On the Doorstep

Review of The Familiar, Volume 1: “One Rainy Day in May” by Mark Z. Danielewski

 Admirers of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves who pick up his enormous new volume will be surprised at how inviting it is—how linear in thrust, how accessible. Since the novel is intended as the first of twenty-seven volumes (the details can be found here), with Volume 2: “Into the Forest” scheduled for October publication, it seems natural to assume that The Familiar, Volume 1: “One Rainy Day in May” will prove a work of truly forbidding complexity.

Danielewski’s first novel, the immensely successful House of Leaves, consistently challenges its less than-than-committed readers:  Johnny Truant’s footnotes (the middle set of three) interrupt exciting passages, go on too long, and manage to punish (although in different ways) both those readers who have grown to care about Truant and those who could not manage to read the notes in their entirety. The immediate observation about “One Rainy Day in May”—and most observations, this early in Danielewski’s project, must needs be provisional—is that the new novel presents far fewer obstacles to a first reading than does House of Leaves. Not because the narratives of each of the nine major protagonists are color-coded on their pages’ upper-outside corners, nor that the first and last pages of each chapter are time- and place-stamped (these are merely convenient), but because each narrative sets into motion a story that is linear as a vector. When there are interruptions by third parties—and there are many—they come as brief comments amid the flow of action, as though spoken by a chorus whose identity will at some point become clearer, rather than, as in House of Leaves, long footnotes or orthogonal interpolations that compel the reader to uncouple from one sustained discourse and follow another.

This ease of entry is important, for Danielewski’s “story”—nine discrete narratives, plus other material not so easily categorized—is taking the form of something extremely complicated. All nine stories take place on the same mid-May day in 2014, all of them told in the third person, and limited to the perspective of a single individual. Each narrative—of a twelve-year-old girl, a young LA gang leader, an Armenian-born taxi driver, to name a few—is presented in its own layout and font to aid identification.

Although the schema does not privilege any one character over the others, the “center” of the novel is clearly the girl Xanther, whose parents’ stories constitute two of the other narratives, and whose five chapters give her more space than any other character. In an unlabeled section (its pages unnumbered) that stands at the novel’s center, an entity that has been commenting upon the text suddenly identifies itself and offers some information about what we are reading. The only character to get more than a passing mention is Xanther:

And Xanther is extraordinary. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that. Adorable too. Loves magic tricks, scary movies, scary video games, painting her fingernails, experimenting with C++, watching Speculative Fiction, or what her friend Che calls “Speculative Science.” We’ll meet him later. Unlike many of my subsets, Xanther remains captivated by the scurry of life around her, whether in the rustle of branches or how fog slips down a steep hill. Both starlight and LED light enchant her. She could chase fireflies for hours but would never cap the jar.

Fearless, inquisitive, loving, Xanther possesses every quality to catch the sympathy of a reader. Indeed, the just-adolescent girl—resourceful yet vulnerable, neither a child nor quite a woman and, Roger Zelazny once wrote, “at the point in her life where all young girls are most beautiful and most pathetic”—seems especially attractive to male writers. From Dickens’s Little Nell and Henry James’s Maisie to the young protagonists of Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Charles Portis’s True Grit, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, and recent novels by Geoff Ryman, Jonathan Lethem, and David Mitchell, the intellectually precocious but not yet sexually mature girl seems emotionally engaging and (perhaps crucially) comprehensible to men. The appearance of this familiar figure—as straightforward an incarnation as that in the new Pixar film Inside Out—is perhaps the most conventional element in Danielewski’s new novel.

