Danielewski’s ‘The Familiar, Vol. 1’ Is Too Much, All at Once

As a compendium of inventive thought and prose, The Familiar, Vol. 1 succeeds. As a coherent novel, it's impenetrable.

There are two easy ways to respond to a tome like The Familiar, Vol. 1: One Rainy Day in May. One is to declare it a work of genius for the form-bending ways it plays with the format of the novel, with varying typographies and fonts forming a book landscape unlike any other in recent memory. Another is to label it a pretentious overshoot on the part of author Mark Z. Danielewski; with numerous storylines that rarely, if ever, intersect meaningfully, the story of The Familiar Vol. 1 covers so much ground it forgets to find its center.

The truth of The Familiar Vol. 1 lies somewhere in between. It’s far too simple to make grandiose proclamations about Mark Z. Danielewski’s meticulously conceived novel because, well, it is a grandiose kind of work. It will earn accolades and adoration simply because it exists in the complicated fashion that it does. The laundry list of its features runs quite long, but just to touch on the important ones: it runs 839 pages; it weighs nearly four pounds due to its glossy paper; it includes upwards of ten different narrative angles that span the globe, which are color-coded at the top corner of each page and differentiated through various fonts; and, as per Danielewski’s distinct style, the text rarely stays within the traditional layout of a novel, taking shapes that include spheres, raindrops, and computer code.

Danielewski made his name on such typographic free play with his international breakthrough House of Leaves (2000), a novel that is still the subject of heated online message board debates to this day. Like House of Leaves, The Familiar, Vol. 1 tells an ostensibly simple story in the least simple way possible. The novel’s jacket flaps break it down thusly:

[The narrators include] a therapist-in-training grappling with daughters as demanding as her patients; an ambitious East L.A. gang member contracted for violence; two scientists in Marfa, Texas, on the run from an organization powerful beyond imagining; plus a recovering addict in Singapore summoned at midnight by a desperate billionaire; and a programmer near Silicon Beach whose game engine might unleash consequences far exceeding the entertainment he intends.

Keeping track of these myriad threads is no small task, and despite the color coding of the page corners and the changes in font, both of which clearly signpost shifts in narration, it’s pretty difficult to make a coherent picture out of it all. The narrative centers on a young girl named Xander who, “one rainy day in May”, goes out to buy a dog with her father. However, although Xanther’s tale is the anchor that the other stories in some (usually minute) ways call back to, it would be glib to say that The Familiar, Vol. 1 is “about a girl going to get a dog”. Such a statement would be akin to saying that James Joyce’s Ulysses, an obvious forefather to The Familiar, Vol. 1, is just about one day in Dublin.

As if this weren’t enough, it’s important to remember that The Familiar, Vol. 1 is but Vol 1. How many volumes will it take to unfold the story of Xanther and her dog? Apparently, it will take 27. The Familiar, Volume 2: Into the Forest, which spans 880 pages, is already scheduled for an October 2015 release.

Even the most intrepid of readers might backpedal at this point. On its own, The Familiar, Vol. 1 is a major undertaking, requiring one to track numerous different storylines while keeping up with Danelewski’s intricate typography. The various techniques Danielewski employs to delineate each narrator — the aforementioned font and color changes — do help some, but they exist more to keep the novel from falling apart into an incoherent shambles, rather than to make it “easy” for the reader. As such, the prospect of going through 27 more of similarly composed novels is frightening, if not outright impossible. Online chat rooms are already picking apart the novel’s intricacies and eccentricities, and will no doubt continue do so in the coming years. Nearly 100 years after their publication, critics and scholars continue to bicker over the nuances of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. One volume of The Familiar is enough of a task; another 26 is cerebral overkill.

Of course, the high concept and detailed execution of The Familiar, Vol. 1 are what Danielewski will be praised for; indeed, such acclaim has already started rolling in. “A Rainy Day in May is a tour de force, less a novel than it is an experience,” Robert J. Wiersema gushes for The Globe and Mail (though he qualifies, “For readers who can reframe their expectations”). “If Danielewski can complete even part of his grand project,” Tom LeClair writes in The New York Times, “its scale and range and variety could well compete with high-end television series. These critics are well within reason in making their claims: The Familiar, Vol. 1 is, undeniably, an achievement. In its linguistic and lexical free play, philosophical heft, and inventive structure, the novel is remarkable, and indicative of what a fascinating thinker Danielewski continues to be.

