I’m just going to come right out and say it: Mark Danielewski is a one-trick pony. It’s not that he’s a bad writer, it’s that if you pull a gimmick more than once, you become the gimmicky guy, and that’s what Danielewski’s writing reflects.
When House of Leaves came out, it was exciting, because it was doing something that hadn’t quite been done before: a little bit of terror, a little bit of anxiety, a little bit of goofy typesetting. It’s fun for what it is, but leads you suspect that the elaborateness of the smoke and mirrors is to compensate for a lack in some other area (let’s say narrative depth, maybe). That’s why House of Leaves is so beloved by the young adult set, but you won’t find it seriously touted by the post-modernists with as much seriousness as a Pynchon or a DeLillo—if it’s even touted at all. It’s a fun book, and that’s about it.
Aside from The Whalestoe Letters and Only Revolutions, Danielewski hasn’t written much. There is a lot of intricacy and tediousness in his writing that makes it impossible for him to be as voluminous as his contemporaries, and that kind of dedication to a form is both respectable and enviable, but it doesn’t always equal good writing.
The Fifty Year Sword is not Danielewski’s newest, but to the US markets, via Pantheon books, it is. Originally published in 2005, limited to 1,000 copies, and then published again in 2006, again limited to 1,000, Fifty was only available in UK markets. The new release will contain well over 1,000 copies and perhaps lack some of the boutique-ness of the earlier editions, but it will, at the very least, be more available.
Of course, available doesn’t mean accessible. It’s a novella ‘written’ from the perspective of five different tellers, each indicated with a different color of quotation mark (a clever gimmick). The story is sort of a ghost story that reads something like a children’s book horror, but with enough ‘mature’ themes interjected throughout to make it devious. And in standard Danielewski fashion, the prose is often jumbled, packed with dialectical neologisms, and reads in a strange ‘prose poetry’ meter that makes it seem like a parody of an MFA capstone project. I’ve seen writing like this from various independent and university presses, and there’s a reason it doesn’t often spill over into the mainstream market.
A few examples:
“more redeyed than a
coyote sniffing saltblock in drought
“banglerattle arm twisting rattler mean
into her side,
“gums recent around
the dead shine of her teeth like—
“limply clap her hand with his
two riverbed hands, nodding gratefully
only because like the desiccated rows of his flowers and tears
“black cratches, all
of it now,
“mere shadows on the grey,
“he too like a passing day
It’s fun for a lit journal (not Anobium, but other journals with ‘Review’ in the name), but certainly isn’t compelling. Not that it proposes to be compelling, either. Like House of Leaves, The Fifty Year Sword has a cerebral quality to it which some might find attractive. There are entire independent presses dedicated to writing of this style, and they all take themselves very seriously. I think The Fifty Year Sword takes itself seriously, too. But I didn’t.