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Psychedelic love

Only Revolutions A Novel Mark Z. Danielewski Pantheon: 360 pp., $26

September 03, 2006|Deborah Vankin | Deborah Vankin is a senior editor at Variety.

MARK Z. DANIELEWSKI's first novel, "House of Leaves," was a 700-page cinematic horror story about a house slightly larger on the inside than on the outside -- lots of dark, growling, ever-expanding passageways behind a mysterious closet door leading nowhere. The stuff of nightmares. The text of this metaphorical, metaphysically minded opus ran left to right, upside down and in circles and was layered with haunting illustrations, photo collages and meaty footnotes painting a parallel narrative. "Gimmicky," I scoffed; and it was. But I read through to the end, if just to find out what happened. Because the book was also very, very good -- itself bigger on the inside than it looked from the outside.

"House of Leaves" outgrew the cultural parameters into which it was born, drawing a loyal cult following of hipsters, techies, intellectuals, artists, outcasts and literati on the Internet; reactions morphed, sales soared; it was praised by the literary establishment. With his sapphire-blue hair and rock-musician sister Poe (who recorded an album, "Haunted," inspired by the book), Danielewski began to resemble a 21st century, multimedia-savvy punk rock poet. He performed a five-minute portion of "House of Leaves" with Poe at a Dallas rock concert, a reading interrupted by a roaring, stadium-size standing ovation. The "remastered, full-color edition" of "House of Leaves" is now taught in universities and dissected in works of literary criticism.

"Only Revolutions," Danielewski's much anticipated follow-up -- for which there's a fancy, flash-animation website, with charged-up devotees immersed in online analysis even before the publication date -- is, at its heart, a simple teenage love story. Sam and Hailey, perpetually 16 in a universe where time is malleable and permeable, embark on a circuitous road trip across the U.S. over the course of 200 years, from 1863 to 2063. It's part "Bonnie and Clyde" or "Badlands" (with John Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane" as the soundtrack), part H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine" and part Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." Easy enough to digest. Except that "Only Revolutions" is told entirely in cryptic free verse, a sort of 360-page prose poem. Then there's the issue of narrative structure. Like Julio Cortazar's 1966 classic, "Hopscotch," the "story" is nonlinear and told from different perspectives -- but Danielewski has catapulted the concept a step further. His dual narratives begin at opposite ends of the book, so the reader has to flip it over and upside down when shifting between them.

Meanwhile, there's a vertical sidebar of historical minutiae running throughout: contextual notes on everything from the "abolition of slavery, confiscation of property, and territorial vassalage" in 1863 to Hurricane Katrina and the "Tigris River trample." (Interestingly enough, Danielewski hasn't invented events for 2007 and beyond.)

The result is a dizzying, psychedelic he said-she said. As Sam tells it, he is "manly, serene, fantastically handsome," and Hailey, who has gold eyes flecked with green, is dowdy and fearful behind the wheel of a Ford 999 Racer. In Hailey's version, she is "solemn, calm. Exquisite," and it is Sam who is awkward and clumsy; he has green eyes flecked with gold and he's driving a Shelby Mustang. And yet they love each other. Their journey is infused with adolescent urgency, a sense of searching, longing and lust.


-- Love's all.

-- Liberty, The Broke One objects.

-- Love and Liberty are one.

-- And Marriage? Where Love accepting Liberty's end secures Love's undoing.


-- Liberty's all.

-- Love, The Broke One complains.

-- Liberty and Love are one.

-- And Divorce? There's how Liberty paying Love's cost finds liberty lost.

Fortunately, like "Hopscotch," "Only Revolutions" comes with brief user instructions (read eight pages of Sam, then turn it over and read eight pages of Hailey; rinse and repeat). But given that the book consists of 45 of these eight-page sets, with exactly 180 words on each page, the typeface progressively diminishing in size until the parallel narratives meet in the middle, reading it could well require office supplies -- in my case, two bookmarks, three sets of Post-its, a dictionary, a ruler, a stapler (don't ask) and a calculator, along with a bottle of Bordeaux. I pushed all the way through and even found parts of it enjoyable -- maybe less like a history of love than advanced Sudoku over Sunday brunch.

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