Customer Reviews: Only Revolutions: A Novel
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HALL OF FAMEon June 19, 2007
Old editions of the Guinness Book of World Records often noted a weird achievement in writing - a novel called "Gadsby" (Earnest V. Wright, 1939) that does not contain the letter E. This is known as a lipogram, or a work in which the writing is constrained by an enforced method. But would anyone remember "Gadsby" for its story? Or is that supposedly unique method its only memorable quality? This kind of incredulous infamy is likely to be the fate of this tome from Danielewski. Imagine that you have spent years working on your personal manifesto, and you expect everyone to be as excited about it as you are. But then you're devastated to find that your labor of love is only appreciated by half the people who read it, while the other half just DON'T GET IT or don't find your work to be as important as you think it is. Half of the reviews here offer ecstatic praise for Danielewski's unique visual and semantic methods of writing. But don't assume that the negative reviewers here simply DON'T GET IT. These are people who, like me, probably loved (and GOT) Danielewski's masterful "House of Leaves." But this book is much less likeable and is nowhere near as rewarding. The negative reviewers who appear that they DON'T GET IT actually have been given no reason to try to get it.

That's because this story accomplishes very little, other than the creative non-linear methods. Of course, Danielewski has concocted a storytelling schema that is truly unique, and I can appreciate the mechanical focus on the numbers 180 and 360, and the running theme of revolutions in the book's graphical layout. You may even dig the main premise about the literally timeless and ageless road trip, while Danielewski's creative language constructions and period slang can be quite likeable. But where does this story go beyond its contribution to the book's visual and mechanical methods? Hence, this will likely be remembered as Danielewski's Gadsby - a book that's unique for reasons other than a memorable story, empathetic characters, or insightful themes. Plus, you really have to wonder about a book in which the publisher has to suggest HOW to read it. Most of us would rather spend our time on books where the publisher doesn't have to tell you to simply start on page 1 and read forward to the end. [~doomsdayer520~]
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Mark Z. Danielewski stunned readers with his debut, "House of Leaves," a bizarre down-the-rabbit-hole tale of madness, surreality and a house where space is unending.

Now six years later, Danielewski has produced his follow-up -- the equally strange, scintillating road-trip novel "Only Revolutions." The format is mind-bending, the characters equally strange -- and Danielewski hasn't lost his touch for the compelling, poignant, the postmodern, and the post-weird.

Hailey and Sam are a pair of eternal teenagers, apparently untouched by time either physically or psychologically ("We're always sixteen!"). They careen through much of American history -- past and present -- in a changing fleet of cars, touching down in various important places and times.

But though they have no responsibilities, Hailey and Sam are not free of cares. As they run through the US, they seem to be enmeshed in the goings-on of wars, parties, exploration and social revolution (the Civil War). Will they escape the oppressive THEM pursuing them, or lose what is most important to them?

For a cult author, there's always a question about whether they can stay fresh and cutting-edge. Fortunately, Danielewski has outrun that particular concern. "Only Revolutions" is written in the same surreal freestyle as "House of Leaves," but the author never forgets to include the story as well.

And as the Escherian plot unwinds ("unfolds" just doesn't fit), it becomes obvious that this is actually two stories: a love story, and a sort of American allegory. They are rebels and free spirits, running up against bizarre characters -- like the multi-military Creep -- who seem symbolic of the nastier sides of our society. Hailey and Sam are the ones who represent the better side of the country.

Danielewski is still fascinated by places/people where time and space are warped. That includes the entire book -- every page. Each page has a scramble of quotes and text on its sides. There is vivid abstract poetry, blank pages (the future), geometric plotting, shrinking pages, mysterious side-notes submitted by Danielewski's fans...

... and oh yeah, you can flip the book upside down and read the two different "sides" of the story. One is Hailey, one is Sam. They are compared to legendary lovers like Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, but that's not too far off. Their love evolves as they do, and by the end they are more endearing if less vibrant than at the start of their story.

