Of the handful of so-called experimental fiction writers of the past 20 years, few have become more recognizable — and controversial — than the late David Foster Wallace and Mark Z. Danielewski. While Wallace made extensive use of footnotes to layer and enrich his storytelling, Danielewksi, no stranger to footnotes himself, has consistently pushed the boundaries even further.
In his cult classic “House of Leaves,’’ the author circumvented conventions of linear narrative and made masterful use of stories-within-stories, fractured, even physically swirling typesetting and a nesting-doll structure that continuously twisted reader expectations. Danielewski upped the ante with “Only Revolutions,’’ a somewhat conventional love story rendered anything but by the labyrinthine, colored text in which one protagonist’s narration began at the front of the book and the other’s at the back (and upside down).
Though less ambitious in scope than his previous novels, “The Fifty Year Sword’’ is a clever experiment in voice and structure, a prose poem consisting of cascading waves of dialogue spoken by five different narrators looking back on a single frightening night. Laid out with text only on the left side of the page and either blank space or increasingly eerie stitched illustrations on the right, the book, while not the most impressive example of literary fiction, is a compelling piece of art.
The plot, a ghost/horror story, follows Chintana, a seamstress who reluctantly attends the 50th birthday party of Belinda Kite, a woman who conducted an affair with Chintana’s husband. The party takes place at an eccentric old man’s house, where Kite takes care of five young orphans. A man called the Story Teller arrives to entertain the party with a tale of his epic journey through soundless forests and over impossibly expansive mountains to find a swordsmith who can provide him with a weapon to satisfy an unexplained lust for violence.
After the swordsmith displays his wares, the Story Teller settles on the Fifty Year Sword, which always slices true but whose effects don’t manifest until the recipient’s 50th birthday. When the Story Teller reveals it to the children, Kite interrupts and claims the story is nonsense, waving around the seemingly bladeless sword as proof. As the Story Teller looks on malevolently, the clock strikes midnight, signaling Kite’s 50th year and, to everyone’s dismay, a gruesome series of razor-precision cuts all over her body.
The overlapping remembrances of the various characters find visual complements in the stitched illustrations, which run from whimsical to wicked, and the jagged, staggered flow of the poetic text ratchets up the tension as the story progresses.
The joy of the book comes mostly from the physical act of turning the pages and scanning the layout, but the language deserves mention as well. In fact, some of the diction and words echo Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky’’ or James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,’’ as separate words and phrases collide to make one and bits of words rearrange to form new ones. Danielewski also delivers some sharp, memorable metaphors and descriptions — e.g., “eyes responded quicklit bobcat bright with a yes”; “dricketing on furniture and walls like so many mad, mad pileated woodpeckers, beaver busy”; “as if a thousand vengeances upon vengeances were dicing her suddenly into hail”; “grey pools of glum lake ice.”
Ultimately, “The Fifty Year Sword’’ should satisfy most of the author’s fans, but it won’t win him many new ones. It’s a reflection of the book as artifact, an object to hold and flip through and appreciate as a piece of art, an engrossing example of book production — a rare treat for devoted book lovers that may be increasingly difficult to come by in the coming decades.