The best way to start this post is by saying that I think Mark Danielewski is a fantastic writer. I loved House of Leaves. The story was interesting and creepy, the form was inventive and original, and I was hooked after only a few pages. Alas, this isn’t a review for House of Leaves, but is instead an examination of The Familiar: Volume 1 and why it has not worked (for me) as well as Danielewski’s previous books.
I think part of the fault lies with me. Unlike my approach to House of Leaves, I kind of picked up The Familiar out of the blue. I had an idea what I was getting into but my mind was not in the right place. There were also two books on my nightstand that I could not wait to read and that I was obviously more excited for. In other words, I was not prepared. So, now that I’ve owned up to my part of the blame lets move onto the book.
As the title mentions, I did not read this book to completion. I still plan to, but for now I’ve had enough. Being about half way through (around page 400) my favorite aspect so far has to be the style. It’s typical Danielewski, solid prose morphing into chaotic and/or simplistic pages that can contain one word to hundreds of words. While I loved the style in House of Leaves, I’d argue it works even better here. The pages where Xanther (the main character and a 12 year old girl) goes into her quesion song are beautiful. Her repetitive and rambling thoughts flow across these pages looking like the rain pouring down around her. Each of the other eight character’s stories take on their own complex forms as well. This turns each section of the book into a unique experience and something you have to approach from a completely different angle. However, the form is really the only thing that worked for me.
I’m not saying the characters are flat (they’re not) or the story is unoriginal (also not) but there wasn’t enough of either to keep me reading. Every 10-30 pages the narrating character is changed, which is not necessarily a bad thing, unless you don’t give the reader enough time to care about them. Which is exactly what happened to me. They’re interesting people but the constant shift in perspective meant I couldn’t see enough of them, or they’re stories, to stay invested. I’ve come to understand that this book is the first of twenty-seven planned volumes and, as such, is meant to be an introduction to what is sure to be an expansive story. Still, I’m not sure a writer can ask his readers to delve 400 plus pages into a novel before the story even starts to pick up speed.
This brings up a ton of questions regarding how much work the author should be doing for a reader. I am all for ambigious plots, language, and challenging prose. I don’t mind, and even enjoy, piecing together the narrative as it is given to me. However, Danielewski asks us to do much more than that. He asks the reader to dissect sections written in extremely shoddy english mixed with madarin and russian. He wants us to take mysterious hints and descriptions and put them in our back pocket for later, despite the fact that we don’t know if we’ll even need them. Sure, in House of Leaves he did not give us all the answers, but he supplied enough of them to keep people interested. We knew the characters, their motivations, and the stakes. Here, at least half-way through the book, we know none of that. Instead of full portraits I felt like I was getting snippets of each character and I found myself asking, why do I care? Give me a reason to care! Besides the stories connected via family members the rest made the book seem like a collection of random novella’s and short stories pulled apart and rammed into a book.
I know what people who’ve read this book are saying. Don’t be so impatient, answers are coming. I understand that, and I will return to this book. I am positive that, by the end, I’ll be blown away. However, right now, I don’t feel like waiting until then. And I think that reveals the major flaw with this first installment to The Familiar. Unless I am completely dedicated to the style/format of this book as well as to Danielewski himself, the book risks losing me as a reader. Most of the people I know (who are not as crazy about fiction as I am) would have given up on this well before 400 pages. Does that matter? Probably not. Does Danielewski care? Absolutely not. But I firmly believe that one of the things that makes good fiction good is that it reels the reader in like no other medium can. Only books take place completely in your mind, but this books feels like it takes place on the page. It does not complete the circuit, the agreement, we all join in when we write or read something. From the author’s mind, to the page, to the reader’s mind. Instead, the best aspect of the book, the form, sticks out the most due to the plot’s and characters’ lack of presence which grinds said circuit to a halt. The result is a story that has a hard time getting inside the reader’s mind as its most endearing qualities link it to the material nature of the page itself. Some may say thats fair and that the reader is meeting the author halfway in this circuit. Thats a valid point that I cannot disagree with, but in this instance it instead felt like the author wasn’t doing enough. In the end, after 400 pages of feeling lost I grew tired of putting in the effort required to read this book because I felt like I was getting nothing from it. Was it my fault for being unprepared to take this journey or the author’s fault for not doing more of the work for me? I have no freaking clue.
What make’s Danielewski such a special writer is that his books bring up questions like the ones I’ve just struggled to talk about. No other writer manages to challenge the status quo quite like Danielewski. So, if you like confusing plots, beautifully realized textual experimentation, and (at times) extremely challenging prose then give The Familiar: Volume One a read. But don’t be like me, read it all the way through. And if you don’t like those things, I can’t really say much because I am like me and I haven’t this finished book. Instead, I started The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. It’s out of this world amazing and my very much in this world mediocre review will be coming soon.