Thursday, January 18, 2007

BOOK: "Only Revolutions," by Mark Z. Danielewski

First, a warning to all potential readers of this book. I could not finish it. Next, a warning to those who claim to enjoy experimental fiction, or want to soldier on because they loved Danielewski's last book, the magnificent House of Leaves. Only Revolutions quickly exhausts its originality. Reading eight pages on one side, then flipping the book over to read eight pages of the other side is physically tiring, and the gradually shrinking font size is a strain on the eyes. And that's ignoring the "liner notes" -- a thin strip of spoken word sound-bites extending from 11/22/1863 to 6/19/2063. (These unconnected, streaming pieces of text are vivid and exciting when they trigger memories, but if you're unfamiliar with Kiko Kawashima, the Zagreb soccer riot, Starfire-1, or Checkpoint Charlie, then the entry for 4/22/1990 will do little for you.) Sure, Only Revolutions is hip and cool, what with the Burgessian creation of a new teenage language, and yes, the idea of an adult Dr. Seuss doing free-verse rhymes with their "epic" journey is neat, and sure, the very idea of making a Joycean epic out of two timeless, archetypal teens is pretty sweet. But does it all work? Not as a sustained (or sustaining) read. As a pick-up and put-down book, a Finnegan's Wake for the new day, it's more tolerable. But who cares that names are WRITTEN IN CAPS or that US is always capitalized (as in the two of them), or that Them is always used (even in place of they), or that the letter "o" is always printed in green or gold (the color of their respective eyes)? These are tricks of language (or of design), and they have little to do with emotion. They are simply commotion. Provocotion, as Danielewski might put it.

Or not put it at all. For Only Revolutions is an exercise in Derrida's new language, too, a deconstructing stab at the idea that we need name things to understand them. Not only do our symmetric narrators, Hailey and Sam, contradict each other in their parallel stories, but they consistently change the reference points in their own descriptions. Early on, Sam encounters TWO BOYS, who suddenly become FIVE TENDERFOOTS, and who are then labeled as NINE EXPLORERS, and subsequently appear as EIGHTEEN TRAPPERS, TWENTY RANCHERS, THIRTYSIX [sic] PROSPECTORS, and NINETY HARD ROCK FARMERS, all in the breadth of two pages. Is it hyperbole, an overactive imagination, or the author's belief that content doesn't matter as much as context; that the story isn't as important as the telling of it? I'm a fan of aesthetic writing; I swear by the polysyllabic sprees of David Foster Wallace. And there is something to Danielewski's invented style, a certain heft to his made-up words:

Except I'm somenowsomehow
changed. Snagged perhaps. At least
deferrent. Even when, by these
encompassing centuries,
catchgrabbing my wonder,
pullulating over ridge, peak, and crest,
and across, Mangy Angry Naked
Urges rampage toward me.
Every last one of Them.
The conflation of terms and the jumbling of meaning makes for a whole new sensory experience, but it requires the reader to have a certain sort of genius already, as well as a tolerance for half-imagined double entendres and abundances of possible subtexts. Literary theorists will have a ball with this new work, but I'm not convinced anyone else will. The story is too slapdash, presented serially in form, with little episodes of wacky adventures on the road: a fictitious, futuristic Kerouac. However, it's far too stylized to be stream-of-conscious (though that's what the prose reads as), which leads to a disconnect between the novel and the author's ratcheting grip.
Further erumpenting: --Splendid!
But here's a surprise: midchuck for
another murkgeyser thublunk I actually
commence celebrating her panache.
My hands repeated clapping.
You've got neologisms clashing for attention with onomatopoeia, not to mention alliteration and rhyme. It's hard to say whether or not there's reason to this rhyme too, but I doubt that's the point. This is as transporting as fiction is liable to get, but it lacks the ability to capture our attention, so there are only glimpses of this New World or New Language that Danielewski is trying to show us. It's also incredibly bound up in its own gimmick, leaving little room for philosophy or thinking that extends beyond the shallowness of mere belletrism. Only Revolutions is a cult book, and it will have a fierce and loyal following to rival that of David Lynch, but it isn't a very good book. It is just the necessary step toward writing something supposedly greater than the sum of its sentences.

No comments: