The Fifty Year Sword, by Mark Z. Danielewski (Cargo Publishing). This book was a pretty challenging but fascinating read. There are so many little things at work here, that I couldn’t help but stop reading in places to admire the care taken to not only show the text in an interesting way, but to also create a unique reading experience. I’m not sure if it’s new – something like this probably exists elsewhere – but I’m yet to read another book like this one.
The illustrations, or stitchings as I should say, are incredible (stitches maybe? I’m going to stick with stitchings, even though WordPress is telling me that it isn’t a word). When I first got my hands on a copy of this book, I did what most people do and had a flick through, and had a look at the pictures to see what I could garner from them.The stitchings don’t really act as illustrations traditionally do – they don’t exactly mimic what is described in the text. Instead, the stitchings capture the feeling evoked by the words, their colours and shapes provoke feelings of dread, fear and occasionally sadness.
In some places, parts of the image seem to almost be cut out of the text (as is the case with the swords shown above), which looks beautiful on the page, and also captures the sharpness of the swords. The cut out shapes are representations of swords, highlighting their nature, not simply showing that they are swords. And it makes perfect sense since the swords aren’t traditional by any means.
The stitchings are almost entirely abstract, though there are discernible candles and mountains here and there. For the most part, the images don’t work at all without the text, which itself is also sometimes so mystifying that you need the images to coax you towards the meaning. They almost felt like shadow puppets – pretty to look at on their own, but in need of a story to truly bring them to life.
The story itself is wonderfully creepy and dark. I’m still in debates with myself over the ending, what it means and if it is satisfying. I feel that it ended somewhat abruptly, although this is probably just because I wasn’t ready for it to end. The dialogue and sentences are often clipped and abrupt, and the language itself is quite stylistic. It copies the images in the way that full descriptions are reduced to their bare bones – what is needed remains.
I’ll admit something very geeky here, but after hearing Danielewski reading from the book in person (at the Cargo House party, Mono), I wanted to recreate that feeling of being told a story. After about 20 or so pages, I began to read the story aloud to myself, taking my time over the words, and utilising pauses where I felt the book suggested it. I actually scared myself a little – and this was on a sunny afternoon at the weekend, not the eeriest of settings. Every part of the text is encapsulated in one of five sets of speech marks, colour coded so you know who is speaking. I felt as though I was encouraged to speak the words aloud, as everything was represented as speech. It’s an embarrassing admission, but I’d recommend that everyone takes time to read this aloud to a friend or a loved one, or even just yourself. Wait until nighttime though. Light some candles. Make a proper ghost story of it.