Torn to Pisces (by that Leftwrist Twist)
It’s like a word problem: If two ribbons, one gold one green, approach each other at a rate of eight pages at a time in a three hundred and sixty page book, will they ever meet? Because of course one-eighty isn’t a multiple of eight — you’re either four short or four over. Which kind of makes it a double-true middle, yeah, and, as you get closer and closer to it, can tell it’s going to be a hinge, a whirlpool, a peak, it gets hard not to cheat and page ahead. But wait if you can — it’s a weird tension to have a in book, right? Waiting to get to the exact middle? That’s ONLY REVOLUTIONS for you, though: all the conventional trappings of reading, the things we take for granted, don’t even acknowledge anymore, haven’t since never, Danielewski takes them away and then reimagines the book for us. Not ‘story’ or ‘narrative,’ but that simple up/down=>linear thing that we maybe all assumed was just the way things were, and should be.
Anyway, to back up: this isn’t going to be a review. Because, like I keep saying, I don’t write reviews. Really, what I sat down here to write was going to be titled “Nobody Author Beat Up on Bus For Reading Book,” and then was going to fakely track me on some public transit thing, reading ONLY REVOLUTIONS, flipping it every eight pages until somebody, tired of me ‘pretending’ I could read, just lays into me, despite my very high-falutin protestations that that’s the way it was written, etc. Seems I remember in an MZD interview or something somewhere him saying he saw somebody twirling HOUSE OF LEAVES around once, and it kind of made him happy (that’s three, count them, three some’s in that sentence, yep). So I was going to run with it a bit farther. But then, the deeper I got into OR, the more limiting that kind of fake-o model became. So now I’m here, just talking, maybe even falling into bullet-points here before too long, as OR doesn’t exactly lend itself to . . . I don’t know. Explanation? The straight kind anyway, that moves from A to B, that you can keep in your head all at once.
And, by way of disclaimer, let me just say two things:
- Though the OR and HOL pages/boards are a wonder to behold, they’re a labyrinth too, and I’ve got just enough rat in me to get lost in them for days, so haven’t ventured in very far at all. Meaning of course I could just be repeating stuff that’s obvious, that’s been said and said better, etc.
- I resisted OR for a while, and not just because I didn’t have a copy. Really, what I thought was that MZD had all this ‘sophomore novel’ pressure on him, and it distorted his next book (not counting WHALESTOE LETTERS and 50 YEAR SWORD [however you spell that], neither of which were an ‘event’ like HOL or OR) to a level of sophisticated, Joycean wannabe gimmickry so that it could always and forever be ‘smarter’ than us. All this from reading forty pages at a booksigning I was supposed to be doing for my DEMON THEORY. Which is to say I didn’t give it a fair
shaketwist. Also I should probably add that I’m a fanboy for HOL (though it was a book that broke my heart), so of course there’s all that sixth grade romance kind of stuff, where if I ‘like’ OR, then that means I’m giving up on HOL, etc.
Also, I suppose, these last couple of years I’ve been suspecting something about myself: that I’ve lost whatever taste or tolerance I used to have — craving, really — for books and stories and ‘things’ that hardly resembled or suggested a reading experience at all. It was fun for me to read the unreadable, I mean, to decipher, to go into this morass of Beckett-stuff and emerge with a cogent, defensible take. I mean, I went to grad school’s what I’m saying, I guess, but also that I’ve begun to doubt the worth of those kind of experiments, as one of the main things they’re doing is creating a kind of ‘elitist’ audience, way up in the ivory tower, looking down at the other 99% of the audience, who troll the so-called gutters for genre trash. To say it cleaner: maybe I’ve become more a fan of THE STRAIGHT STORY than, say, LOST HIGHWAY. Bad thing there, though, is that, as much as that fits with my suspicions of what’s hurtful and helpful to this whole fiction project, still, STRAIGHT STORY puts me to sleep, and I stay up late still just thinking about LOST HIGHWAY. So I’ve still got the taste, I guess, I’ve just my tolerance slip a bit.
After ONLY REVOLUTIONS, however, I suspect McCarthy’s apostrophe-less wordscape is going to be like reading Dr. Suess, and that AGAINST THE DAY’s going to be kind of conventional (I get kind of jittery just talking about ATD, though, so won’t let myself here, as there can’t possibly be room).
Anyway, the inevitable comparisons: is OR a suitable followup to HOL? Not sequel or ‘escalation’ or anything, but does it show the same . . . I don’t know: magic? That’s maybe the main question. And before I try to answer it, let me just say that I’m very, very happy that MZD chose not to use the same tricks that made HOL what it was. Because tricks, man, they’re just infinitely repeatable. No, he needed to do something like OR, I think, and even kind of ‘tells’ us this, by using not ‘blue,’ the operative color in HOL, but the two colors that make up blue — green and yellow. The message I get from that is that OR is very consciously not HOL. And as to how it compares, this is how I see it: whereas HOL was a series of rambling additions to a (yes) ‘house’ — ie, there was a core to the story, and everything just kind of branched randomly off this (please, no letters about this ‘random’ — that’s the beauty of HOL, to me, how it was cobbled together over ten or however-many years, and just kept growing appendages), OR is the same at the micro- as at the macro- level. Which is to say that it’s structure, its shape, its essence, its, I don’t know, ‘crystalline form’ (but now I’m back to Farpoint Station again, as always), is there in germ form, no matter how small of units you break it down to. Fractal stuff, yeah? Or, isnt’t the defition of ‘molecule’ along the lines of ‘the smallest unit which still retains whatever’s essential to the whole’? Something like that (which, yeah, I only get that from a SNL sketch, but they wouldn’t lie, would they?). It’s how OR works for me anyway.
And, to bring Pynchon in yet again, I remember back in 96 or whenever everybody was saying DFW’s INFINITE JEST was outPynchoning Pynchon. And who knows. But MZD, with OR, there’s something similar going on, I think, but it doesn’t have to do with dense, paranoid narratives, but with how V, back in 61 or whenever, it did a thing with structure that got a lot of attention: it shaped itself such that the story was a “V.” And of course “V” permeates every other level of the thing too, but it’s the structure I’m talking about here. Because — obviously probably — this seems to me what OR’s doing. Just, instead of a simple shape, MZD has instead made a mobius strip out of his story. Seriously. I’m not just saying that to pretend to be smart. I mean, I really have a lot of jokes saved up for people who always try to use ‘mobius’ in discussions. But the whole way through OR, just from the way the text is laid out on the facing pages, all I kept thinking was Tungaska Event, Tungaska Event, which of course left a blast pattern shaped like a butterfly, like the infinity symbol. Only MZD twists it, so that it’s a slide you get on but can’t get off.
It’s a feat, yeah. The only book I can think of that even comes close in terms of technical achievement would be Martin Amis’s TIME’S ARROW, and maybe, maybe, DM Thomas’s THE WHITE HOTEL (but if we allow that, we’ve got to acknowledge VALIS, I think). But of course they keep things more or less linear, and only add the ‘twists’ at the level of story, pretty much. Which is to say that, no, they didn’t have the typesetting freedom Pantheon (and HOL) gave MZD, a freedom a lot of people are probably both jealous of and mad about (an analogue, maybe, would be Vonnegut’s publisher giving him license to ‘doodle’ in BREAKAST OF CHAMPIONS. Just because he’s Vonnegut, and could probably write in rabbit blood and still make it work).
Another question that keeps popping up in what talk I hear about OR is Is it prose or poetry? Kind of in-between, I think. I mean, there’s definitely lines, and all the indentations and enjambments &etc are very intentional, probably even meaningful, but at the same time it’s two/twin three hundred and sixty page narratives, with those dramatic units like ‘scenes’ and ‘chapters.’ And, though there may be some convoluted rhyme scheme — I suspect there is — I don’t have the kind of ear that picks up on that. I mean, I have a hard time picking up Brett Michaels’ rhyme patterns sometimes. Get me in the land of a seven hundred and twenty page villanelle spin-off, and you might as well give me an ostrich to ride while you’re at it, yeah? (however, I do hear there’s a werewolf gang novel-in-verse on the horizon next year, and I’m sure I’m there for that, and I really liked Ray Yong Bear’s BLACK EAGLE CHILD/REMNANTS OF THE FIRST EARTH verse-novel things [though I may be getting the titles half-wrong there]).
