Mark Z. Danielewski
When I was 20, I took acid for the first time. For some reason, tripping out of my mind made me want to read and a friend handed me a book of e.e. cummings’ poetry. I was hallucinating and dead tired, but for the first time, I understood cummings. His words made sense to me. His poems unfolded and showed themselves: beautiful, sparkling examples of how the English language can be bent and shaped into something different and new.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s latest “novel," Only Revolutions, I’m sorry to report, does not lend itself to that sort of epiphany. Just now, for the reader’s edification, I flipped to a random page and this is what I found:
Antic with acne.
High and tight doof. Feckless with
freckles and nothing to lose.
Race. Hold. Except O those
Green eyes with flecks of Gold.
-And his smile
Smooth Azalea bold.
He slows. Pulls over.
The whole bloody book, all 360 pages, is written in that strange non-rhyming verse. The book jacket says that it’s the story of teenaged lovers, Hailey and Sam, traveling across time and distance, trying (apparently) to “outrace history itself." I honestly couldn’t make heads or tails of it. The book jacket tells me that, “The publisher suggests alternating between Hailey and Sam, reading eight pages at a time."
Hailey’s story takes up roughly half of each page and Sam’s the other half. You just have to flip the book every now and then. That’s right – part of the essential experience of this book is turning it upside-down. Apparently there’s a story somewhere in here.
I didn’t have any LSD, so this time around I smoked a few hits of marijuana and sat down with my press copy of Only Revolutions. It didn’t make any more sense high on pot than it had when I was dead sober. I’m shocked that anyone had enough patience to read far enough to be able to write a review. But apparently some people are actually quite impressed by this literary work, with all its nonsensical faux-poetic prattle and intentional misspellings.
I never actually read Only Revolutions. No significant part of it, at least. I have, however, attempted to read it. I think if one ends up throwing a book across the room in disgust after trying (and failing) to read it for the fifth time, one has every right to review that book and tell anyone not to bother with this highly pretentious bit of drivel.
Patrick Somerville’s Trouble is a collection of short stories that manages to be varied enough to hold the reader’s interest. Switching tone from tragic to absurd and back again, each story has its own personality, but none of them end in a tidy or satisfying way.
Which isn’t to say that Trouble isn’t a satisfying read. It definitely is. Like life, Somerville’s stories don’t have the classic sort of happy resolution we’ve come to expect from our books. Characters generally end up just about as confused and out of sorts as they were when they started, which is very true to life – there’s the feeling that these stories aren’t happening for your amusement, they’re just happening.
The transformations that take place, in stories such as “Black Earth, Early Winter" and “Puberty," are horribly messy and only slightly triumphant. There are elements of revenge, of escape, of hiding from the truth and no easy answers in sight. Many of the stories are darkly comedic but others are simply sad and/or strange. Each is about a man facing choices, deciding who he’s going to be and trying to match up to his own vision of himself.
“Trouble and the Shadowy Deathblow" concerns itself with a father trying to guide his son through life, but dad harbors a terrible secret – he can kill just with his touch, the “shadowy deathblow" of the title. “The Cold War" describes a middle-aged widower who meets a scandalously young woman at the library and brings her home with him, letting her move in but never learning her last name. And “The Future, The Future, The Future" tests a man’s ability to keep to his plans for his life in the face of some unsettling setbacks.
Much of the book is about who these men see when they try to look at themselves. It’s about losers, the occasional winner and the process of getting from one place to another between the two. There isn’t a bad story in the bunch, although some are better than others. It all depends on what the reader likes from his or her short stories, but there should be something in Trouble for almost everyone.