Sunday, October 22, 2006

Only Revolutions: America and History

Image found here.

(Note: what follows is not a traditional review, but more like an essay. I do think, though, as I say below, that this novel is worth your time, especially if your literary tastes run toward the unusual and experimental.)

The rather startling image here is one side of the cover of Mark Z. Danielewski's new novel, Only Revolutions (the other side is a closeup of a yellow iris). Open the book, and more surprises await, which quickly reveal this novel to be an almost-complete departure from Danielewski's 2000 metafiction debut, House of Leaves: two narratives, by characters named Sam and Hailey, that begin at opposite ends of the book, printed upside-down in relation to each other, and each of which relates the same events. Meanwhile, running through the physical center of the book is another narrative: a chronology of historical events from around the world, beginning in 1863 and running up to the present day, but with space provided for events up to the year 2063.

But there are also these delights and mysteries, all of which are discussed (mostly) intelligently and at length at the Only Revolutions forum: multicolor printing on every page--every letter "o" in either gold or green; the dates in what Yours Truly has dubbed the History Gutter appearing in purple, along with the name of a character called the CREEP; the novel's obsession with the numbers 360 (as befits a novel titled Only Revolutions and the reading of which requires you to flip the book over) and 16 (Sam and Hailey, they constantly remind us, are "allways sixteen" (their spelling)) and their divisors; various mysterious markings; and above all, the novel's language: rich, verging on the poetic and often rhyming internally, an often neologistic language that, to my ear, begs to be read aloud and will remind some of Joyce's more adventurous moments in Ulysses and, especially, Finnegans Wake. It is a brave sophomore effort and a real testament to Danielewski's imagination--specifically, his desire and ability to reconceive the idea of what books-as-objects can do. It's worth a few moments of your time in the bookstore, if nothing else, just to see it.

Below the fold you'll find the "America and History" stuff referred to in the post's title.

Back in the spring, I and some other House of Leaves forum members were fortunate enough to be selected to receive advance copies of Only Revolutions and begin discussions of it so that, when the book appeared, visitors to the forum would find there some starting places for beginning to think about this very unusual novel. As I began reading it, I was immediately struck by how "American" it is in its sensibility. It is a "road" novel set in the U.S. and is obsessed with automobiles, but I mean something deeper than that. A good discussion of that sensibility has begun here that doesn't (yet) require an in-depth knowledge of the novel, seeing as it's presently more focused on articulating that sensibility; anyone who has read the classics of American literature and thought about what makes these works "American" can follow the discussion. What follows, though, is something not discussed there (yet) except in passing that nevertheless will, I hope, add something worthwhile to that larger discussion.

I think that definite links exist between Only Revolutions and Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass: the novel reads more like a poem in places, the poem more like a novel in places; they have in common an expansive, celebratory tone to their respective languages; Danielewski's novel and Whitman's long poem both contain catalogues of (usually) American items of various sorts; both are, ahem, rather direct and exuberant in their expressions of sexuality.

But deeper than those, though, is the narrative perspective relative to the passage of history that each takes. Whitman's speaker is very aware of the Here and Now, the contemporary; yet at the same time his view is cosmic, timeless, claiming, as in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," that he can even see us, "years hence." The particular, "the scores or hundreds of years," "[avail] not," he claims. He knows us in ways that the temporal doesn't prevent from occurring.

The flood-tide Whitman speaks of in that poem is analogous to the flow of events recorded in Only Revolutions' History Gutter: neither do they quite "avail" in the novel with regard to their connection with Sam's and Hailey's respective narratives. Several post-ers on the forum assume that the Gutter's events are intended to locate Sam and Hailey in time, but for various reasons I have the sense that their time is much more compressed than it would be if it synched up with those events (100-year spans in the case of Sam's and Hailey's narratives). They say things in passing in such a way as to give the reader the sense that they are noting the events listed in the Gutter; but then again, the similar nature of those events makes me think they they could just be noting any old natural disaster or war or what have you--not just the ones that happens to appear in the Gutter on that particular page.

In the forum thread I linked to earlier, post-er Rinehart notes that apocalypse (in the sense of destruction, of the end (of) time) is a persistent theme in American literature, and I agree. But so also is apocalypse in its other meaning, "revelation." In American thought and culture, that historically gets expressed as "optimism" regarding the American experiment--an optimism, moreover, that sits outside Time, believing that all human beings, regardless of their places and times, yearn for the very principles we say we believe in and practice as a poeple and a policital entity. That stance strikes me as being very close to, if not identical to, that of Whitman's poetic voice (and Sam's and Hailey's, too, even though they are usually too busy being consumed with thoughts of the other). But as powerful and compelling as that voice is, there's no denying that our country's greatest writers and novels and poems explore the inevitable contradictions and conflicts arising from that Janus-like sense of apocalypse-as-destruction (voiced as History) and apocalypse-as-revelation (voiced as Optimism).

For good and/or ill, it seems quintessentially American to see ourselves as simultaneously actors in History and yet curiously immune to it--a reason why 9/11 was/is still such a shock to our sense of ourselves. I think that Only Revolutions in part invites us to think on that dichotomy.

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1 comment:

Camille said...

that sounds like a fantastic read.