Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Fifty Year Sword by Mark Z. Danielewski

"I am a bad man with a very black heart.  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.  Because you are young I will tell you I went in search of a weapon.  But also because you are young I will not tell you why I went in search of such a weapon, though in truth while I could speculate, I am no longer capable of recalling the details myself.  When you are older you will be able to imagine what drove me on such a quest.  You will know more than me."

So begins the story teller's tale.  The story teller explains how he went on a quest to find a weapon, but not just any weapon.  Every time he would hear tell of a some new weapon, he would seek it out, only to be disappointed.  Until finally he heard of a sword-maker in a far away mountain.  His quest takes him through a series of creepy episodes (which I'm omitting, to avoid spoiling the novel at it's best).  Finally, he is able to buy a sword, but the price of the sword is that he cannot remember his original reason for seeking it.  So it is that the storyteller has a great weapon, but cannot remember why sought it.

Danielewski loves incorporating strange textual elements into his writing.  This novel is no different.  The story presents as a poem with five sets of colored quotation marks, each color representing one of the children recounting the events of the evening.  The children are recounting how Chintana, a babysitter is watching them while the storyteller tells his story.

However, this window-dressing adds little to the important tale, the tale told by the storyteller, the tale of the fifty year sword.  The tale is Danielewski at his best: original, unnerving, and creepy.  His story weaves situations which are horrifying in a guttural way.  Things that are horrifying because they are not incomprehensible.  He puts them out there without trying to explain them, making them all the more horrifying.

I recommend this if you want a creepy story.


Brittany said...

Does someone as crazy detail-oriented as Danielewski really do anything textually that "adds little to the important tale"?

Are there really no other possible reasons?

I mean, really, why add in FIVE KIDS and a BABYSITTER in a WEAPONY story?

You must have some speculations...

Christopher said...

I read House of Leaves and I felt similarly about the frame story. I see what he was trying to do, but for me it mostly just distracted from the central story, which was incredible.

R.M. Fiedler said...

He's got plenty of reasons. The horror story doesn't end with the story teller's tale, but continues into the wrap-up of the party. So, the non-story story parts are still important.

I think the children are present because they're ideal audience members for a horror story. It's more difficult to imagine adults sitting around listening to a story-teller. It's even more difficult imagining adults taking such a story seriously.

The reason I said that this stuff added "little" is that the garnish tends to be distracting. It adds the element of skepticism towards the text (this is a story about a story recounted by the five children audience members)(also: the idea of parsing how many of the children corroborated or didn't corroborate a particular section is mind-numbing). However, substantively, it doesn't matter. The story is not about post-modernism. It doesn't really fit. Rather, the story is about this man's quest for the sword, with an additional plot point thrown in after he's done with his story (avoiding spoilers).

House of Leaves was the same. The Navidson Record is this chilling, powerful story. Added unto it is the story of Johnny Truant reading the Navidson Record. Through Truant we get this idea that the story is more than simply reading the text, that the text is somehow powerful and comes alive through being read. But for all that, Johnny Truant is not that interesting. The statement about text is boring compared to the compelling story under The Navidson Record.

With that said, I wouldn't take anything away from The Fifty Year Sword. For how "little" the garnish adds, it still adds something. The quotation marks and the disheveled text make the story somehow creepier.

Then I found five dollars.

Brent Waggoner said...

I keep hearing that I should read Danielewski, but the textual trickery really makes me feel like he's overly gimmicky.

R.M. Fiedler said...

I think he's worth reading; he's unusually talented at story-telling. I think you just have to be less worried about the window-dressing.