July 18, 2009 § Leave a comment
Now reading: Only Revolutions.
Reading next: We Always Treat Women Too Well, by Raymond Queneau.
Here’s a fact smuggled into the copyright page of Only Revolutions: the book has a descriptive subtitle. It is The Democracy of Two Set Out & Chronologically Arranged.
The Democracy of Two: and right away, we are invited to view the work as an American allegory, something like The Pilgrim’s Progress. (Side note: as a kid, when I first heard of that work, I thought it was funny that its author was named Bunyan, like Paul Bunyan.) Plus one of the characters is named Sam, as in Uncle Sam. And Sam and Hailey refer to themselves as “US,” in caps, throughout.
Then there’s one of the more compelling motifs in the work: the phrase “Everyone [verb]s the Dream but I [verb] it.” The first time it appears in each narrative, in the fifth line, it is “Everyone loves the Dream but I kill it.” And so we’re led to believe that “the Dream” is the American Dream.
But what’s the American Dream? The meaning and its application are as fluid as everything else in this book, but Sam and Hailey, these apparent stand-ins for America, are constantly framing themselves as in opposition to it or outside of it: they’re eternal teenagers, after all (“allways sixteen,” in the book’s phrasing), with teenagers’ typical reflexive insistence on “individuality,” on rebellion against whatever’s there to rebel against, with no real examination of whether the status quo is worth rebelling against, or whether their rebellion takes worthwhile forms.
Then again, America is supposed to be the place where you are free to pursue happiness whatever it may be: the status quo is there precisely to be challenged, to be shown that definitions of liberty, happiness, and reasonable conduct as codified in such things as laws, business practices, and the arts become ossified and need constant reevaluation. One of the most expertly executed facets of this book is the interplay between the real-world events in the chronological sidebar and the lyrical word-collage of the narrative thread. Danielewski gets just right the allegorical import of Sam and Hailey’s adventures and the amount of period detail in the main narrative — such that in the two narrations of Sam and Hailey’s attempts at marriage, the 1990s attempt is equated with a homosexual marriage, the 1950s attempt with an interracial marriage. (That these two marriages, like all of the book’s events, take place in precisely the same place in their respective narratives, thereby reflecting upon each other, is one of the payoffs of the book’s circular structure and repetitive style. Personally, I found the dual marriages one of the more heavy-handed uses of this pseudo-historical technique, not to mention quite confusing in terms of S&H’s character development, but it works really well as agitprop.)
Freedom is what the Dream often comes down too, and the trickiness of negotiating the limits of that freedom. Another of the book’s strategic misspellings comes into play: the word fear is here feer, a rearrangement of free. The progress of Sam and Hailey is fascinating in this light: they are supremely “free” at the book’s beginning, insisting on their abilities to do whatever they want, to destroy and create, to impose themselves on the World: “I’ll devastate the world,” says Sam (Hailey uses “destroy”), “I will sacrifice nothing./ For there are no countries./ Except me. And there is only/ one boundary. Me.” But as they come to know and love each other, this rhetoric softens: there is more “feer,” more concern for the other, less braggadocio and posturing (although it’s interesting to consider whether it is posturing, at the book’s beginning: or are Sam and Hailey also two aspects of a destroyer/creator god: a SHiva, of sorts?) Freedom is the freedom to fear.