by Mark Z. Danielewski
Published by Pantheon
384 pages, 2006
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
In 2000, author Mark Z. Danielewski released a novel called House of Leaves, which became the focus of a massive cult movement. The virtually impenetrable book was about a filmmaker whose house measures bigger on the inside than it does on the outside, and the obsession to find out how this could be was the spark that set the novel on its way.
The author was clearly as interested in the design of the book as he was in its words. While it's written in several prose styles, ostensibly by different narrators, it's also rife with colored words and sections that are supposed to give the text more meaning.
I tried to read the book, having been intrigued by the idea of it, then found it too much work. I figured, after a while, that no one was holding a gun to my head and gave up.
Flash forward to right now, and Danielewski has just released a new novel called Only Revolutions. There's been a ton of advance word about this book; the Internet buzz has been almost unbearable. The author himself has stoked this fire -- not that there's anything wrong with that.
The startling double cover -- extreme close-ups of eyes, one green, the other yellow -- gives way to a tale narrated, as it were, by two young lovers, a boy and a girl named Sam and Hailey. The text authored by both appears simultaneously, rightside up or upside down depending on which side you open first. There's a note at the start suggesting that you read eight pages of one, then flip the book over to read eight pages of the other, and so on.
Doing so reveals that at certain points the narratives duplicate -- which is probably the point -- even down to some of the phrases and imagery. So, like, what happens on Sam's page 16 is connected by narrative or language to what happens on Hailey's page 16.
At the same time, the margins of each page are filled with statistics, essentially an interminable list of conflicts throughout history and how many lives were lost there. I never did really get the point of this, although that's probably it: lots of war, lots of lives lost. Reading them, I hoped, would shed light on the story; instead, they kept pulling me away, so I gave up on them.
So, in short, the structure alone of Only Revolutions causes it to becomes rather instantly a self-serving, virtually unreadable thing that's more object than book.
As with House of Leaves, while the idea of such a thing might be intriguing, in practical terms the constant flipping of the book around forces the reader to become disengaged with what's happening. That is, the physical effort quickly outweighs any pleasure of the read.
Not, frankly, that there's much of that.
Both Sam and Hailey write in a gibberish-like, free-verse, stanza-structured poetic style that's just plain irritating. A random example:
"Ditch the gurney, Dash! zippityzoom,
Or so the hype would have you believe.
Trouble is, in a book that makes you work so hard to get it, the language should be great enough to carry you beyond the physical trouble the structure forces you to endure. In this case, it never becomes something to be judged as "good" or "bad" and, frankly, it's just a pain in the ass. So assuming there's something brilliant going on here, it requires too much work to get to it. In others words, there's zero return on what turns out to be considerable investment.
If Only Revolutions worked, then Mark Z. Danielewski would have found a way to remake the book as an object. If Only Revolutions worked, that object would be readable; it would have broken the bounds of the "normal" book.
But in both, he's failed miserably.
That said, the thing'll probably be a bestseller.
Whatever. | September 2006
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse and a contributing editor to January Magazine and Blue Coupe. He and his family live in Lawrenceville, New Jersey where he is hard at work on an exciting new chapter in his life.