I knew that I was going to be in for a challenge reading Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions. I had read his previous novel, House of Leaves. House of Leaves had three different narrative threads going (in the margins, in footnotes, etc.) that were each unreliable, but together told a story. I enjoyed the workout of HoL, so I pre-ordered Only Revolutions as soon as I got wind of its release. Only Revolutions is a remarkably difficult book to describe, but I’ll give it a shot.
The book is first and foremost all about structure. It is 360 pages long. Each page (with some exceptions due to format) has the same number of words (360) on 36 lines of text. There are two narratives in the book, with each traveling in opposite directions. Think of each page as being divided into four parts. The top central part of the text is either Sam or Hailey’s story, depending on which way you are holding the book. The other’s story is at the “bottom” of the page, upside down. In the margin next to each narrative are short descriptions of historical events that correspond to the date printed at the top of each column. The top part has a different date than the upside down part. With me?
On either Page 1, the main narrative for that side of the book begins in large bold text, while the upside text being read from the other direction is smaller and less pronounced. The main narrative on each Page 1 also has more lines than the upside narrative at the bottom. Over the 360 pages, this reverses itself, with the right side-up narrative diminishing and the upside-down narrative gaining. Does that make any sense? I’ve read that you should consider the text a mobius strip.
Color plays a role as well. On the first page of either end of the book, there is a circle with a “1″ right-side up and an upside down “360″ in another circle. Hailey’s story is indicated with page numbers inside a yellow circle; Sam’s page numbers are inside a green circle. Both numbers are inside a larger multi-hued circle on the yellow-green continuum. (And if you flip the pages, the page number circles make one revolution around the other over the 360 pages inside the larger circle). But wait, there’s more. All of the “o’s” in the text of Sam’s story are green; Hailey’s are yellow. The only other colored text in the story are the dates (purple) and the name of a mysterious character called the Creep (each occurrence of the “The Creep” is also purple).
The first word in Sam’s narrative begins with a large capital “H”. After 8 pages, the first word on that page begins with the next letter in “Hailey” in large, bold capital, and so on. Eventually “Hailey and Sam” are spelled over and over until ending on Page 360 of Sam’s Narrative. The reverse is true for Hailey’s narrative.
Other structural elements include the names of animals being in bold going one direction, and plants printed in bold going in the other. Words like “alone” are purposely misspelled throughout as “allone,” “allso,” allways,” “allready,” etc. And often the text in the top part will “mirror” a portion of the text that is upside-down at the bottom of the page.
Here’s an example, Hailey’s story begins:
I can walk away
the Dream but I kill it.
Sam’s story, at the bottom of the page ends (and I am giving nothing away):
Everyone betrays the Dream
but who cares for it? O Hailey no,
I could never walk away from you
What? I didn’t mention that the whole thing is written in free verse? My bad. Given the structural constraints alone, Danielewski is some kind of crazed genius.
That said, the hardest part for me was trying to figure out how to read it. I mean that literally. Which end would you start with? Should I read everything on a page, flipping the book all around and then going on to the next page? Should I read the story and the historical markers along the way? After two false starts, I went to the book’s web forum and looked for a consensus and didn’t find one. Reviews had indicated that the book was “meant” to be read one way for eight pages (until you hit one of those big bold letters in “Sam and Hailey” and then flipped and read back the other way. This made no sense to me. Why read the first eight pages of one story and then the last eight pages of another?
Here’s what I did: I began with Sam’s story and read through his 360 pages, then flipped the book over and read Hailey’s story the other way. I quit reading the historical stuff, as it mostly served to distract me. At logical breaking points and every here and there, I would flip the book over for the hell of it to see how the stories mirrored each other – but I didn’t do it too often. The important thing for me was to get into a flow with the free verse and let it “work” rather than analyze the text constantly.
The actual story is about two teenagers who meet and fall crazily in love. They are always sixteen, as those at that age imagine they will always be. Though Sam and Hailey appear to really pull it off. Sam’s story begins in 1863 and ends in 1963 (the Lincoln Assassination to the Kennedy Assassination as our helpful historical tidbits tell us). Hailey’s story runs from 1963 to 2063. Sadly, the historical signposts drop off after our present. No helpful stock tips from the future.
The key to the couple’s longevity is not explained, though the couple eat from mysterious jars of honey. They lead a life of crime, as they are constantly in a different car (once they are invented) and on the road. They may be on a bloody murder spree as well. Violence surrounds their rollicking good time. One reviewer (whose article I can’t seem to find) said that the Dream referenced in the quotes above was “clearly” the American Dream. So you can gather what the book might be saying about us as a whole. Sam and Hailey’s enemy, The Creep, seems to appear at times of turmoil. I don’t think that it’s an accident that the Creep and the dates are signified by the same color (I can’t believe that anything is an accident in this book). Certainly time is as much an enemy to youth as war.
At the end of each narrative, their time together has also ended. Flip the book over and they find each other, fall in love again, and are soon back to the same hi-jinks. Life, and the story, is a circle. The yellow and green used to represent the characters surely represents spring and fall, which is another way to think of the circular and endless nature of their story.
The book itself is beautiful as a physical object. If you obsess about books as objects in and of themselves, get the book just to have on hand. One cover has a large green eye with yellow flecks, the other is a yellow eye with green flecks. Under the dust jacket, there is a “green” book board which features a sort of spring time tableau – green grass, a mouse, butterflies. The “yellow side” has an autumn look – an animal skull, dried flowers, etc. There is a yellow ribbon and a green ribbon sewn into the binding to keep your place in both directions. Pick one up next time you are at the bookstore and check it out. I have no idea how this will be issued in paperback. Or even if it should. Go all in, or go home is what I say.
I have a feeling that readers of this post will have figured out on their own by now if they have any interest in this book at all. This book was so far out of the norm of what I usually read (which has included Danielewski’s previous book) that I was simply amazed that something like this was out there. I’d love to hear from someone else (outside of a forum post) that has read this to compare notes. It is definitely a read that stays with you.
You can listen to the author read from the book on the book’s web site (it sounds spooky – I may play his reading at my house next Halloween).
Now I’m going to check out the KCRW Bookworm’s
interview with Danielewski to see just how much of this book I “missed.” That guy is such a know it all. I love it.
Update: The review that I couldn’t locate above is here.