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The Familiar Vol 1 cover

Fifteen years ago, Mark Z. Danielewski rose to prominence on the back of a haunted house creepypasta. Five years later he told a Texan ghost story (with some Dark Tower DNA) to the Netherlands, and the year after that he lost a lot of fan goodwill from his first novel (and gained a lot of critical acclaim) with an alt-history road novel masquerading as a prose poem. His big prose (less the poem) return is called The Familiar Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, and it's shelved with the (Literary) Fiction—but then, so were the rest of them.

This isn't to claim Danielewski for "genre," of course; especially not in the sense of genre as a performed community. Nor as a marketing category; he's shelved elsewhere, and makes no money for the Tors and Gollanczs of the world.[1] And no such pithy encapsulation of The Familiar is quite possible—at least not until a decade or so from now, when the projected twenty-seven volumes will have been completed. Because this first volume is, certainly, and despite its 840 pages, very much an introduction.

Danielewski himself has suggested that the novel in its final form might be analogous to the prestige television of the last decade or so. In that frame, then, this book is a pilot episode (in the sense of Lost or the Battlestar Galactica remake, at least, which is to say conceivably the high point of the series).

About an hour fifteen into this two-hour pilot, the metanarrator of the volumized novel finally speaks directly to the reader. Prior to this, its voice appeared in interstitials (bracketed by dots which, if interpreted as braille, though they aren't raised, spell out the word "then")—sometimes translating foreign text, sometimes offering outside information—inside the woven-together stories that constitute the narrative. These braille quotes appear too in the final framing device that precedes the story proper, a vignette about a Boy and a Girl, presumably prehistoric, wondering where their mother went during a rainstorm. Screenwritten cavemen with capitalist familial organization aren't the only framing device, of course; there're images of text in frames that look like a knock off YouTube and an alien intelligence circa the Big Bang and assorted other things as well.

The stuff that all of this frames is, perhaps surprisingly, fairly straightforward and often a pleasure to read. Each chapter is narrated in limited third person from one of nine point-of-view characters, each of whom is denoted by a unique color appearing on the dogear of their page. For each character, a different voice is used; the mother of the central family, spending all day worrying about her children and preparing to celebrate her successful completion of a master's degree, has all her thoughts written out in a nest of parentheticals. Her husband, who works in game development, thinks similarly, except that his parentheticals are thought in curly braces and chevrons and guillemets. One character is rendered in Singlish, another like he's in a Western. The introductory nature of the book means that a plot summary reads one of two ways. The first: a girl finds a cat on a rainy day. The second:

Xanther is a 12(ish)-year-old girl who has epilepsy. Her parents, a game designer and a psych-in-training, have a surprise for her on a rainy day in May: a (service) dog. They go to get the dog; on the way there, Xanther hears a phantom mew and sprints a couple blocks to catch a newborn kitten as it falls into a gutter. She resuscitates it and brings it home, and it appears inexplicably in her bed that night. Meanwhile: a gang pretends to initiate a new member only to kill him; an older couple is on the run from someone for the possession of an Orb which seems to have some connection to a possible alien intelligence; someone in Singapore steals a bunch of chocolate coins and takes a bunch of molly while working as a translator; a cop investigates a case; a man goes to court against a cop and helps a professor move some boxes; and someone practices superstitions and helps deliver some crates.

The bulk of the action takes place in Los Angeles, but the downpour reaches to Marfa, Texas, and Singapore and El Tajín and Veracruz, Mexico as well. Like William Gibson's Blue Ant trilogy, it's a sort of near-past science fiction; the rainy day in question is May 10th, 2014 (the 11th in Singapore), and among the references to smart phones and Rihanna there are little counterfactuals. Xanther uses a social media app called Parcel Thoughts, something like a mix of Google Plus and Yik Yak with an iMessage aesthetic and some sort of horror purikura function that allows users to realistically mutilate other users' profile pictures. Anwar (Xanther's father) mentions shifting development of his company's game from Unreal Engine to Unity even as he develops his own engine that seems destined to grapple, in later volumes, with issues of Artificial Intelligence. And then, of course, there is TF-Narcon9, the designation of the metanarrator.

The "Narcon" portion of the name is short for Narrative Construct, as it tells the reader, and over the course of its chapter it realizes that the nine is likely in reference to the number of voices it synthesizes. Every point of view character in the book is, in other words, a subroutine of the narrative consciousness. This goes some way to explain why, in addition to the color on the dogear, each character has their own unique font: it is both stylistic choice and a function of the program running their stories. Except that there are twelve fonts. One of these extras is TF-Narcon9, but the other two (also framed by the "then") are identified in the book's back matter as TF-Narcon27 and TF-Narcon3. Coupled with Anwar’s tendency to parenthetically muse on and dismiss the idea of Artificial (emphasis on) Intelligence as such, this near-past science fiction is of the skeptical variety, problematizing technologies as diverse as machine intelligence and narrative itself.

