The Center Somehow, Impossibly, Holds: Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions

June 4, 2007

Review: Only Revolutions. By Mark Z. Danielewski. New York: Pantheon, 2006. 360 pp.

In his House of Leaves (published in 2000), Mark Danielewski toys with the apparatus of truth-telling, weaving scholarly narrative into first-person account, embedded in the shreds of paper written, supposedly, by a blind man, all of which attempts to describe a documentary film (which may or may not exist) about the Navidson family and their terrifyingly impossible house which is bigger on the inside than on the out. The story, intentionally eerie, ir-real more than fictional, expands and contracts on the page, upside down, sideways, mirror-reversed, contorted into shapes which reflect the ever-unfolding passageways of the Navidson house, written in several different languages, in multiple fonts, shapes, and colors. Danielewski knows exactly what he’s doing–as one begins to feel unheimlich (Freud’s use of the German word, translated into English as “uncanny,” carries the connotation of “not-at-home”) in the Navidson house, one also becomes increasingly anxious about the strange text in which the story is housed, recognizable as a novel yet a novel defaced, bigger on the inside than on the outside, a merging of textual meaning and textual making. Consequently, one realizes that the only way out, to borrow a quip from Jacques Lacan, is in.

One reason House of Leaves is so remarkable, besides its creative excursions into those bizarre and apparently unpredictable textual realms, is the fact that the novel achieved a certain degree of uptake into pop culture, a world which tends to resist resistant and difficult works of art. More people know about House of Leaves than don’t–more people have read it, and enjoyed it, have been creeped out by it, than one can say for most novels which sacrifice reader appeal for textual experimentation. One wonders, then, what will happen to Danielewski’s latest novel, Only Revolutions, equally formally challenging, though in a different way, from House of Leaves, and perhaps less accessible. If the Navidson text was a parody of narrative accounts, an attempt at revealing all of the layers of mediation which are hidden in things like news media and documentary film, Only Revolutions is a play with language, a dance around and through the words of two characters, a long poem of arrested time where political history is confined to the margins while young desire turns and returns in a widening gyre.

First, the set-up. The bound volume, with two front covers, is in fact two books, each occupying one half of the divided pages. Each book is entitled Only Revolutions, but with two different author/narrators: our protagonists Sam and Hailey, respectively. The dust jacket recommends that one alternate between the books 8 pages at a time, and the volume has two book markers, one gold ribbon, one green, to help the reader keep track. Consequently, Only Revolutionsdemands the most literal form of active reading; since one is required to physically flip the book every eight pages, it isn’t the kind of thing you’d want to take on a crowded plane. Each page has a dated running margin, and the two books combined cover 200 years: 1863-2063. The turning point in the dates, incidentally, is November 22, 1963, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, a revolution of sorts in its own right, with ambiguous and still unaccounted for consequences, just as those margins of Hailey’s story dated after May 29, 2005 are blank, a history yet to be written.

The two books tell, in a certain respect, the same story: that of two perpetual 16-year-olds who identify themselves as “Every Upper East Side plaidskirted kid running to find the edge of her worth” and “Every Lower West Side patchjacketed kid running to discover the worth of his life”1 and their journeys by car across the American continent and through its global history. The “revolutions,” then, are many: car wheels turning, turning, events narrated by Hailey narrated alternately by Sam, wars and rumors of wars from the American Civil to the Iraq insurgency. The text has exactly 360 pages and, according to Danielewski, each page has exactly 360 words, the number of degrees in a circle. But about halfway through the volume, one also realizes that there is more revolution and repetition than one first expected, that the same thing is not being told twice but four times: the words and themes of a particular physical page mirror one another as much as do the accounts of corresponding pages. So, for instance, Sam’s page 82 ends

But I’m allways lost.
Impatiently calming
opening graves, wringing my hands,
chewing my lips.
Feel thirsty. Hungry. Deprived.
I am every deprivation.

while Hailey’s 279 (printed beneath, or above, Sam’s 82, however you happen to be holding the book) begins

of such deprivations because I am.
Because Sam can. We are deprisal’s hands.
And Sam with his thumb caresses my lips,
touches my scrubby elbows, his
patience finally calming me.
Because we are unclaimed.

Alternately, Hailey’s page ends with the assertion “I could never lose Sam. / Never” while Sam begins “That’s for sure. / Hailey! Where’d she squirrel?” The parallels and reversals in the stacked texts are sometimes more, sometimes less obvious, but the careful weaving together of linguistic and thematic elements seen in this example runs throughout the volume.

One probably wouldn’t recognize these revolutions if it were not for the physical page, the printing of one narrative on top of another which invites one, indeed forces one, to make intertextual connections. Danielewski’s interest in the material conditions of cognition is obvious as soon as one picks up the text;2 what at first appears to be a cheap trick or an overtly witty attempt at making a new novel becomes inherent to the structure of the work. One couldn’t write this text any other way and achieve the same effects; the story simply would not be the same.

