Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Review of The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May

Mark Z. Danielewski is arguably the most ambitious American writer alive. Every project stretches the seams of storytelling, demanding new methods of visualizing his narrative, perfect execution of his sophisticated formal structures, and innovative book design to incorporate his visual, um, vision. If Volume One is any indication (clocking in north of 800 pages in galley form), there is a chance his newest project, a serial novel called The Familiar, will be, by far, his most ambitious project yet.

I think a reader's relationship to ambition says a lot about who they are and what their core readerly values are. This isn't the place (or rather, I don't have the brain space at the moment) to really hash out all the implications of all the different ways one can approach ambitious works of literature, but I always give the ambitious the benefit of the doubt, a few extra points early on for trying something that hasn't been done, for biting off more than can usually be chewed, for being willing to fail at something (and sometimes fail horribly) so that even if I don't end up believing a project is a success (Naked Singularity and Witz for a couple of a examples) I still respect the artists who dared and look forward to their next projects. And Danielewski is pretty much all dare.

The Familiar utilizes the visual pyrotechnics that have come to define Danielewski's style, a narrativity based on turning reading into a complete artistic experience. Words and letters as components for pictures. Shaped-text like concrete poetry. A variety of fonts and colors (I assume as the galley is black and white.) Collages. Images. Computer code. What makes Danielewski's style so relevant and important is the fact that this is how we interact with media now. Gone are the days of columns of text. Nearly everything we read now is associated with an image. The different social media are distinguished, in no small part, by the visual organization of their information. Even our person to person conversations are now often filled with abbreviations, acronyms, and images.

To put this another way, Mark Z. Danielewski is the first true writer of our current information age and The Familiar, even more so than House of Leaves, writes directly about and with the hybrid image and text and text/image language that is beginning to define our particular information age. Danielewski sets the stage for exploring this theme in two specific ways: a virtual reality game is being developed and there is a mysterious bit of techno-magic that wasn't fully developed in this volume. All indications are that The Familiar will have a long story arc, and that there's a chance the images introduced in Volume One won't be paid off until much later, but there is a good chance the success or failure of the novel, will hinge on how Danielewski handles and ultimately concludes these threads in the future volumes.

If The Familiar has a “hook,” something that, for me at least, motivated me to keep reading and to be exited to see what he does and where he goes with the story, it is the character Xanther. She might not technically be the protagonist of the book, but, for me, she is the hero of The Familiar. Xanther is a collection of conditions; she has epilepsy, learning disabilities, something most likely on the autism spectrum, and is physically unattractive. She has trouble making and keeping friends. There's probably something close to obsessive-compulsive disorder in there too. Her parents move around a lot. Her biological father was a soldier killed in the Middle East. She is in therapy. In short, she is America. But she has irrepressible curiosity. She is driven to figure out how to live in the world despite the myriad of problems she faces. She is compassionate. She is empathetic. She is honest. She is everything you want from a daughter, from a friend, and from a hero. Xanther was just one current in The Familiar, but her current was by far the most powerful, and, I have to suspect, ultimately, Xanther will be the keystone to the Escher-Arch The Familiar promises to be.

Ultimately, how you feel about The Familiar Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May comes down to that troubling phrase in the title; “Volume 1.” It is clear this is an introduction, an 800+ page setting the stage for events to follow. I've read Proust, I'm reading Knausgaard, and Danielewski is one of my favorite writers, so I'm willing to give The Familiar the benefit of several volumes. Knowing how sophisticated Danielewski is with his structure (and all parts of narrative structure) and how he is able to push narrative to express and explore what it often does not, I have faith that he is going to pull off whatever project The Familiar is. But, as with all faith, that comes from a previous relationship. I can have that faith in The Familiar and can enjoy Volume 1 as part of that project and as a work in its own right, because of my existing relationship with Danielewski. But there are a lot of readers who don't that relationship with Danielewski. Can I (or Danielewski) expect them to enjoy/be satisfied with/understand/be patient in regards to a book without a conclusion that doesn't bring the threads of characters it presents together, has untranslated text and a little over halfway through presents storytelling as a computer program?

I've always believed that experimental works of literature, present an opportunity for self-discovery. Are you willing to roll the reading dice on a book with “Volume 1” in the title? How do you handle untranslated text? What kind of “conclusion” do you need in order to feel satisfied with a reading experience and how do you react when a book lacks that kind of “conclusion?” In that sense alone, The Familiar Volume 1, is a cascade of opportunities for self-discovery, but is it a good book? I enjoyed reading it and I have faith in Danielewski. With Volume 1, that's as close to a conclusion as I can get.

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