Light too is shed on some of the more obscure parts of the chapters set in Marfa, Texas, in which an older woman named Cas, with her partner Bobby, controls something referred to as the Orb (or "Scry Baby") which seems sometimes like a hologram and others like a computer. The Orb is introduced when Cas uses it to view an atemporal Martian temple, and is later claimed to be one instance of a number system that Cas has been aware of since the 1960s. This number system is tied to an acronym ("VEM") mentioned in passing a number of times throughout the book, including by TF-Narcon9, and in the signature of an early framing device timed at some tredecillionths of a second removed from the Planck Epoch. "Light" is, perhaps, slightly too strong a word here. These parts are, it might be better said, put into communication.

Which word is itself the operator in the Gordian knot of any Danielewski novel; does it communicate? It's the literal, material question that drives House of Leaves: how does this phantom hallway that distorts the dimensions of the house communicate (in the intransitive sense)? The most off-putting thing about Only Revolutions for many was its inability (or lack of desire) to communicate; spinning a book around to read prose poetry written to mimic the language of immortal sixteen-year-olds was not exactly Heinleinian transparency.

One Rainy Day in May makes especially clear the paradoxical nature of Danielewski's most famous gimmick; each of his books involves significant amounts of textual formatting, verging on presenting the text itself as graphical. For this reason he is often considered a consummate postmodernist novelist, the sort of writer who thematizes the web of absence called signification and who attends to the materiality of the text (per Barthes). The paradox is that, even as his extensive use of InDesign highlights that materiality, he has exclusively used it as a representational tactic. An evolutionary line might be traced from Duchamp's readymades to Burroughs's cut-ups that suggests it should end in Danielewski's design. This would be wrong.

As the Navidson patriarch delves into the labyrinthine extrusions of the eponymous House of Leaves, the text becomes confined to a small square in the center of the page surrounded by ramblings; when a character in The Familiar thinks around the Orb her text is arranged around a blank circle. Xanther's unanswerable question, "How many raindrops?"—a fixation worryingly presaging the possibility of a seizure—becomes pages covered such that the question itself looks like rain.

This any-means-necessary approach to representation is less postmodern than, say, poststructural High Modern. Think Joyce's Dublin as written by Ishmael Reed, or The Sprawl given the full Balbec treatment. Which may not actually be a thing, but still conveniently names the one large problem with this first volume. The Singaporean correspondent, Jingjing, is written in Singlish. I know very little about Singlish; the use of reduplication, lah, and a vague understanding of certain syntactic traits covers it. I do know, however, how Mark Z. Danielewski writes. His insistence on mixing the High Modernist insistence on absolute fidelity to subjective experience (how much of the sociopolitical in Proust is framed by a chance encounter with a flower or a toilet?) with the poststructural impulse toward playing with language as a web of absence (the playful, political seeds of "cyberspace" or "Jes Grew") makes simple moments, like the accidental internal rhyme that sometimes happens in language, portentous. This is not in itself a problem; where it slips is when the voice of the author is so obviously attempting its own obscurantism.

Danielewski himself has played with this persistence of the authorial voice in texts utterly committed to eliding it; the printing in blue ink of any instance of the word "house" in House of Leaves was maintained in Only Revolutions, and the spelling of always as "allways," which was a heavy feature of Only Revolutions, returns at least once in One Rainy Day in May. These signatures (or shibboleths) are gestures toward the encyclopedic joys of epic fantasy, the pleasure of leisure-work rewarded. When these moments are controlled, they can be fun or interesting. When they are not, an attempt at a meticulous construction of a character is suddenly revealed to be built on a foundation much shallower than it initially seemed. The book itself is aware of this: in the TF-Narcon9 chapter, the metanarrator itself goes out of its way to explain why each character is narrated the way they are. Isandòrno, the character whose chapters take place in Mexico, "speaks only Spanish but is translated into English, per specifications," while "Jingjing's peculiar patois is a function of his own occluding sense of self and is offered with minimal postiling" (p. 572). That "minimal" includes, presumably, when Sam and Hailey (the Only Revolutions protagonists) peek out from behind his eyes.

The promise of twenty-six more books from an author with only four prior to this means, of course, that these signatures will be subsumed, one way or another, in the pelting storm of words to come. Whether this will wash away the stains on the novel's attempts at genuinely diverse cultural representations, or will allow them to collect in fetid pools of standing water, remains to be seen.


[1] He does, it should be said, make money for the DAWs and Del Reys; Pantheon, his publisher, is owned by Random House, LLC, which also own Del Rey, and which is half of Penguin Random House, the other half of which operates DAW as an imprint.

Ben Gabriel blogs at Uninterpretative.



Benjamin Gabriel lives on Island Demeter, where he writes across media. Find him on Twitter: @Benladen.
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