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September 20-27, 2006

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Mark Z. Danielewski

Photograph by Marion Ettlinger
Spin Me Round: Mark Z. Danielewsi wants to mess with your perceptions.

Turning the Literary World Upside-Down

Mark Z. Danielewski drags the novel kicking and screaming into the 21st century ...

By Rick Kleffel

Or is it Danielewski himself who is kicking and screaming? This is a man who is difficult to separate from his work. Not because it is autobiographical, though one tends to suspect that the drug-and-sex-drenched parts of his debut novel House of Leaves, narrated in footnotes by one Johnny Truant, have some basis in fact. But Danielewski's work is so striking, so unusual, that it demands your attention.

House of Leaves was a horror novel of sorts, or, at least, a horror novel filtered through the sensibility of M.C. Escher, with a story that unfolds in the main narrative and another, that of the aforementioned Truant, that takes place in the footnotes.

Danielewski's new novel, Only Revolutions (Pantheon; 384 pages; $26 cloth), might as well come with the author included, given that a DVD includes commentary tracks and making-of documentaries. Only Revolutions lives up to its title; it is in fact a revolution, a reinvention of not just the novel but the book itself, those stacks of pages bound between hard covers. If you think you know what to expect when you open a book, plan to be surprised when you open Only Revolutions. Better yet, punt any plans or expectations you might have. They'll be subverted the moment you crack the covers.

Only Revolutions is the story of two teenagers, Sam and Hailey, who jump in a car and head down the road. It's as simple as that--and yet infinitely more complex. Danielewski has crafted not just a novel, but a book that is a response to the fragmented, arbitrated, cut-and-pasted media landscape that exists somewhere between cable television, the Internet, satellite radio and the shattered remains of print media. What can a simple book do to compete, to co-exist in this cluttered world of competing communications?

You need only open Only Revolutions to find out. Within, you'll find everything you think you can't find between hard covers. A cacophony of print that is only commercially possible with today's computerized printing and typesetting technology, Only Revolutions presents readers with printed pages that truly compete with the go-go world of video games, Internet blogs and shout-at-the-world cable television and radio. But within the gorgeously designed, laid out and printed chaos beats a heart as strong, as true as two teenagers on the road. Sam and Hailey. Always 16.

You'll read their stories eight pages at a time, with each page containing 180 words, back-to-front and front-to-back. If it sounds odd, well, it is. But Danielewski, who is very interested in telling stories that readers can simply enjoy, is also a very adept storyteller. So he can actually pull off a novel in free verse, about two teenagers who travel through time in a succession of cars, travel through our history and yet remain in love. He can make that essential emotional connection to the reader, immerse the reader in the lives of his characters and then send those characters of on a journey that defies and yet defines reason.

This of course presumes that readers are willing to go along for the ride. Reading Danielewski, you'll find yourself turning the book upside-down, then right-side-up, and soon realize there is no right-side-up. There is only the world and the words of the printed pages, in a riot of fonts, colors and sizes that must have made the publishers' brains boil. This is no simple set of words. Only Revolutions takes advantage of the technological innovations of computerized typesetting like no book before it. The trick is that Danielewski is telling a powerful and universal story about teenagers in love. And in time. And in a succession of to-die-for automobiles.

Surprisingly enough, Only Revolutions is a lot easier to read than you might suspect when you first encounter it. It's the Macintosh computer of experimental literature, beautifully designed and easy-to-use. It's also a fitting follow-up to Danielewski's House of Leaves, which is being reissued in a new "remastered" version.

Mark Z. Danielewski appears Thursday, Sept. 21, at 7:30pm at Bookshop Santa Cruz, 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. (831.423.0900)

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