A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia
The mystery of all mysteries surrounds Mark Z. Danielewski’s ONLY REVOLUTIONS (2006): Someone actually thought that this endless circuit of gibberish qualified for the National Book Award. And it is an endless circuit, literally. Columns of text spiral and loop, making the text all but unintelligible. We have two narratives—though the book does eschew traditional narrative, as if there were something revolutionary about doing so in 2006—that of Sam and that of Hailey, both of whom are perpetually sixteen. If you look at the bottom of the page while reading Sam’s narrative, there you will find Hailey’s upside down. The size of Sam’s text dwindles as it progresses (from 22 November 1863 to 22 November 1963), gradually dwarfed by Hailey’s. Turn the book around 180 degrees and start at the back, and you can read all about Hailey, from 22 November 1963 (the pivot of the book, the day of Kennedy’s assassination) to 22 November 2063. History is circular, don’t you know! The book’s one motif is the stupidity of circularity.
Despite Danielewski’s transparent desire to be innovative, there is nothing new here. It really is stunning how stale the book is rendered. The huge “S” with which Sam’s narrative begins was stolen wholesale from ULYSSES, the characters Sam and Hailey are openly imitative of Shem and Shaun (the famous brothers of FINNEGANS WAKE), the typographical tics recall Derrida’s GLAS and LA DISSEMINATION, and the wordage sounds a bit like the driveling gobbledygook of an ill-read high-school stoner who just finished leafing his way inattentively through both the WAKE and Pynchon’s MASON & DIXON. Vaguely reminiscent of a designer Joyce-Made-EZ, ONLY REVOLUTIONS is enslaved to its precursors. Whereas Joyce creates worlds with words, however, Danielewski seems fearful of language and its literary capabilities. There is a kind of aggression toward language here, a certain virulent logophobia. It is a book not to be read–though I have read every silly, jingling phrase–but to be looked at.
How bad is the writing? At his very best, Danielewski recalls Shakespeare at his very worst. At his worst, he is singsongy, spewing forth nonsensical nursery rhymes that emerge from the page like sulphurous flames issuing from some mephitic kindergarten in Hell, as if the writer regarded FINNEGANS WAKE as a collection of limp, wince-inducing doggerel, as if the book were his ill-conceived idea of a “found poem”–the “found” part being the sort of dribbling babble found at the bottom of e-mails in order to fool SPAM filters–or his deeply unfortunate, private misinterpretation of Brion Gysin’s “cut-up” method or surrealist automatism. To say that Danielewski’s versification has little concern for elegance or expansiveness would be to say too little. When, for instance, he writes phrases and sentences such as “I outrace furry. Populate worry” [H 24]; “All of it too with puddles of goo, sog and drool” [H 43]; “Concerning her poverty, I resort to generosity” [S 9]; “I’m the heist. The impersonal price” [H 13]; “Slump. Plop. Awshucking dump” [S 83]; “And where five roads link, I poop puddles of stink” [S 241]; “Sam takes the lumps. And The Pumps” [H 55]; “Only capless Sam ups for horny, ogling my feet” [H 53]; “Sam spurts his mess. All over my chest” [H 59], you feel that it is really the result of indifference or laziness, as if jangle and flash were more important to the man than the explosive possibilities inherent to literary language.
By this, I do not mean to suggest that Danielewski’s language is too difficult–far from it. His banter is not so much “difficult” as it is sterile and vacant of meaning.
It is impossible to do justice to this book without discussing another gimmick in its typographical design. This is because the book IS its typographical design. Danielewski the Graphic Designer highlights every “O” in the book with a golden hue, as if the letter were globally hyperlinked. This not an insignificant matter. The internet impresses itself upon every page of ONLY REVOLUTIONS. And in the final analysis, the flashy fonts and sprawling typographies are nothing more than glitzy Web design, counter-linguistic ruses distracting readers from the impoverishment of the book’s verbal properties. But as some of us know, the pyrotechnics of typography and font are no substitute for writing with vividness and grace.
Dr. Joseph Suglia