So, I managed to finish Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar: One Rainy Day in May - Vol. 1 (TF:V1) during an intensely busy couple months of work. MZD is most famous for House of Leaves º. Since then, he has written Only Revolutions and The Fifty Year Sword (of which I’ve only read the latter; it’s deceptively simple and slow to build, but the campfire tale it presents really hits by the book’s conclusion). The nearly ten years since The Fifty Year Sword and the release of TF:V1 may or may not be well worth the wait. Why?
To begin, if you haven’t heard of the novel(? ºº), well, it’s a doozy. Like if you were so inclined to take a hit of poppers after waking up after you’d been consensually chloroformed after you’d been huffing gasoline to, err, prime the pump.
The point is, any map you might try to situate yourself within while reading the book is constantly destabilized by the fraying which results from its organization, its nine points of view and their accompanying typography, and its narrative intrusions that are often simultaneous and contradictory. Therein, however, lies the book’s draw. It’s a puzzle-box, of which we only have one of 27 sides whose panels and pieces we can try to arrange into a semblance of order.
As could be expected this kind of project is polarizing. MZD has a legion of fans and, with the publication of TF: V1, many more vocal critics, both professional and amateur.
Of the former, if you like the novel, then check out The Discussion Board for Mark Z. Danielewski’s THE FAMILIAR, Volume 1, whose “About” page explains:
In January-February 2015, a group of faculty participated with their respective students in a cross-institutional reading of galley copies of Mark Z. Danielewski’s forthcoming novel, The Familiar.
But be forewarned, all you gender- or non-gender-specific Alices, this is a rabbit-hole that has no bottom if you subscribe to the book’s conceit.
Of the latter, I like Jason Sheehan’s “Will the ‘The Familiar’ Kill the Novel? No, But It Comes Close,” and Lydia Millet’s “Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘Familiar’ a monument to semantic encryption.” If you want to read a cavalcade of opinions, you can always visit Goodreads, where there is praise, meh-ness, and scorn (“masturbation” and “masturbatory” get used as much as the noun experiences its brief lifespan).
The first Goodreads review that appears, by Eric Taxier, is an interesting, if snarky summation:
It’s the first volume — and 880 pages long. There will be 26 more of these. You’re basically getting a half-pound burger, fries, and a milkshake for your amuse bouche.
So with this twee prolegomenon out of the way, let’s begin, unlike this book does, with clear description of its narrative through-line.
At heart, this is the story of a a thirteen-year-old named Xanther, who is gifted and possibly stunted because of a seizure disorder. She has a tendency to get lost in the unknowns, during which her mind seems to process question after question or a single question with the ferocity of an A.I. just realizing how much it does not know. And, no, Xanther, is not an A.I. ººº While there are science fictional elements throughout, that is not this story.
Instead, Xanther is the daughter of a woman named Astair—who is beginning menopause and is finishing a Ph.D. in counseling (the envelope containing her graded dissertation waiting, like Chekhov’s gun, until the final chapters of the book to be opened), and a deceased soldier named Dov—and who has been raised by a step-father named Anwar, a video game designer. The book’s one-day timeline involves Anwar and Xanther’s trip to pick up a very expensive service dog.
And it’s raining cats and dogs, you might say for want of a handier cliché. Or, better yet, the first covenant may have been repealed, for the amount of rain that falls throughout the book threatens to drown everything. And it’s during this minor flood that Xanther somehow hears the plaintive mewling of a tiny white kitten trapped beneath a sewer grate more than a block from the spot where her father’s car is stuck in traffic.
Finally, she locates the place where she’s been called to, and she sees how:
The flood flushes the clot down. [page break]
Yet Xanther goes with it, shoving her arms down faster than the flood, through that grate, gate, past her wrists, past her elbows, with not even a thought, up to her armpits, already on her chest, all of her laid out flat, half of her on the sidewalk, the other half in the gutter, not even recognizing the pain already abrading both palms, carving up the inside of both forearms
[multiple line breaks; centered] through litter,
[centered; line break] grating,
[centered; line break] and all that (502-03).
Eventually, she’s able to rescue this nothing of a kitten, whose body is so small it fits in her father’s hand, and so light its weight doesn’t register when they take it to a veterinarian after both father then daughter provide it, err, mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and CPR.
While Anwar’s mouth-to-mouth accomplishes nothing, when Xanther demands to try, something seems to happen (think an old wive’s tale about cats and children), and the kitten comes back from the cutting room floor of a Sarah McLachlin ASPCA commercial.
