Waxing Press

Book Review: The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski

book reviews, tastemakingIan Wissman

The Familiar is a singular literary moment in the making that I am not so sure is getting the attention it deserves, so I’ll use my tiny little voice on this remote corner of the internet to profess to you its power. Before I speak directly about Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, I’ll mention a bit about the series as a whole: I’ve said in other reviews of Vols. 3 & 4 (found on Goodreads) that The Familiar isn’t just a novel in serial, but the development of a whole mythology on par with the classics, codified in our unique 21st century world. The global scope, the webwork of connectivity, the implications of science and technology on humanity, the greater forces (neither bene- nor malevolent, [just volent?]) that affect our lives. The story has a way of swelling like a tide, gathering in more and more water as its crescent rises higher and higher, threatening to subsume you, but only yet just a threat. In that way, any single volume cannot convince a readership—perhaps it will be the series’ fatal issue in an age so desperately in need of instant and immediate (if only surface) gratification—but once a second, and especially a third book has been devoured, only then does the water pull you under, making you as much a part of the tidal crash as the rest of the ocean and the sand and the algae and the fish. And so maybe that’s why I didn’t write reviews for Vols. 1 & 2 on my first read through, because, while they had enough hooks in my skin, it wasn’t until Volume 3: Honeysuckle & Pain that the tumblers clicked like a key in a lock, turning over my mind and kicking off—a probably overly obsessive—love for what Danielewski is up to here. Forgive all the mixed metaphors. After four books, I can say with surety, The Familiar is Mark Z. Danielewski’s opus and will outshine the accomplishments that House of Leaves made in changing literature.

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So, Vol. 1... Wait, before we get there, let’s give a background of this reader’s relationship with his writing: As a young highschoolian underachiever in the early aughts, more dedicated to the drumset after class than academics, reading, writing, etc., I came upon this dark and mysterious object called House of Leaves. I had seen it mentioned on a book-recommendation thread on a local Cincinnati punk message board (now dead and defunct, RIP Neus Subjex), and happened to be in a Borders bookstore later that day. Flipping through the thing, I was piqued and so I doled out my $20 and changed my life. I read the book feverishly in my room. The book fed nightmares, which excited me for some reason. It made me feel like I had lost my mind. It altered my understanding of what literature is and does and can be, and set me on the path of erudite and arcane and bizarre and wonderfully inventive fictions I continue to walk. Had I not read House of Leaves at that time, I don’t know that I would be a person who reads the Gravity’s Rainbows of the world, the Moby-Dicks, the Absalom, Absaloms. Hell, I don’t know that I would have gone down the lit degree path where I gained my MA, much less working as a professional writer or operating my own literary press had I not picked up that mysterious tome. Assertively, House of Leaves changed me as a person, or at least unlocked a part of me that allowed me to become this person. The disappointment is that I’ve not been very engaged in Danielewski’s intermining books—Only Revolutions was a true letdown for me, where the form and style didn’t inform the content, which was written in a poetic style that didn’t jive with my tastes, and The 50 Year Sword is a fun romp, though inessential. I had been tracking the progress of The Familiar since first hearing about it, probably sometime around 2009, so when it was finally coming out, I told myself this is my last shot with MZD: He’d delivered such a novel that changed the landscape of novels, that I was okay with the rest of his output being not my cup of tea. Fortunately, I gave him that last shot, renewing my trust in his capable mind (and writing).

Finally, we’re at One Rainy Day in May—which is set on my birthday (not significant, but it did tickle me). I had high hopes with low expectations going in. I mean, the thing sounded fucking weird, and maybe a little arrogant: a 27-volume story about a 12-year old girl and a kitten? And when it came out that each book would be 880 pages, I just laughed. I shelled out again for MZD’s latest excursion, cautiously stepping onto a boat ride that might take 10+ years to get off of. So I read the damn thing and it was… conflicting. There was all this genre-y stuff (YA, comically hard-boiled noir, techno-thriller/cyberpunk). Spatters of a number of foreign languages, with a prominent character writing in a weird pidgin blend of English that challenged my faculties as a reader. Images rendered in text and also actual images littering the pages, overwhelming the senses. A few pages that are just computer code, indecipherable to the casual reader. But at the root, it’s a story about an epileptic and (seemingly) hyper-vulnerable (to bullies, to health, to life) 12-year old girl who leaves the house with the promise of getting a dog and winds up with a cat.

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Bait was laid. Traps were set. Couched in the language of a “remediation of the television series,” one had to think of this in terms of a “pilot episode.” The gang’s all here, and the plots are (sorta?) setup, but it all seems so disconnected and conducive to head-spinning. There was so much to latch on to, but yet, not enough to really get a bearing. But, as a pilot, the aesthetics were established, and I had to admit that I was sold for episode two. Volume 2: Into the Forest expanded on everything great in Vol. 1.

Okay, so I’m really writing much more of an autobiography here than a review. I’m sorry about that. Maybe that says something about me. Maybe it says something about the books. There are plenty of negative to middling reviews on Goodreads (and an abundance of positive ones, too, mind you), with most of the lower ratings focusing in on not understanding the story immediately (would you judge a film, a TV show on the first 10 minutes? And what is the fun of immediately and completely grasping a story?), or questioning the typographical and ergodic choices leading one to question what the fuck they expected with a book from the master of funny-looking-pages (and, often, those reviewers, rather than question the nature of MZD’s choices, settled on the easiest of possible answers: that they are pointless choices to tell the story—this is wrong and intellectually lazy). My favorite is the one where the guy comes up with a purple-y misnomer (see “rum writer”) that imposes a critical lack of engagement with what he’s criticizing in the book. I think he just came up with this dumb phrase (which is ill-defined in his review and a misnomer because the phrase does nothing to inform you what it means on its own) and then he tried to write a review around it.

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Just so you know, if you’re still reading along, I’m really unhappy with how this review is shaping up in contrast to the ones I’ve written for Vols. 3 & 4. I thought I’d have something really great to deliver about this book, so here’s this:

This review comes to you as I re-read the entire series leading up to the release of Volume 5: Redwood (dubbed the “season finale” of “season one”). And where my first read was confounding and perhaps garnered a little tepid of an immediate response from me (though also enticing, tantalizing at the same time), a second reading with the full grasp of the succeeding three books changed my tune on this one. It’s still, surely, the weakest of the series so far, but unbeknownst to you who reads it (and those of you who’ve made it this far into this banal and boring review), MZD has masterfully placed the set pieces across the board—not just characters, but motifs, meaning, themes, symbols, plot points are all perfectly placed in Vol. 1, set for ripening through the rest of the series. Re-reading reaps rewards, revealing crumbs of ideas that don’t come to bear until 2 and 3 books later, leaving one to wonder how much else lives in Vols. 2-4 that will bear its full fruit down the line.

My advice about The Familiar: read two books before you make your final decision on reading further. Each one can be read in a week—and who doesn’t like the thought of reading 880 pages in a week?—and each one builds the mythology of MZD’s oeuvre exponentially. Find a friend to read it with. You’ll find yourself in conversations and speculations that reach well beyond the bounds of the book, but all still somehow addressed in the book. Because that’s probably one of the most powerful things of all about a book that purports to need twenty-seven 880-page volumes: within it, you will find everything.