(This review originally appeared in Full Stop.)
Even fans of Mark Danielewski and his typographically adventurous novels House of Leaves and Only Revolutions should be disappointed with The Fifty Year Sword. Previously published only in the Netherlands in 2005, this novella adds almost nothing to a consideration of the aesthetic possibilities of manipulating the physical features of a printed book not already present in the two novels, and if anything the underlying narrative to which these manipulations are meant to contribute is even less compelling than those we encounter in House of Leaves and Only Revolutions. If the former manages to bring some life to what is finally an overly familiar narrative (perhaps two interlocking but overly familiar narratives) through its challenges to the protocols of the printed page, and the latter partially substitutes, at least for a while, the sheer audacity of its defiance of these protocols for an even more lackluster narrative, The Fifty Year Sword does neither of these things. Its textual provocations are tepid, mere flourishes, its story, such as it is, little more than a convenience and difficult to take seriously.
The Fifty Year Sword does little more to depart from the typographical conventions of fiction than to give the appearance of printed verse, or verse dialogue. (That the lines of dialogue are color-coded as a way of identifying the speakers seems simply a repetition of the same sort of device used in the two novels, and altogether it is not a particularly interesting device, anyway.) At one point the text is printed vertically rather than horizontally, requiring us to rotate the book in our hands, but again this move is the sort of thing we have come to expect from House of Leaves and Only Revolutions, and once it has been established that our assumptions about how to properly read a book are to an extent arbitrary, to simply keep issuing this reminder without offering compelling demonstration of how literature might continue to be enhanced by reading differently makes the effort seem mostly gimmickry. (Fortunately, in The Fifty Year Sword use of the device is limited, so we aren’t really forced to dwell on its apparent lack of purpose.) Otherwise, the unconventional or “innovative” elements of The Fifty Year Sword are restricted to the use of graphic illustrations (many of them) and various misspellings and neologisms, neither of which are in fact innovative at all. The wordplay seems particularly derivative of Joyce in Finnegans Wake — “pricksticking,” “indacitation” — while the illustrations are generally unremarkable, albeit not terribly intrusive.
Danielewski gave a reading of The Fifty Year Sword in 2010, when it was still unavailable in the United States as a printed text. Perhaps this “theatrical performance,” as it was described, managed to make the novella’s story seem more substantive, or at least more dramatic, but shorn of the whizz-bang and stagy spectacle it doesn’t make for very captivating reading as a book. It is more or less a children’s story in which a group of orphans listen to a figure identified as “the Story Teller” relate a story about magical swords. A touch of “adult” interest is added in the conflict between the seamstress Chintana and Belinda Kite, who has had an affair with Chintana’s husband. The novella ends with Belinda Kite literally being cut to pieces (in a delayed response to one of the swords) and falling apart “even as slices of joints and nails/scattered apart on the frosty stone/followed /by the slow tumbling/slivers of the rest/of Belinda Kite’s/hand.” Again this scene might have greater effect when reproduced in a “theatrical performance,” but then perhaps it might have been written directly for such a performance rather than as a work of fiction, where the artificial arrangements of the words in this description can neither substitute for the visual immediacy of the scene as performed nor finally elevate it beyond the rather ordinary fairy tale-ish story it concludes.
The most useful service the publication The Fifty Year Sword might offer is to confirm the initial achievement of House of Leaves, but also to illustrate the limitations of that achievement, at least as Danielewski has so far shown in his attempts to follow up on the accomplishments of his first novel. House of Leaves established the basic principle underlying his alternative practice as a fiction writer, that “the book” as traditionally conceived and formatted is an object whose properties we have come to consider fixed but are in fact entirely contingent and thus open to revision. House of Leaves is a prodigious attempt at such revision, including experiments with typeface, print placement (in the traditional column, multiple columns, in areas cordoned off in various ways, rightside-up, upside-down, sideways, in brief snippets at the top, bottom, and middle of the page), the insertion of visual/graphic aids, the “proper” function of the page in general. Danielewski wants the reader’s eye to roam around the page, to suspend the expectation that a literary text must adhere to the conventions of reading associated with the European codex (left-to-right, top-to-bottom) that now define what “reading a book” signifies. This is certainly a perfectly valid strategy, based on a valuable insight that could continue to inspire writers of innovative fiction. However, Danielewksi and his admirers have attempted to promote his work as if this insight is unique to him and his fiction sui generis, when in fact writers such as Ronald Sukenick and Raymond Fedeman investigated the possibility of taking the printed page as malleable 40 years ago. Federman’s Double or Nothing (1971) and Take It or Leave It (1976), in fact, are at least as radical as Danielewski’s novels in their textual disruptions, and, in my opinion, more aesthetically satisfying.
