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Review: Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword

Review: Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Fifty Year Sword

The 50 Year Sword Cover

The Fifty Year Sword
by Mark Z. Danielewski
2005
Book


Autumn is finally in the air; the smell of coal fires litter the evening air where I live, the leaves are turning to rich golds and warm umbers. Either joyfully or annoyingly (depending on your opinion of the matter) everything is pumpkin spiced, and you can more than likely find me holding a pumpkin whilst telling the Christmas crowd to back off.

Are you settled? Warm socks and a steaming mug of whatever takes your fancy?

Because you have a date with “a bad man with a very black heart…”

The Fifty Year Sword is at first glance an exquisite looking book; however, it holds something quiet, something menacing within its pages and under its jacket. The story is told by five speakers, differentiated by coloured quotation marks, and is told entirely in dialogue.

Chintana has decided to attend the 50th birthday party of Belinda Kite, the woman with whom her husband had an affair. A storyteller comes to the house to entertain five orphans with a dark tale where they traverse through The Valley of Salt, amongst The Forest of Falling Notes, scaling the Mountain of Manyone Paths to reach the Man With No Arms.

If I were to tell you any more than that, it would give away too much. Danielewski is renowned for his ability to juxtapose imagery and narrative to create a non-trivial text and The Fifty Year Sword is a wonderful welcome into this world if you haven’t yet delved into it.

The narrative draws you in; the dialogue that is crossed between and cut amongst provides it with a quickened pace. The visuals of the seemingly sliced pages, the stitched embroidery providing you with a sense of connection all add to the overall experience, everything in Danielewski’s worlds is done deliberately with deep thought and finesse.

Some find this kind of literature as gimmicky, rather pretentious and occasionally not worth taking the time to read. First printed in 2005 with a limited edition run of 1000 copies, and then another run several years later, it has proved itself to be a cult favourite. Relying on intricate, woven language and the depths of the reader’s mind rather than unnecessary depictions of violence, it is a much more successful tale for the ages.

Ergodic fiction is continuously growing, changing and adapting to new various platforms. With these changes come new methods of becoming immersive, of providing an all-round experience but if you’re daunted by the scale of that or unsure where to start, then The Fifty Year Sword is an excellent doorway in.

This book is more than a ghost story told on Hallow’s Eve and more than a fairy-tale to be forgotten.

The last question to be asked: What will happen on your fiftieth birthday?

Review: Joanna Walsh’s SEED

Review: Joanna Walsh’s SEED

SEED
by Joanna Walsh
Illustrated by Charlotte Hicks
2017
Interactive Fiction
Best accessed on a mobile device.


SEED is written by Joanna Walsh and illustrated by Charlotte Hicks, and follows the tale of an 18-year old girl during four months of her life in the late 1980s. This story, one of many published by those at Visual Editions, is one best experienced on your mobile device; though possible to view on a desktop computer, you really do want to be able to swipe easily.

Described in the introduction as a coming of age narrative, SEED is a story that feels like an in-depth exploration of a character. We are free, as the reader, to choose the path through the narrative we like the look of best.

You’re able to swipe about the darkness of the story’s surface layer and follow the vines, or not, with whimsical abandon. It’s a fun experience, heightened by the quality of the webpage, prose, and illustrations.

If you dive in anywhere on the storyline at random, as I did when I first opened the webpage, you’d be excused to find yourself a little befuddled. The text reads a little off-kilter, with a sense of something odd going on. It’s not just because you don’t know where you are in the narrative yet, because you can find the same thing happening on reading the ‘opening’ lexia, or “chunk of text”.

Though the text is from a point of view that’s a little skewed, it brings a lyrical sense of amusement to the telling, which I enjoy:

“Ragged robin a canker, looks like something ill./ Outside the cattery don’t touch animals ever./ Brimstone butterflies./ The smell of humans on them doesn’t go away./ Crowsfoot. Yellow things./ Birds neither./ They will die, abandoned./”

The preceding quote is in verse, and judging from the introductory paragraph, and others that are in prose, is fully intended to have those line breaks. This poetic style doesn’t persist throughout the entire lexia, it often falls into a stream-of-consciousness style of narrative that is part and parcel of the whimsical weaving of story and style.

When you explore the text of SEED, and it seems obvious when thinking about the title of the piece, there are many illustrations of flowers, vines, and roots. I like this imagery because it reinforces the idea that you are following the thread, or root, of a story.

When you read to the end of a lexia, you can simply swipe again to move onto the next one that Walsh intended to follow on from what you were reading, or you can tap the cross and go back to the “main menu” of the narrative to find another. However, that’s a rather simplistic view of the text.

What I mean by this is that the main menu also shows an options panel, allowing us to pick which thread of the story to follow. For example, when I picked ‘land’, a green thread was left in its wake and related lexias were highlighted, showing me the path that discusses land. Anything not in that sub-section was greyed out.

In this way, you could come to SEED and read only the lexias concerning the land, or the house, or work, and leave it at that. You would have a ‘complete’ narrative, though it wouldn’t be the whole narrative.

You read ‘chapters’ of each month in which the story takes place – June, July, August, September – and once you finish exploring one month, you can move onto the next. Or not, as the choice is completely up to you.

However, what’s really, really, fascinating about this story is that when you read any lexia with only one thread enabled, you only see the text within that lexia relevant to that thread, and that thread alone.

If you have all threads enabled, you read every scrap of information in that lexia, and each one can be pages long. Disable all but one thread, and your lexias can be a single sentence long.

This functionality completely changed the way I viewed SEED, and I’m sure any other reader would react the same way: from cute and slightly befuddling, to clever and intriguing.

This text is beautifully lyrical, follows a character who is engaging and with whom you easily empathise, and is underpinned by fantastic technology that shines through when used on a mobile device.

I thoroughly recommend SEED, and I’ll be diving into the rest of Visual Edition’s books when I get the chance; I’ve still got another five read-throughs of this one to go!