By Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon Books, 2006
The history of the novel is made up of cycles of creation and destruction. For every storytelling or formatting convention, right down to the seemingly obvious ones like a single direction of reading or numbered pages, there has to have been a moment of invention, and, some time later, a moment in which an author chose to defy that convention, if only for the sake of novelty. These innovations, in their turn, became conventions, and were later defied themselves. Nonlinear narratives, multiple points of view, unreliable narrators, epistolary and pseudo-documentary writing, footnotes, appendices, typographical games—each, in its turn, was added to the writer's tool chest, one more weapon in the struggle against a crushing mathematical fact: that against the ever-proliferating number of writers there stand only a scant number of stories. Character and theme are important weapons in this battle, but the big gun is and has always been style. In the last hundred years in particular, it seems that literary style has taken on a life of its own, growing ever more distant from the stories it was created to express, and at times superseding their importance.
In his 2000 debut, House of Leaves, author Mark Z. Danielewski used nearly every device at his disposal to put a new spin on a very old story—that of a family who move into a haunted house. Danielewski wrapped this familiar tale in a documentary, a critical commentary, the diary of a madman, notes from his editors, and letters from his mother, and of course it goes without saying that each level of narrative was less reliable than the one before, to the point that even the narrators' existence was brought into question. Six years later, Danielewski returns with a second novel (a companion volume to House of Leaves, The Whalestoe Letters, was also published in 2000), Only Revolutions, in which he doesn't simply bend the rules to their breaking point, but actively seeks to dismantle the novelistic format. It is a novel that can be read backwards, forwards, and sideways, with no obvious starting point and no clearly established order of reading. A significant portion of its text was clearly never intended to be read at all, and exists simply as background noise. Oh, and it's written in verse.
Only Revolutions is made up of two parallel narratives that describe a tempestuous love affair between two sixteen-year-old runaways, Hailey and Sam. The two kids meet at the top of a mountain, steal a car and embark on a year-long road trip across America. They crash a party in New Orleans, work in a diner in St. Louis, and return north to the mountain where they met. The accouterments of their journey are constantly shifting—the make and model of their car is never the same from one description to the next, and the names of the characters they meet are constantly rearranging themselves. The two narratives each tell a different version of the same story, not simply a Rashomon-like splitting of perspective, but actual mirror images—when Hailey sees herself as suave and confident, Sam perceives her as weak and uncouth, and vice versa.
The two narratives unfold simultaneously, in opposite directions of reading—turn the book over when reading the beginning of Sam's narrative, and you'll find the end of Hailey's. A helpful note from the publisher "recommends" that the reader alternate between the two narratives, flipping the book over every eight pages in order to get both characters' perspective on the unfolding events, but it is possible to read one narrative whole and then the other, or to switch over between the two narratives at a frequency higher or lower than the one recommended by the publisher, without losing the thread of the story. The choice of which narrative to read first is left to our discretion.
In the face of such an elaborate stylistic construction erected in the service of such a simple story, almost any reader would be compelled to ask why they should take the trouble to climb the steep learning curve required to figure out Only Revolutions' workings. For that matter, why did Danielewski bother to write the novel as he did? We find ourselves, in other words, bumping up against the question of cleverness, which has been cropping up more and more often in recent years; is a carefully constructed, stylistically adventurous work clever, or is it merely clever? Have authors, in their eternal quest for the next convention to shatter, so thoroughly separated style from substance as to completely devalue the latter?
When I read House of Leaves a few years ago, I assumed that Danielewski was a horror writer trying to breathe new life into the genre by nesting a simple and familiar trope within various styles of narrative. Having read Only Revolutions, I'm now wondering whether it's the act of so enfolding (and, in the process of doing so, altering) a clichéd narrative, in any genre, that interests him. The key difference between the two novels, however, is that swathed as it is in stylistic excesses, the core narrative in House of Leaves still has room to breathe. The characters on all narrative levels are recognizably human and compelling, and their plight moving. The novel is also structured as a mystery, with clues sprinkled throughout for the readers to discover, thus giving us a chance to feel as clever as the author. Only Revolutions has a straightforward central narrative, which is so encrusted by the novel's structure that the characters never have a chance to develop personalities. They are the archetypes of runaway teenagers—adventurous, unthinking, disdainful of authority, enchanted by anything exciting or transgressive—with no distinguishing characteristics, and their story unfolds in the most predictable and familiar way.
