A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

When I was a kid, there was this religious family in the neighborhood, real devout and sheltered, that I would visit on any pretense simply so I could play their suite of Christian Nintendo games. Specifically, the Noah’s Ark one, where you took control of Noah and scoured the 2d landscape seeking two of each 8-bit animal, stacking them one by one on your head, and heading back to the ark. Check it out.

Also when I was a kid, my parents forced me to attend catechism, which was mostly a disaster. Except this one sequence where each kid was tasked with creating a paper bag animal to perform an Ark presentation, wherein each kid was supposed to mimic the call of their assigned animal in all its cacophonous glory. I was assigned the horse. I had a mean neigh. I came down with an awful flu, barely able to crawl out of bed, mere days prior to the big event and could not participate.

Further kid tales: My aunt, religious in a way no one else in my family was and cognizant of my early love of reading, purchased a series of kids’ bible stories, wherein this little girl I’m pretty sure was named Alice could turn her bible into a magic portal that allowed her to experience various Old Testament tales in-person. Or maybe it included the New Testament too but I forgot about those dull morality lessons in favor of fire and brimstone. Given the format of this piece, you’d expect my favorite story to be Noah’s Ark. But actually it was #2, behind the Tower of Babel, which captures my imagination still.

While it’s unclear if I ever truly believed the Ark existed, it is otherwise crystal clear that the story of Noah fascinated me from a young age. Think about it for a second: God hit the reset button and basically wiped out the entire planet, tasking Noah with the incredibly dubious task of somehow getting two of every single animal into a single ship. There’s barely any mysticism to back him up. Yeah he had a much longer lifespan than regular people, so what? He lived most of it after the adventure. What is the lesson here? There is none. This is one. Don’t fuck with God or you’ll be made extinct in an arbitrary yet precise fashion.

Thus when I picked up this novel at a used bookstore in Fort Bragg and discovered the first chapter was an account of the voyage of the Ark, recounted by an illicit stowaway, I bought it immediately without bothering to consider what the other 9 ½ chapters were about. Not only was it a well-written story about the Ark, but it puts to the forefront many of my practical issues with the story: How do all the animals fit on the ark (there’s more than one), how does Noah find every single animal on earth (he doesn’t), what do they eat while on the ark (the animals), and so on. Barnes’ tone is wry, cynical. Noah is a harsh master commanded by a harsher master and the animal passengers face the consequences.

Then, following the close of chapter 1, what joy to discover that nearly all the rest of the stories have some allusion to arks, to boats, to epic and impractical journeys! Whether they be eighteenth century travelers to Mount Ararat, seeking the Ark’s wreckage, to an art history lesson on The Wreck of the Medusa and a meditation on misrepresenting reality in art to better communicate that very same reality. Other, Ark-less chapters, include Barnes’ rumination on the love, triggered by observing his wife sleeping in the middle of the night: What’s the point? Why love? Is it the answer or the question?

I was surprised to find how much this book has in common with two of my favorite writers, David Mitchell and Italo Calvino. I’ve heard of Barnes but never in relation to those two. Other than the uncommon structure itself, Barnes is clever with language and has clearly considered deeply the various injustices humans lay upon one another.  But where Calvino is playful and insightful and Mitchell is honest but optimistic, Barnes is far harsher, his wit expressed as  bemused cynicism. Humanity is far from a great steward of this planet, as the stowaway of chapter one details, and it’s been a series of self-inflicted misfortune since the flood. Especially in the late 80s, written deep in Cold War terror as this book was. Men especially are oafs. Women, like the animals to Noah, must suffer them (there’s one story as problematic at this sentence).

And in the bleak future to this history, humanity’s next extinction will be self inflicted. As the final chapter details, we won’t even be satisfied with heaven.

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The Familiar Volume 4: Hades by Mark Z. Danielewski

famililar4This far in, my reviews will become much more specific. Previous entries: One Rainy Day in May, Into the Forest, Honeysuckle and Pain.

I’m starting to get worried here. The series has gone from front and center in the new section of Green Apple Books to requiring a kind of sojourn where I have to ask multiple people and look all over for the latest episode. “Looks like there is no review copies this time”, says the clerk. I fear for the series reaching 25 or whatever.

Which is a shame, because Volume 4 is excellent. It finally, finally, begins to get over the issue I had taken in the past few volumes: Too slow. Characters treading water. Hades drives the characters together, develops plot and mystery. Even Shnork, our most aimless character, coughing and driving his cab around for 3 volumes, receives the character development he sorely needed.