Though the vet told Anwar it’s unlikely the kitten will make it through the night, and though Xanther makes a impressive fort of a nest ºººº to keep it from wandering around and possibly getting itself trapped behind major appliances, it somehow manages to get out of its makeshift kennel and up to Xanther’s room, where
the kitten is here at her side and even if nothing seems to have changed everything suddenly feels manageable. [page break] Or: better: [page break] answerable (837-39).
But back to the questions.
MZD gets some of his most beautiful typographical renders of Xanther’s interrogative cascade into images of the torrential rainstorm. These two-page spreads are the objective correlative to Xanther’s synaptic turmoil. In such a downpour, the ripples one raindrop makes in a puddle are interrupted, intensified, modified, or cancelled out by each successive drop, which itself suffers the same fate, if precipitation can have any other fate but to coalesce.
I’d apologize for the aside, but if you plan to read this book, you have to be damn tolerant of digressions and nested parentheses.ººººº
But getting back on task, the cozy suburban drama I summarized cannot 839 pages make. Like this miraculous kitten’s nine lives, whose supernatural status I’ll touch on in a while, there are nine separate characters who our semi-omniscient(?) narrator(s) flick back and forth between.
Unfortunately, not much really happens, or, more precisely, for most of these ancillary characters nothing seems to amount to much. Yeah, yeah, yeah, the mystic healer loses her familiar—the white kitten, which somehow makes it from Singapore to L.A. in a whisker-twitch—and a gang leader/drug dealer seemingly walks on water, but the sheer mass of material cries for a coherence with which we are not yet presented.
Like so many, I loved House of Leaves, and there is definitely some interesting stuff happening throughout this tome, which at times I was certain is a tomb for its intentional opacity, but there is a great deal of seemingly tangential material being laid out like the index cards of a TV series’ season-arc. Sadly, we’re not privy to the “big picture.” While a multi-volume work shouldn’t reveal everything in the first installment, there should be a more explicit indication of the arc to be traced. And maybe this is my more traditional side coming out, but as a “hook” this book will more than likely fail for almost all readers who were not already aware of and fans of MZD’s oeuvre.
So why will I read the second volume which was recently released? Because as annoying and as sometimes cheap the artwork and font choices are (to me, at least), the role of the incessant and often contradictory intrusions by entities known as Narcons ºººººº, and the way these disparate threads might be interwoven could make for either a masterpiece or the height of authorial hubris.
Granted, if this series makes it to its twenty-seventh volume, then this tome is but the first chapter, so MZD fanatics will argue it’s unfair to demand fully realized, arc-driven narratives for all of these characters, whom we are just meeting, and whom—if the publication schedule stays on track—we won’t be done with for 13.5 years. When it comes to popular entertainment, this is a kind of deep time within which I plan to be done with my student loan repayments.
Still, we’ll have to wait to see if either MZD or I live up to those deadlines.ººººººº And with that, I’ll pause for now.
º Pardon my nut-shelling, but House of Leaves is a metafictional haunted house story that subverts Doctor Who’s “It’s bigger on the inside” by turning the wonder the companions or visitors experience into the horror of an undefined and all-engulfing emptiness, the inverse of Moby-Dick’s endlessly plastic blankness, all the while providing a rather poignant portrait of a rather troubled soul, Johnny Truant, the erstwhile narrator and editor of the book.
ºº I use a question mark because I’m not sure if this first volume in a planned 27 volume series constitutes a novel. If you peruse Goodreads’ reviews, you’ll see many who liken it to a television pilot. I don’t think I buy that analogy, but its ambitious scope (definitely not its ambitious restraint and economy) is pointing to a new category (see the discussion of the text’s “signiconicity” in an upcoming post).
ººº But there might be a connection between her and an A.I. (see the discussion on the book’s metafiction in an upcoming post).
ºººº Did I mention that Astair’s dissertation is titled, “Hope’s Nest: On the Necessity of God”? Nope? Never mind; that can’t be important. Yep. Yessiree.
ººººº Lord, there are so many in certain chapters, particularly Astair’s, they might as well as be angel’s dancing on the tip of a pen (me, I prefer differentiating such nesting, but, [hey] what do I know?).
These are not introduced until page 564. I’ll discuss them in a future post about the book’s metafictional aspects
If you’ve made it this far, I’m giving myself two weeks to to write a post, probably two, about the dovetailing mystical and science fictional elements in the book, as well as about its metafictional elements.
ETA: those last two bullet points will, obviously, have to wait. Between a rather busy time at work, relationship troubles, and not beginning Vol. 2 until Christmas, I haven’t been able to focus on those plans.