Here, though, if we’re setting prose and poetry up to fight, I’d probably lean towards poetry. Not solely because of the way it looks on the page, but because it doesn’t ‘accrete’ in my head like a story does. Rather, the episodes kind of just flow past, like these little lyrical moments, only tenuously connected. Which is to say that there’s not just a terrible lot of plotting (plodding?) going on with OR. Or, I’m sure there is, but I didn’t crack into that level of it. I mean, at the level of cause-and-effect story, it’s pretty simple: Sam and Hailey meeting, get all lovey dovey (you have to intone this as George Thorogood does to really ‘get’ it), then start road-tripping across an allegorical American landscape in a series of cars1 (ie, from 1863/”Lincoln” to 1963/”Ford,” ha ha), history pacing them in the ditch. Along the way they meet various unsavory characters, escapes various bad situations, but never get uninfatuated with one another. Very, I don’t know, ‘picaresque?’ A very Huck Finn word, I know, but OR does seem to have that kind of episodic flavor. But then too, I mean, OR’s a National Book Award finalist right now: how else to try to be the great American novel than to ramp off the meandering nature of Huck Finn and the enyclopedic ramblings of MOBY DICK? With a little FINNEGANS WAKE thrown in, of course . . .
Anyway, the even realer reason I want to read OR as poetry instead of prose, I suppose, would be that when I’m cribbing lines from it down into my many notebooks, I keep using that slash to preserve the linebreaks:
- Principals not amused by / all principles we abuse
- And though a creepy chill starts / stabbing my arms, Hailey & I roll on.
- The Pontiac Sport teaching / the idle why July never dies
- skirting / a pond and with but a Pippipity pop
- Because we’re taking it all. Taking our time / We’re laving everything behind.
- I will walk heavy. / And I will walk strange.
Strong stuff, yeah? Sticks in my head anyway. These too, the linebreakless:
- Currents cache her gently
- I’m sliding smooth. Riding her nude.
- He’s why September never goes
- Hailey & me with next to nothing atoll
- Leave her alone, Cabron.
- We’re the pleasure accidents supply.
- Walking the edge of a sob.
And that doesn’t even touch on the linguistic inventiveness, the play of words that should exist, like “frustragings,” “flusterpated,” “stastammer,” “implisigh,” “elegantic,” “impartible.” Like that Sonic commercial where the two smart guys come up with “breakfeast,” yes. Where OR really shines, though, is in some of its dialogue tags:
- You too, she clevers.
- Beg your pardon? Sam backats.
He also ‘mubbles’ and ‘glumbles’ and ‘glubs,’ much to my delight: I’m very fond of G-words (grok, glub, glom, etc, all the way up to Gollum and Gannon and Gargomel, and not disregarding OR’s “gleek,” which you don’t see much anymore).
All this language funplay, though, which is where I kind of get happily trapped, it’s just the shimmery surface of things. Underneath, there’s real, undulating kind of fun, where the twinned monologues don’t reflect each other so much as refract:
- “Where there’s a Wheel, there’s a way / And we’re allways awaying.” (Hailey)
- “Where there’s a Wheel, there’s a play / And we’re allways playing.” (Sam)
I mean — and this is no spoiler — these cannily double-helixed monologues work kind of like the gospels: different versions of what might be the same series of events. Just told with that kind of grandiosification that tellers can’t really avoid, as, in the midst of the story, it feels just a lot more like self-preservation. Or, to put it plainer, the two versions kind of rub against each other, there’s friction, conflict, which is really essential for the way I want to read OR: as a creation story.
I mean, look at all the creation stories floating around: nine times out of ten, there’ll be a man and a woman at the beginning of things, and they’ll bicker and pick at each other until, from their conflict, a whole species erupts. Were I going to write some big paper on this — and, my paper days are long over, thanks — I’d of course want to drag in how Hailey’s all about flora, Sam’s all about fauna, how all the uppercase “us”-stuff is doing double duty, for “U.S.,” how Hailey always seems to be describing her body in, I don’t know, continental/terrestrial terms, etc. And then you’ve got that running sidebar of historical locaters, like a yearbook ticking in the margins, which you have to learn to ignore just real fast if you hope to catch any of the story happening. (Though it is fun to look for things you know happened whichever-year. What I missed most, I think, was the start of the UNIX era, and Mtv [and they both may be there — maybe I was only looking in one margin]. what made me really happy, for the first time ever, I think, was Wounded Knee). Too, though, I mean, you know that history’s there, that it’s happening alongside this story2. Which is to say that the way you (I) want to read OR is by studying the ‘gutter’ between the prosy-pome lines, which seem to be springing somehow from the history bits. Which is to suggest it’s not really a clock at all, but the wellspring. But, if Sam and Hailey are to be the ‘creators’ of this American experience, then there’s a sense in which they’re spinning this all off, too. Chicken and egg games, yeah. Anyway, he who can judge that quarter inch between the marginalia and lovestory (I kept wanting to say/use ‘panes’ to describe the separate blocks of text), he’ll have the key, I’d guess.
