A review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD by Dr. Joseph Suglia

A review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD

by Dr. Joseph Suglia


You can accuse an idiot of being an idiot, but this accusation will only dimly register in his primitive consciousness.  He will shrug his shoulders and continue being an idiot.

This raises the question, “Why criticize idiotic books at all?”  It is unlikely that a sharp-minded critic will improve a dimwitted writer.  And who will do the criticizing?  There are very few intelligent people left in the world, and in the country in which I reside, the United States of America, intelligence is condemned as a vice.  Nevertheless, we the intelligent must band together and identify idiocy whenever we come across it, especially when idiotic books such as Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD (2012) are praised by THE WASHINGTON POST as works of literature, if for no other reason than to secure the concept of “literature” and to protect it from abuse.

THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD is undistilled swill, and it is impossible to understand how any serious person could defend such a book.  I am using the word “book” somewhat glibly, since what Danielewski and Co. have given us is a collection of blank pages, drawings (stitchings, really), and limp doggerel, all stitched together.

It might be useful to taxonomize the text into four categories.

Pages 2, 11, 13, 15, 17, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 31, 33, 39, 41, 43, 45, 47, 49, 51, 53, 55, 57, 59, 65, 69, 71, 73, 75, 77, 79, 81, 83, 85, 87, 99, 107, 117, 119, 121, 125, 127, 139, 143, 147, 149, 151,  155, 159, 169, 171, 175, 177, 181, 183, 185, 189, 193, 195, 199, 201, 205, 207, 209, 211, 233, 234, 235, 237, 243, 245, 247, 249, 255, 257, 259, 261, 263, 265, 269, 273, 281, 283, and 285 are entirely blank.

On pages 7, 8, 9, 19, 35, 37, 61, 63, 67, 89, 91, 93, 95, 97, 101, 103, 104, 105, 106, 109, 111, 112, 113, 115, 123, 129, 131, 133, 135, 137, 141, 144, 145, 153, 157, 160, 161, 163, 165, 167, 173, 179, 187, 191, 197, 203, 213, 215, 217, 219, 221, 223, 225, 227, 229, 231, 238, 239, 241, 251, 253, 267, 271, 275, 277, 278, and 279 are unaesthetic stitchings that look like food stains.  No words to speak of.

Pages 18, 66, 88, 92, 94, 96, 98, 100, 108, 114, 116, 122, 124, 126, 128, 130, 132, 134, 136, 138, 140, 142, 152, 154, 158, 162, 164, 166, 168, 172, 174, 176, 178, 184, 186, 188, 190, 192, 196, 212, 214, 216, 218, 220, 222, 224, 226, 228, 230, 232, 242, 244, 246, 254, 266, 270, 274, 276, and 284: Printed on each one of these pages is a single ill-formed sentence or phrase and nothing else besides.  On some of the more generous pages, there are two ill-formed sentences.  On some of the more meager pages, there is a single word or two words.

Pages 12, 14, 16, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30, 32, 34, 36, 38, 40, 42, 44, 46, 54, 56, 58, 60, 62, 64, 68, 70, 72, 74, 76, 78, 80, 82, 84, 86, 90, 102, 110, 118, 120, 146, 148, 150, 156, 170, 180, 182, 194, 198, 200, 202, 204, 206, 208, 210, 236, 240, 248, 250, 252, 256, 258, 260, 262, 264, 268, 272, 280, and 282: Erratically indented, badly written verse, approximately fifty-sixty words per page.  Multicolored quotation marks, single and double.  The orange quotation marks seem to refer to the character Tarff.  The mauve (?) quotation marks seem to refer to the character Ezade.  The red quotation marks to Inieda, the brown to Sithis, and the yellow (?) to something called “ittle Micit.”  Often, it is difficult to distinguish one color from the other, one character from the other.

Let’s tally up the numbers.

83 out of the book’s 285 pages are entirely blank.

67 of these pages are polluted with “illustrations” (for lack of a worse word).

This means that approximately 52% of the “book” is wordless: There are more blank pages and pages of imagery than pages with words on them.

And what of the words that Brother Poe stitches together?  What is it like to actually read this book (such as it is)?

Reading this “book” is as pleasant as eating sand.  The lines are atrociously stupid, abnormally boring, and excruciatingly illiterate.  Let me pause over some of the language, since it is the most offensive thing about this intolerably mushy mishmash of bad verse, blank pages, and ugly pictures.  Here are three examples:

1.)  “A few times a year Mose would generously serve up booze / and sweet / to fortipify the many strangers against the expected strangeness of her minglings…” [24].

A “sentence” that was clearly “inspired” by Joyce without any of Joyce’s elegance or genius.  When Joyce invented neologisms, he did so with a purpose.  The awful coinage “fortipify” neither enhances nor enlivens the text.

2.)“It was even in the falling apart of the breeze (though is there a breeze / if I can still feel it on my face?)…” [110].