About halfway through the novel, however, it becomes obvious that this predictability is very much the point. Hailey and Sam are not well-defined as characters because they're not meant to be entirely human. Their story, proceeding from their meeting to their tragic separation and then, with a quick flip of the book, back again to another meeting, was never meant to be a novel, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, but a perpetual cycle. Danielewski is forcing the format to do things it was never intended to do in the service of writing a new mythology, and like those gods who live and love and die over the course of a day, a month, a year, and are reborn again at the beginning of the next, Hailey and Sam are always coming together and being torn apart—a cycle of creation and destruction.
Once this central conceit becomes apparent, it is impossible not to marvel at Danielewski's careful construction work. At the beginning of both their narratives, Hailey and Sam inform us that they have the power to destroy the world. Their hand is stayed first by their love for one another, and later by the recognition that the world deserves to be spared, if only because the object of their affection cared for it. The familiar story of teenage alienation and self-involvement transformed, through love, into a capacity for empathy is brilliantly mapped onto a myth about the world's salvation. (Along the same lines, the fact that Hailey and Sam describe the same events in such differing terms—speaking highly of themselves and disparaging the other—is, at one and the same time, an expression of typical teenage self-involvement and an integral part of Danielewski's invented cosmology, in which the two narratives each form half of the novel's cycle, each the equal and opposite of the other.) The myth gains an extra dimension when we realize that Hailey and Sam are quintessentially American deities. Their destructive power, their selfishness, their immaturity, their capacity for goodness make them stand-ins for the nation itself, and of course the road trip is fundamentally an American story (hence the "background noise"—columns of facts from America's history between 1863 and the present day collated by members of the official House of Leaves forum). The physical details of Hailey and Sam's journey are constantly shifting because their story has been repeated so often—constantly changing, and always the same. With Only Revolutions, Danielewski isn't driving a final wedge between style and substance—he is binding them inextricably to one another. The format of the story becomes the meaning of the story, and to change either one would be to irrevocably alter the work as a whole.
As far as this reader is concerned, Danielewski passes the test that distinguishes cleverness from mere cleverness—I am genuinely excited by his novel's central concept. Which is why it gives me great pain to say that, although Only Revolutions is a pleasure to contemplate, it is something of a chore to read. It is too long and not particularly well-written. It's easy to guess why Danielewski chose to make the novel 360 pages long, but in practical terms this means that he needs to stretch out a story that by its very nature is thin on plot to an unnatural length. Danielewski takes an unconscionably long time to get through each of the novel's non-events, and since the two narratives for the most part repeat each other, sometimes using the exact same words with only an adjective here and a noun there altered, the reading experience can become quite tedious.
But far worse is the paucity of Danielewski's verse. Again, we can imagine why he chose blank verse for Hailey and Sam's thoughts—prose would be too conventional for these kids, meter too constricting—but he simply doesn't have the writing chops to sustain a 360 page poem. There are moments of great energy in Only Revolutions, where Danielewski's words develop a rhythm that brings across the chaotic nature of Hailey and Sam's inner thoughts. ("Haloes! Haleskarth! / Contraband! / I can walk away / from anything. / Everybody loves / the Dream but I kill it." is our introduction to Hailey.) Less frequently, Danielewski's words convey pathos, although more often the verse descends into melodrama. For the most part, however, Danielewski uses language carelessly, pouring words on top of one another as if their mere tonnage would be enough to make them sing, and giving the distinct impression that he is merely filling up space (each of the novel's 360 pages contains exactly 180 words).
I can't quite find it in myself to entirely condemn Only Revolutions. If it is a failure, then it is magnificent one, and it does at long last lay to rest the questions raised by even the most devoted and fannish reading of House of Leaves: Is this man toying with us? Does he care about his characters as much as we do? Is he asking us to do more work deciphering his novel than he did writing it? With Only Revolutions, Danielewski proves himself to be more than merely clever. He has the wit and talent required to marry an adventurous style to an unusual story. If only he had the poetry.