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#42 – Only Revolutions

August 21, 2007

now we are one in everlasting peace, we hope that you chokeFair warning: this is probably going to be a lengthy post. Considering that the rest of the books I’ve reviewed here took me an average of 2.7 days each to read, and Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions took me 11 months, I think it’s only right. This has been a long time coming.

So, before we begin – a little background. For all the books I’ve read in my life, for all the authors I’ve loved, there have been four specific books and writers who changed my life. Every one of these books introduced me to a whole new level of literature, and I like to think, improved my taste immensely. They are, chronologically:

  • Gordon Korman, This Can’t Be Happening at Macdonald Hall! (read in 1992)
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Welcome to the Monkey House (read in 1999)
  • Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (read in 2002)
  • Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (read in 2004)

I went on to read all of Korman’s books until I outgrew him a few years later, all the novels that Vonnegut published, and everything Palahniuk has written, even his travelogue of Portland, Fugitives and Refugees. None of these can compare to House of Leaves, however. I’d be hard pressed to tell you my favourite book, and I’ve stated repeatedly that Apathy and Other Small Victories is the funniest, but I can unequivocally say that House of Leaves is the best book I’ve ever read. It’s a work of art unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and if you haven’t read it, you must. I’ve said that I liked some books so much I couldn’t put them down before, but when reading House of Leaves, I was literally afraid to put it down. It’s so menacing that it has a physical effect on me – I still get tense if I hear the phrase “five and a half minute hallway”, and you should too. It’s not an easy read, but Danielewski draws you in so quickly and fully that you’ve got to chance to turn back – I neglected schoolwork and friendships and made it through all 700 pages, awestruck.

Unfortunately, that was Danielewski’s debut, and there was no back catalogue for me to delve into like there was for all the other guys. Unable to get a hold of either of the novellas he published in the interim, I had to wait until September 2006 for Only Revolutions to be released, and my level of anticipation was about as high as it’s been for any new book. So why didn’t I plough through this one in 11 hours, instead of 11 months? Excuses after the jump.

Green eyes with flecks of Gold.

Here we have the first page in Only Revolutions; or rather, one of the first pages. You see, Only Revolutions has two narrators, Sam and Hailey. Open the book on one side, open it, and you see the above – the first page of Sam’s story. Flip the book over and open it to that first page:

Gold eyes with flecks of Green.

And there’s Hailey’s story; similar but contradictory, identical but backwards. Only Revolutions tells two sides of the same story in two directions at once, with the both characters’ font getting small as it goes, so by the midpoint at page 180 they’re equal size, and by the end, page 360 – well, it looks like the pages above, only upside down. The last page of Sam’s story is the first page of Hailey’s, and vice versa. You can really choose to read this book any way you like, but according to the dust jacket, “The publisher suggests alternating between Sam & Hailey [or “Hailey & Sam”, depending on which side you start from], reading eight pages at a time.” Helpful advice, at least for the first time through: the stories are divided up into eight page mini-chapters, starting with a large letter like shown above. (It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that these letters, when strung together, spell SAM AND HAILEY/HAILEY AND SAM over and over again.) These chapters sometimes disagree with each other and sometimes complement each other, but reading both points of view helps to fill in the blanks as you go through. Plus, you see the dialogue we’re dealing with up there: beautiful prose, but more “stream of consciousness” than “coherent”. You often need to hear from both Sam and Hailey before you understand what happened in the last section.

The plot, if such a term can even be applied to a book like this, is pretty straightforward. Sam and Hailey, “allmighty sixteen and so freeeeee”, drive around the country and have adventures. Really poetic adventures. The real story here, though, is both much simpler and a million times more complicated than this. Did you see, on the left sides of the sample pages up there, the dates with random words and phrases beneath them? Danielewski calls these Chronomosaics, and they’re equally brilliant and infuriating.

While Sam and Hailey are racing through America, they’re also racing past history: they stay sixteen through Only Revolutions‘ 200-year span. Danielewski gets this across with the Chronomosaics, and it’s subtle perfection. With the rapidly moving timeline just outside the main story, throwing out random snippits like flipping past The History Channel, the reader gets an incredibly vivid impression of time whipping by Sam and Hailey, leaving them somehow untouched, changing only their slang and model of car. Therefore, Sam’s story starts on November 22, 1863 and Hailey’s ends on January 19, 2063, with the two converging on November 22, 1963 – the day of Kennedy’s assassination. Why Hailey’s narrative finishes 10 months short of the centennial is beyond me, but I’m sure it’s just one of the hundred things in Only Revolutions that went right over my head.

And there’s my excuse for taking so long to finish this one. Mark Z. Danielewski is an unbelievably gifted writer. His prose reads like listening to music, and a book that’s essentially a 360 page poem by him should have been a pleasure and a breeze to read. But between flipping the book over in my hands every 8 pages, and interrupting the narrative’s flow every page to read his Chronomosaics, I felt like Danielewski was throwing up too many obstacles for me to fully get into this story. In fact, when I got to page 180, I gave up on reading the Chronomosaics – I thought they had done their job, and they were just too distracting. I felt bad though, because they’re so well done and so interesting, so I was grateful when Hailey got to the book’s publication date in 2006 and the history sidebar stopped. In contrast, the labyrinthine sections of House of Leaves were much more difficult to get through than anything in Only Revolutions, but there you were so invested in the story by that point you couldn’t stop if you wanted to.

I’m looking forward to going back and rereading Only Revolutions someday, and changing things up a bit. Maybe reading one narrative at a time, or at least switching less frequently than every 8 pages. I still really enjoyed the book, though, and I’m sure it will be even better the second time around. As for a recommendation, I’m going to go ahead and insist that you read House of Leaves. If after that one, you feel the same hunger for more that I did, then yeah, head for Only Revolutions. It’s a very different kind of book, but oddly satisfying.

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5 comments

  1. Great post! I especially like the fact that you put the word “house” in blue. Nice touch.


  2. Thanks, Chris! It just wouldn’t feel right to write the book’s title any other way.


  3. Thank you for writing this…The House of Leave is my favorite book, also and I have never had a problem saying that aloud.


  4. Hey, thanks for the post (despite how late I am commenting on this). I was just about to start reading Only Revolutions, and I opened the first page and figured I should google “how to read only revolutions” before I started reading it wrong.

    I share that passion for House of Leaves that you have, without a doubt. The only problem I have is recommending it to people. I’m like, “The book is amazing… please read it! It’s… well, 700 pages.” and they automatically blanch, haha.

    Thanks for the info, I hope I can get through it faster than 11 months. I got books queued up after it!


  5. I haven’t read all of House of Leaves yet and I just purchased Only Revolutions. I googled as well to figure out how to start reading OR. I think I might finish up HOL first. Thank you for this honest post.



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