Nearly every chapter has some relationship to the greater plot. Anwar is still job hunting, but this thread now takes him down shadowy corporate wormholes. Most of the characters have now converged on LA. Ozgur meets half the rest of the cast, previously isolated. It’s all tense and well connected. Though not flawless. Erstwhile and supremely creepy hitman Isandorno spends most of the book with a mysterious woman, whose identity is heavily hinted at (and it’s intriguing), and then spends his last chapter doing nothing.

Indeed, there’s still quite a bit of teasing — we leave one character with a warehouse full of guns and an idea of what they’re going to do with them. Actually now that I think of it, there’s two characters with cliffhangers involving separate gun mysteries. But with the next volume referred to as the “Season 1 finale”, this feels appropriate, and I’m seriously looking forward to this fall.

The series has flirted with horror and continues to do so. Danielewski achieved notoriety through House of Leaves, of course, and his grasp on spatial horror remains sharp. Xanther’s little sisters are plagued by nightmares (surely the kitten is to blame…), and in one scene, one of them is crying and pointing at a corner, repeating “There is a ladder in the floor.” Instant chills.

The Rifles by William Vollmann (Seven Dreams #6)

the riflesThis is the sixth of the Seven Dreams of William the Blind, but both the third in publication order and the third I’ve read. After the Vikings crashed through Greenland into the New World, amidst saga and song, to encounter The People in The Ice-Shirt, and later the French Jesuits too meet The People in Fathers and Crows, we now journey to Canada and follow three distinct but interwoven threads.

  1. Doomed John Franklin and his quest for the Northwest Passage.

Why did Franklin go north again? We who are interested in him mainly for his gruesome death believe that he did it to die, that he possessed a morbid lemming’s heart whose ventricles were rimmed most dismally.

2. William Vollman’s obsession with the Arctic and the self-actualization it supplies for him. Captain Subzero, Vollman’s alter-ego, is the main character, the “grave-twin” of John Franklin himself. Just how much is fact and how much fiction in this portion is murky; I hope the times Subzero is being a creep to teenage girls is fiction.

3. The plight of the Inuit in the face of white colonialism. In a ploy to ‘claim the Arctic’, among less malevolent but equally destructive notions, the Canadian government force relocated dozens of Inuit living in northern Quebec into Resolute Bay, in the far north. Look at this goddamn map. They lived in tents in the first years. Up there.

They would nearly starve. They would be sexually abused. They weren’t allowed to leave. Some would kill themselves rather than relocate. It took until 2010, twenty years after this novel was written and about seventy five since the relocations began, for the Canadian government to apologize. Forget reparations.

Above all these story threads, the Arctic looms. Dangerous and beautiful and cold. Very, very cold. The Seven Dreams are a tale of North American landscapes and none are as well realized as the impossibly vast North. My favorite part of the novel is Vollmann’s account of the twelve days he spent alone in an abandoned weather station on Isachsen island, some sort of necessary test of masculinity and self-endurance, wherein the weather plunged to -40C and he seemed to almost die each night. It’s almost astounding how many times the point of “It’s really fucking cold there” can be made and shock me all the same.

The arctic is merely Vollmann’s obsession; surely it had to have some kind of special appeal to John Franklin — he came to his death on his fourth arctic voyage afterall. The novel fills in the blanks of what happened to him and his men, though I’d say I found this the least compelling plot thread. Of major interest to me was that it was not poor planning or the cold itself that doomed them, but the new tinned provisions they brought with them, which spoiled well before they should have and also gave the entire crew severe lead poisoning. Franklin himself fell long before the crew attempted their last ditch effort of land-based escape. 

Not simply the title, The Rifles is the chief metaphor of the novel as well. The introduction of rifles by Europeans pretty much annihilated the traditional Inuit way of life. Plus they became dependent on the whites for ammo. The old ways of hunting, which required actual skill and patience, fell to the wayside in favor of quick and effortless rifle kills. Worse, it meant that they could kill many more musk-oxen and carribou and Canada became just about devoid of them in a dramatically short time. Many starved. Franklin’s expedition among them. Vollman lists a dozen quotes by whites on the subject, wherein people seem to be somewhat aware of what’s happening. It’s all very ominous, he notes, but also we can only say this in retrospect. The whites delivered plenty abuses unto the Inuit (and still do), but like any situation where modern mechanization disturbs peoples not privy to their development, what should they have done? Jealously kept the rifles to themselves?

