, meets her love rival at a social gathering:

I’ve tried to recreate Danielewski’s idiosyncratic formatting as best I can: hopefully you can see the dark run of the protagonist’s thoughts, gravitating towards the concept of ‘murder’ and then pulling back into the commonplace collective noun: ‘of crows’. The lines stay on the left hand side but on occasion march all over the page, as the text of House of Leaves mirrored the building’s strange eruptions. There are drawings. There’s also a gorgeous vernacular spun throughout the tale, that sounds like a local dialect but isn’t, the language of a familiar dream. The orphans have ‘pitpatter’ footsteps, the witching hour is ‘mindight’, the Social Worker’s eyes don’t just light up, they ‘quicklit bobcat bright with a yes’, trespassing is ‘punshable’ by the law, and the spooky Storyteller, who comes in from the night with a terrible tale, has his sinister presence summed up in the marvellous verb-couplet: ‘hrowling or gulking’. Chintana’s invitation reads: ‘Wallops of Scotch Dear. Don’t deprive yourself of the Pleasures of my Company. Or my good Chear.’ Only the aside to Williams’s long poem Paterson – ‘Even during the Revolution Hamilton had been impressed by the site of the Great Falls of the Passaic’ – carries this kind of vibe, historical and local, the same and yet different, mind-glimpsed voices of a half-imagined time.

The theme is the same as in House of Leaves – the will to stare into the darkness. ‘I am a bad man with a very black heart,’ the Storyteller explains. ‘And it was only that badness and blackness which forced me to seek out what I have carried now for many years and brought this night for you.’ But, knowing Danielewski’s genius, The Fifty-Year Sword seems more like a curio, a coda or prologue to something, a piece of whimsy. You’re left wanting yet more dark.

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Max blogs at Max Dunbar.

Mark Z Danielewski, The Fifty Year Sword (Cargo, 2014), 285pp, hardcover.

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