I've described Only Revolutions by Danielewski a couple of different ways, and I think the most accurate I've come up with (if not the most likely to result in a sale at the bookstore) is that Only Revolutions is a response to Whitman's Song of Myself; a two-part epic poem, about and only about being alive and being in love. Sam and Hailey are archetypes more than characters, vessels for the energy we all feel when we first truly connect with another person. They are foolish, naïve, and immature, but they are also brave, vibrant, and energetic. They are an endless “go,” two characters in a perpetual verb, a persistent (but not endless) be-ing across time and space. They represent the propulsive force of synergy, that sense of having one mind despite two bodies that makes one feel invincible.
The story is told in two parts, one that starts in mid-1800s with Sam and one that starts in the 1990s with Hailey. They are constantly divided by time and space, as well as by other forces of the world, some of them embodied in a character named the Creep. But there is an inherent unity to Sam and Hailey, stronger than the forces of time and space and society, stronger even than death, for the end of Sam's story shares a page with the beginning of Hailey's and the end of Hailey's with the beginning of Sam's.
But no relationship is every purely synergistic. On the other end of the spectrum live Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning (not the actress) of Tao Lin's newest book Richard Yates . Haley Joel Osment is a graduate of NYU and a writer, living in New York who primarily supports himself by shoplifting, and Dakota Fanning is a teenager living with her single mother in New Jersey, suffering from, at least, bulimia, and probably a host of other contemporary mental illnesses. Along with the obvious differences between their lives, they also have different outlooks on life, and are constantly in conflict with one another. Haley Joel Osment is an adolescent artist still finding himself as a writer and a published author, while Dakota Fanning is an adolescent, in general, still trying to find herself as a person. Haley Joel Osment, believes Dakota Fanning is a compulsive liar, and constantly tries to enforce honesty on her, while monitoring how and what she eats. Haley Joel Osment becomes an unofficial therapist for Dakota Fanning as well as a boyfriend. (Always a recipe for success) They both often say and do hurtful things to each other. Despite their best efforts, they both often act selfishly.
And yet, it cannot be denied that they are in love. In today's America, there is one dominant consideration when choosing an action or making a purchase; convenience. All arguments in favor of one action or item seem to just disintegrate once that action or item has been accused of “inconvenience.” If you want to know how important something is to someone, simply establish how inconvenient it is to do or have that something and you'll know. Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning's relationship is very inconvenient. They have to sneak around. Take trains back and forth from the city to New Jersey. They have to lie to Dakota Fanning's mother. They have to coordinate work, school, and other schedules in order to spend time together. Richard Yates is a love story proven by how inconvenient the story is to the lovers.
In a way, there is something propulsive to their dissonance. The challenges add meaning to their relationship. Being with each other is a struggle and every time they have a good time together it is a triumph over the circumstances of the world. There relationship is not defined by joy, but by accomplishment. It is an achievement and generates the same kind of pride that any achievement generates.
However, one could ask whether extreme literature is all that relevant. If the style of these works are so radically different from what we (or at least we assume) experience, what can they reveal about our lives? By pushing ideas to their extremes, aspects of them normally too subtle to notice become visible. With Richard Yates, our obsession with convenience is exposed and explored by Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning's willingness to put up with inconvenience. Tao Lin's radical statementism (that one's mine) strips away the romanticism and sentimentalism that usually adorns love stories, highlighting the practical, logistical, and tangible aspects of relationships.
In Only Revolutions, the layout of one story upside down across the bottom of another story, (among other things) shows the complex relationship young love has with death. Young love is defined by a sense of invincibility, by a denial of death, but at the same, young love can only be “young” in relation to an awareness of “old.” Furthermore, young love is ephemeral, it is fragile, temporary, passing; it gets its vibrancy from its nearness to its own demise. Only Revolutions reveals this complex relationship by placing the birth and the death of the relationship on the same pages.
Young love is one of those ideas that makes a ton of terrible movies. It shows up in novels and stories and TV shows and daydreams. And let's be honest, most of the time, it is a major component of a work of sentimental crap. But Danielewski and Lin have done something different with it. Their radicalism has rescued it from romantic teen comedies and made something, at the very least, interesting out of young love. Perhaps, their extremeness has even made the idea important.