The Short Version: At a birthday party somewhere in East Texas, Chintana is unhappy – mainly, although not completely, because her recently deceased husband had slept with the birthday girl. She ends up joining a group of five orphans for their story time but the story is not quite what anyone expected and the storyteller carries with him a long black case with five clasps. Do they dare open it, even after hearing the man’s story?
The Review: It’s quite clear, when you read this little novella, that it began in the oral tradition. Part of that is because of the quotation marks: each phrase, or even actually just parts of phrases, begins with a set of open quotation marks. The idea, we’re led to believe, is that there are five speakers – perhaps the five orphans in the story, but perhaps not. These speakers overlap and tumble across each other in a practiced overlapping that should, one thinks, feel seamless. Like actors who’ve practiced their scenes for so long that they can convincingly cut someone off at a predetermined moment and make it feel completely unexpected.
And the focal point of the novella is, in fact, another story: the story being told by the Story Teller (as opposed to the story containing that story and being told to us, the reader, by these five storytellers). His tale is recounted doubly, by him and by the five narrators, and again we are given to think of campfires and cold nights, of stories told by candlelight or on the edge of sleep.
His story, in particular, does contain elements that could be called fantastical or imaginary. A man with no arms who makes impossible swords, a forest of “falling notes” where sound warps and fades and descends always, a mountain whose single pathway shatters into infinite possibilities while still only being one path… these are the things of bedtime stories. But Danielewski is not telling a traditional bedtime story (and the adults in the room, or at least Chintana, seem to be aware of this and are a bit worried about it – but the story grips them too hard for them to do anything about it) and the tale takes on a much darker slant.
It’s around this time – and it begins quite a bit earlier – that the “ergodic” trickery of the printed page falls away completely. The quotation marks no longer matter, really: you don’t need to pay attention to which narrator says which lines, you don’t have to keep track of their voices… you just have to follow the story. And as you do, a single voice becomes apparent: Danielewski’s. I had the somewhat surreal sensation, actually, that I could hear a voice reading this story to me while I read. I’ve never heard him read or heard him speak, but I distinctly heard a voice that I do not know reading this story to me. (ed. note: some YouTube research reveals that the voice in my head, while similar, was NOT Danielewski’s and so I must search on for my next possible link to the supernatural…)
And that’s where the story is its most successful, frankly. It has the pacing and flow of an oral narrative, and it is at its strongest when you’re feeling that tension that only comes from a narrator taking a slightly longer breath than anticipated before the next word or suddenly lunging forward on a particular line.
That said, the book is a beautiful object – as all Danielewski books seem to be. The hardcover is tall and skinny, the orange dust jacket pocked with what are meant to be thread holes, and the inside pages feature beautiful stitchwork by Atelier Z. Some of this stitchwork is used to great effect inside the novel – images of the Story Teller’s arrival and impressions of the locales he visited on his journey are particularly lovely. And there is one moment, an absolutely breath-taking, pulse-pounding moment right up there with any of the best spooky stories you’ve ever read that absolutely happens only because of the imagery – I won’t spoil it, but my heart felt like it was going to leap out of my chest in the way I used to feel as a kid reading stories like this.
Danielewski’s story, though, is for more than just kids – although I think it could be read as a scary story to mature near-teenagers. The book works on the purest level of ghost story, but it also works on a deeper level: Chintana’s uncertainty, her sadness, Belinda Kite’s catiness and apparent power over everyone, the social worker’s brief appearance… these things all add up to a subconscious understanding of what life is like in a world that isn’t populated by magical swords and strange locales. It’s the presence of the supernatural inside of that world (inside of our world?), first as story and then as reality, that makes for the terror of this novel – and there is, don’t get me wrong, a lovely slow-burn. The story of the titular sword is interesting, but its once the sword (or what the Story Teller wants us to believe is a sword) comes into play, in the real world, that things get weird. Danielewski delivers a great ending on the promises he sets up earlier in the book and the whole thing makes you want to applaud at the end.
But even that response – a visceral and natural response to a well-told story, well-told being a phrase that often implies speech or at least the act of narration in a way that feels less germane to the written word than it does to someone literally telling you something – makes me question this book in ways I wish I didn’t have to. And since someone else has done it too, I’ll turn to him:
Daniel Handler, in The New York Times, called this book “a fairy tale narrated by a Greek chorus”. He then asked Danielewski to stop experimenting so much and focus on the other thing he’s really good at: writing a gripping story. With Volume One of The Familiar giving way quite soon to Volume Two, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll get anything but crazier and more complex work from Danielewski for many years to come – but the reason we keep coming back is not the crazy/complex stuff: it’s the stories he tells, which are as simple as the very first time somebody said “once upon a time…”
Rating: 4 out of 5. Maybe it’s just the time of the year, maybe I’m a sucker for a real good spooky story – but this just did it for me. If you don’t like Danielewski’s schtick, steer clear… but also, don’t let the colored quotation marks and odd spacing turn you away (as it did for me several times before now). This is, at its core, a great story for telling around a campfire or by candlelight on a cold, evil evening. No amount of fanciness or trickery can change that – and thank goodness indeed.