Review

Only Revolutions

by Mark Z. Danielewski



Meet Sam. You'll meet him initially on November 22, 1863. It is the
Civil War. Sam is 16 years old.

Meet Hailey. You'll meet her initially on November 22, 1963.
President Kennedy has just been assassinated. Hailey is 16 years
old.

It just may turn out, however, that you'll meet Hailey before you
meet Sam.

ONLY REVOLUTIONS is the newest creation from the incredible mind of
Mark Z. Danielewski, the man responsible for driving readers crazy
with HOUSE OF LEAVES. You have to give Danielewski credit when it
comes to this new work because he obliterates any notions people
may have had about his copying the format of the previous work. The
only manner in which the two books are similar is that they are so
far removed from any way you have ever experienced books.

Trying to describe ONLY REVOLUTIONS is not easy. Trying to explain
its story is even more difficult. The easiest way to give an
indication of the story is to merely explain that you have two
characters, Sam and Hailey, and we follow them through the course
of history. From November 22, 1863 until January 19, 2063, we move
through history with Sam and Hailey, and all along this incredible
journey they are forever 16. Life and the changes in the fabric of
time are viewed through eyes of green and gold, always on the cusp
of adulthood but never those of a child.

In looking at the layout of the novel, and it seems awkward to
refer to it as such, you will see some things that strike you as
odd right away. The book is double-sided. Sam and Hailey tell their
story, and in order to get from one to the other you actually have
to flip the book. This is a play on one of the themes: infinity, or
eternity. Reading the book itself is circular, infinite. The page
numbers are contained within a circle along the outside margin
halfway down the page. Since the book has two sides, it has two
sets of page numbers, each within their own circle, contained
together within the main circle. As you turn pages and make your
way through the tale, these circles revolve around one another,
just as Sam and Hailey revolve around each other, just as their
stories revolve around each other's, just as the reader is brought
in and encircled by their tale.

But that's not all.

Along the inner margin of the pages you will find a date and a
sequence of events through history. Some are mere events, some are
snippets of quotes. Some talk of people who "go" where it is not
too hard to understand after a brief time that to "go" means to
die. When settling down with the book, the pages may seem
overwhelming. There is the story text, the upside down text from
the story running the other way, the history passages and revolving
circles. In an effort to simplify the experience a reader may be
inclined to ignore what seem to be meaningless historical tags.
That would be a mistake.

Danielewski is a man whose words have meaning and context. The mess
you see on the pages becomes more understood and easier to maneuver
as the story is engaged. And the historical moments relate to the
story. For example, during the time period of August 12, 1865, he
writes in the story "By Forrests of pale harm," which, to my mind,
is a reference to Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Ku Klux Klan,
which is also referenced in the historical line on that page. The
story and the history are one.

Which, I think, is the point. Sam and Hailey move through history,
change history, experience history --- and they never age.
Danielewski, by way of these two figures, tells us before the story
starts, "You were there." The question is, is that simply implying
innocently that we, as the readers, were present at all of these
moments and experienced them all just as Sam and Hailey have? Or is
it a pointed admonishment, implying that we were there and asking
us why we did not do more to change the things that went
wrong?

ONLY REVOLUTIONS is an astounding work, a mind-boggling epic poem
one would expect if Pynchon, Benet, Homer and Joyce were
miraculously smashed together into one brilliant writer. It will
leave you confused, absorbed, drained, enthralled and wanting to go
through it all again. It is a journey and you, as a reader, are a
participant. You are no mere passerby. As they say, it is not the
destination but the adventure that gets you there that
matters.

The beauty within the complexity is that you most likely will not
see ONLY REVOLUTIONS as I did. You may find things I never thought
possible. And so too for others who read it on your recommendation.
The publisher advises reading eight pages of Sam's story and then
switching to eight pages of Hailey's story. You may decide to start
with Hailey. You may decide to read straight through Sam first. Or
vice versa.

However you take up ONLY REVOLUTIONS, you will not be engaging in a
light beach read. This is quality work that, unfortunately, we
don't see enough of.

Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on January 13, 2011

Only Revolutions
by Mark Z. Danielewski

  • Publication Date: September 12, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon
  • ISBN-10: 0375421769
  • ISBN-13: 9780375421761