Monday, July 6, 2015

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

As the old Narcons put it: "There is not space in the universe to tell the universe to the universe.  Therein lies the peculiar beauty and sadness of stories: to tell it all without all at all."

Old Narcons is a referent that came with my programming.  I have never met another Narcon.

Even more so than House of Leaves, Only Revolutions and The Fifty Year Sword, this work is ambitious, challenging, and lovely.  It follows, by my count, seven story lines (spread over ten narrative voices) and runs roughly 850 pages.  Although, with the scattered text and pages with only a single word of text, that number is misleading.  In an interview, Danielewski indicated it's the equivalent of a 300 page novel.

An example of some of the pages of text.
Classic Danielewski, amirite?
This leads to my main (and only major) criticism: the novel packs too much in.  Although one of the story lines gets the majority of the attention (and three different narrative voices), the other story lines are a bit difficult to follow---mainly because we don't get a lot of them.  As a result, it was difficult to keep track of characters and plot points in these other story lines.  (incidentally, my other criticism is the [lack of] translation: the novel includes many languages, including Chinese, often without translation.  This was...annoying).

However, I have to add a disclaimer to this main criticism, because it is part of the book's greatest strength: Danielewski's ambition.  It is clear these other story lines are going somewhere, as is the major story line.  And, without always being able to tell how, the reader gets a sense that they are also somehow connected.  In this regard, this novel is akin to the pilot of a television series meant to last a long time.  Not an accident: I read somewhere that for this series of novels, Danielewski was inspired by the recent success of long-running television shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire.

The main story line is a girl, who suffers from seizures and an intense, almost-crippling curiosity, goes out with her father to get a surprise birthday present.  A dog.  However, on the way, she ends up finding a cat (I won't say more because the writing when she finds the cat was Danielewski at his finest).  Along the way, we learn her biological father was a soldier who died, her step-father is a programmer developing a gaming engine, and her mother desperately wants the dog because she expects it to transform the family's life.

Someone was kind enough to put this on
the internets.  You can see in the top
right photo, the corners of the book are
color-coded, to match the narrative
voice that each section follows.  It
was an interesting and helpful device
to keep me aware of where I was.
The other story lines imply something wrong with the world.  But, in the same way that House of Leaves has something amiss without quite expressing it, in Volume 1, we only get hints of what's wrong with the world.  Suffice it to say that it has something to do with computers, programs, and some sort of secret police.  Or something.  And, although that summary sounds tacky, it comes off as sufficiently unhinging in the novel.

In an earlier thread we had discussed whether this book is worth picking up.  For me, the answer is an absolute and easy "yes."  For others, though, it's much more difficult.  I have consistently enjoyed Danielewski's work where others haven't.  Based on the strength of Volume 1 and the promise it presents for future volumes, I am committed to at least reading many more (Brittany and I played a game where we tried to figure how many bad volumes I'd read before giving up...).  I love House of Leaves, but based solely on Volume 1, I expect this to be Danielewski's masterpiece.

Still, I have mixed feelings recommending it when it's primarily the "promise" of good work rather than the "reality" of good work.  I suggest the following: if you liked House of Leaves, you should give this book a try, but know that you'll probably be stuck reading the next couple of volumes before you can abandon the series.  I.e., commit knowing you might not love Volume 1, but it may be worth it later.


Brent Waggoner said...

You going to review the whole thing as it comes out?

Randy said...

Yeah. I can't promise I'm going to stick with it. At his current pace, this is going to be a 13 and a half year project. Who knows what 43 year old Randy is going to be into.

Still, it would be kind of interesting to have an ongoing diary of my reactions to these books.

Brent Waggoner said...

I'm holding 43 year old Randy to it.

Christopher said...

I liked House of Leaves but this looks EXHAUSTING.

Brittany said...

That also means 50 books has to continue for the next 13 years and that Chris won't get tired of reading Randy's Danielewski reviews!