Review: Mark Z. Danielewski’s "The Fifty Year Sword"

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The storyteller has arrived at the final destination of a route Chintana has only begun to travel; he incarnates without remainder the dead-end calculus of endless retaliation. “I am a bad man with a very black heart,” he announces at the outset of his story to Chintana and the orphans, sitting before a long, rectangular box with five latches. Spurred by some unmentioned injury, he embarks on a kind of grand antiquest: “I went in search of a weapon.” Conventional weapons, like “oils and poisons,” “explosives,” and “small guns, big guns, guns powerful enough to sever something, anything, in half with just one blast,” prove insufficient: nothing “could match my taste for what my blackness ceaselessly scratched for.”

The storyteller’s peregrinations across a mythical landscape provide the book with some of its most arresting sections: he wanders among “curious derelictions half-buried in abandoned farmlands” and visits “poisonous pools lingering in ancient quarries.” In order to adequately describe the “Forest of Falling Notes,” where “sounds could not hold together,” the storyteller instructs his audience, “Imagine every sound a sigh of but one thing dying and instead of coming one after another it sighs a sigh of all at once. What would that sound like?”

At last, the storyteller comes face to face with the “Man With No Arms,” a purveyor of unusual, even fantastical swords for which he exacts equally fantastical prices. For instance, one of his swords “kills the taste of salt.” Yet another of them “kills the smell of Wild Lupine, Blackberry Lily and lush Evening Primrose.” With regard to a few of his most impressive swords, the Man With No Arms boasts: “One sword will kill a season. One will kill a country. One I’m making now will even kill an idea.” Clearly, the question of the contents of the long, rectangular box at the storyteller’s feet may no longer be ignored. A crucial decision clanks closer for Chintana.

Stitching binds together, and violence tears apart. It is to the credit of Mr. Danielewski that he so carefully and relentlessly explores the idea of the former in The Fifty Year Sword, contriving a metaphysics of stitching amid a universe of violence. Stitching not only repairs everyday forms of injury and ruin, but it also enables the creation of meaning itself via the material technology of bookbinding (foregrounded by special red thread in the case of The Fifty Year Sword), as well as the formal sense in which all texts presuppose a combination of elements. Perhaps the most poignant way stitching functions in The Fifty Year Sword is in its relation to personal authenticity—the holding together of what is most oneself, come what may, which comes so decisively to the fore at the climax of the narrative.

According to the ancient philosopher Empedocles, the two kinetic principles of the universe were Love and Discord. Both are equally necessary to the development of life, but in different ways. In this context, a nascent critique of Mr. Danielewski suggests itself. Put simply, the absolute elevation of preservation over destruction depends on the assumption that everything is worth preserving and nothing worth destroying. In essence, The Fifty Year Sword lacks a productive role within it for negation, recognizing therein only the deranged malice of the traumatized.

In so doing, The Fifty Year Sword breaks from a certain experimental or avant-garde legacy that is dedicated, for lack of a better word, to destruction—to rending what is false and ripping off the masks of power, to exposing the violent truth of things. Instead, it lingers all too long in the warm glow of a mythic reassurance where the world’s salvation is only ever a magical talisman away. Darkness is summoned, Halloweenlike, only to be ritually banished at the break of dawn. At its best, Mr. Danielewski’s book is an evocation of the fragility and connectedness that underlie everything worth keeping, but at its worst, it recapitulates a mythology of uncritical affirmation. The needle is a tool, but so is the sword.

This review appears in the December print issue of The American Reader, on newsstands November 30th.