By Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon. 360 pp. $26
If Mark Z. Danielewski's daring and ambitious first novel, House of Leaves (2000), read like a postmodern remix of H.P. Lovecraft's tales of metaphysical horror, his even more experimental second novel recalls James Joyce's Finnegans Wake . As Joyce used punning language and the fluidity of dreams to dramatize how the members of an ordinary Irish family reenact all of the conflicts in human history, Danielewski retells American history as a joyride by two teenagers in language almost as dense, inventive and polysemous. If Finnegans Wake and words like "polysemous" scare you, Only Revolutions is probably not for you. But here's what you'll be missing:
The novel -- nominated this month for the National Book Award -- features two 16-year-olds, Sam and Hailey, who fall in love at first sight: Sam is dazzled by her "Gold Eyes with flecks of Green" and Hailey by "his Green Eyes with flecks of Gold," introducing the color scheme that dominates the novel. Meeting in the symbolically named New Hope, Penn., they decide to hit the road, to see and to escape from America, wending their way in a variety of vehicles down to New Orleans, where they stay a spell and get sick, then up along the Mississippi to St. Louis, where they take jobs in a diner for a while, and then north to the Badlands and finally west to Montana, where they come to a romantically tragic end.
Danielewski gives us two first-person accounts, and here's where it gets tricky. Sam's version starts in the middle of the Civil War and ends with the Kennedy assassination and the escalation of the Vietnam War, while Hailey's begins in 1963 and ends a century later. Only revolutionary times like the 1860s and 1960s, the author seems to suggest, can show us what our country is really about. Thus Sam and Hailey are not simply characters but transhistorical archetypes, personifying a country that never grew up and continues to act like a wild teenager, "Allmighty sixteen and so freeeeee." When they speak of each other, they use a capitalized "US"; like their country, they are spontaneous and reckless, flush with a cheeky confidence that is admirable but that ultimately dooms them -- as it will the U.S. -- to a tragic end.
Or something like that. This is a complex, challenging novel that leaves the head spinning. As Stephen Stills sang during the revolutionary '60s, "There's something happening here,/ What it is ain't exactly clear." Whatever else it is, Only Revolutions is a masterpiece of formal design. Sam's story, told in eight-page installments, occupies one half of the novel; you have to turn the book over to read Hailey's half. (The publisher recommends reading eight pages of one narrative, then turning it around to read the equivalent eight pages of the other, converting the book into a steering wheel for your own joyride.) Two ribbons, green and gold, are sewn in to help you keep your place.
Everything revolves in circles: The book's 360 pages equal the 360 degrees of a circle; halving the circle, each page contains 180 words, and the page numbers are enclosed in circles that revolve if you flip the pages. All the o's in the book are printed in either green or gold, keeping you focused on the protagonists' eyes. They ignore history, transcend it, but for the reader, lists of historical events from 1863 through 2005 run down columns next to the main text, whose fanciful language is filled with oddly punctuated prose poetry and catalogs of flora and fauna, automobile models and a century of slang.
The endsheets contain concordances to the novel shaped in circles and ovals that must be held up to a mirror to read. If nothing else, Only Revolutions deserves to win every book-design award out there.
To appreciate a novel as meticulously crafted as this, it needs to be studied, its patterns and symbolism deciphered, its historical cross-references pondered. It's certainly one of the great road novels, joining that dusty convoy stretching from Petronius's Satyricon through Cervantes's Don Quixote to the late Gilbert Sorrentino's The Sky Changes . It's an exhilarating trip, a literary experience unlike anything else piled up in book stores. Only revolutions against the conventional novel like this one keep the genre truly novel. ·
Steven Moore is the author of several books and essays on modern literature.