Only Revolutions

By Mark Z. Danielewski

I haven’t read Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions, and I’m sure I never will.

I don’t mean that this is going to be a non-review review of a book I didn’t read, which is something I’ve only done once before (with Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin). What I mean is that Only Revolutions is unreadable. If anyone told me they’d read it I wouldn’t believe them. For the record I did read most of it, but that’s the best I can say.

Why did I fail? In the first place it’s more a design product than a book. The act of reading it requires you to keep turning it around in your hands every eight pages – hence the titular “revolutions” – as there are two parallel (though I suppose parallel isn’t the right word) narratives – by the lovers Sam and Hailey – that start at either end and work towards each other (they pass in the middle). This means that one of them is always upside down, since we don’t read English like Chinese. As if this wasn’t complex enough, each page essentially has three zones: what I take it is the main part of the text, an upside-down sub-text (the print of these two gradually gets closer in size as you near the middle of the book), and a sidebar to the main text that appears to be an eccentric historical timeline (which may or may not have much to do with the story – I gave up on it after a few pages).

Other aspects of the design are even more gimmicky. In Sam’s section the names of animals are printed in bold; in Hailey’s section the names of plants are. Sam has green eyes with flecks of gold and Hailey’s are gold with flecks of green. So in Sam’s section all of the o’s and 0’s are green while in Hailey’s they are a dull yellow. Because the book is designed to be read from different directions the page numbers appear in a circle, revolving toward and away from each other. A character named THE CREEP has his name capitalized in purple letters. Spelling is creative throughout, and the diction is frequently Joycean (hursty, thungry, confustipated, booooooooomblastandruin).

But perhaps the most significant thing about the presentation (to use a neutral term) is that the book is not written in prose. Nor is it poetry, though that is what it sometimes looks like. What is it then? Something entirely new and experimental?

Not exactly. In fact, what it is is rap:

Hustling ahead of my wake of
Gawkers, Droolers and Overdressed.
All heads turning
for Popularity’s Caress.
Without success.
Take a seat. I’m too sweet.
Game’z not over, I relay.
Sure thing, nods THE VALET.

Yo! Author! ‘Sup dawg?

For a
walloping time my warmth’s
allways desired. I’m their table’s gyre.
A great ball of desire . . .

Badda-badda-pum. Badda-badda-pum. It’s not a rhythm per se, but simply a beat. And as Danielewski busts his dope rhymes he also dwells on rap’s staple subject of sex. Sex is central to the book both because of what it’s about (a love story) and because the act of sex has a repetitive beat and seems infinitely capable of spawning lush new vocabularies and dirty euphemisms. We’ve never heard some of these words before, but we know what he’s sayin’ (know what I’m sayin’ know what I’m sayin’?).

thrive. Peck & neck. Dive. Licketysplits.
Gobble. Eats my pie. So I have it too.

— UuuuuuUuu, he mumms.
— UuuuuuUuu, I rumble.
–uUUUUUuUU, we bumble,

rear seat squunched until crunched
on the trunk, bonk,
log and bumping the horizontal jog,
tingles climbing my sides & thighs,
bending me ecstatically over
until Sam’s up the rainbow
spastically wide, sticky spunk
rushing for mud.
Cheeks blushed, breaths crushed.
But for my bouncing bazongas
musters still more.

Or try the orgy scene:

We all lap together, everyone nude.
Barneymugging their curls, while
Them mollycoddle to swallow
my national endowment’s prize,
dowsing for tonsils, hymens
and quivering thighs.
It’s feathers & a first, fast over the
flirt, ready and dirty to blurt,
spreading out on silky sheets,
cotton towels, umpteen bodies oiling
up, rubbing down, Oooooing
the clutch, Mmmmmmmmming
a taketurning touch, so gently started
on areolas, labias and tongues.
Public fingerings of pubic parts.
And arse.

There is quite a lot of this stuff. Mainly because Hailey and Sam are young and in love and like to get it on, but I think also, as previously noted, because it lets Danielewski cut loose with the language. And some of it is effective, though the wit never rises above a pretty crude level (“dowsing for tonsils, hymens and quivering thighs”).

When it clicks, the book opens up into a kaleidoscopic road trip through America – its language, people, and history. Kaleidoscopic because the parallel narratives seem to tumble over each other, describing the same events but through different social and cultural prisms. The collection and welfare agents of 1974, for example, simultaneously appear as the Hoovercrats and relief officers of 1932. The assassination of Lincoln rhymes with that of Kennedy. But the fatal problem with Only Revolutions is the lack of sympathy it builds for its main characters. Hailey and Sam seem less in love with each other than excessively in love with themselves. Combined, they are “allone” or “US,” two proudly solipsistic coinages that are repeated relentlessly. What they signify is Hailey and Sam’s belief that they, together or apart, constitute everything. This is a boast made so many times in so many different contexts it becomes numbing, almost a special form of speech. Perhaps Sam expresses it best at the beginning of his section:

For there are no countries.
Except me. And there is only
one boundary. Me.

No doubt this is how a lot of young lovers feel. But it is also what makes them so damn irritating. The only question this raises is whether, if the book had been readable, a reader would want to spend so much time in their company. But as the book is, in fact, unreadable the question is moot.

Review first published online January 26, 2007.

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