XFX: The Fifty Year Sword

A recent reading selection at Experimental Fiction (XFX) was Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel, The Fifty Year Sword. many of us have read the author’s earlier works—House of Leaves and Only Revolutions—but this selection is quite different.

First, it is readable. Oh, the various voices being indicated by different colored quotation marks is cute, but unnecessary for reading. Is there any significance in who says what? I tried to match the dialogue to the descriptions of the five characters contained in the preparatory remarks but no significance seemed to be forthcoming so I abandoned the quotation marks and just read the text. I recommend this technique to any reader. The novel holds together and goes very fast.

Why fast? The book is printed only on one side of the page and even then it is stretched out by tons of white-space and fanciful (often abstract) illustrations. The book itself is an artistic construction without regard for the contents of the text. If you purchase this book, make sure you get the color-printed edition. I haven’t seen it but I suspect that a digital edition would also maintain the color nuances of the text (recall, House of Leaves).

But as admirable as the physical book may be, it does contain a story. It is a simple story, albeit dreamy and full of fantasy. In the end I concluded that I liked it. However, as I was reading I felt that the author was fleshing out a simple broadside with presentation tricks that made the book cost more and seem much longer that it was. I was feeling manipulated.


But when I stopped to consider that this book started out as a limited private printing and was then performed on stage by five actors, I began to see the significance of the printer’s tricks I had dismissed as hype. Take the colored quotation marks: the text of the novel is also a script for the performance of the story on stage by five different actors: five different voices. I couldn’t see the significance of assigning the dialogue when I was reading the novel but afterwards I could close my eyes and imagine the almost musical performance of The Fifty Year Sword on the stage. I would very much like to see that.

So my conclusions are: some readers will be put off by the author’s manipulation; others will accept the manipulation because it opens further possibilities for the novel; some readers will love it because it’s strange; others will hate it because it’s strange. But I liked it.

What are your thoughts on this?

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