If you’re a fan of Mark Z. Danielewski’s work, you’ll know something of what to expect from The Familiar. His most famous book, House of Leaves, is known for its typographical trickery, its hidden messages, narratives within narratives, and copious footnotes. Nothing he writes is straightforward. If you liked House of Leaves, you might like The Familiar. But it definitely won’t be to everyone’s taste.
The Familiar Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, to give the book its full title, is the story of a young girl, Xanther, who suffers from epilepsy, on her way with her father, Anwar, to pick up a dog. Instead, Xanther winds up bringing something else home. It’s also the story of an addict in Singapore, computer scientists on the run in Texas, a gang leader in LA, a Turkish cop, an Armenian cab driver, and a Mexican whose profession remains unclear at this point – all taking place over the same day, told chronologically. How these stories tie together remains unclear even at the end of the novel: Danielewski intends to tell this story over 27 volumes, a TV series in book form, and this 800-page tome is just the first episode.
Each of the nine main characters – along with some extra voices – has their own font, their own colour in the corner of the page, and their own grammatical, typographical, and linguistic quirks. The narratives are pretty much stream-of-consciousness, and are often deliberately difficult to read. Xanther’s parents Anwar and Astair, for example, both think in multiple nested parentheses, which can often cause you to lose the thread of a sentence. Jingjing’s chapters, set in Singapore, are written in Singlish, with dialogue sometimes in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Russian; full comprehension was beyond me, but I could get the right idea most of the time.
There’s hardly any plot to be found here. The meat of the book is Xanther, Anwar and Astair’s day, while Luther, the gang leader, has an entirely unconnected (at this point) story, and Jingjing goes through his own eventful day. The rest of the characters generally have only a couple of chapters each, things that give only enough to introduce who they are, and rarely explain what they do or want. If you’re after a fast-paced story, look elsewhere – this may be one of the slowest-moving books ever written.
I’ve ended this book with far more questions than answers. There are things going on here that aren’t explained in the least. What is The Familiar – the overall story – about? Well, at this point I can say it’s about a mysterious cat found by a young girl, and also possibly about artificial intelligence, and it may even all be taking place inside a simulated reality. At this point I can hardly say.
For all its deliberate obtuseness, its lack of answers, and its barely-there plot, I went into this thinking of it as “episode one” of a series, and I so wasn’t quite as disappointed as some reviewers seem to have been. For all its 800 pages it certainly does match the plot content of a one hour television show. While slow in places, I personally found it kind of fascinating, and my head is crammed full of thoughts and questions about where this is going.
I’ll be picking up Volume 2 in September. Whether I’ll stick it out the full 27 volumes – if Danielewski manages to hit that ambitious target – remains to be seen.