As the title to Only Revolutions suggests, this is a book about circularity. There are three hundred and sixty pages and two narrators whose stories start at either end of the book and cross over each other in the middle. A publisher’s note on the inside cover suggests that the reader alternates between stories at eight pages a go, forcing us to turn the book over and over, completing yet another cycle. Historical events are alluded to in dated notes in the side bar, which appears to be one of the few aspects of linearity in this book.
The narrative is more in the form of an epic poem than a novel and it is difficult to describe a plot with any accuracy. In broad terms, the story revolves around a young teenage couple, Hailey and Sam, who seem to exist both within and out of time. It could be described as a road trip novel, save for the fact that there appears to be no particular destination. Sam and Hailey drive around in cars, have sex and describe the characters, flora and fauna that they come across. The historical sidebars offer some sense of time, but it seems clear that Sam and Hailey occupy an indeterminate space although there is some sense that this is America.
Plot, then, is sacrificed to theme. Instead of finding out what happens to these characters, we get a sense of them through the language used, of how they feel about their experiences and their relationship to one another. As we read eight pages of Hailey followed by eight pages of Sam, we get a sense that they can occupy the same space and have very different experiences. One of the strengths of the book is the juxtaposition between the theme of eternity, (or the idea that we are doomed, forever, to repeat ourselves) and the ‘narrative’ being contained within something that resembles a road movie. Road trip stories imply destination. Only Revolutions does not offer one.
In some respects Only Revolutions reminded me of American Gods by Neil Gaiman. In technique, the novels are completely dissimilar but the characters Hailey and Sam meet appear to reflect different aspects of America (e.g. The Creep), while the road trip element reflects the US as frontier. It is the wild west, it is the Grapes of Wrath, it is On The Road and it is a future we do not yet know.
Reading this book, I get the sense that it would sit more comfortably in an interactive art museum than on a bookshelf. It demands to be turned and observed, admired more than read as such. More than once I found myself turning the book inside out, looking for further typographical clues as to what it might be about. Even the language deserves to be spoken allowed rather than read in solitude at home.
While there is much to admire in this novel with respect to its technical expertise both in prose and typography, I found myself yearning for at least some element of narrative that I could hook onto. I was at a loss in this respect and found completing the book a challenge. Even in the historical sidebars Danielewski has appeared to have hacked away any conventional narrative or meaning. History is there, but it is barely understandable. While for some this might be a strength of the book, I felt that its technical brilliance is let down by not offering anything further within the text than the text itself. Any meaning is derived from the structure and the form rather than a clear narrative making it a big ask for a reader to stay with book for its entire 360 page journey.