Ouch, My Brain! Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions

Posted: 25 August, 2011 in Bookish, Reviews
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Shuffle Says: “Gentle Violence” The Black Lips, Let It Bloom

Mark Z. Danielewski’s recentish novel Only Revolutions is something that has been sitting on my shelf for about half a year now without much progress.

Here’s a quick summary to start. Only Revolutions follows the journey of two sixteen year old children (herein referred to as Sam&Hailey/Hailey&Sam) as they road trip across the country over a two hundred year span of time (yes, they are sixteen for the whole time). The first hundred years are told from Sam’s perspective (1863-1963) and then the next century through Hailey’s.

There are an infinite number of ways to read any book, but some seem to lend themselves to a certain setting. There are very specific books that are meant to be read in an airport, which are completely different to ones that are meant to be read in an attic, or an armchair with a glass of scotch, or under a tree on a sleepy summer afternoon. The way I really enjoyed reading House of Leaves was waiting for late in the evening, turning out all lights save for the bedside lamp, closing the door and tightening the blinds, sitting up in bed so there was nothing but me and the book and the darkness. I’d let myself get pulled into the book; become part of it, not just read, but experience it and let it affect me, my emotions, my thoughts, my dreams.

This is possible because the book is self-contained. Yes it’s thick. Yes at times you feel like you are having to fight your way through the pages, only to feel like the author is just fucking with you, that whole chapters are nothing but a sick, post-modern, literary joke. It is also certainly a piece that merits re-reading. Reading the piece after studying it would certainly yield a very different perception of it than a single raw run through of the story.

Of course coming from a background of BA or academics you’ll get the book it another way. and while you may flip the book upside down or sideways or continually jump back pages at a time to catch up with the foot/end notes.  but this is part of what makes the book a physical experience. and there is still a compelling narrative to follow that makes you do a mental junkie shuffle to find out just what the fuck is going on. Despite all of this you can follow along without having to consult the outside world. Such is not the case in Only Revolutions.

In Only Revolutions, the whole of the narrative is mired in the historical context which appears in verse form in the margins. Take note that these are not headlines, not explicit summaries, only carefully worded clues, enough for you to search for them as keywords. This suggests that the book was written for a generation who came of age at a late enough date so as to be used to having constant access to Wikipedia.

Danielewski himself commented in several interviews that the book requires some knowledge of what was occurring on the particular date the page takes place. For instance, there is a passage which refers to “sentinels of the pale forest”  staring at them as they passed. This is nothing but a fine piece of imagery unless you know that the day this is occurring happened to be a major turning point in the rise of the Klu Klux Klan.

I am not complaining that the book is simply too difficult to read, moreover that it is overly and unnecessarily complex. between deciphering and researching the history, flipping between the narratives, and attempting to understand the archaic language of two protagonists in can take hours just to trudge through a few dozen pages (keeping in mind that each page is only 180 words).

The result is something that feels less like a story and more like an academic exercise. Some explanation, I would posit might be garnered from his process. Danielewski disclosed that the novel consumed nearly a decade of his life. He describes working twelve hours a day six days a week; many weeks’ hours reaching three digits. According to him, the effort strained ties to his family and wreaked havoc on his romantic relationships. Don’t get me wrong. I am all for sacrificing for your art, but spending this much time shut in a room with nothing but your words, I know from experience, distances you from reality to such an extent, it harms your work. I can only imagine the effects maintaining such a lifestyle for that amount of time. Part of writing is living and it is an important one, I believe.  Letting the world affect you is important and it is not possible when you live chained to a desk.

The poetry of the book is beautiful. This I won’t argue with. So it is all that much more unfortunate, that the rhythm of the text is constantly broken due to its context.  The purpose of a novel is to tell a story, or to educate, or engender a feeling, promote a way of thinking, or simply to be beautiful and while it is unassailable that Mr. Danielewski is a phenomenal writer, his great efforts to create a grand design have only resulted in a form which will drive people away from his work.

Neil Gaiman recently was asked  in an interview about why he believed his work was so popular. To address this he gave his thoughts on post-modernism and its effects in contemporary writing. Gaiman suggested that generation of authors have become so wrapped up in the form and method and stylistic ideals of what it is supposed to be that we are losing our grasp on the simple aspect of storytelling. His own work is popular because it stands in total contrast, by focusing on telling a good story and telling it well.

Only Revolutions suffers a real weakness in this regard because while it may be a good story and it may be extremely deep, and well structured, and all those other wonderful qualifying academic things, it is not told well.  This argument may come under criticism, called un-academic. So allow me to humanize it a bit, can you imagine someone telling a story(a parent, a grandparent, babysitter, teacher, friend, Carney, troubadour, etc… ), but having to stop every thirty words to spend five minutes on a seemingly unrelated tangent so you could “enjoy” it better?



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