The Strangest Book I Have Ever Read

For Christmas, The Beloved gave me a copy of the book “Only Revolutions” by writer Mark Z. Danielewski.  I’ve been reading it for the last couple of weeks, a little at a time.

It’s a book that needs to be digested.

The plot is an American classic: two teenagers find each other, fall in love (well, more like lust at first), hit the open road, get into hijinx, with things sometimes getting serious.   Not so hard to grasp.

It’s the structure of the book that is so fascinating.  The story is told from both protagonists’ perspectives – Sam’s and Hailey’s – from opposite ends of the book.  Each cover is actually a “front” cover.  Literally, you read one perspective for a while, then invert and flip the book over and read the other person’s account.  The accounts are clearly of the same events, but Sam’s and Hailey’s viewpoints differ enough to keep you on your toes.  Clever.

Only Revolutions: A Novel

Mark Z. Danielewski

But there’s more.  Each half page is 90 words and each section is eight pages long.  720 words per section, which I took to be one revolution of two people (if words were equal to degrees).  The book has 360 pages.  Also, running down the margin on each half-page are events surrounding a date (think like a ticker on the bottom of Headline News) – Sam’s starts in November 1863 and runs until November 1963.  Hailey’s starts immediately after Sam’s and runs (curiously) to January, 2063. (The “news tickers” after 2006, when the book was published, are blank – I suppose we can fill them in as time marches on).  The inflection point is the Kennedy Assasination.  The events are in tiny print and I think the story against the running course of events is supposed to show that when two people are in love, the rest of the world goes on in the background, but they don't notice.  (Or maybe it's supposed to be something else.)

And yet, there’s more.  Each page is not written in prose, but a style that I would call verse – and occasionally rambling.  Danielewski plays with sound, language and grammar to produce a very fluid read.  The only thing in my experience I can compare it to is going to a Shakespearean play – for the first five minutes, I can’t understand anything the actors are saying, and then the cadence and language sinks in and you can follow it.  This book is sort of like that.

Is it for everyone?  I don’t think so.  Is it for you?  It’s certainly worth a try – especially if you like language, fonts, poetry, and finding little clues and differences in each character’s accounts.  This strikes me as the kind of work that will develop (maybe it already has) a substantial cult-following as folks try to interpret a greater meaning.  To me, its a weird cross of Shakespeare and Rashamon.

I can’t say that I found great existential meaning, but in terms of “craft” this is pretty phenomenal, and if you’re looking for something different, this is probably it.

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10 thoughts on “The Strangest Book I Have Ever Read

  1. Oooh, sounds neat-o. It sort of reminds me of Derek Walcott's book/epic poem Omeros, with it's specific line-syllable relationship–information my brain has dropped in order to protect me from violent World Lit class flashbacks.

  2. Thanks for the review! I may try it. I really loved Danielewski's "The Whalestoe Letters" (quick read, very interesting). The reviews on Amazon for this book were very passionate — looks like a love it or hate kind of book.

  3. Hmmm…. why is it the ‘to read’ list continues to grow while the ‘read’ list remains stagnant. I’m still working on State of Wonder. It’s a bit more involved than the 24hr Bookstore. (In a good way, of course.)

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