Sunday, September 23, 2007

Book Review: Only Revolutions

I forced myself to finish this book, and was hoping for bigger and better things from Mark Z. Danielewski. Unfortunately, I was disappointed: half at myself for not understanding the story better, and half at Danielewski for not telling it better. For a book about dualism, I guess this is appropriate. So have an author fail this way is a depressing homage to all of the great experimental writers who failed in similar ways by concentrating on the form so hard that they eventually forgot they were telling a story first and writing it second.

Danielewski is a good author with big ideas and loves to toy with them. House of Leaves was a great book in this regard; his experimentation with colors, text placement, font choice, and manipulation of features like footnotes, bibliographies, and appendices are what made Leaves stand out. However, these "gimmicks" didn't make Leaves work. What made Leaves work as a book is that it told a coherent story with characters that we cared about, in situations that we could imagine in such a way that two people reading the same paragraph would render similar experiences, and these literary experiments worked to enhance this underlying story. House of Leaves was about a labyrinth, and the book taking this form is perfect for this story.

For exactly the same reasons that House of Leaves worked, Only Revolutions failed.

Once again, Danielewski is playing with form; this time, it's an epic poem told twice from the perspectives of Sam and Hailey. This dualistic poem concept isn't new: over 400 years ago John Milton wrote two poems about the same pastoral scene from two different perspectives: L'allegro and Il Pensoroso well before he wrote Paradise Lost. The beginning of Only Revolutions even speaks in similar couplet beat to these two poems. There is a ton of structure to the book: 360 pages arranged in 45 chapters of 8 pages each, each page has 180 words on it, 90 from each side, half right side up and half upside down. The stories are synchronized even for being 100 years apart, each page in the same section of the story as the alternate poem. A date appears on the both tops of each page indicating the date of that page for that narrator. The days decelerate for Sam who starts in 1863 and moves chronologically at a year/page until the end of his story when it moves at a day/page; Hailey's story starts on Nov. 22, 1963 (at the moment of JFK's assassination no less) and accelerates from a day/page to a year/page, ending in 2063. On the side of the poem are headlines from the day's events, and these also attempt to synchronize with the words of the poem alongside it. The first letter of each chapter also spells out "Sam and Hailey and Sam and Hailey and Sam and Hailey and" (also this is not new: Michael Ende started each of the 26 chapters of The Neverending Story with a consecutive letter of the alphabet, and Milton also used acrostics multiple times in Paradise Lost). Even the colors of the o's on each page match the eye color of the current narrator (extremely useful for remembering where you were). For a literary work, this book is an achievement in structure.

However, where this book succeeds in form it falls in substance. Sam and Hailey's story is virtually nonexistant, when and if you can pry it from the form that muddies the writing. Example of prose[sic]: "And allso their gyre's screw/Though I still tear loose of this crew./--Tootaloo girls!/ And Eighteen NewlyWeds wash pale while Double Dutching and buzzing YoYos:/--O hang on." Yes, Danielewski's using Carroll's word gyre correctly (meaning to spin like a screw). That's from Hailey's side; Sam's side is at first utterly incomprehensible until you compare with Hailey, a dictionary, and a lot of patience. Thankfully even Danielewski tires of this near the end, and the story makes a little more sense. Even with that, the events that peep out ramble more randomly than Allen Ginsburg. Multiple attacks from "THEM" (you think I'm kidding?) and "the Creep" add levels of allegory to suggest that Sam and Hailey are to represent the American Dream, always being sixteen and on the road. Now, don't get me wrong; I love allegory and satire, and when done correctly these methods of storytelling really push a point across. However, the allegory falls apart when it isn't hammered home. Imagine if Gulliver's Travels were told like this:
Samsarra Llemuel!
young sailor full of

life: --splayed on the ground in strife
TwoHundredThousand tiny threads of panic
and tiny voices of near static
Illusions of lilliputian eggs, and which side of budding wars
--Let go of me you whores!
I yearn to cross the See and be small

Allegory makes sense if you really understand the story and the unmistakable opinions of the author. Swift really hammered home his message, and it was unmistakable his impressions of royalty, politics, and human folly, and even when he abstained from opinion it was clear that he did so. Danielewski's impressions of the American Dream are anyone's guess. Let's throw allegory aside for a moment: even if all he was looking for was just a love story (yeah right), even that falls apart. The prose to one another is more over-the-top than any harlequin romance, sex scenes are raunchy and one-dimensional, and jealousy doesn't even make sense when you can't tell if a character is flesh-and-blood or really just a concept (I swear I read that section about New Hope/Old Hope/Dying Hope a hundred times).

One might argue that I'm just too dumb to understand the story, and that if I were smarter and tried harder to read it I would love it. That's the problem though: if a story's only theme is that it is told in obscure kennings, arcane language, and indecipherable metaphor, it fails to become a story and transforms into some form of elitist test that only "proper" readers should be able to comprehend. I have no problem with flipping the book over every 8 pages, or appreciating the word count, acrostics, font re-sizings, or circular chronology. I loved it when e.e. cummings represented a cricket's movement with a spaced out word, or when Calvino gets all metaphysical when writing a book about reading a book about writing a book, or Ende's clever use of italics to flip narrator, main character, and reader's roles. And I loved it when I was crawling through columns of words in House of Leaves, because I had a reason for doing so. Unfortunately, Only Revolutions didn't give me a gripping enough reason to delve into the prose, and thus it fails, even in spite of the obvious brilliance of its author.

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