Size / / /

The Familiar Volume 2: Into the Forest coverThe Familiar Volume 3: Honeysuckle & Pain cover

Picking up immediately following the events of The Familiar Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar Volume 2: Into the Forest takes place over about a month. Starting the night of said rainy day—the tenth of May—as it bleeds into Mother's Day, 2014, Into the Forest follows the events that occur around the nine POV characters from the first volume in Danielewski’s projected twenty-seven-volume series, following them until the twelfth of June.

The wrap-up of these events goes: the Ibrahim family undergoes scares of both the health and financial variety; Özgür the detective learns of a case involving some suspicious bleach; Jingjing chases his aunt's lost cat and a decent high in Singapore; Cas loses her Orb and meets one new and one old friend; Luther escapes from a SWAT/LAPD raid intact and gets a connect in Hawaii; Shnorhk philosophizes the road and tries to see a doctor while he drives his cab; and Isandòrno meets The Mayor and finds out just what he is capable of. The even shorter version is that Xanther's newfound cat has some strange qualities, and Xanther herself may or may not end up dead at the end.

If the first volume of The Familiar was a pilot episode—and given that Danielewski himself has likened the project to prestige television shows of the last decade-and-change, I still think that's a fair comparison—the most obvious recent cultural touchstone is to the Wachowskis's Sense8. Both are polyvocal narratives in what you might call a superficial way, where the point of view (in the literary technique sense) is shared among an unusually large number of characters. Because of this, both open with a sort of round-robin introduction, providing a sense not only of the world and its dangers but of each person whose head we'll be sharing. Unlike the dogged polyvocality of Sense8, however, One Rainy Day in May suggested that, despite (or through) its multiple narrators, it maintained a central character: Xanther.

One Rainy Day in May suggested this along a number of vectors: the short version of the first volume’s plot is that a girl finds a cat. That same girl's chapters open and close the proceedings, and another two of the nine narrators are parents to that girl—giving her quite a bit more "screen time" than anyone else. Into the Forest is structurally more like repetition with a difference: Xanther's chapters are preceded in the second volume by her mother Astair (who is largely concerned with her), and succeeded by Cas, whom we learn has been seeing Xanther in her semi-mystical computer. There's not quite as clean a short-summation of the plot, but it certainly has to do with those revelations about the strange qualities of Xanther's new cat more than with the goings-on of, say, Isandòrno's boss—if for no other reason than what connects who to whom. We learn from The Mayor that Isandòrno's story is tied directly to Luther's, for instance, whose connection to most others is unclear at the moment of the second volume. It will take until the third book for him to encounter Xanther directly, at which point all of the various plots will finally have had at least one moment of major convergence with the others. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

In the spirit of refusing to claim Danielewski's new novel for genre while continuing to read it through that lens, it is probably most important to establish that the thing that solidifies Xanther's protagonism in the act of reading itself is her centrality to the genre shift that occurs. Calling it a shift is dependent on perspective, of course; call the first volume speculative fiction, and there's just a lateral movement. That's accepting the term speculative fiction at its face, of course, and assuming that just because people claim it as an umbrella that encompasses horror that it actually does. For all the SFnal moves that One Rainy Day in May used, Into the Forest is very much less interested in infodumps and artificial intelligences, and much more focused on building tension and establishing imagery that borders on the eruption of the supernatural into the ordinary world. [1]

Objectively speaking, it is similarly hard to argue that the supernatural gets involved in Xanther's day-to-day. She lives with epilepsy, so has a complicated relationship with the way adults around her might react should she disclose things she recognizes as abnormal, like those big stones she sees where people's eyes should be. And she's already dealing with the fact that the kitten she found is actually a very old cat/dead dog, away from whom it physically hurts her to be. All of this isn't even to mention that Xanther suddenly becomes very good at certain video games, or that doors fly open around her for no apparent reason. That last one, maybe, goes truly unexplained.

All of which maybe points to something fairly obvious: Into the Forest isn't particularly great at being a horror story in itself. Danielewski seems fairly set on the style he committed to in the first volume—each character is written with their own tics, and so on—which is not a dig, but it does produce limitations. The swapping between narrators makes the development of suspense along traditional lines of threat escalation more or less impossible. And the structure of the novel as a whole, given that by the end of volume two we've read less than a thirteenth of the thing, makes even the escalations it does accomplish feel less impactful. None of this, however, actually matters in terms of appreciating the object in front of us, or its extensions, both forward and backward, in time—at least, not in the sense of the successful execution of genre having a causal relation to enjoyment.

