Even seasoned readers might feel a twinge of confusion, frustration or panic upon first opening Only Revolutions (Pantheon Books), the critically acclaimed second novel by Mark Z. Danielewski. Each page offers either three or four patches of text, rendered in as many different fonts and type sizes; at least one patch is upside down. Then, when you start reading, you discover a narrative told in densely allusive, stream-of-consciousness blank verse, rich with wordplay: "Bucket / hat his nog, acquaint his flap too / with a broom rod."
You mightn't re-Joyce; you might quietly set the book back where you frowned it and just get on with your danish. Yet Danielewski himself empathizes: When he met his readership after Only Revolutions was published, a year ago, he says, the response "was nothing but panic."
Now that his experiment has sunken in, Danielewski, 41, is touring with the newly released paperback, including his debut Pittsburgh reading. For the uninitiated: Only Revolutions has two narrators, archetypal, road-tripping teen-age American lovers named Sam and Hailey. Sam's narrative begins behind one of the book's front covers, Hailey's behind the other. (Both covers trumpet the novel's status as a National Book Award finalist.) Reading Danielewski's poetic-allegorical journey through U.S. history and the future (specifically, 1865-2065, though half of it is told backward), you're asked to rotate the book 180 degrees every eight pages, to catch up with the parallel story.
Talking with Danielewski by phone (he lives in Los Angeles), I asked him to discuss one passage. He chose this "Sam" verse:
[[smaller font, please preserve indents]]
Top of such heights, my salutations
ring down and from frozen fields
cataracts surge loose racing
whorls of egalitarian wisps.
By Forrests of pale harm.
And from slate scattered screes
where blabblating Brook Trout
glee, I start the ball rolling
by ambling off.
My fiery Mountain Top hollers:
[end different font]]
Though he's often compared to such modernists as Nabokov and Pynchon, Danielewski says that this passage, a sort of rite of spring, summons Whitman and Wordsworth, spiced with Fantasia. But are amnesiac Sam's invocations merely the ego-projections of a 16-year-old -- or is he actually a god?
Noting that the passage is dated "1865" -- as indicated by the novel's time-stamped, newscrawl-style sidebars -- Danielewski adds that "Forrest" references Confederate general and KKK co-founder Nathan Bedford Forrest ("pale harm").
Meanwhile, the "Hailey" verse printed upside-down just beneath this passage finds her in 2061, saying, "He, I sigh" -- making us wonder whether the "He!" Sam hears is the mountain or, in fact, Hailey. Then, if you somersault the tome to its other opening sequence, you'll find the twin mirror-images of these passages -- both dated November 1963, the Kennedy assassination being the book's chronological and thematic lynchpin.
"Everything in the book actually has to be viewed as four things," Danielewski summarizes.
But, he adds, "In order to first grasp the book, you have to first let go of the book." Meaning: before pondering the "content," experience the language like poetry, or even music, for its sound and flow.
Danielewski knows his readers are out there. "They want a tough experience," he says. "They want something that challenges them."
Mark Z. Danielewski reads and signs Only Revolutions 7 p.m. Thu., Sept. 27. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, 2705 E. Carson St., South Side. Free. 412-381-3600
- Mark Z. Danielewski. Photo courtesy of Marion Ettlinger