Pushing boundaries

Mark Danielewski wants you to try harder. He knows our reading diet has been watered down with straightforward narratives, believable narrators and happy-doodle endings. The stunning lack of experimentation in American fiction over the past two decades partly explains why his 2000 debut, House of Leaves, felt like a lightning bolt—even if some of its wattage was borrowed from other inventors. In an atmosphere of unquestioned realism, it challenged readers to keep track of a book within a book within a book, to sort false stories from real ones and to bend the laws of geometry.

Danielewski clearly wants to push the boundaries of the novel even further with his latest, Only Revolutions, but he has done it with a smaller, less ambitious story. Here is the road novel as though imagined by John Cage. Two 16-year-olds, Hailey and Sam, meet and head out to the blacktop on a pell-mell, gasoline-fueled romp through America and across each other’s bodies. Since Danielewski is at the wheel, we follow their versions of the trip in virtual syncopation. Hailey’s tale runs along the top of the page from page 1 to 360. Flip the book over, and Sam’s yarn runs on the bottom side of the page.

Their stories are virtual mirror images right down to the language, which is tweaked and bored out, a Melvillean engine of overstatement and bluster that has hints of Whitman and, in its weaker moments, Dr. Seuss.

For the first 40 pages, it’s nearly impossible to make heads or tails of what in the world these two are going on about, no matter which way you flip the book. While House of Leaves pushed the boundaries of genre and narrative, it pretty much left language alone, content to mimic and spoof the style of horror and academic genres.

Only Revolutions is, as its title promises, a true revolution—it wants to overthrow not just how we read, but what we read. Ever see Sunnysurrounded or butterboys or viatotopolis in the dictionary? They’re in here, along with a whole new alliterative vocabulary that Danielewski invents on the fly when the rhythm of his prose needs it. “Zazz girl cooking with gas,” he writes in one description. “Chearing the Gloomiest Mug with/gentlest laugh.”

If this isn’t enough to keep track of, the novel also features a quasi-historical tickertape that runs down the right and left-hand margins, reminiscent of John Dos Passos’ “1919.” Sam’s tickertape begins at one rupture of American history—1863, the abolition of slavery—while Hailey’s starts at another—1963, the day John F. Kennedy was murdered.

Keeping track of all this is a challenge, to say the least. Rather miraculously, Only Revolutions eventually begins to make a little sense. The general theme—America’s loss of innocence through the violence it inflicts on others and itself—reverberates with the central narrative.

Only in Hailey and Sam’s relationship does Only Revolutions pale in comparison to its predecessor. In House of Leaves, the communication gap between a husband and wife took the shape of a 3-inch gap between the wall of their house and the actual measurement of its perimeter. Here, the flip-book structure feints at that theme, but Sam and Hailey are so wreathed in Danielewski’s linguist circular breathing, they remain aloof. We know by flipping from one to the other that they see events differently, that Sam is not the lover he thinks he is, for one thing. But as for the reason they fall for each other in the first place—it is the only thing, and the essential thing, that Danielewski has left out.