If there is a reason for providing a genre context for the volumes of Danielewski's novel—aside from opening a space to perform at least a perfunctory materialist analysis alongside the idealism that permeates reviewing and critical writing, which tends to conceive of fiction as exclusively an experiential/aesthetic venture—it is absolutely not to establish a checklist of craft critique. This is partially because, and this remains a weird thing to say, The Familiar is easily Danielewski's most well told, accessible story yet [2]. The formatting trickery and the length and structure of the novel and its volumes are all tuned in such a way as to emphasize the most compelling aspects of each character, and to leverage that interest into a very straightforward desire on the part of the reader to see what happens next.

Thinking of Into the Forest as horror—and the various volumes of The Familiar through genre lenses in general—is largely an attempt to mitigate that compulsion to read for craft. Because, while Danielewski is shelved under Literary Fiction, and his novels often received as exemplars of contemporary postmodern literature, his first book (House of Leaves (2000)) was about a haunted house and his second (The 50 Year Sword (2005)) was a ghost story. In that sense, the second volume of The Familiar is a return to form. But more broadly, Into the Forest treats horror as a tool to cement the centrality of Xanther's narrative; because if horror does one thing structurally, it is to describe all that is askew and flung afield in order to centrifuge it to a final encounter.

But then, the lateral moves continue apace, as The Familiar Volume 3: Honeysuckle and Pain hangs on to both of the previous dominant genre modes and subsumes them into something a bit more like a police procedural. This is in part because of Özgür's case gaining steam, but he's clearly still a peripheral character. Mostly it has to do with the structure of how things begin to come together: by the end, we're only a ninth of the way into the projected full novel, but we can also see for certain all of the connections between the characters, and how they will begin to be reeled together.

Honeysuckle & Pain begins on June thirteenth in Singapore, so again exactly where we left off from the previous volume, at least temporally. It also expands the time-scale again. Where Into the Forest took One Rainy Day in May's single day and turned it into a month, Honeysuckle & Pain covers over two months, all the way through August twenty-fifth, 2014. In that time, Jingjing learns that he is the rightful owner of the cat; Astair gets back to the academy; Anwar meets with Mefisto; Cas likewise meets Mefisto, but also the Recluse; Luther looks for Domingo Persianos; Shnorhk helps a professor with some boxes and gets a maneki-neko; Isandòrno earns The Mayor's ire over a lost animal; Özgür receives a Bast statue and makes strides on the bleach case; and Xanther flicks stones, remembers a sewage treatment plant, and spends ten seconds almost getting killed by a lion before telling it to run. As a volume, it's pretty light on the plot elements, even though it boasts the same number of pages as the previous two.

Which isn't to say that the novel as a whole has much of a plot so far, outside of the question of why all of these characters are collected together under the same roof, formally speaking—or of what the actual deal with this cat might end up being. In either case, the movement of the plot isn't necessarily forestalled so much as it is advanced orthogonally; most of the book consists of the characters who already know each other getting to know each other better, or flashes of one into the life of another. So it's not quite a surprise when the list of names of the murdered that Özgür is investigating—the ones with the bleach—show up in Cas's chapter, spoken of as comrades by Mefisto, Anwar's friend who jammed all their communications technologies in the first book. A little closer to genuinely surprising is when Xanther and her cohort skip past Luther in one of his chapters; even more so is when little girls cosplaying as Xanther show up around her, and it goes nearly unremarked-upon.

For all the work that Honeysuckle & Pain puts in around the connections between the characters, however, it's largely a downtime volume. Astair spends most of the book catching up with friends or in Santa Barbara for lectures before taking Xanther to a private zoo. Anwar takes Xanther to a car show where Luther's hanging out, and spends a night not drinking with Mefisto. Özgür meets with an old friend for dinner. Cas recharges, Jingjing smokes, and so on.

In reviewing the first volume, I talked briefly about the uncannily familiar style in which Jingjing is written; even assuming the most generous reading (that Danielewski's Singlish is as on-point as possible), the way that the voice in these sections can tend to recall earlier examples of the author’s prose (primarily from Only Revolutions (2006)) makes it in some sense problematic. Not in that it requires performative condemnation, necessarily, but in that it undermines the apparent aims of the work in ways that intersect with real world oppression. Two further volumes in—which is to say that The Familiar is, in raw quantitative terms, now at parity with the rest of Danielewski's major output to this point [3]—and that generous reading seems entirely plausible and still potentially productive. With twenty-four or so more books to go, there's plenty of time for Jingjing to become a truly independent voice, but the signs aren't looking strong so far. And this is all, of course, from the perspective of someone with no intimate familiarity with the language being explored, and so no real way to say that it isn't always already an embarrassing, if not outright harmful, mess.

