The author picked a perfect title for this novel. Only Revolutions
says it all. And what is a revolution? Ah, a revolution is the violent
overthrow of a current regime. But I'm thinking of a different meaning
of 'revolution'—namely the process of going round and round but
never arriving anywhere.
The first thing that spins around in this novel is
the physical book in your hand. You need to
keep flipping it over to read the upside-down
text on the bottom of each page. The marketing
copy on the book flap suggests you do this
every 8 pages, but you can choose another
pace for your revolution—the experience
doesn't change much. But if you decide to flip
it over on every page, you will have made 360
revolutions, one for each degree in a circle.
Pretty clever, huh?
And just in case you didn't appreciate the
beauty of this, let me point out that every page is divided into two
symmetrical narratives, each one consisting of 90 words—thus
presenting 180 words on the entire page. And in order to read the
book, you must open up the volume to see the facing page as well.
Thus you are now staring at 360 words.
Why didn't anyone think of doing that before?
Here are some other key ingredients to Only Revolutions:
(1) Every letter 'O' or number zero is presented in a different color
from the rest of the text.
(2) Whenever a word begins with the letter 'A' followed by the
letter 'L', the 'L' is doubled—hence 'allone', 'allready' and 'allways'.
(3) Certain words and concepts are never allowed to appear in
the book, e.g., 'house', 'indoors', 'building'. (If Danielewski's
previous novel dealt with a house of infinite interior space,
Only Revolutions presents a universe of undifferentiated external
(4) Other familiar terms are replaced with code words. For example,
the verb 'to die' is replaced by the verb 'to go'.
(5) The word 'us' is always (allways) presented in all caps; hence
(6) This gives US an edge in the eternal battle of 'us versus
them', because 'them' in these pages only has its initial letter
capitalized; hence 'Them'.
(7) A timeline of historical events and sports results, covering the
period from 1863 until the date of publication, is provided in the
margins of all 360 pages.
(8) Every time a character drives a car, it is a different make and
model. Sometimes they change cars more than once on a single
page. Characters are also allowed to ride bicycles, but air travel
is apparently forbidden. (Note: the protagonists do manage
to cross the Atlantic Ocean, but without explanation of their mode
(9) The author inserts hundreds of animal and plant names into
the book, although without any attempt to integrate them into the
Oh yes, the story. You want to know more about the story? Sad to
say, there's not much to report. Instead of plot, we merely have
incidents, and even these are described with little clarity or
precision. Sentences appear without clear subjects or objects.
Dialogue is transcribed but the reader is left to guess who is
speaking the lines. And the characters are little more than stick
figures. In most instances, Danielewski won't even give Them
names. They remain merely Them. Other characters are
assigned vague labels, such as The Creep or Dying Hope.
(By the way, I’m told that the author originally considered the name
THAT for his novel, which gives you a sense of the intentional
vagueness of the story.)
But we do have two protagonists, and they are given actual
names. Sam and Hailey go on a trip together, and each narrates
a separate first-person account on the two halves of the page. In
other words, this book contains two novels—you’re reading
Only Revolutions by Sam if you hold the book one way, but if you
flip it over, you’re now reading Only Revolutions by Hailey.
This basic idea of presenting two different versions of the same
story must have seemed promising when Danielewski first
conceived of it. As Derrida once said—or, at least, should have
said if he didn't actually say it—two unreliable narrators are better
than one. Didn't Kurosawa work wonders with this concept in
Rashomon? But you won't get very far into this book before
realizing that Danielewski is no Kurosawa. This novel is more
like the Monty Python routine about the man who pays for a visit
to the argument clinic, but only gets mindless contradictions for
his money. There is little nuance or subtlety here. In Hailey's
account, for example, she tells us that the wimpy Sam got sick
at the side of the road. In Sam’s account, he tells us that the
queasy Hailey got sick at the side of the road. In Sam's narrative,
he boasts of his skills as a lover, but Hailey, in her version of
the story, says he’s a lousy lover. Etc. etc.
And who are Sam and Hailey? While reading this book, I kept
trying to answer that question. Danielewski doesn't give us much
help. We are told that Sam and Hailey are always (allways)
sixteen years old, but we learn nothing about parents or family or
school or hobbies. They don't seem to have any of those ties or
encumbrances. But they do talk. And they make pronouncements
suitable for an angry Sumerian deity or perhaps Donald Rumsfeld
on a bad day, such as:
I’m anarchy. Axes
and raids. Find me at morgues and
But my consolation demands
Offered with carnage & gore.
In other words, this isn't your typical teenage romance. But before
long, our strange couple is cruising in their ever-changing
automobile again, with occasional roadstops for various forms
Do Sam and Hailey have some deeper symbolic meaning? I've
heard many theories, and tried out a few of my own. While reading
this novel, I long held out hope that some simple answer, such as
we find with the mysterious identity of the swimmer in John Barth's
"Night-Sea Journey” (who turns out to be a sperm), would unlock all
the hidden meaning in the text. But, alas, this proved to be a
Dying Hope. As with Shem and Shaun in Finnegans Wake, any
interpretation that works in elucidating the meaning of Hailey and
Sam in one passage will fail when applied to another. Again and
again, we are forced back to deal with these characters on the
surface level of the book, and there they are presented with a
flatness and imprecision that make a Happy Days rerun look like
Madame Bovary by comparison.
What is left to grab the reader's attention here? Well, Mr.
Danielewski breaks up the lines, as though his book is poetry
not prose. And occasionally he comes up with a poetic turn of
phrase or clever bit of wordplay. But the deadness (go-ness)
of the imagery here ultimately subverts even his best efforts.
There is hardly a single page in this book where the reader can
visualize what is happening, let alone (allone) fit the circumstances
presented into a holistic vision of the story. For these reason,
and many others, Only Revolutions will not be televised. You
simply can't grok what it looks like, not to mention what it means.
We don't get anything akin to “a red wheel barrow glazed in
rain water” or “petals on a wet, black bough.” Can you write great
poetry or a prose poem or (especially) fiction without specificity
or plausible connection to lived reality? Can you rely on characters
without personal history or depth, who act like abstractions?
Perhaps, but Danielewski doesn't make a good case for it in
In short, this novel is a mess. This pains me to admit. I was
deeply impressed by Danielewski's House of Leaves, which is
one of the finest novels of recent years. But his follow-up effort is
one of the worst, perhaps the most tedious novel of the 21st century.
Even so, I stuck it out to the bitter end, despite my Dying Hope,
and read every last word. Alas, the particular curse of this book,
is that after only one turn around its infernal ferris wheel you feel
like you've read it twice or thrice. Only revolutions? Well, maybe.
But next time I’ll sign up with the counterrevolutionaries.
Why Only Revolutions Will Not Be Televised
by Ted Gioia
a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
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