And no, I have no clue in the world what the black and purpley dots in the upper corners mean, unless it’s some FIGHT CLUB/movie-splice thing. But I seriously doubt MZD’d go cinematical after HOL. So who knows.
As for what of this is going to stick with me: two things. The first is the way Sam says “allone.” It seems just so, so real, and so painful. And then the way Hailey says “terrortory” the first time. That really hit me when it happened. Oh, and also the headache it must have been running spellcheck, or managing an always-changing style sheet, or trying to chaperone each global search & replace in the file this novel once was. I mean, just one missed “o,” and man, threads are starting everywhere, because in a book like this the faithful aren’t going to allow any typos, right?3 And, talking about those colored letters, I really dig the way they didn’t line up with the rest of the letters in the italic sections — like they were balloons, trying to float off — and when they were in either a plant or animal (as plants and animals are bold and grey).
In spite of how pretty the colors are sometimes, though, yeah, I guess I’m kind of old-fashioned when it comes to them: I think stories should be black and white. That you shouldn’t need map colors to draft them. I mean, with HOL, the way I resisted the ‘blue’ was to ignore it, to never fall into the funhouse of trying to figure out why it was blue, etc. Because things need to happen at the story level, I think. And — isn’t there some apocryphal old anecdote about Faulkner wanting to run different colors for different characters in some magazine version of . . . THE SOUND & THE FURY, maybe? Anyway, he got shot down, of course. Maybe really, though, he was just born way too early. Who knows.
If he had been born now, anyway, then he could be witness to, maybe even a part of, what I think’s going to be the first real ‘audio novel’ event ever. I mean, usually, the audio version of books are just kind of extra. With OR, though, I really suspect the audio version might very quickly become the primary version for a large portion of the audience. And man, the bits on the site, wow: they are truly, truly amazing. Which, I mean, it could very well be that what people are always saying about the oral tradition of storytelling being not just dead but impossible in a culture that no longer congregates around the campfire, maybe MZD heard that and, maybe he didn’t agree. He may be bringing it back for us here, I mean. It really does look to be something special, this audio version. Can’t wait.
But the big question with OR, I suppose, is Why, right? I mean, it’s the same litmus test for any work of science fiction: were the alien and off-world quests really necessary to tell this kind of story, or were they just draped on? Talking OR, then, all this typographical sleight-of-hand — did it somehow well up from Sam and Hailey’s love story, or was it just glued onto a story that otherwise would have been boring?
The former, I think. And I’m not just saying that to be nice or keep the peace (like I know MZD) or to buck the trend of talking bad about a supposedly unreadable, gimmick-laden book, and thus style myself cool and underdoggy. I think that the reason these two monologues, these two stories, these two people interpenetrate each other and coil around and through each other and are “ever mixed up” at such a fundamental level is because — and I know it’s not cool to talk about ‘romance,’ but it is love story, after all — that’s the only way of rendering the experience of their love for each other. And, as near as I can tell, this has only ever been done once before, by none other than Cronenberg, in SUPERNOVA. And it even involves eyes there as well: at the end, in some last-ditch telepod effort, this guy and this girl, this way latterday Tristan and Isolde, have a kind of ‘sex’ that’s so intimate that when they wake from it, they each have one of the other’s eyes. Which is pretty damn magic, if you ask me.
Â©Stephen Graham Jones, 2006
1 before this, I’d say GOING NATIVE was the main American road trip novel. After ON THE ROAD, yeah. And Melville’s THE CONFIDENCE MAN has always had a road-trippy feel to me, anyway.
2 from somepage: “something allready moves alongside US / still. Stalking. / — Do you feel that’s there? / —Yes, but it’s okay. I.“
3which isn’t to say I don’t wonder:
- about that dropped ‘a’ on Sam’s p.271, in “wasn’t,” and how it’s ‘lifted’ back up two lines later, in “Diamondy.”
- what kind of hierarchy allows the letter “o” in the flora and fauna words to be gold/green, but disallows the ‘creep’ in Eastern Creepers to be creepily purple