I confess, before last week I had never heard of Mark Z. Danielewski. House of Leaves, his genre and form defying novel, was a hole in my knowledge, a badge of my ignorance, a gap, a space. So when I went to the Manchester launch of the new edition of The Fifty Year Sword, I was a gap too. A blank page ready for a scattering of new words.
I was ready. I like surprises.
It turned out that I was the only person in the room not writing a PhD about Mark Z. Danielewski. Or at least, that was how it felt as the question-and-answer session began. There were lots of questions. Lots of questions I didn’t understand. Does this Sidney Fye that? Does x Sidney Fye y or z?
Guys, who is Sidney Fye? Why are you asking about leotards? What is a foo coat? Is a foo coat a pair of pants? Why are you asking about pants at a book launch? Pants and leotards? I thought this book was a campfire story. What? Wait? Foo coat? Foo coat?
I Googled foo coat when I got home, in case I had missed something. Danielewski had cleverly, and tenderly, crafted every answer into something anyone could understand but I was still unsure what a foo coat was.
Intellectuals make me sick. You people are messed up. What happens when my wife sees my internet history? What then? Think me a way out of that if you are so smart.
Anyway. The book. The Fifty Year Sword.
The book was a surprise.
I like surprises.
First off, it is worth mentioning that this new edition of The Fifty Year Sword is among the most beautiful books I have ever seen. Before we talk about the content we should congratulate Cargo Publishing for providing another very strong argument for why the publishing of actual, physical books is far from dead. When made with this much love books are wonderful things.
And the book needs to look good. Danielewski’s work is as much about the presentation as the content of words. So, sentences dance along pages. They are split and broken and joined in unusual ways. New words are formed from old words. The narrative is shared between five narrators who are also characters. The text is co-joined, fluid, stapled, sampled, tricksy, shifting, secret and surrounded by illustration, or rather embroidery, images of candles and butterflies sewn onto paper.
No wonder the launch brought out the post-post-modernists.
But that wasn’t the surprise.
The surprise was that The Fifty Year Sword is, before everything else, not an experiment but a story. A really really good story. The playful use of language, the imagery, they aren’t there to break down the barriers of post-reconstructalist understanding of re-signifying text markings (or whatever, guys, whatever) they are there to tell a story. A beautiful, warm, funny, and ultimately heart breaking story.
The Fifty Year Sword is an attempt to re-imagine (or, I guess, re-image) the campfire story as a book. It is a wholly successful one. The balance between the familiar and the exquisitely unusual in the story itself is matched in its language and in its visual presentation. This is a near perfect book and so ridiculously readable that it deserves a far wider audience than it will probably get.
The Fifty Year Sword is so much fun that I implore you to buy it now, this second, now, and so special that I don’t want to tell you a thing about it except how special it is. I want you to discover Mark Z. Danielewski as fresh as I did. I want you to have all the surprises.
Any Cop?: Do you like surprises?