Jingjing is probably the most obvious example of the particular minefield Danielewski's choice to write the characters mimetically has led him to enter. Some are benign—Anwar's computer code-like mishmash of braces and brackets are functionally identical to his wife Astair's nested parentheticals, but serve both the character and the reader in obvious ways—while others are, maybe we can say, slightly less delicate. Shnorhk's pages are quartered, with text (mostly) in the top left and bottom right, the point of which is still not entirely obvious to me, and his non-standard English seems honest to the creation and stability of a character, if nothing else.

Which brings us to the gangster, Luther.

Given the way that Danielewski has chosen to structure the novel, a character like Luther seems necessary: he provides gang-crime detective Özgür with a professional foil without abstraction, he solves the problem of representing the distribution of the new drug, Synsnap, which The Mayor manufactures, Jingjing smokes, and Özgür's receives hints of; he exists in some sense as a background hum of chaotic energy in the lives of all of the other narrators who live in Los Angeles, without resorting to vague gestures at villainous others. His explicit inclusion among the point-of-view characters allows him to be more than just a piece in a puzzle, giving him the space to be characterized in a way that works beyond sentimentality or reflection. Many of his best moments are those in which he is written to embody his place within the story—his moments of viciousness or dangerous command—in a way that explores them beyond function.

At the same time, though, Luther is a Latino Angeleno in a gang who runs drugs and thinks constantly about fucking, often with the explicit inclusion of thoughts of sexualized violence. His chapters admix Spanish into the English he speaks—in a way that Isandòrno's passages, set in Mexico, don't—which manages to feel both accurate (as far as that goes) and really gross. Gross because the insistent return to fantasies of sexualized violence is dull in its own right, and probably a precursor to something incredibly shitty happening, but also because it is focalized in a character for whom this is uncomplicatedly a harmful, stereotypical portrayal.

Danielewski has all of the pat liberal responses to this sort of criticism covered. Luther is not the only Latino character in either the foreground or the background; the whole cast of characters, including non-narrators, is intentionally diverse; race is explicitly brought up in naturalistic ways throughout the text as an extant problem. The lingering discomfort is hardly assuaged, however, not least because of the weird insistence with which pontificators throw around arguments of craft at issues of structural oppression made affective—as though to write better (in accord with the dominant mode) is enough to preclude the real seeping into fiction where it is not desired; add to this the ways in which The Familiar thus far is both structurally and narratively driven by its characters and their characterization, and the difficulty with Luther begins to emerge as a central concern.

The space left to read Honeysuckle & Pain in particular as a police procedural further compounds all this. Danielewski’s shooting for television as a model necessitates his own reckoning with the structures and affects that the form has developed over its history. Shows like Dragnet and Law & Order and The Wire have run through the history of television, and even unrelated shows like The X-Files and new darling Stranger Things share their fetishistic relationships toward the repressive state apparatus. This third volume very much calls on the police procedural rather than a bit of detective fiction or noir, even though Özgür is himself a detective, precisely because the loping way in which the characters become connected, and the violence becomes resolved, have nothing to do with Holmesian deduction or skepticism toward powerful institutions, but everything to do with the powers-that-be orchestrating a thrilling conclusion through an intentional fog.

Luckily, perhaps, the broader structure of the novel as a whole again puts a limit on the possibility of the genre reading. Just like Into the Forest was a horror novel with no possibility of tying up its loose ends, Honeysuckle & Pain is a representative of a genre focused on the climactic epiphany with no possible recourse to a climax of its own. Another way of putting that in perspective: using the standard that Mefisto sets on page 485 of the third volume—"an average of 300 pages [per book]"—Honeysuckle & Pain is basically pages 22-33 of The Familiar—hardly the point at which the criminals are brought to justice. Hardly, even, the point at which the connections should start to finalize themselves . . . but then these analogies only go so far.

The analogies also miss the point: reading through genre provides a frame. For all the good work that Danielewski's fans do—and there is much of it—it tends to always dissolve into a conspiracist wash. And it is hard not to work to this end when dealing with an author whose physical books are so intentionally authored in the whole as to resemble puzzles, in a world where wikification produces faux-objective frames for interpretation. His professional critics, whether popular or academic, likewise tend to focus broadly on the gimmickry and its alleged capacity to innovate or eventuate extinction. If both consider the work, they each do so as a particularly intricate key with eyes toward a potential lock; the frame, instead, allows us to situate it on a key ring, and go from there.

