'The Familiar' By Mark Z. Danielewski Is Inscrutable, But Here Are 9 Reasons 'House Of Leaves' Fans Should Read It Anyway
If you read 2010's House Of Leaves, then you know exactly what to expect from Mark Z. Danielewski's new The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day In May. This door-stopper of a tome is just as unusual, just as puzzling, and just as inscrutable as the author's most famous work. And you might become obsessed with it... that is, if you can figure it out.
For those who haven't read House Of Leaves , here's a (very) brief summary: a family moves into a new house and quickly discovers that it's larger on the inside than it is on the outside; horror ensues. Oh, and lest that sound too straightforward, it's also told from the point of view of a young man who's reading an enigmatic scholar's manuscript about a mysterious missing documentary film about the possibly haunted house employing the use of footnotes, different colored texts, and unconventional layouts. Reading it often feels like attempting a Sunday crossword puzzle the size of a football field. And The Familiar is like Leaves with the dial turned up to the max.
Reception of the novel, which was just published May 12, has been unsurprisingly mixed. Reviews have ranged from glowing to downright angry. While Lydia Millett of The LA Times hailed Danielewski's latest work as a "sprawling postmodern monument to semantic encryption," The Guardian's Michael Schaub wasn't nearly as kind, bluntly labelling it "unreadable."
In my experience, The Familiar falls somewhere between those two reactions. It's an engrossing read, but it is certainly not without its challenges. I'd like to say that the experience was worth it at the end, but by its very nature, the story felt incomplete. (Remember, this is just "Volume 1"... more on that in a bit.) But if you're a Leaves fan like me, then this is a book you cannot miss — because there's simply nothing else like it.
Here are nine reasons why you should take a crack at The Familiar:
It's Got Nine Protagonists
Usually it spells doom for a book if you don't love the protagonist (or at least find her interesting).The Familiar has no such problem: it's told from the alternating perspective of nine different protagonists. There's Anwar, the video game programmer; Astair, the therapist-in-training; Cas, a scientist on the run with a magnificent invention; Isandòrno, a man accepting a mysterious shipment; Jingjing, an addict in the service of a healer; Luther, a vicious gang leader; Oz, a detective investigating a brutal murder; Shnorhk, a taxi driver run afoul of the law; and, most importantly, Xanther, a girl suffering from epilepsy on the way to adopt a dog when she stumbles upon a different creature entirely. Don't care much for a certain protagonist? No problem — another one will be coming along in just a few pages!
The Design Is Trippy
The quality that House Of Leaves and The Familiar have the most in common is their unconventional use of the printed page. In Leaves, the words were spaced to evoke the maze-like structure of the house. In The Familiar, the layout isn't as brazenly eclectic, but it's used to emulate the head space of each individual character. As Xanther stares out the window at a storm, the words form into tumbling raindrops. As Cas consults her Orb, the words curve to take on the shape of her invention. Even the fonts serve to signal a character's personality. Luther, who likes throw his weight around, narrates in heavy Imperial. Jingjing's tenuous grasp on the English language is scrawled in flimsy Semi Sans.
(Also, Danielewski fans will enjoy the fact that word "familiar" is always typed in pink letters; just like the word "house" was always typed in blue in Leaves. In fact, "house" is typed in blue here too, which makes me wonder if a connection between the two works will manifest at some point.)
The Writing Is Distinctly Cerebral
Danielewski is clearly a master of graphics-as-subtext. But unlike in Leaves, he also taps into that subtext with the writing style itself. Each protagonist's voice is unique and somehow emulates their thought patterns. Xanther's childlike wonder is reflected in sentences that tend to cascade into unending streams of question marks?, like this? Astair's busy mind manifests in thoughts where (parentheses (constantly (nestle (inside (parentheses))))).
It'll Keep You Up At Night
Leaves kept you up all night with its unsettling story of a man losing his way (and maybe his mind?) inside his own shifting house. The Familiar will keep you up trying to figure out how all nine protagonists are connected, researching game engines, and deciphering Jingjing's broken English. (Sample sentence: "that's how they met, in a park, swinging arms, until mata there oreddy, another arrest, but damn heng one, tian li all cower power then, talk cockiest talk too, judges and sewer serpents cow down sure, like she best friends with best, people jingjing no clue on, poh geok ek, quek bin hwee, even likes of yaacob ibrahim and harun abdul ghani.")
There's A Story Within The Story
Despite its plentiful protagonists and experimentation in form, I was originally surprised by how straightforward the story of The Familiar was. Unlike Leaves' story-within-a-documentary-within-a-manuscript, there is seemingly only one linear timeline in Danielewski's newest work. (In fact, it's so linear that every chapter picks up exactly where the previous one left off, as evidenced by the time stamps in the corner of each page.) But as the chapters go on, the reader becomes increasingly aware of another presence inside the book itself, until an interlude two-thirds of the way through makes it clear who this outside presence is.
It's A Surprisingly Quick Read
Yes, The Familiar is 839 pages long. But given how cryptic most of it is, it actually moves along fairly quickly. It's precisely because of Danielewski's unusual layouts that his book is a faster read than it might appear at first glance. Quite often there will only be a single paragraph on a page; a single sentence; a single word; a single letter. Danielewski himself admits to NPR that The Familiar only contains enough to text to fill about 300 standard pages.
It's Volume 1 Out Of 27. (Yes, Twenty-Seven.)
One Rainy Day In May ends with nothing resolved, no sense of how the disparate storylines are connected, and little to no satisfaction. That's because it's but the first in a planned 27-volume series. (So even though each entry may only contain 300 pages-worth of text, that will still be over 8,000 pages by the time the series is complete — or the equivalent of George R.R. Martin's five Song Of Ice And Fire Novels... plus an extra 3,000 pages.) This results in a distinct lack of satisfaction at the end of Volume 1. Despite the book's heft, Danielewski only has a limited amount of time to spend with each character: Xanther, the most prevalent, has five chapters; a few of the more minor protagonists have only two. There are connections established between only three of the nine main characters: Anwar and Astair are husband and wife, and Xanther is their child. The other six have yet to reveal the barest hint how they're going to tie into the novel's main storyline.
You Won't Have To Wait Long For The Next One
George R.R. Martin kept fans waiting six years between A Feast For Crows and A Dance With Dragons. In contrast, Volume 2 is already due out later this year. The author told NPR that he's already been working on this series for nine years, he's currently working on Volume 10, and he plans on releasing two or three volumes per year. (That means The Familiar should be complete by 2023 at the very earliest.) Danielewski said he was inspired by the the sudden efflorescence of great television," citing Battlestar Galactica, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire as his inspirations for long-form visual storytelling.>
It's More Art Than Book
In case you're still skeptical, consider this: I found it helpful to think of The Familiar as less of a "book" in the traditional sense of the word, and more as a piece of experimental visual art — sort of in the way that Terrence Malick's The Tree Of Life only started making sense to me after I stopped thinking of it as a "movie." It's easy to imagine discovering both Malick's beautifully trippy film and Danielewski's inscrutable novel in adjoining exhibits at a museum of mind-warping, non-traditional art forms.
Ready to commit to The Familiar? Volume 1: One Rainy Day In May is available now. Volume 2: Into The Forest will hit bookshelves on Oct. 27, 2015.
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