Nothing about Only Revolutions, Mark Z. Danielewski’s most recent book, is easy – least of all reviewing it. It’s built like practically nothing else on the literary shelves, save perhaps for House of Leaves, the author’s previous release. Some of that book’s sizable cult following pitched in with ideas for the follow-up, and a select group were given earlier drafts. Their suggestions were solicited, ultimately bringing us the publication of the second in a series of books written with unusual ideas about typesetting and narrative structure, shaped by avowed hardcore fans of those ideas. Whether the result is a work of art remains a question for the salons – the question at hand, however, is should the average reader even hold out hope of hacking through it?
While other books are best served by brief plot summaries, this one is probably better covered by a physical description. The text runs from cover to cover, both ways – one character’s story runs front-to-back, the other’s back-to-front. The inclusion of two built-in bookmarks is, it must be said, a nice touch. Alongside the main text runs a thin column listing, in a somewhat oblique manner, major historical events from 1863 to 2063, with an apparent special emphasis on the number of deaths in various natural disasters and military conflicts. Every “o” is either gold or green, depending upon the direction in which you’re reading. Each instance of a character by the name of “The Creep” appears in purple. Occasionally, a dark circle appears in the upper right-hand corner of the page, just like on a reel of film.
The first impression is one of a hopeless degree of gimmickry. However, closer inspection reveals that this isn’t just a garish visual stunt; by Danielewski’s hand, by his fans’ or by both, there’s been a huge amount of hard labor put into Only Revolutions. The main characters’ journeys are littered with parallels both textual and historical, and all available evidence suggests that great care has been taken to align the elements of the story and the text with which it’s conveyed into intricate patterns, symmetries and symmetries within symmetries.
This, of course, brings us to the unpleasant matter of the text itself. When read straight through or, as has been suggested by the publisher, eight pages in each story at a time, the book edges dangerously close to, and often swerves straight into, the mire of incomprehensibility. The prose, if in fact it is prose, is distributed across the page in often-cryptic fragments, making its interpretation a chore that can induce real headaches. Were I one of the contributing fans, I’d propose a warning label for the paperback edition. One might assume that knowledge of background and context might clarify a passage like, “Whereupon Polar Bears suddenly rush among US, slashing, spending, crashing boondoggle rackets and chargŽ d’affaires,” but it really doesn’t.
Though Danielewski’s style of composition bears an uncomfortable resemblance to one of those magnetic poetry sets simply dumped on the floor and photographed, there’s clearly a method to the madness. His word choices are too deliberate, and the story’s feel of continuity lies just outside the reach of pure randomness. However, making one’s way through the book is hard work, and the effort is rendered deeply frustrating by its uncertain reward. It’s not only unclear when the payoff will come – is it after reading front-to-back, or back-to-front, or both and around again?- but one can never be sure what, if anything, that payoff might be. It’s hard to shake the feeling that these two eternal teenagers and their dreamlike encounters throughout history are saying something relevant, but it’s anybody’s guess what that is. In certain quarters, Only Revolutions will be received as the bold masterwork of a visionary. It may be. What a shame that the rest of us have little hope of distinguishing it from the obsessively deliberate, barely intelligible construction of a madman.