Here, we have a non sequitur that does not even rise to the level of a simple paradox.

3.)“Where / upon / he began to swing the handle in a wide but deliberately / slow / arc as if to pass a long blade through the wicks of those five / candles nearly six / feet away where indeed a yellow panic there, / perhaps by extraordidinary coincidence, momentarily cowered / into small rounds of blue and drowning smoke” [240].

This is the sort of verse that only a bananahead would like and respect.

And if I were a bananahead, I would find THE FIFTY-YEAR SWORD impressive.  In truth, Mark Z. Danielewski is not a careful writer, and he does not have a feeling for words.  Blame should be also given to the seamstresses at the Atelier Z, who did a terrible job of stitching the stupid thing together.

Dr. Joseph Suglia


ONLY REVOLUTIONS by Mark Z. Danielewski

A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia

The mystery of all mysteries surrounds Mark Z. Danielewski’s ONLY REVOLUTIONS (2006): Someone actually thought that this endless circuit of gibberish qualified for the National Book Award. And it is an endless circuit, literally. Columns of text spiral and loop, making the text all but unintelligible. We have two narratives—though the book does eschew traditional narrative, as if there were something revolutionary about doing so in 2006—that of Sam and that of Hailey, both of whom are perpetually sixteen. If you look at the bottom of the page while reading Sam’s narrative, there you will find Hailey’s upside down. The size of Sam’s text dwindles as it progresses (from 22 November 1863 to 22 November 1963), gradually dwarfed by Hailey’s. Turn the book around 180 degrees and start at the back, and you can read all about Hailey, from 22 November 1963 (the pivot of the book, the day of Kennedy’s assassination) to 22 November 2063. History is circular, don’t you know! The book’s one motif is the stupidity of circularity.

Despite Danielewski’s transparent desire to be innovative, there is nothing new here. It really is stunning how stale the book is rendered. The huge “S” with which Sam’s narrative begins was stolen wholesale from ULYSSES, the characters Sam and Hailey are openly imitative of Shem and Shaun (the famous brothers of FINNEGANS WAKE), the typographical tics recall Derrida’s GLAS and LA DISSEMINATION, and the wordage sounds a bit like the driveling gobbledygook of an ill-read high-school stoner who just finished leafing his way inattentively through both the WAKE and Pynchon’s MASON & DIXON. Vaguely reminiscent of a designer Joyce-Made-EZ, ONLY REVOLUTIONS is enslaved to its precursors. Whereas Joyce creates worlds with words, however, Danielewski seems fearful of language and its literary capabilities. There is a kind of aggression toward language here, a certain virulent logophobia. It is a book not to be read–though I have read every silly, jingling phrase–but to be looked at.

How bad is the writing? At his very best, Danielewski recalls Shakespeare at his very worst. At his worst, he is singsongy, spewing forth nonsensical nursery rhymes that emerge from the page like sulphurous flames issuing from some mephitic kindergarten in Hell, as if the writer regarded FINNEGANS WAKE as a collection of limp, wince-inducing doggerel, as if the book were his ill-conceived idea of a “found poem”–the “found” part being the sort of dribbling babble found at the bottom of e-mails in order to fool SPAM filters–or his deeply unfortunate, private misinterpretation of Brion Gysin’s “cut-up” method or surrealist automatism. To say that Danielewski’s versification has little concern for elegance or expansiveness would be to say too little. When, for instance, he writes phrases and sentences such as “I outrace furry. Populate worry” [H 24]; “All of it too with puddles of goo, sog and drool” [H 43]; “Concerning her poverty, I resort to generosity” [S 9]; “I’m the heist. The impersonal price” [H 13]; “Slump. Plop. Awshucking dump” [S 83]; “And where five roads link, I poop puddles of stink” [S 241]; “Sam takes the lumps. And The Pumps” [H 55]; “Only capless Sam ups for horny, ogling my feet” [H 53]; “Sam spurts his mess. All over my chest” [H 59], you feel that it is really the result of indifference or laziness, as if jangle and flash were more important to the man than the explosive possibilities inherent to literary language.

By this, I do not mean to suggest that Danielewski’s language is too difficult–far from it. His banter is not so much “difficult” as it is sterile and vacant of meaning.

It is impossible to do justice to this book without discussing another gimmick in its typographical design. This is because the book IS its typographical design. Danielewski the Graphic Designer highlights every “O” in the book with a golden hue, as if the letter were globally hyperlinked. This not an insignificant matter. The internet impresses itself upon every page of ONLY REVOLUTIONS. And in the final analysis, the flashy fonts and sprawling typographies are nothing more than glitzy Web design, counter-linguistic ruses distracting readers from the impoverishment of the book’s verbal properties. But as some of us know, the pyrotechnics of typography and font are no substitute for writing with vividness and grace.

Dr. Joseph Suglia