"Only Revolutions" is both a work of postmodern art and an endearing novel, and while it's hard work to follow Hailey and Sam to the end of their journey, it's worth the trip. Absolutely brilliant.
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on September 14, 2015
It took me some time to get used to flipping the book over every eight pages. It took me a while to find the green and yellow silk bookmarks!
It took me about half the book to start actually following the story. I haven't figured out why plants and animals get two tones of bold-faced text.
I did notice right away the || symbols on the spine, and in the introductions. (These symbols appeared at the beginning in HoL in green, and in brown at the end). I only saw the two teeny ones when I got to those pages.

I am fifty-eight years old and when the type teeny I had to use a lens to see the historical gutters.

I could on and on with specific examples. The book contains a lot of little details all put together. But for what? For MZD to show how clever he is?
I suppose I could read it again right away (like I did with The Familiar Vol. 1), but I have too many books on my TBR pile.

I suppose every fan of MZD needs to have and read this book. Whether you will "get it", I don't know. I didn't.
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on December 1, 2006
Mark, did you start to believe your own hype? Did you feel compelled to venture further out than House of Leaves? Did you just start with a really bad idea and stay the course?

I've come to feel Only Revulsion for this beast.

I can't tell what happened here, but this is book is a mess. I honestly couldn't finish this thing because I felt that, somewhere, Danielewski was having a laugh at his readers' expense. Lemme give you some background.

Danielewski wrote House of Leaves, one of the most complex and multi-layered novels I've read. And even better, it had a unique and well spun tale in it (several infact, like Russian Dolls, but the House is the main one.) I loved this book. The author even made the book's physical layout as complex and involoved as the story was. At first, the House's layout looked like a gimmick, but no; it actually enhanced th quality of the tale.

Since then he's published a spin off novel and now.... this beast.

As I said, the reason the layout in House of Leaves was not a gimmick is because it actually enhanced the tale. In this book, you have sprawling chaos up one side of the page and down the other, literaly. The tale... a sort of eternal love tale begins in this crazed stream of conciousness that is accented my enlarging and shifting fonts; when you finish with the point of view of one character, you flip the book over and begin reading from the other's perspective. The layout here is a gimmick.

It is a gimmick because not only does the layout fail to improve the text, it renders what is already Near Incomprehensible into A Damned Mess of Words.

I'm trying to find more to write but... look I'm sorry to write this but if you liked House of Leaves or enjoy a well wrought tale please back away from the Revolutions.

Why is it getting so many positive reviews? Dear reader, I have several theories. Maybe they were impressed by the layout. Maybe they had a brain seziure and now like this sorta verbal mess. My guess though is, much like myslef, they were truly won over by House of Leaves and try to redeem this mess as much as they can. I did my best to like this book too. But reality stepped in.

By the by, despite this book being a catastrophe of words, I'm still waiting and hoping for his next.

(And no Mark, even a soundtrack by Poe will not help this heap.)
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on September 22, 2007
I loved "House of Leaves," I think it's really a masterpiece of experimental fiction, so I was excited when I heard that Danielewski had come out with a new novel. Likewise I wasn't put off by the experimental elements of the book: the duelling narratives written in either direction on each page, the list of historical tidbits from a given date.

But when you get past all these schticky elements there's not much to "Only Revolutions." Whereas "House of Leaves" had a fascinating story at its core and explored interesting themes, when you strip away all the gimicks "Only Revolutions" seems to be a prose poem about a love affair between two egomaniacal teenagers who drift apart and then find each other again and again (and who claim to have superhuman powers although I haven't found any evidence that this is actually the case) and which is set in no clear time or place.

I've tried a couple of times, but I couldn't for the life of me get into this story. I also found the stream-of-consciousness list of historical data on each page (+50% of which is stuff that I've never heard of before, and I was a history major) to be really annoying because I felt obligated to read through it even though it was really dry. In the end, I've just about written off this novel as unreadable.
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on July 11, 2008
To put it mildly, this is a difficult book. As a follow up to House of Leaves, I wasn't surprised at the unique design and writing style. And since HoL had so much hidden beneath the surface for those who took the time to dig for it, I have to assume that this book has more to it than just nonsensical free-verse poetry and unconventional typography. Unfortunately, I'll never know for sure because, to be completely honest, I gave up.

