I recently read the critics’ darling and National Book Award finalist Only Revolutions by Mark Z. Danielewski, and let me be up front with you, Internet: I hate this book. Whew. That felt good. And now that I’ve gotten it out of the way, I can move on and explain to you why.
I read Danielewski’s ticket to the fame wagon, House of Leaves, a few years ago and loved it deeply. Intensely. I curled up with it in bed at night and let it tell me its dark secrets. I gushed about it to my friends. I defended it in discussions against critics who said that the writing didn’t stand up to the gimmick of the page layout, because you go to battle for the ones you love. Did House of Leaves make me feel like a natural woman? Sure, let’s just carry it too far and say that it did.
A girl doesn’t forget a love like that, and so it would be an understatement to say that I was greatly anticipating Danielewski’s follow-up. I was excited when I received the review copy from Levi, because I knew that I was in for a mind-bending treat. And then I read the first page. Immediately, I thought something along the lines of “what the fuck?” and read the first page again. Then I read the next seven pages, flipped the book over, and started from the other end.
Only Revolutions is a novel that tells the story of Hailey and Sam, two eternal sixteen-year-olds on a roadtrip across America. I know this only because that’s what the publisher’s note in the front of the book told me; it certainly isn’t apparent from the narrative itself. Or maybe it is and I’m an idiot, which is a possibility I’ve considered frequently while reading. Either way, it’s written in a style that definitely isn’t prose and isn’t quite poetry either and floats along infuriatingly without ever coming out and saying anything, which, as we all know, is a recipe for brilliance. Whee.
Of course, the structure of the novel bears mentioning. As with the stunning House of Leaves, Danielewski plays with what it means to sit and read a book, and with Only Revolutions, he takes this interactivity to a new level. The book is a circle — 360 pages long, 360 words per page — and the dual Hailey/Sam narratives are told from opposite ends of the book. It’s meant to be read in 8-page sections, and if it’s read according to the directions, you read 8 pages of Hailey, then flip the book over, read 8 pages of Sam, rinse and repeat. The characters come toward each other, meet in the middle on page 180, and then slip apart on the way to page 360. As an ardent fan of geometry, I enjoyed the beauty of the math involved in the concept. It’s a great concept. When we use words like “craftsmanship” in regards to fiction, we usually mean the quality of the prose, but in the case of Only Revolutions, the craftsmanship of the novel itself — from the placement of the words on the page to the colors used in printing (apparently the version available in bookstores is printed in four colors; mine is a black and white review copy) — is something to behold. So in that respect, I have to give Danielewski credit for creating yet another book that pushes the boundaries on what it means to read a novel.
But despite the book’s great concept, Only Revolutions leaves me cold. Because even though it’s in an entertaining package, the writing itself makes me want to claw out my eyes and yell at God. I feel ridiculous to state the obvious here, but the point of a book is not how brilliant or slick the packaging is, but how great the writing itself is. And in this case, I just can’t say that the writing stands up to the concept. I’m all for things that are difficult and/or obscure, but if I put in the work, then the book damn well better pay off, and this one seems to be difficult just for the sake of being difficult, without rewarding me for the effort it takes to spiral through it.
The thing is, I really wanted to love it. I wanted to love it intensely, and gush about it to my friends and defend it in discussions. But it’s like running into that guy who once seemed so darkly handsome and deep, only to discover that he’s grown a soul patch, smokes clove cigarettes, and listens to Coldplay on purpose. You might try going out for coffee, and listen to him talk about things that sound nice at first, but on further reflection, actually make no sense. And you know it’s not going to work out, even though you once thought you had so much potential.
It’s enough to break a girl’s heart.