Sunday, November 12, 2006

Review: Only Revolutions

About six years ago Mark Danielewski put out one hell of a first novel called House of Leaves. Blending pieces of horror and pomo fiction, it delivered complicated techniques and ideas in ways that were very accessible. The novel became more than a cult following; it became a NY Times bestseller. Despite it’s accomplishments, HoL wears its influences like tattoos on sleeveless arms: Lovecraft, Straub, Delaney and especially Borges. It was easy to see where Danielewski’s ideas and styles were coming from.

His new novel Only Revolutions is quite different. While there are certainly influences that show through----WS Burroughs, EE Cummings, Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac----OR feels more like his own book, like Danielsewski’s managed to cover up all the seams and make the material and concepts really his own. Unlike most reviews that focus on plot, this one inevitably has to focus on other concerns like style, concept and structure. So be forewarned. I write very little about what actually happens in the book plot-wise in and when I do, I do it without caring about giving things away like I normally would. Because, honestly, in a book like this it really doesn’t matter.

But what is the book about, you might ask?

In short, Sam and Hailey are two wild souls who meet and fall in love with each other. They circumnavigate the U.S. together in true road novel fashion, blasting down highways and dirt roads with complete abandon, caring little about anything save the thrill of speed and jars of honey the carry around for sustenance. Through the magic of fiction both characters remain sixteen years old forever, removing any sense of responsibility from them and imbuing them with an overpowering sense of freedom. The main conceit of the tale is that Sam and Hailey exist in different points in time; Sam’s story begins with the Civil War while Hailey’s opens with the assassination of JFK. The story is told from both points of view. Following the publisher’s forward, eight pages of Sam’s story are to be read first, then the volume needs to be flipped over and upside down and read in reverse for Hailey’s story.

Page 8, Sam's Story

This flip-flopping between time periods creates connections between events in time---all listed as marginalia---hinting at similarities between events occurring around the two main characters. The Civil War and the JFK assassination, for example, were both times of great political, cultural and societal change and linking these two events separated by 100 years suggests a cyclical progression to our nation. Danielewsi makes great use of dialects and cultural references of each period, and at times even mimics voices of writers from the day. Sam’s story, for example, starts in a lilting poetic voice that reminded me a lot of Walt Whitman. When we get to the 40’s and 50’s, the language is more jumpy and recalls beat poets and early rock and roll lyrics. I found, quite by accident, that it’s a novel that works much better when read aloud (although with all the sex I don’t suggest reading it aloud on the metro).

Page 8, Hailey's Story

It’s a structural masterpiece, with most of the structural conceits referencing circles. What occurs in Sam’s story on page eight also occurs on page eight of Hailey’s story, but with her own perspective and in her own time with its own cultural references giving a back-and-forth, spinning around feeling with the novel. The letter “O” is highlighted in different colors throughout the book, and there are constant references in the text to cyclones, tornados, gyres and twisters. If you choose to disregard the publisher’s suggestion and read Sam’s story straight through, when things end you’ll also find yourself back at the beginning when Hailey’s story starts on the last page of Sam’s. Even the act of physically flipping the book back and forth has an inherent circular motion. The book is precisely 360 pages long, equal to the number of degrees in a circle. Although the prose at first might seem loose and very WS Burroughs, it’s actually very controlled. Each segment on each page---meaning each half page---has exactly 90 words. After you’ve read each eight-page segment you’ve read 720 words and made yourself spin around two full times.

Much of the structure that happened in HoL---the intersecting storylines and the marginalia---could have been done in hypertext. I remember thinking as I read it that it probably should have been done in hypertext and that Danielewski put it into a standard novel form to sell it. But OR stresses the book as a physical artifact: the pages, the cover, the text. Each time you flip the book over to read the other side of the story D doesn’t just remind you that you are reading a book but forces you to interact with it. Book-ribbons to help mark your place in both storylines are not only helpful but increase the physical interaction with the book.

There are a few parts of the story that slowed down for me. For some reason I have yet to figure out, the two spend an inordinate amount of time working in a diner in St. Louis. With all the constant wild motion, they suddenly seemed trapped standing still for so long. From St. Louis they bounce through court-houses trying to get married---remember they are always sixteen---and ultimately get lost in the mountains during an ice storm. The last thirty pages are particularly powerful as we flip the book back and forth, seeing and feeling the reactions of Sam and Hailey as they see their loved one freeze to death in their arms.

I don’t know if my review here does the book justice. In fact, my thoughts on it probably muddle Danielewski’s skill more than enlighten it. Taken individually the techniques he uses are not particularly new; I’ve seen most if not all of them done before in poetry and experimental short fiction. But he stretches these techniques to the limit by applying them to a novel and creates a new fictional experience. OR is a novel that’s bound to launch the academic careers of many a literary theorist as they sit down to interpret everything Danielewski is doing.

If all of this sounds confusing to you, parts of it are. If you are a reader who looks only for the familiar, this is not the book for you. If, however, you are like me and enjoy being truly surprised by a writer’s invention I suggest picking it up for yourself. Ride along with Sam and Hailey. Run with them, revolve with them, forget any preconceptions of what fiction should be and enjoy the freedom of reading something entirely new.



JaniceYang said...

I'm reading this book right now, I haven't finished it, it confuses the hell out of me, but I fell in love with it.

Hebdomeros said...

Hi Janice-

Glad to hear you are enjoying. I think my experience was similar---I was mystified by it, but LOVED being mystified by it. I know I'll need to read it again in a couple of years.