Part of House of Leaves' brilliance is Danielewski's ability to shift back and forth between very different writing styles. That's why when I began reading Only Revolutions, I took the writing style in stride. After reading a few pages though, it dawned on me that maybe the whole thing was written like this. After scanning the rest of the book I realized that it was indeed written that way all the way through. That was a disappointing moment. The book is now taking up space on my shelf.

The people giving this book one star are being honest with themselves and with you. I'm sure that some of the positive reviews are from people who genuinely enjoyed the book. Some of the positive reviews simply seem like an opportunity for the reviewer to puff themselves up intellectually above those who "just didn't get it". Welcome to the Internet.

If you've never read Danielewski, go get House of Leaves immediately. It's awesome. I hope his next one isn't like this.
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on October 10, 2006
I loved House of Leaves, its unconventionality, its layers. I could not stand this book. Make sure you understand this is a book of verse - a long narrative poem (and yes, it rhymes). I just could not get into it, the language annoyed me, the characters were not interesting to me. Was there a plot of some kind? It didn't work for me, which is really frustrating if you know what Danielewski is capable of.
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on January 11, 2015
A review by Dr. Joseph Suglia

The mystery of all mysteries surrounds Mark Z. Danielewski's ONLY REVOLUTIONS (2006): Someone actually thought that this endless circuit of gibberish qualified for the National Book Award. And it is an endless circuit, literally. Columns of text spiral and loop, making the text all but unintelligible. We have two narratives---though the book does eschew traditional narrative, as if there were something revolutionary about doing so in 2006---that of Sam and that of Hailey, both of whom are perpetually sixteen. If you look at the bottom of the page while reading Sam's narrative, there you will find Hailey's upside down. The size of Sam's text dwindles as it progresses (from 22 November 1863 to 22 November 1963), gradually dwarfed by Hailey's. Turn the book around 180 degrees and start at the back, and you can read all about Hailey, from 22 November 1963 (the pivot of the book, the day of Kennedy's assassination) to 22 November 2063. History is circular, don't you know! The book's one motif is the stupidity of circularity.

Despite Danielewski's transparent desire to be innovative, there is nothing new here. It really is stunning how stale the book is rendered. The huge "S" with which Sam's narrative begins was stolen wholesale from ULYSSES, the characters Sam and Hailey are openly imitative of Shem and Shaun (the famous brothers of FINNEGANS WAKE), the typographical tics recall Derrida's GLAS and LA DISSEMINATION, and the wordage sounds a bit like the driveling gobbledygook of an ill-read high-school stoner who just finished leafing his way inattentively through both the WAKE and Pynchon's MASON & DIXON. Vaguely reminiscent of a designer Joyce-Made-EZ, ONLY REVOLUTIONS is enslaved to its precursors. Whereas Joyce creates worlds with words, however, Danielewski seems fearful of language and its literary capabilities. There is a kind of aggression toward language here, a certain virulent logophobia. It is a book not to be read--though I have read every silly, jingling phrase--but to be looked at.

How bad is the writing? At his very best, Danielewski recalls Shakespeare at his very worst. At his worst, he is singsongy, spewing forth nonsensical nursery rhymes that emerge from the page like sulphurous flames issuing from some mephitic kindergarten in Hell, as if the writer regarded FINNEGANS WAKE as a collection of limp, wince-inducing doggerel, as if the book were his ill-conceived idea of a "found poem"--the "found" part being the sort of dribbling babble found at the bottom of e-mails in order to fool SPAM filters--or his deeply unfortunate, private misinterpretation of Brion Gysin's "cut-up" method or surrealist automatism. To say that Danielewski's versification has little concern for elegance or expansiveness would be to say too little. When, for instance, he writes phrases and sentences such as "I outrace furry. Populate worry" [H 24]; "All of it too with puddles of goo, sog and drool" [H 43]; "Concerning her poverty, I resort to generosity" [S 9]; "I'm the heist. The impersonal price" [H 13]; "Slump. Plop. Awshucking dump" [S 83]; "And where five roads link, I poop puddles of stink" [S 241]; "Sam takes the lumps. And The Pumps" [H 55]; "Only capless Sam ups for horny, ogling my feet" [H 53]; "Sam spurts his mess. All over my chest" [H 59], you feel that it is really the result of indifference or laziness, as if jangle and flash were more important to the man than the explosive possibilities inherent to literary language.

