Flipping through the first of the 839 pages of Mark Z. Danielewski's Volume 1 of The Familiar, subtitled One Rainy Day in May, one gets the sense that anything could happen. Like the work for which he is most known, 2000's House of Leaves, and the two other calculatedly form-bending novels in the 16 years since, The Familiar appears again heavily bent on using an extreme array of unusual typeface, alignment, layout, and illustration to bring some disruptive vibrancy to its build. Every 15 pages the way the text has been arranged against the page reconfigures. Some appear nearly blank, while others deform their format in the style of concrete poetry. For someone like myself, who loves nothing more than the chance to find a work of language that innovates on the way a story on paper might be told, the book's ambition is very exciting.
But what is odd about Danielewski, based on The Familiar as well as his other works, is how ambition doesn't appear to sync up with ability. Behind the façade of bizarre typography and stylization, there's something missing, something left desired in the sprawl. Never has this been truer than with The Familiar: Volume 1, the first of an almost hilariously gargantuan proposed set of 27.
For starters, I'm not sure what The Familiar is about, a remark I find amusing coming out of my mouth, being the kind of reader who usually loathes tropes like plot, character, setting, epiphany, meaning. But where in other hands the presence of ambiguity can be exciting, in Danielewski, it just seems flat. Often the book relies on its typography to carry forward what otherwise remains undeveloped, switching modes just in time to get away from actually having to get somewhere beyond its pace. Instead of reinforcing the momentum with equally provocative language—or even, more simply, compelling writing—it is merely the bang and flash of the production that fuels the motor.
This isn't, again, for lack of effort. The novel carries on multiple different character POVs, elicited with conceptually variable manners of speaking, globe-spanning settings, and of course divergent layouts for their dialogue. Each POV is also color-coded by a tiny earmark at the top of the page, a design intended to assist a thorough reader, yet the book seems to be more interested in the perception of an obsession with complexity than complexity itself. Meaning: Despite all the different perspectives and their constraints, much of the writing sounds and feels the same, like a filter on an image shifting only cosmetically the actual foundation. The lack of actual difference in feel between the concepts, and the subsequent lack of anything really interesting happening to any of them, is a hole into which the book flails and hurdles itself toward its absent center.
There is, for instance, a young girl, Xanther, whose epileptic complications cause her to repeat incessant questions about the world. Danielewski uses this as a chance to get weird with layout, splaying "How many rain drops?" across a number of pages. A lot of the scenes involving Xanther end up depicting her and her father in search of a dog (I am not sure why they wanted the dog) and instead finding a cat and bringing home the cat (I am not sure why we're supposed to give a shit about the cat besides the fact that it's probably cute). Interwoven in Xanther's story is her father, Anwar, whose work in game design provides some of the book's more compelling evocations (proving Danielewski isn't devoid of talent, and that perhaps he should rely on language more often than formatting theatrics), but still only semi-absently revolving around references to the structure of the characters as characters, the plot as illusory and hyperbolically blank.
But the traces of such postmodern devices, used to much greater successes in books similar to The Familiar (such as The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara and The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt), can't seem to save it from the fact that there's very little actual meat here, as language or image, nor is the effect of it so new. Even as the book transitions into its other major characters, the voices all seem to bleed together, mostly evoking only cursory observations of their world, constantly riddled with pat stereotypes that bely the one true presence of Danielewski behind them all. Xanther is a tween (she actually says "which, like obvious, duh," and amongst a mostly blank page the "weird typography" includes her describing the cat as "soooooooooooo feeble"); Shnorkh Zildjian, an LA taxi driver, speaks in cringe worthy Borat-like broken English ("What would violin teacher have thought of Shnork's tissue?"); Luther Perez, the book's "gang member," actually talks about his vatos, his homies, without realistic effect.
Throughout these and other voices, the mass of already dated references to Instagram, YouTube, Snoop Dogg, Johnny Knoxville, The Matrix, and so on, create a tone of residual reference, though somehow one mired in bland pop culture, decades passed. It does not feel new, nor thrilling. Instead, it provides the feeling of being in a world created by that guy with the Tom Waits hat on at the coffee shop, maniacally typing so that everyone can hear and see. Despite all of its often arbitrary-seeming conceptual fanfare, it feels patently conservative, flat, the opposite of what a book of such visual heft should actually be. In the end, the bells and whistles don't hold the floor up underneath writing that can't quite hold up its own façade.
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