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52 weeks, 52 books

Modernist Literature

okay, people are starting to write about it, and it’s one of my 52 for the year, so my first thoughts on “Only Revolutions”….

I appreciate that a number of the 200 or so of you that apparently read the things I write here might not be familiar with Mark Z Danielewski, so for however many of you that there are out there; bear with me and hang on.

This book is strange, and challenging, and infuriating and sublime. There’s a long tradition of experimental literature, and much of it has been labelled as postmodern, frivolous, playful. Certainly, Danielewski’s first novel; “House of Leaves”, is guilty of the first of those, but this, his second (there have been two smaller volumes published in the interim, a signed copy of the latter of which “The Fifty Year Sword” is now fetching $1000 on abebooks) is a different animal altogether.

I’m a modernist at heart. I like order, and structure, however simple or complex, and a book that is written such that one narrative proceeds above the other (the book has to be turned 180 degrees to read the second, parallel story), that each page contains 180 words, that there are 360 pages in total, that the page numbers rotate if the leaves are flicked, that it’s written in verse. I could go on. It gives me a headache.

It isn’t “House of Leaves”, that’s for certain, and it isn’t a follow-up, which is a relief. Danielewski could have gone for a safe, easy option and followed “House” with something that would echo the unease of that book. Instead, he’s pushed forward and taken the notion of the novel somewhere new.

It’ll be written up properly in a few weeks, but if anyone is tempted to buy a copy, my recommendation is to stop being tempted and do it. This is what you’ll be getting:



3 comments for “Modernist Literature”

  1. This is kinda crazy, but I always doubt if it is really necessary.
    You know, for a writer to it, or he must be naive, or a truly genius.
    And I really don’t believe that much in humans. ;)

    Posted by roberta | September 6, 2006, 11:21 pm
  2. On one hand any exploration into the visual and spatial nature of text is a worthwhile addition to human knowledge.

    On the other hand this book you describe is obviously the work of a self-important, pretentious arsehead wanker (Danielewski who?).

    Besides this is to postmodernism what Lord Byron was to classicism.

    Blatant play on structure, especially the edges of structure is, by definition, structuralism.

    Post-modernism and post-structuralism deconstruct the very idea that any sort of structure has any sort of validity.

    The very existence of this work hinges on the acceptance of the role of structure in text.

    From the perspective of postmodernism there is no way to distinguish the difference between Star Trek and Homer’s Odyssey. Since structure is meaningless, the quality, form and craft of structure is meaningless as well.

    If you want something more blatantly post-modernistic I’d suggest something of Helen Cixous’ experimental texts where she intentionally writes texts that defy structure, voice, style, and is blatantly stream-of-consciousness.

    Then again, since postmodernistic fiction almost always means mind-numbing boredom and its values are fundamentally relativism, the correct course of action would be to invest in some reprints of classic Jack Kirby comics.

    (And yes, I do take my own advice :-) I’ve just finished packing my Essential Fantastic Four and Captain America volumes and own pretty much all of the reprints of his fourth world stuff. Thank god for postmodernism and its deconstruction of the very concept of literature!)

    Posted by baldur | September 7, 2006, 1:01 am
  3. Baldur – you see, while you raise some interesting points in a familiarly polemic manner, I’d argue that while House of Leaves is certainly Postmodern, Only Revolutions is actually a modernist piece of writing. It’s grounded in structure, as you point out, and while I may not have made that abundantly clear in my inital comments, it’s certainly what I believe about the book.

    Posted by tom | September 7, 2006, 11:09 am

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