November 24, 2012

The Fifty Year Sword

While most readers of Mark Danielewski's novella The Fifty Year Sword were probably able to comprehend the writing more than I was, no one in the world can say they read the story in a more beautiful or secluded area. And considering the novella is a bit of a ghost story, the isolated reading environment only heightened my enjoyment.

I should note that I read the iPad version of the book. Mark had been showing me some samples of the pages this summer, before it was published, since he had decided to do something new with the format. Although the book had been printed in a limited quantity a few years ago, the real fame of this work comes from the live-readings Mark has staged over the years, often on Halloween. These performances incorporate live music, shadows and projections, and a great cast of actors who read the 5 parts. The story is written from the perspective of 5 narrators, each marked by different colored quotation marks, so I imagine the translation from page to stage is phenomenal.

And in the iPad version, Mark and his team tried to capture some of that excitement by adding music and sound effects to certain pages, animated letters, and the occasional drawing or animation. These carefully crafted touches really enhanced the reading experience, and although the different colored quotes were sometimes hard to differentiate on the backlit screen, overall the unique format was a success.

It took me a few pages to get into the rhythm of reading Mark's signature meter, made even more difficult due to the swapping of lines by narrators. And often I would have to stop to look-up a word only to find that it was made-up. Definitely a taxing read, but it flows so beautifully that even the difficulty is enjoyable.

I have never been frightened through the written word and while it has certainly made me excited, I've never felt my heart beat in my chest simply from reading. But when The Fifty Year Sword begins to pick-up and the mysterious storyteller in the novella recounts the story of how he came into possession of his sword, I could literally hear my heart in the stillness of the Yakushima night. The addition of the music and sound effects only heightened this feeling. 

The brilliance of the animated text is that it caused me to slow down. I would often read a passage and then see that the words at the bottom were disappearing. I would read until they disappeared, flip the page, return, and then rush to read before they fell off the page. By controlling the pace, the author controlled my feelings. I would also be forced to wait on a wage while some animation played out across the page, sometimes re-reading words or finding new meaning. 

It was a great effect, a quick and enjoyable read, and one that I plan on revisiting once or twice more on my trip as there was still much I did not follow. The breaking up of the dialogue between characters, for example, was not something I paid much attention to as I was just struggling to comprehend the language. But I imagine Mark has woven some interesting finds within the broken up text and I look forward to unraveling the mystery. There's a lot of sharp imagery (it's about a sword, after all) and the main character (if there is a main character) is a seamstress, so my assumption is that the broken up text has something to do with cutting and mending, but for what reason I'm unsure.

I also wonder about the message. The fifty year sword only exposes its wounds on the 50th birthday of the person who has been cut. Is the metaphor that the scars from our childhood only begin to show in our older age? Mark, are you reading this? Care to enlighten?

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