July 20, 2009 § 1 Comment
Just finished: Only Revolutions.
Okay, enough attempts at coherent thought: let’s do some lists on this soggy, boggy monster!
Five favorite things about the book that I haven’t discussed yet:
-The call-and-response of plants and animals, coming to life in the first half of each narrative and dying in their turns (boldface turned to gray). The pronouncements about them maybe forming a kind of Whitmanian choral voice of “the land,” and an ecological message. This is also one of the elements that seems to indicate that Sam and Hailey are more than human: symbols, but also perhaps gods — of nature and technology?
-The 10th section, p. 73-80, S&H’s adventure in New Orleans. I love any epic poem which makes room for two different lists of pies. Also love how this section leads us into the roaring ’20s in Sam’s narrative, and through ’68-’69 in Hailey’s: the mix of debauchery and darkness, plus the voodoo sexuality of The Creep (see below).
-HONEY. I love honey. When I worked for a food broker in Chicago, I got to know about the different grades and varieties, and totally fell in love with the stuff. (As I told Jaime the other day: people should care less about wine and beer and more about cheese and honey.) Here, it functions as something like ambrosia: the food of the gods, powering Sam and Hailey’s love. Its gold color, the fact that it is one of the only foods which never spoils, that it is a completely natural product which requires husbandry rather than slaughter, and of course its relationship to stinging bees: it all seems perfect. (I must say I’m baffled as to why they always have a half-jar left in their stash, though.)
-The mindbending, slapstick St. Louis center. Especially the use of St. Louis’s awesome street names like Chouteau (although I was sad he didn’t use Kingshighway). And throughout, the poetry of American place: “Mishishishi” (the S&H-centric spelling of Mississippi), Nauvoo, Hannibal, Keokuk.
-The language itself, with its loose poetry of rhymes and rhythms and portmanteau words, is often amazing. A (less than amazing, but representative) example, from a random opening, and incorporating those place names I love: “Confined to no loss. Beyond stops we all/ toss. Because we’re emergent. Allways divergent./ Down shifting only when we reach La Crosse.” (As a footnote, I also really loved the use of allone and allways: allone, especially, really added something to the meaning of alone for me.)
And then five things I’m fairly baffled about:
-The Creep. The villain of the piece, and I guess it’s possible to just see him/her/it as something like the twirly-mustache-black-cape figure of melodrama, but there actually is something creepy about him. The book felt most like House of Leaves to me in his sections: the purple-pink in which his name appears somehow leaving you with this dread akin to some of the colored words and typographic effects in HoL. He is described in such mysterious ways: he might be simply a concentrate of dark American impulses towards taking what we want when we want it, or a sort of “dark side” of Sam and Hailey, or something else entirely (in my brief dabbling on the OR forums on Z’s website, I came across a thread suggesting Creep might be the destructive aspect of Sam/Hailey in the other’s narrative. Interesting, but I remain baffled.)
-“Flash, searing lime to wide.” Wha? I guess it’s the lightning to the “ThUuuUuunder” on the opposite side of the page. But why lime? Why wide? And why the lightning/thunder at all? I appreciate the assonance, and the attempt (maybe?) at the effect of really bright lightning on the backs of your eyelids. It just seems so out of context whenever it appears.
-The small circles in the corners of a few pages. These are black circles with gold or green “irises”, or near the end of each narrative, the book’s symbol of two lines in a circle. Never really got my mind around what these were meant to indicate, except (perhaps) a restarting of the narrative for the two-line-circle symbol.
-The Leftwrist Twists. Either watches or bracelets, made of materials from “Shit” to “Gold”; since the book itself is a timepiece of sorts, these are perhaps just a reflexive way of pointing to that fact. Again, though, the frequent references to these are dropped into the narrative in a jarring, seemingly random (but surely not) way of which I could never quite seem to grasp the full significance.
-The marriage and consummation. Somehow I’ve gotten through all this without discussing the sex. It seems so out of step with the whole tone of the rest of the book that Hailey only comes, and Sam only refrains from withdrawing, after their marriage. Why is this marriage necessary? Is Z actually trying to say something about responsibility, abstinence, “safe sex,” or is it a contrivance to discuss prohibited forms of marriage in America, or a way to link to Romeo and Juliet, or what? I think it does have to do with S&H committing to each other — valuing the other over the self — but for some reason the marriage bothered me, in such a heightened, stylized, idyllic work.
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.