The Familiar, Vol. 1: One Rainy Day in May

familiar vol 1The Short Version: On a very rainy day in Los Angeles, a young girl named Xanther spends the day with her father before discovering and saving a baby kitten. Meanwhile, in Texas and LA and Singapore and Venice, a cornucopia of other characters live out their lives – strange or normal as they might be.

The Review: So is this how it felt in Dickens’ day? Getting an introduction to characters and then knowing that you’d have to wait months to read the next installment?

Of course, Dickens would look at this tome with little comprehension, I’m sure – it’s so far beyond any storytelling I’ve ever encountered that I’m not sure I fully comprehend it. I’m not even sure Danielewski understands it, although that I suppose remains to be seen over the course of the next 26 volumes and the next 13 years.
Take a moment and let that sink in, by the way.  I’m going to be pushing forty when this series wraps up. Holy hell, am I right? I mean, that’s no longer than many long-running series end up stretching out – The Dresden Files have been going that long, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld will encompass over double that span of time when the last book comes out this fall. But those series don’t have a determinate endpoint when you start, is the thing. I’m sitting here reading this first book and, in the back of my mind, the knowledge that I will be still reading this series in over a decade is… well, it’s not your usual reading experience. But damned if I wasn’t absolutely fascinated, both by the experience and by the novel itself.

Firstly, for a nearly-900-page tome, it reads with near-blistering speed. Part of that is because of Danielewski’s embrace of quirky formatting: some pages have only a phrase or a punctuation mark, others are entirely blank. Still others are text drawings like something out of The Raw Shark Texts, while some further see paragraphs warp and wander like animals pacing through a cage. But part of it is due to Danielewski’s actual writing – for the ornamentation wouldn’t matter so much if the book wasn’t worth reading. Some characters are stronger and more interesting than others – I found myself wanting to get back to Xanther and her parents (although Luther’s quickly became a strong second story) while jingjing was nearly indecipherable and Schnork verging on caricature – but they all feel distinct, as though Danielewski is supremely confident in his ability to not only juggle all these stories but bring them into some kind of cohesive whole in another 21,000 pages or so.  They do not, not even Xanther or Anwar or Astair, come off as fully-formed just yet – because, true to this volume’s title, we’ve only spent a single day in May with all of these characters.

In a fun little cryptic twist, each character is represented in the narrative by a color on the top corner of each page – and at the end of each chapter, it notes what time and where the character is. So, too, do the beginnings of each successive chapter and as the book concludes, we realize that the action moves forward essentially in real time. I’d be a little curious to see someone do a 24-esque examination of the travel times and things like that – although I’d wager Danielewski did his homework. There’s something so meticulous that’s implied by such a thing as saying that this chapter ends at (as a made-up example) 16:08:09pm Pacific Time and the next begins at 19:08:10pm EDT and, the next time we revisit that original character, the story picks up at 17:22:18pm Pacific – you have to feel like we’re passing through life with these people in a way that novels so rarely manage to capture without becoming boring.
And if there’s one thing this novel is not, it’s boring.

The most incredible feat might be that Danielewski’s imagination does not flag for the entirety of the book. It would be easy enough to stick to a few main characters – but just when you think you’ve got something figured out, he throws in something new. You turn the page thinking that you’re headed into the next normal text chapter and you’re faced suddenly with a two page graphic novel excerpt, set in Venice with a strange figure out of Oscar Wilde or Anne Rice. WHO IS THIS MAN? WHAT DOES HE HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING?
There is no answer here. Presumably there will be someday – but you can’t worry about it. Instead, you have to just go “….OKAY!” and roll on. Although this is not to say that Danielewski doesn’t drop some answers (or at least pseudo-answers) into the novel. For example, a question many of you might ask throughout the first 2/3rds of the book is: “what the hell are these strange interjections and translations that sometimes appear?” (you’ll know what I’m talking about if you read the thing) – and Danielewski stops the book cold, with the words “this is as good a time as any to take a pause” and explains (sort of) those interjections. Explains in that you now know where they’re coming from, at least.
And as the book rockets towards its conclusion – wait, no, we shouldn’t call it that… we should call it… the first of many intermissions!  Anyway, yes, as the book rockets towards the first of many intermissions, the plot does start to kick in a little bit. Hints of connections are delivered and while I immediately began to jump ahead, thinking “oh, this could then connect that way”, I stopped myself. Danielewski already pulled one fake-out towards the end of the book, with a chapter-ending-OMG that’s reversed by the time the character returns to the narrative – so I can only imagine things will continue to change and shift and tweak as the book continues.

I mean, I’ve got a little notebook where I’m starting to keep track of things. I haven’t done that with anything since I played the MYST games (I only got to the third one, as I recall) – but I think this’ll be worth it. I’m excited by the adventure of it all.

Rating: 5 out of 5. There are plenty of things to call out in this staggeringly ambitious ‘debut’ – some awkward phrasing, some chapters/narrators that seem superfluous or completely incomprehensible – but, should you turn an overly-critical eye upon the book, you must remember: this is the first of a purported 27 volumes. This is, at best, an introduction. Perhaps, like in TV shows, characters or whole storylines will be cut adrift – perhaps we won’t even notice. Maybe we’ll get 8, 12, 22 volumes in and realize we’re being hosed and that the whole thing will never make sense. But Danielewski is deploying all of his many talents here, showing a love of research, a love of storytelling, and a pronounced desire to deliver a supremely entertaining literary experience that swallows you whole.  I will, from now until 2028, be picking up these (absolutely beautiful) volumes as soon as they go onsale (and hopefully Strand will keep dropping them a few weeks early…) – because I want to know what happens next. I want to ride along on this crazy literary-The Matrix adventure, go down the rabbit hole, and so on. I’ve never read anything like this before. I’ll wager you haven’t either – and that none of us might read anything like it ever. If you’re willing to take the plunge, jump in now and join me on the way down.

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5 comments

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