Revolutions turns postmodernism upside down

Mark Z. Danielewski has gained quite the cult following of fans in recent years. One might even say he’s become a rock star of the literary world.

Danielewski’s claim to fame is when he left English majors cringing and postmodernists cheering with the 2000 publication of House of Leaves, a Pynchonesque behemoth of a horror novel. Postmodernists love to experiment with style and structure in their work, and Danielewski’s literary debut is a masterpiece of experimental fiction.

In a nutshell, the book is a literary discussion of a Blair Witch-style movie called The Navidson Record. The film was produced by a world-renowned filmmaker named Will Navidson, and it purports to show supernatural instances of a house that is larger on the inside than on the outside. The plot sounds straightforward enough, until you discover the stories that have been woven into the text. First, the discussion of The Navidson Record is written by a mysterious, dead old man named Zampanò. When the old man dies, the manuscript of the book is discovered by a hedonistic burnout named Johnny Truant, a sort of grown up version of Holden Caulfield.

Truant starts to piece together the manuscript and complete Zampanò’s work. Slowly, unanswered questions start to eat at him. As far as he knows, no one named Will Navidson has ever existed, nor has any film called The Navidson Record, yet Zampanò has countless pages chronicling celebrities’ and authors’ takes on the film. Zampanò’s manuscript, interspersed with actual citations, often makes reference to scholarly work that doesn’t exist, so it would appear that the manuscript was written within the confines of a fictional parallel universe.

In many ways, House of Leaves serves as its own literary criticism. Concepts like truth and reality are often discussed in the novel itself, and Truant routinely questions his own sanity in footnotes that sometimes go on for several pages. The very meaning of the word ‘fictional’ is muddled as the reader attempts to sort out the “real” portions of the novel from the imagined.

Truant, as he delves deeper into The Navidson Record, begins to lose his tenuous grip on reality. The unnamed “editors” of House of Leaves include appendices to Truant’s edited version of Zampanò’s manuscript that provide hints to Truant’s tumultuous childhood.

The book itself is a proverbial puzzle wrapped up in an enigma. For example, every instance of the word “house” is written in blue. Danielewski has stated that it’s an allusion to the blue-screen technology that allows any background to be superimposed over a blue screen. Similarly, the things that the characters experience when they enter the mysterious Navidson house are projections of their own inner demons.

House of Leaves is a story that contains enough substance to be fodder for decades of academic discussion, but if it’s a novel that exists in a bubble, Danielewski’s second major work, Only Revolutions, exists to be cross-referenced and contextualized.

Published in 2006, the novel is a love story and road novel about two sixteen-year-olds named Sam and Hailey. The Danielewski twist, one might say, is that the story takes place on a timeline that exists entirely in montages and vignettes. The novel spans 200 years, from 1863 to 2063, yet Sam and Hailey don’t seem to experience the passage of time: they are “allways[sic] sixteen.”

The novel is written in two sections, each 180 pages long. One section tells the story from Sam’s point of view, the other from Hailey’s. The novel is designed, as hinted by the title, to be cyclical. It’s possible, according to Danielewski, to read the “end” and then continue reading from the beginning. The length of the sections represents the 180 degrees the reader must turn the book in order to go from Hailey’s version of the text to Sam’s version.

Sam and Hailey narrate with erratic poetry filled with misspellings often couched in double meaning and historical relevance. Danielewski filled the novel with references to the time period Sam and Hailey are “passing through,” and dates are sequentially listed on every page along with a smattering of relevant names, events and quotes.

The story, and its ending, is simple and predictable when stripped of its presentation. What Danielewski has created with Only Revolutions, though, is a postmodern love story that examines love and emotion the way House of Leaves examined fear and reality. Danielewski allows for an exploration of what it means to love, but from a new perspective.

Nevertheless, reading the novel will leave one with a sense of lingering familiarity, as if the story is merely conjuring up dormant memories of people and places long since gone. Perhaps that’s why, in the dedication, it’s written, “You were there.” All of us, we were there.