Applying the SFnal frame to One Rainy Day in May might allow a reader to think about the particular economies that the volume describes and participates in, rather than just about how the appearance of a particular color of text on a particular page relates to the appearance of the same color two volumes later (and thus prove that each chapter is an exploration of string theory-style multiple universes). Reading Honeysuckle & Pain through the police procedural, meanwhile, makes it impossible to, for instance, think of Luther as solely a character with some narrative agency in a novel. Caught in the web of power that the procedural relies on to maintain its framework beyond any individual story, he can't help but be looked at through a more critical lens. But it also helps highlight the domestic, financial drama between Astair and Anwar, whose money issues are both realistic ways of portraying each individual and their relationship to each other, but are also tied into the broader structure by way of the possibility of their becoming desperate. Likewise, in the first volume, Isandòrno was characterized by his repetition of superstitious actions, and yet those things have faded into the background here: in a procedural, we must be suspicious of this; but the way that Danielewski has moved laterally so far diminishes that impulse. Regardless, the shift is suddenly notable because of the frame within which we choose to read it.

This is an intransitive contract. While it is certainly in Danielewski and Random House's interest to open up to the machinery of genre—with its lucrative, dedicated base of communicative consumers and its current cultural cachet—that only extends to a point. Agreeing to treat this massive novel as (at least) framed by genre concerns, and being open to those concerns shifting rapidly over time, does not mean agreeing that this is Danielewski's goal or a standard he must uphold. If the Ibrahims's financial problems don't result in them doing, or at least being suspected of, a desperate act, for instance, this is not a failing of the novel as such—certainly not in the way that failing to explore Jingjing and Luther beyond the nativist, colonial trajectories that their characterization have laid out would be. But because the speculative fiction element, or genre content more broadly, moves from a readerly process of framing to one of contractual obligation, it becomes wholly interpolated within marketing.

What matters about genre is the historical specificity of its signifiers: how a flying car can be used for any number of reasons, but can't be decoupled from suburbanization and white flight and the space race. The contract, rather than the frame, privileges specificity over the historical; the signs and tropes must be attended to as they have been, and fulfilling this provides the necessary conditions for the exchange of money. Reading through the frame of genre—ideally, at least—provides the conditions for a future historical understanding.

But then, at some point I'm just describing this novel in very elliptical terms. Danielewski is known for his interest in interpreting history. Only Revolutions is a road trip novel, but the left and right margins of each page contain ephemera of history that reflect back upon the story being told. The Familiar—thus far at least—is set in 2014, certainly after Danielewski had started writing, but solidly after the thing started to be published. The Isla Vista shootings and Robin Williams's passing float through the characters' lives through television and hearsay. Prose-poem road-tripping eternal teenagers and five-and-a-half minute hallways and ancient kittens explained by Narrative Constructs are Danielewski's signifiers, and more often than not they are specifically arranged so as to explore histories both personal and political. It remains to be seen if performing historical specificity holds up to the same extent that simply allowing for it can—not just because the things that end up representing the collective unconscious are themselves often not best grasped by an individual consciously, but because the future remains uncertain, and only when it has come to pass can history begin being written.

With prognostication written off, then, the strongest claim that can be made is only that Danielewski has managed something with this novel (or at least with the beginning of). And, just because the genre frame can help bracket-off craft, doesn't mean that we can't also say, wholeheartedly, that this is a story well told so far, with a strong eye for images both verbal and typographical—to say that whatever The Familiar might become, or whatever it may or may not capture of what is real in the world outside the novel, it is open to the possibility of doing so, and that something about it really works.


  1. While Xanther's at the center of it, probably the single most striking image is one that is not necessarily horror in and of itself. One author infamous for similar images is Cormac McCarthy, who is of course very literary, and that's somewhere between a spoiler and trigger warning: the scene in question, I think it is probably sufficient to say, is set in Mexico City and involves an infant and a banquet. The Mayor has brought a deep fryer that can make a thousand donuts in an hour. The supernatural does not get involved. [return]
  2. I'm using "accessible" in the purely aesthetic sense, of course, as a category for recommending based on things like narrative movement and literary sensibilities that coincide with dominant understandings of the work demanded of the reader. At roughly $25 a volume, the expected price of the full novel will end up being over $625 over the next decade, which is significantly less so. [return]
  3. Excluding The Whalestoe Letters, a novella expropriated from an appendix of House of Leaves and expanded upon. [return]

Benjamin Gabriel lives on Island Demeter, where he writes across media. Find him on Twitter: @Benladen.
No comments yet. Be the first!


%d bloggers like this: