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Mark Z. Danielewski
Only Revolutions
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006

Pantheon / Random House
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-375-42176-9
384 Pages; $26
Publication Date: 09-12-2006
Date Reviewed: 11-30-06

Index: General Fiction  Fantasy

Books, we're told, have a lot of competition these days. The easy fixes provided by video games and DVDs offer entertainment without effort. Sit back and let it flow over you, or if you're feeling frisky, twiddle some controls to drive an icon through pixels. Even the print world s competes in the form of increasingly sophisticated graphic novels. To be sure, the best of these create a reading experience as sophisticated as a good novel. Still, there is nothing like the process of reading pure language. But how does reading compete with the influx of modern entertainment? Can it actually make use of the benefits of that technology?

Mark Z. Danielewski is out to drag the novel kicking and screaming into the world of twenty-first century entertainment. 'House of Leaves', his first novel did an admirable job of starting the task, but 'Only Revolutions' takes even bigger steps. Danielewski makes full use of the technology that has helped to create video games and surreal special effects in movies to create a complicated all-text reading experience. Thanks to the gift of layout programs such as the Adobe Creative Suite, with which this novel was created, the text is all over the page in a rainbow of colors. Thanks to the contributions of readers over the Internet, the content is colored as well, bringing this novel well into the realm of the collaborative work done in such online games as Second Life. This might be all surface and all gimmick were it not for the contributions of the novelist himself. Danielewski has the talent to marshal his resources and create a coherent whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Oh, it's a crazy-quilt mish-mash of several kitchen sinks and more than a few collages. But get down to the level of language, engage the novel as a reading experience, and there's no doubt that Danielewski is accomplishing precisely what he intends with a level of style that has literally never before been seen or even possible.

Taken simply as a printed object, 'Only Revolutions' has a lot going for it. Even if you were never read it cover-to-cover, it is a thing of beauty. Pantheon has spared no expense in printing these books. The type is a variety of colors and the book includes not one but two cloth bookmarks, and you'll need them — but more about that later. From dust jacket to cover to cover, this is a book that you could pick up and noodle through for years, a sort of print-only coffee table book. Part of the reason it can work on this level is that the writing within is quite fine, but that's not the point for book-as-object. Pantheon could get a little cottage industry going by creating wall-hanging frames to display the book, or even some sort of stack-of-cards unbound version. Or a program for the new Sony ebook that could display random pages, offering your multi-colored pithy pick of the day. All-text books don’t usually rise to this level, but 'Only Revolutions' clearly qualifies. And it is, not to put too fine a point upon it, certainly a collector's item, especially if you got one of the early printings signed by Danielewski on his recent tour.

But all of this would be for nought were Danielewski not a talented writer, and he's clearly that and much more. He's an uncaged animal loose in a world of type, poetry, prose and character. But to get to the point where you can experience that, you have to read 'Only Revolutions', and that's not all that easy. Or it is, but you have to find a way to make your own peace with it. The story is told from the perspective of two eternal teenagers, driving classic cars through a tour of the last hundred-plus years. Hailey and Sam are star-struck, dumbstruck teenagers overdosing on hormones and the power of being young and free. The narratives run forwards and backwards through the novel, and as to which way is which, well there's no telling because Danielewski is a fiend for symmetry. The publisher suggests that the reader read eight pages of each narrative at a time, which is how Danielewski set up the story. This involves turning the book upside-down every eight pages. The text is basically free verse or prose poetry, depending on how you define these. In addition to the narratives told by Sam and Hailey, Danielewski adds a sort of CNN-style text crawl down the gutters of each page, detailing events in history, many supplied by readers via his website.

Danielewski's prose for each narrative is nothing short of transcendent. Numinous. Surreal. Your level of enjoyment will be directly proportional to how much you enjoy prose that is transcendent, numinous and surreal. To be sure, he's also very funny, very sexy and a powerful romantic. 'Only Revolutions' is pretty much the closest you can get, using every trick in the book and a few invented right on these pages, to the mind-boggling, power-mad head rush of teenagers in love. But he also speaks to the wider wash of recent history and his prose crawl offers some truly chilling and memorable moments as a backdrop the hormone-fueled cross-time, cross-country road trip. And that road trip has more than few memorable moments itself, including some creepy encounters that seem to have escaped from the labyrinthine pages of 'House of Leaves'.

It's easy to think that a book as odd and as sophisticated as 'Only Revolutions' might have a limited audience, but the book has a not-so-secret strength. While it is suggested that readers do the topsy-turvy reading, it's certainly not the only way to experience the words within. One need not read the whole book in any particular order to get a jolt from Danielewski's words. Some readers might just follow he crawl, and others might read just one perspective then let that simmer before tackling the other. Or you can just dip in to any page, any part. To be sure, you get a whole lot more out of the book if you proceed as directed. It becomes an endless prose flower unfolding before you amidst battlefields, hurricanes, disasters and celebrations. And once you've had that experience, there are literally hundreds of other ways to experience the same words. You may not like everything you read here, and you may not want to read everything that is here. But it is all worth reading. And even if you don’t read it, it's a hell of a book just to look at it. And when you look at it, there are words there. Let them rise from the pages. Let them enter your life.

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