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An outsider novelist goes, er, traditional

Mark Z. Danielewski's postmodern cred is genuine, but so is his attention to the teenage heart in the new `Only Revolutions.'

September 13, 2006|August Brown | Times Staff Writer

In an alley behind Powerhouse bar, a mildly roughneck dive at Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue, someone has spray-painted an odd symbol on the wall. It's a vertical equal sign inside a circle, a logo that fans of L.A.-based author Mark Z. Danielewski might recognize from the spine of his new novel, "Only Revolutions."

Powerhouse was the not-so-secret inspiration for many of the seedy Hollywood nightclubs frequented by narrator Johnny Truant in Danielewski's first novel, the postmodern haunted-house story "House of Leaves." So if there's any bar where the close-cropped, surprisingly muscular author would be welcome, it's probably Powerhouse. Yet within minutes of sitting down for a beer on a busy Monday night, Danielewski was anxious to leave.

"This will come as a great disappointment to people who fell in love with Johnny Truant and his escapades on the club circuit," Danielewski said. "But while writing it I was up at 5:45 every morning, working out, meditating, abstaining from a lot of bad behavior." Behind him, a young man landed a good throw on the dartboard, and his drunk friends cheered him on.

"I can't take this anymore," Danielewski said, adding an expletive to "Let's get out of here."

Indeed, the tattooed goth kids, Julia Kristeva-quoting graduate students and avant-garde horror buffs that made the 700-page, typographically dizzying "House of Leaves" a cult hit might be let down to find Danielewski, later that same night, noshing on tuna tartare at the swank Stone Rose lounge in the shadow of the Beverly Center. With his stylistic ambitiousness and David Lynch-ian ear for spooky coincidences and kinky sex scenes, Danielewski became a kind of outsider-art figure in hip literary circles. His book tour for "House of Leaves" included a stint collaborating with his sister, the rock singer Poe, when she opened for Depeche Mode, and the adoring messages left on his MySpace.com page come from an audience that looks more likely to pledge devotion to an angsty hard-core punk band than to a novelist.

But the 40-year-old author lives quite differently now than he did as a 24-year-old Yale graduate roaming through Paris, sketching out the ideas for "House of Leaves" while eating in soup kitchens to save for rent. There are even fewer traces of Johnny Truant, the coke-addled, stripper-obsessed amateur academic whom members of "House of Leaves' " Internet communities often mistake for an alter ego of Danielewski.

"Only Revolutions" reveals an even stranger side of Danielewski -- a dreamer who's still a teenager at heart, for whom fast cars, young love and a liberal attitude toward text-layout software are enough to keep his characters alive.

Whereas "House of Leaves" was a fantastical Borges-via-M.C. Escher riff on everything from cutting-edge literary theory to the rhythms of L.A. nightlife and failing marriages, at heart the new novel is quite a traditional American tale -- boy meets girl, they fall desperately in love, they hit the highway. Granted, "Revolutions' " 16-year-old heroes, Sam and Hailey, time-travel through 50 years of world history, conjure automobiles from thin air and wisecrack with a century's worth of obscure teenage slang. But the feverish emotions driving their odyssey are as universal as teenage PDA.

"I remembered these two kids that I had come across who were without anything, as impoverished as you can imagine, yet they were so cocky and impudent and arrogant," Danielewski said. "Clearly they were homeless, apparently parentless, but they were just crazy for each other. Even if you or I never experienced that, there was a moment where we longed to be with someone and race from the home and just live on those fumes."

Anyone familiar with the maniacal footnoting of "House of Leaves" (one of its narratives is literally told in the margins of another) will find "Only Revolutions" both more and less complicated to sift through.

Told from both Sam's and Hailey's perspectives, the narratives start at opposite ends of the binding and alternate in chapters that eventually double back on themselves, "Finnegan's Wake"-style.

The task of flipping the book upside-down every eight pages is actually less tedious than it sounds. Though Danielewski's postmodern instincts can lead to pretentiousness (the attached index of words not used in the novel and perpetual lists of fan-submitted historical events will give some readers pause), "Only Revolutions" is actually a brisk page-turner. But in a way the heart of the book is its language, a patois somewhere between Kerouac's swagger and Joyce's chin-stroking wordplay. Danielewski -- not by nature a modest person -- thinks it's something wholly new in literature.

"Only Revolutions," he said, "is a piece that I see as written outside the present industry of academia. I don't believe there's a vocabulary yet that can adequately address what's going on. That kind of academic math doesn't exist now."

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