By this, I do not mean to suggest that Danielewski's language is too difficult--far from it. His banter is not so much "difficult" as it is sterile and vacant of meaning.

It is impossible to do justice to this book without discussing another gimmick in its typographical design. This is because the book IS its typographical design. Danielewski the Graphic Designer highlights every "O" in the book with a golden hue, as if the letter were globally hyperlinked. This not an insignificant matter. The internet impresses itself upon every page of ONLY REVOLUTIONS. And in the final analysis, the flashy fonts and sprawling typographies are nothing more than glitzy Web design, counter-linguistic ruses distracting readers from the impoverishment of the book's verbal properties. But as some of us know, the pyrotechnics of typography and font are no substitute for writing with vividness and grace.

Dr. Joseph Suglia
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on November 9, 2009
I'm not going to lie; this book is incredibly frustrating. It's a classic sophomore novel; after his commercially and artistically successful House of Leaves, Danielewski seems to have tried to stretch himself to his (superhuman, if HoL is any indicator) limits and in the process has sacrificed any kind of easy point of entry to his thoughts. House of Leaves succeeded because it only gradually introduces the reader to its depths (heights?); Only Revolutions starts, philosophically and in terms of complexity, where House of Leaves left off. This means it's very hard to get into, but when you do it's every bit as sly, mind-bending, and terrifying as House of Leaves. Which is not to say I "get" it; there are still entire pages where I literally have no idea what is going on. If House of Leaves was a puzzle without a solution, Only Revolutions is a puzzle with a million useless solutions. Which is not to say it isn't worthwhile, as long as you have the time and the patience. Here are some things that I've found helped my reading most of all:
House of Leaves, Lewis Hyde's Trickster Makes This World, and a good book of American history are extremely useful background reading.
Have a dictionary and/or the Internet on hand; the vocabulary is confusing, but there are far fewer made-up words than you'd think, and a quick Google search will decode most of the historical notes.
Ignore the publisher's suggestion to alternate between a chapter of Sam and a chapter of Hailey; for your first reading, just pick a side and barrel on through, only paying attention to the historical notes and opposite text when something really captures your interest. For subsequent readings, you'll probably have created a set of rules for yourself to follow.
In later readings, go slow. The amount of information packed into each chapter is enormous. Take the time to get familiar with the relevant portion of American history. Spend some time on the opposite page and upside-down text (the entire book is symmetrical two ways). Take notes.
If the above hasn't made it clear enough, have a lot of spare time.
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on October 14, 2014
I'll admit, right off the bat, I didn't finish this book. Didn't even get close. I read through the first few book flips and found that although I started to see something of a story develop, it was happening between piles and piles of words that I ultimately overlooked based on how many of them didn't even have meaning.

This book is inventive. I can't doubt that one bit. In fact, that's why I gave it two stars instead of the one it probably should get for being one of the few books I'll never complete. It's not a novel, it's epic poetry. It's almost like reading Chaucer in that you spend a great deal of time just trying to wade through the words to get to the meaning. For some, this could be considered a fun task. For me, it seems that the tale is unnecessarily complicated by nominal poetic prose. Except, instead of Middle English, this thing's written in some form of newly invented jive that means almost nothing.

Is it good? No clue. Didn't read far enough to determine that. From other reviews, it seems that this might be an okay tale wrapped up in a confusing puzzle that only the reader can decide whether they actually enjoyed solving. Didn't seem worth it to me.
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