A Brain in a Bottle

revolutionsWhen I first started writing a review of Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions, I focused on my problem with artistic experimentation.  I opened with a quote from Patton Oswalt, asserted that I have no inherent problem with artists who experiment, and began to tell a rambling story of my recent visit to Los Angeles’ Getty Museum.  If I’d bothered to finish it, I probably would’ve worked in references to Pulp Fiction and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, made snarky comments about John Cage and/or late-career Scott Walker and/or Luluthe Lou Reed/Metallica collaboration, and proceeded to pen an even-handed reaction to the book I described in my last blog post as both the monster under my bed and an unwanted cancer diagnosis.  It would’ve been oh so witty.

But about two paragraphs in, I realized what I think we all must realize, and it is this: Some works of art aren’t worth the trouble.  And so it is with Only Revolutions, which can generously be described as a talented author disappearing up his own hindquarters.  The heart of what I would have said about experimentation in my original review is that I’m all for it as long as it serves the story.  As soon as the point becomes the experiment, I lose interest.   And that really is what Only Revolutions brings to the table: style over substance.  It’s all flash, all technique, and no heart.  It’s the literary equivalent of the hot blonde or the studly dude who look awesome from a distance (or, okay, even up close) but can’t string two sentences together.

So what’s the problem with Only Revolutions?  Take a gander at these two pages.

OR 1


OR 2

The conceit behind the book (which will explain what you’re looking at) is this: It’s a road trip of sorts, told by two narrators, Sam and Hailey, who meet, fall in love, proceed to have “adventures” (which include such compelling vignettes as Trip to Hospital and Waiting Tables in St. Louis), and tell us their version of the story in competing first-person accounts.  The first image above is Sam’s story; the second is Hailey’s.  Each account starts at one end of the book, and the catch is that you read eight pages from one perspective, mark your place, flip the book over, and read the corresponding eight pages in the other voice from the opposite direction.

It’s not as much work as it sounds (Danielewski helpfully indicates where to flip by beginning the ninth page with a bold-faced capital letter), but it’s still work that, as far as I can tell, exists for no other reason than to be work.  I didn’t find the alternating voices to be particularly compelling, nor did one seem to complement the other.  I could see it being worth the trouble if, say, Hailey’s narrative consistently gave us insight into what she was thinking or feeling during the events that Sam describes (or vice versa – neither character is a solo protagonist, and I don’t mean to imply that Hailey exists only in reaction to Sam; if anything, they’re a textbook case of codependency).  Instead, all Danielewski does is skew things slightly, which often means changing the name of a car or altering a line of dialogue.  That, I suppose, is sort of interesting – like his far superior House of Leaves, the changes left me off-balance, which I generally appreciate – but it wasn’t done to any necessary effect that I could tell.

As you can probably see, there’s also a timeline running down the margin of each page which is, I think, supposed to indicate the universality of Sam and Hailey as archetypal lovers who have existed throughout and across time.  It’s sort of an interesting idea, but is it worth doing something just to do it, or should we instead want it to be done well or not at all?  In other words, “Hey, man, cool timeline, but it’s just so goddamn busy.  Couldn’t you just tell me a story?”

Further adding to the problem is the fact that both voices are written in a slang-heavy patois (which you can also see in the above images) that, again, seems to be done primarily for effect.  I think it’s supposed to be cool, but I’m just reminded of the episode of Seinfeld when Elaine calls Kramer a “stupid hipster doofus.”  I think I might’ve been turned on by the quasi-verse patter when I was waaaay into slam poetry for five minutes in the late 90s, but Danielewski just seems to be trying too hard. I really wanted to pat him on the head and say, “It’s okay, tiger.  You’ll do better next time.”

Next up: Roger Ebert’s autobiography, Life Itself, which I fully expect to spend the next week sobbing through.


Current listening:

Pulp different

Pulp  – Different Class (1995)


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