The Familiar, Vol. 1 is a project whose workmanship is evident with each creatively designed page. As Danielewski told NPR, “I spend a long time on my books. House of Leaves took me ten years. Only Revolutions took me six very solitary years. And [One Rainy Day in May] has been in the works for nine years.” Yet it’s far too easy for critics and fans to wax rhapsodic about Danielewski merely because of the scope of his achievements. By and large, much of the praise bestowed upon Danielewski’s novels is form rather than content-based; many reviews, such as the Guardian‘s article, express befuddlement at the slightest attempt to describe basic features like plot.

In describing Danielewski’s work, a passage from Steven Poole’s review of the 2006 novel Only Revolutions for the Guardian is rather illuminating: “The book is to be admired for its sheer zest for invention, the kind of faith in ambitious literature so rare among contemporary novelists. And though it can often be baffling and tiresome, it also has enough flashes of expressionistic brilliance and sustained deliriums of invention to justify the reach.”

The same is true for The Familiar, Vol. 1, though what a reach it is. At its best, the novel captures what makes Danielewski’s distinctly postmodern style so intellectually satisfying. In the early chapter “Square One”, told from the perspective of Xanther’s father Anwar, a computer programmer and game designer, Danielewski uses numerous bracketed parentheticals so as to create the effect of computer code, thus laying out a sort of “coding” for a conversation between Anwar and his daughter. Though tricky to jump in to at first, “Square One” pulls off a balance that too often falters to one side or the other throughout The Familiar, Vol. 1: utilizing atypical writing technique while keeping the story rooted in its characters. This “coded” chapter of Anwar’s makes terrific sense because i’is easy to imagine Anwar himself analyzing his life in that way. Here the writing reflects character, and is not merely a gimmick for further complicating the story.

In other less successful cases, however, Danielewski goes overboard in linking up his prose style with the personality of his characters. A plotline involving two scientists hiding out in Marfa, Texas from a shadowy organization includes passages like the following: “Maybe that supposition was just her thoughts slipstreaming her own desire to locate some kind of compensatory pleasure, albeit remember, albeit hazily; a carnal reference away from the rest of her thoughts which these days keep veering too often towards carnage” (147). Such highfalutin locutions are somewhat befitting of the two brilliant scientist characters. Nevertheless, such densely brainy prose reads more like a case of Danielewski over-committing to an idea about his characters rather than a reasonable depiction of the characters themselves.

The same is true for chapters like “zhong”, told from the perspective of a character called jingjing, which is written in a highly broken English that appears to be mimicking the effect of a literal, unedited translation from Mandarin or Malay (jinging lives in Singapore) to English. Those who slogged through the thorny pidgin English midsection of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) will find this a similar challenge.

I could go on for multiple paragraphs about the strengths and weaknesses of The Familiar, Vol. 1. For every one ingenious prose trick that Danielewski pulls out of his endless grab bag of novelistic ideas, there’s a corresponding case of him coming off as too big for his britches. As with House of Leaves or Only Revolutions, it’s undeniable that The Familiar, Vol. 1 is a project that only a lofty intellect could devise. Those especially nerdy bibliophiles could have a blast plundering through its endless labyrinth of a story, such as it is.

Wiersema’s review of the book for The Globe and Mail says it best: it is “less a novel than it is an experience.” When critics use such language to describe a work of art — “not an X, but an experience” — it is usually done in the form of an accolade, with its “experience-ness” signifying that it’s something inherently greater than the basic art form it takes. With The Familiar, Vol. 1, and indeed the Familiar project as a whole, “experience” is merely a factual description. Though classifiable as a novel, it doesn’t read like one; instead, it’s something of a literary assemblage, waiting to be decoded and pieced together by its many readers. The best preparation for approaching this work is to disabuse oneself of all of the requisite experiences of novel-reading, as they only infrequently inform this confounding compendium.

In the end, this first volume is the kind of thing that will give back to the reader however much she puts into it. If one is willing to follow Danielewski down even some of his opaque lines of thought, she will find reward — though it will come with anything but ease. However, if upon looking at this behemoth of an “experience” — to say nothing of its 26 future installments — one decides that it just isn’t worth the lofty work, she isn’t wrong in thinking that, either.