But, at the same time, this story is not an easy one to effectively read no matter how you go about it. Indeed, the structure is less one of a novel in a traditional sense, albeit cleverly organized and arranged, and more like a long poem woven from many textual and actual objects, not the least of which are words themselves. The lines are stacked, broken in precise ways on the page, and the repeating rhythms are unmistakable. Each page functions almost like a stanza, with hidden rhyme schemes, enjambed ends, and metrical qualities which are only enhanced by reading out loud. For this reason alone, I think, Only Revolutions will simply sustain fewer readers than House of Leaves. It’s easier to be compelled by potentially rapacious rooms and shifting walls than by a playful teenager spouting such Joycean lines as “Samsara! Samarra! / Grand! / I can walk away / from anything” or “With a wiggle. / With a waggle. A spin. / Almighty sixteen and freeeeee.” (H 1). The formal constraints of the system force Danielewski to remain in the realm of the linguistically abstract, and while these experiments in sound and meaning have their own distinct pleasure, it is a more rigorous and at times confusing type of play, shaking off what little narrative proper there may be.

Which is not to say that this narrative is without significance. Hailey and Sam’s story fits clearly within the genre of the road novel, whose conventions Danielewski subtly mines with expansive consequences. In the American tradition, travel narratives, such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, are particularly effective at mapping the personal onto the national, conflating a political economy with the exchange of desire. Huckleberry Finn the novel parodies institutions of the American south such as family feuds, romanticism, and, most insidiously, slavery, even as Huck Finn the character feels guilt over his involvement in a runaway slave and, ultimately, is looking for an adolescent male version of the pastoral dream. In On the Road, Dean Moriarity, constantly haunted by the possible presence of his absent father, quickly becomes an absent father himself, leaving behind his own offspring as the novel progresses; by doing so, he supplants and supplements the generational anxiety felt by Kerouac and his contemporaries. And in Lolita, called Nabokov’s song to both America and to the English language, the “father” even more radically fails, as does the nation which cannot protect its adolescents or its adults. Danielewski writes with such texts in his bones–as Hailey and Sam cavort, careen, and caress their way through two centuries of revolutions, they become bigger, and more, than themselves. As both repeat near the apex and center of the book, “We’re / various. We’re extremely dangerous” (182).

That other master of the road, Walt Whitman, is an unacknowledged father figure for such a statement. The potentially fascistic violence of his expansive declaration in “Song of Myself” that “I am large, I contain multitudes” is tested by Hailey and Sam against the marginal backdrop of bare history, those dates and names which mark the anonymous deaths and upheavals of the American centuries. The line between self and nation becomes blurred, and Danielewski’s choice to capitalize every occurrence of “US” conflates the two teenage lovers and the United States of America. They are simultaneously “allone” and “alone” in this “Democracy of Two” and they fixate on the Dream–does one sell it, live it, kill it, or abandon it? And for what? The consequences of these choices are played out in Sam and Hailey’s language, in their imaginings, in their worlds populated by animals (Sam) or plants (Hailey), tinged by the colors of their eyes (green flecked with gold and gold flecked with green). The difference between allone, unified, together, an entity, and alone, separate, discreet, able to “walk away / from anything” is treacherous, its terms hard to face. In this way, the textual and poetic difficulty of Only Revolutions becomes absolutely necessary–it forces friction upon our language and landscape which is too easily packaged, pitched, and abstracted.

In his play with and upon the text, Danielewski is clearly an anti-theological writer, in the sense that there is a refusal of any theos-logos, no divine word to turn alone into allone nation under God. The brute significance of history mocks pre-packaged versions of “His Story,” and the slippery sex appeal of language is too polymorphously perverse to treat as sacred. And yet, as the novel lurches from spring and summer toward its wintery end, it is clear that Hailey and Sam are also walking the line between the all and the one. Their extreme danger fully emerges only when they are separated; each declares that “without her [him] I am / only revolutions of ruin” (347). The largeness to contain multitudes turns into ravaging violence, impossible terror, war without end. But all of that energy, for good and evil, is only actualized, only channeled, by love. Sam without Hailey, Hailey without Sam, is destruction and death, precisely because Sam and Hailey, like their physical texts, are knit to one another, protect each other, fill the cracks and crevasses of each others margins. Only Revolutions, we come to realize, is an experiment in love as much as in language. Like the Navidson house, it surpasses itself unexpectedly.

1. Mark Z. Danielewski, Only Revolutions (New York: Pantheon, 2006), 192. Subsequent citations appear parenthetically in the text.
2. A particularly interesting desire, since House of Leaves received a tremendous amount of criticism in the academic world as a model of “hypertextual writing.” In an interview posted on the book’s website (, reference is made to Danielewski’s goal to write a book that couldn’t be read digitally.