Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword might perhaps be best described as an avant-garde millennial ghost story; and in classifying it as a ghost story, I carefully and deliberately hedge my words since even the author, in his introductory note, evokes yet resists this classification: “Maybe because the history of any ghost story is a ghost story unto itself, which is to say another story completely, assuming any of what follows can rightly even by considered a ghost story.” Framing the novella, a haunting tale of one Halloween night at 112-year-old Mose Dettledown’s party, both the repetition and generic denial is characteristic of this mischievous author’s grave deceptions.
Accordingly then, like a myse-en-abyme illusion, The Fifty Year Sword doesn’t simply tell one story, but many (or to echo the author’s own linguistic punning, “manyone” stories). There are five narrators, differentiated by colored quotation marks (in appropriately autumnal shades) though their contributions, often just a few words, construct Danielewski’s fable coherently only when read as continuous monologue; this polyvocal monologue relates the party through the eyes of Thai seamstress Chintana who, avoiding the marriage-wrecking Belinda Kite, spends the evening with five orphans listening to a mysterious storyteller; the storyteller’s account of his quest for a deadly fifty year sword is, in turn, encased at the centre of this tightly woven Chinese-box structure.
Danielewski’s novels are always (and in “all ways”) structurally, linguistically, and visually daring. His debut House of Leaves (2000)—2001 New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award winner—is a colossal manuscript of embedded narratives and concrete-poetic designs while Only Revolutions (2006)—a National Book Award Nominee—is an American road novel in the form of a dos-a-dos epic poem between two 16-year-old lovers that, literally, has us spinning the book around to read it. The Fifty Year Sword is no exception. In its original printing by Dutch publishers De Bezige Bij (2005), the book came in an oversized yet narrow format with twelve ghostly dot illustrations by Peter van Sambeek. Pantheon’s new edition is completely reimagined: Enclosed in a solid orange dust-jacket that has been repeatedly punctuated from its inside, the cover seems wounded by the sword of the title, while seamstress Chintana seems present in the repeated textile word-play that threads its way through the novella and in the countless infringing illustrations, copied from tableaus hand-stitched by a small team that included the author.
The interlacing of words, images, and narrative voices is crucial to understanding The Fifty Year Sword as a ghost story of the current milieu. A defining aesthetic feature of the contemporary period appears to be an ethical consciousness of our relationality, that is our obligations to each other in the globalizing world. The Fifty Year Sword “fortipifies” relationality in at least three central ways. First, it seems significant that Danielewski is explicit about the national origins of his two lead female characters: On the same page, he notes that Belinda Kite is “Proudly pedigreed in the bloodlines of Texas bullery” while Chintana is but a “Thai seamstress.” Embodying a division between East and West in their deep-seated feud over Chintana’s husband, the two might be read as a metaphor of global self and other that come together at the novel’s climax in an attempt to overcome a morbid demise.
“It was all “all Chintana had ofher. In fact it was all Belinda Kite had“had of herself
Second, such union is taken further in the heteroglossia of our five narrators who are indicative not just of human relations but, more strangely, intersubjective communication. Their story, which we are told may well be interrupted “by someone other than one of the before mentioned persons, the reader or even the author,” is part of a shared social dialogue Finally, the visual and tactile performativity of the book creates participatory responses from us as readers. In a...