An ugly pile of words

Friday, April 17, 2009
I loved Mark Z. Danielewski's debut novel House of Leaves. It was a sprawling, complex, recklessly innovative novel. Reviewers quickly honed in on the unique typography, extensive footnoting and text that ran up, down and backwards through the book. But wrapped up in the unusual form was a great story. It was actually two stories, one told through footnotes to the other. But at its heart, House of Leaves was a really fantastic ghost story, an impeccably-plotted and mindbending gothic tale. I still rank it as one of my favorite novels of all time.

So it's not an understatment to say I was disappointed to find his second novel to be a righteously awful book; a total piece of shit.

Only Revolutions was Danielewski's sophomore effort, published six years after House of Leaves. Taking the experimental typography to an over-the-top level, Only Revolutions is actually two separate books, each one reading upside-down and backwards from the other, beginning from the front and back cover, and meeting in the middle.

This time, however, Danielewski has eschewed not just the external trappings of a traditional novel, but any attempt at intelligibility or comprehensibility. It is so much of a jumbled mass of rambling pseudo-poetry, it would be inaccurate to call Only Revolutions a novel at all. Lest you think I exaggerate the meaninglessness of the prose in this book, witness the first lines of one of the halves of the book:
Samsara! Samarra!
I can walk away
from anything.
Everone loves
the Dream but I kill it.
Atlas Mountain Cedars gush
over me: ---Up Boogaloo!
I leap free this spring.
On Fire. How my hair curls.
That's all. Big ruin all
around. With a wiggle.
with a waggle. A spin.

Every page is like this. You could pick any random page from this hideous abortion of a book and you would come across exactly the same amount of plot, character development, conflict or story. Oh, and just to kick the pretentiousness into high gear, Danielewski decided to color every instance of the letter 'O' either green or brown, on every page of the book.

The fatuous self-importance simply drips from the official Only Revolutions web site. One blogger took it upon himself to reproduce the color, layout and arrangement of one page's worth of text. The result would be funnier the book itself wasn't just as foolish, in appearance and content.

It would be quite one thing if Only Revolutions received the scorn and derision it deserved, but some reviewers, apparently having written their review before they received the book, praised it as a post-modern masterpiece. In the largest and most hilarious example of The Emperor's New Clothes effect, the book was even nominated for the National Book Award. I can only imagine the nominating committee meeting, each member terrified to admit that book didn't make any sense to them, and instead of saying so, meekly voting for it to continue to the shortlist.

House of Leaves was a witty, carefully constructed novel with a fantastic story. It also had its share of dry humor and carefully-hidden messages. I can only hope that Only Revolutions is a well-orchestrated prank on the literary establishment, a dead-tree troll on an unprecedented scale. Because the idea of someone actually writing this book in all seriousness is too depressing to contemplate.

Pseudonym: I keep meaning to read House of Leaves. Thanks for the heads-up on the 2nd.

I remember reading some tripe similar to the excerpt you posted in one of my freshman English classes. When the prof asked what we all thought about it, no one had anything to say, for fear of, what, insulting her? I did speak up to ask if there really was some meaning behind it or if the author was having a laugh at our expense. Her reply was "what do YOU think?" with a self-gratifying smirk.

I told her it was clearly the latter. Literature is about communication, communication of an idea, or a feeling or a sensation, not the senseless brain-drippings of completely random phrases mashed together like the result of a stenographer's fever dream.

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Anonymous said...

In my opinion, the problem is not that you didn't like Only Revolutions, it's that you liked House of Leaves. What you thought about coloring the "O"s in the new book, I pretty much thought about all of the layout of House of Leaves. From my perspective, the story was told in a way that maximized the amount of annoyance that I went through for the marginal amount of entertainment that was available.

Eldritch said...

I think there's certainly an element of unfair expectations, Anonymous. I went into Only Revolutions having really enjoyed House of Leaves, and in retrospect, there's probably no way it could have lived up to that standard.

But it's really amazing to see the difference between the two books. I can certainly see how House of Leaves could leave you cold (even though I loved it), but the degree to which Danielewski abandoned even the semblance of narrative in Only Revolutions is shocking.

Pseudonym said...

It's also worth remembering that there's no way to avoid going into a book with expectations if you've read the first one. Not unless you've sustained brain injury or for some other reason can't remember anything about the original. You couldn't have read Only Revolutions objectively, and didn't, but I wonder if it made you dislike it more. The Matrix Revolutions was a crap movie, and would have been so on its own merit, but it certainly does have the sheen buffed to some extent by the fact that the original WAS so good. I think it's the knowledge not just that it sucks, but that it didn't have to, and you had proof.

Anonymous said...

listen, Only Revolutions' inclusion in the National Book Awards was a retrofitted nomination meant for House of Leaves. That's what the Pulitzers did with McCarthy's The Road; awarded the author for a life's work. But Danielewski, unlike Charlie, never did anything (one book? cmon, it's not even that good or inventive, owes a bunch to tristram shandy, infinite jest, and kitschy magazines) to deserve the nomination.

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