As tangled as its structure is, one can descry the shape of House of Leaves: it comprises the professionally annotated edition of a manuscript discovered and “edited” by a troubled young man, a manuscript that purports to discuss a documentary film. While easier to read, the first volume of The Familiar offers us few hints as to the final work’s overall design. Four (by my count) sections precede the title page announcing Volume 1, and might be taken as prologues to the entire work. Their nature is unclear, although one appears to originate in the far future and another in the prehistoric past, suggesting enormous vistas whose relationship to each other will presumably become clear in succeeding volumes. The unnumbered central section offers a bit more clarification; an iteration (typographically distinct, as all such have been) that has been making unannounced appearances throughout the novel, abruptly introduces itself: “I’m a Narrative Construct. Narcon for short.” This Narcon—there are two others—is chatty and seems to explain much, though what it confides finally tantalizes more than it illuminates, and moreover seems subject to censorship from yet another entity, not otherwise known. When the Narcon declares that “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,” we perhaps get closer to Danielewski’s intent: to tell the story of everything. House of Leaves curls inward on itself, but The Familiar moves forward like a wavefront, its every section (however initially bewildering) comprising narrative, as in “story,” as in What Happens.

Before the novel and the day is out, all nine of the distinct characters encounter something extraordinary. Some have led hitherto mundane lives, while others have long dealt with wonder, which they now find kicked up to a higher level. 

There was real terror here. Beyond whatever obvious extensions Cas could easily foresee, whether at the hand of local police, federal agents, or even some abstract laws twisted enough to decry them as traitors, terrorists, seditious to the point of world toppling. Forget jail cells or street-corner executions. This was something else. To have put so much out there and watch it be swallowed without a trace.

Cas is owner and co-inventor of the Orb, a viewing device capable of bridging time and space that has driven its creators into hiding from a powerful and malevolent secret organization; her musings are presented in a prose that is vivid but concise and straightforward. But the left-hand margin of the paragraphs on this (right-hand) page all bulge inward, as do the right margins of the opposite page. To look at the open book is to see here an empty circle within the lines of print: a vacancy (or Orb) like the limb of the eclipsing Moon moving across the disk of the Sun. This typographical Orb first appears on the chapter’s first page; by chapter’s end it occupies dead center of the page.

This combination of normalized prose and pictoral typography is reversed in other sections, such as the one set in Singapore, about the young man JingJing and Tian Li, the older woman everyone calls “auntie”:

jingjing love the parks too. he and auntie same like that. botanical gardens abruthen, but also just sit in toa payoh, pearl’s hill, or emerald park. or cross over to sentosa to lay backs down in the sand, jingjing finding monster cards in the clouds, tian li swinging her arms around like repelling monkey. green both their thing. even if  , xanh lục, [ ], 綠色, зеленый,  , are still not enough to know what that means. Words so tua kang. Words need worlds in order to be words. Worlds though don’t need words in order to be words.

The brackets here designate a word printed in an alphabet that I cannot reproduce (I was lucky to manage the Cantonese). The Russian word, “zelenie,” means green, as does “xanh lục” (Vietnamese), as well as and 綠色 (a subtle distinction, a helpful website tells me), and presumably the other as well. There is a lot of this in the JingJing chapters, and often the reader can work the meaning out through context. If you can’t, and you find this annoying, you are certainly not alone.

And what “happens” in this 839-page tome?  The nine characters are all confronted with problems, some urgent, but the closest thing to a climax takes place when Xanther rescues a kitten and brings it home. Cats, and sounds perhaps made by a cat, have figured throughout the novel, though only fleetingly. Clearly there was something about the kitten (and Xanther’s role in saving it from drowning) that partakes of the supernatural; almost certainly it is the “familiar,” as in witch’s familiar, of the title. Every use of the word in the text is printed in a distinct color (as was “house” in House of Leaves), but these have all been as adjectives, not the noun. The familiar has appeared, perhaps repeatedly, but only by implication.

In Danielewski’s 2005 novella, The Fifty Year Sword, the words “Then what happened?” occupy the entirety of one page. It is the question that Danielewski wants us to ask at every moment, although “What just happened?” may sometimes occur to us as easily. The second volume will certainly tell us more, although “What just happened?” will likely remain a frequent refrain for some time to come. Popular press reviews are already describing “One Rainy Day in May” as a “doorstop,” but a better term might be doorstep—the threshold of a vast edifice whose dimensions we, standing on the verge, can only begin to discern.


The Familiar, Volume 1: “One Rainy Day in May”
By Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon, 2015; 839 pages