Like so many other people in the world, I love Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Undeterred by it’s massive cult popularity, or the predictable whine of, “too-ambitious-for-it’s-own-good.” I freakin’ love it. Not only for it’s massive scope and invigorating originality, but for the equal-parts horrifying/compelling (and surprisingly straightforward) story at the heart of it all.
Consequently, I love Mr. Danielewski. Given that the guy’s list of novels is three books long across a 15 year timeline (and that’s counting his forthcoming book), we Mark Z. fans perk up at rumblings of new work. Fresh pages. Another Denielewski novel. A chance to relive that same experience we had reading House of Leaves.
And we’ve been divided ever since House of Leaves. The 2006 follow-up Only Revolutions—arguably far more ambitious an authorial undertaking—requires the reader alternate between two characters by reading eight pages, flipping the book upside down, reading eight pages, and so on. Intriguing as that sounds (and as beautiful as it is to behold, typographically) the narrative itself works itself out in a bizarre beatnik-speak of virtually incomprehensible linguistics seemingly created for this book alone. It’s Naked Lunch level stuff with a somewhat discernable story nestled somewhere inside. Well, at least it was for me. The funny thing is: I didn’t regret buying or reading it, and I lift it from the shelf fairly often for an admiring thumb-through. I just didn’t get it.
All that brings us to Mr. Danielewski’s forthcoming epic, the 21 volume serial novel The Familiar, whose first installment hits retailers on May 12. The generous folks at Pantheon Books were kind enough to send over an advance proof, and I must confess, I eagerly traversed all 880 pages pretty darn quick. So… what might one expect from the dude who wrote both House of Leaves and Only Revolutions?
Well, in terms of narrative intelligibility (House of Leaves being complex, but very readable, Only Revolutions being virtual gibberish for me), The Familiar is decidedly closer to the House of Leaves end of the spectrum, with occasional Only Revolutions flare-ups. As a piece of fiction, it plays a bit like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia meets Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, in its mysterious mosaic of drastically different narrators, voices, scenes, and locations anchored by a family dynamic and some sense of a cosmic epic at play. The book’s bridge narrative—a lovable 12-year-old misfit girl named Xanther—is more than enough to buoy the other vignettes, even if some of them are pretty difficult to track with (a couple of them, I honestly couldn’t tell you what was going on).
I discovered that, as the first half of the book unfolded in something of a believable, grounded world, I began to sorely miss Danielewski’s typical flare for something a bit otherworldly —that is, until it showed up in someone (or something) called a Narcon.
Wait for the Narcon.
As volume one winds down, a sense of something bigger (and weirder) at work winds up, and I’m left thinking, “Well dang. Where does volume 2 come out?”
Even with a foot-and-a-half in reality, there’s always Mark’s trademark flare for beautiful and compelling typographical tricks, and in this regard The Familiar does not disappoint.
Thing is, The Familiar is supposed to be 21 freaking volumes long, so it’s a bit tough to look for total-clarity in the first installment. Something tells me that we’ll be scratching our heads in collective (and appreciative) amazement the deeper we wade into a work that will presumably require an entire bookshelf to accommodate.
I’m getting my shelf ready.