House of Leaves provides its share of aesthetic satisfaction, but even it is marred by a well-worn and formulaic story, the story of an “outsider” existing on the margins of society (in this case an outcast with a scholarly bent and a mental illness) the conventionality of which isn’t really enlivened much by its intersection with a secondary narrative that doesn’t rise much above the level of an ordinary horror story, nor can either of these stories really sustain interest to end of a 700-page novel. This has in turn the unfortunate effect of more heavily burdening the novel’s textual play with even more of the responsibility for maintaining the reader’s attention, a burden it cannot quite fully shoulder at such length. The formal experiments of House of Leaves thus threaten to seem grafted onto a narrative that is really only an excuse for the exercise of these experiments. The fiction by Sukenick and Federman engaging in similar, and antecedent, experiments, never left such an impression. Their experiments were integral to the story being created through the formal effects, the “content” not distinguishable from the “form” that gives the story its singular expression. These works are also self-reflexively aware of themselves as stories in process, so that the literal act of inscription, of arranging words, sentences, and paragraphs on the page becomes part of the narrative content. Although House of Leaves does depict its protagonist as a writer of sorts, at least as the “editor” of the manuscript that brings the twin narratives together, this activity finally seems as much a fortuitous justification of the novel’s typographical pyrotechnics as an effort to explore the implications of this inscriptive free-for-all in a reconsideration of the aesthetic ordering of fiction.
This limitation is even more pronounced in Only Revolutions and The Fifty Year Sword. In Only Revolutions the pyrotechnics finally seem the novel’s only real source of interest, since once the reader is able to discern its narrative line (and this isn’t easy), it proves to be yet again formulaic and dull, essentially a version of a “road novel” in which its two peripatetic outsider characters travel across the country, with the additional twist that they drive across time as well. This science fiction element parallels the horror element in House of Leaves, intended to provide the otherwise perfunctory story with some additional appeal, but if anything it falls even flatter. The story of the two young lovers and their adventures across time and space has almost no drama, not even of the episodic kind found in most picaresque narratives, and its characters are entirely colorless. Thus while the pyrotechnics might be even more flamboyant — competing accounts meeting in the middle of the book, requiring us to flip the book over and read from both “front” and “back” — eventually the tedium induced by the narrative makes it increasingly difficult to continue the attempt to assimilate them. Ultimately it is hard to deny that Only Revolutions is indeed a very experimental novel, but it is a decidedly failed experiment, albeit of a sort that might still be adapted successfully in another context — something briefer, or at least with a more effective fusion of matter and manner.
Unfortunately we cannot conclude from The Fifty Year Sword that Only Revolutions might be just an understandable misstep after the audacious debut of Danielewski’s iconoclastic project in House of Leaves, its flaws the product of unfocused or misdirected ambition. It does not show us a writer exercising much ambition at all but merely repeating the same moves his first book prepares us to expect, repetition Only Revolutions continues at exhausting length. Certainly The Fifty Year Sword is a very slight work, and a first-time reader of Danielewski who starts here is most likely to conclude it is superficially unusual, but hardly in a way that is likely to change the course of literary history. Such a reader might in fact find it simply boring. Still, the disappointment of this book should not altogether rule out the chance Danielewski will discover a new and surprising strategy in a future work exploiting his essential insight into the plasticity of the literary text, one that allows neither our notions of “text” nor of “story” to go unexamined. Only Revolutions was not that work, but perhaps the “serial novel” Danielewski is soon to be publishing will be. (Simply that he has chosen to publish it in serial form is not, of course, itself a particularly venturesome or innovative move.) For now, House of Leaves remains as an admirable literary performance that unfortunately threatens to become merely a curiosity.