I’m avoiding the last topic I’ll address here because it makes me somewhat uncomfortable and I’m not really sure how to address it: Reepah

Far better realized than either Franklin or Subzero is Reepah, listed in the glossary as “a woman with a beautiful heart”. The mistress of Subzero or maybe Franklin or maybe the Fulmar of Inuit myth, she spins through the narrative as various characters, typically being both loved and exploited by the former characters. Possibly impregnated by them. Maybe William Vollmann/Subzero brought her to visit him in New York. Maybe she killed herself. It’s here the fact/fiction divide is most maddening. Is Reepah real? If so, how bad was she exploited by Vollmann? Is she a metaphor for Inuit exploitation? If so, that kind of sucks too. Whatever or whoever she is, she’s magnetic and I’m sad she’s dead, real or not.

Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme

sixtystoriesI’m not sure what the hell POSTMODERNISM actually means, but I do know that some of my favorite authors or novels are classified as such. David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo. I’ve occasionally heard another name bandied about, less well-known but highly influential. That would be Donald Barthelme.

I want to say that Barthelme’s relation to those other guys is quite shallow, and he does feel entirely unique, but in places it hews very closely to what will become Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. He also deals with themes of alienation and changing cultural epochs like some of those other guys do, but it always feels secondary to what he’s truly after: some silly literary alchemy based on clever use of language, humor, and an understanding of how dialogue ought to work. It results in a very specific feel. Barthelme seems far more interested in what language can do, what one word placed next to another can make, rather than communicating any theme or point. 

There’s a mention somewhere on the exterior of the book that Barthelme once wrote a popular children’s novel. This is hardly a surprise when half the stories read like some kind of warped, adult Dr. Seuss novel (with a similar amount of words). If the Seuss comparison isn’t convincing or compelling, take instead one of the best stories in the whole collection, The Emerald, wherein a witch is seduced by the moon and seven years later gives birth to a talking emerald, much sought after by various ne’erdowells including one evil wizard seeking to extend his life. Tell me that’s not a Roald Dahl pitch.

In addition to The Emerald, I’d include my other favorites as City Life, where two women move to a city as roommates and engage in all sorts of social hyjinx/satire while involving themselves in virgin births and magical bards. And A Manual for Sons, which, among other things, is a bizarre list of various kinds of fathers. Take for instance, the ‘leaping father’:

The leaping father is not encountered often, but exists. Two leaping fathers together in a room can cause accidents. The best idea is to chain heavy-duty truck tires to them, one in front, one in back, so that their leaps become pathetic small hops.

If the collection has a weakness, it’s that some of the stories are repetitive. Barthelme has an iconic style and it’s pretty sweet, but it’s all he does. It’s not quite the same story, but a few variants of 3 or 4 types: nonsense conversation between two people, written account of confidante of famous person (say, Robert Kennedy or Montezuma or the phantom of the opera),  or quirky explanation of something (fatherhood, songwriting)  reproduced over and over.

He even re-uses character names so it feels vaguely like an improv troupe switching clothes and plotlines but performing basically the same show. It’s worse when the topics for these are really obvious/banal (There’s two stories based on ‘The Conservatory’ that just repeat the same tale about fabricated elite class clubs). But once you start to feel a little bored or fed up, you end up bumping into a brilliant story two pages later.

Good stuff.

The Familiar Volume 3: Honeysuckle and Pain by Mark Z. Danielewski

TheFamiliarVolume3

Here we are with Volume 3 of my favorite series prominently featuring a scrying orb.

My review of Volume 3 could almost be a copy-paste of Volume 2.

Xanther’s bond with the sinister Familiar deepens. Anwar worries about code and money. Astair worries about sex and money. Luther chews metal. Jingjing smokes. Isandorno unemotionally observes great violence. Cas is on the run. Shnorrk drives his cab around and ponders being the most irrelevant character. Ozgur collects even more scintillating clues that will surely come together, some day.

In Volume 3, there’s actually conjecture that the characters might all start converging in LA. And one character even, ever so briefly, sees another one. Granted, it’s a 2 second long accidental non-meeting, but it’s there!

In other words, the series remains a very slow burn. But it also remains a pleasure to read. The swirling text and tension-via-page flipping and word arrangement remains enchanting. I just like holding and reading the damn thing. The characters were already easily identified by their fonts, but now I can just glance at the color coding on the top right and think “Oh, pink, I’ll have a long Xanther chapter next”. It has become… familiar.

The Familiar is extremely tight on both technology and current events. The nerdy characters discuss modern video games. The characters react to say, the Isla Vista Killings or ISIS executions. But even now, we’re starting to outpace, in real time, the story. It’s still Summer 2014 there. Anwar attends E3 and beholds games that have already been released. Should this series reach its end, at 26 or 27 or whatever volumes, we’re going to be many years ahead (barring major time skips). It’s set to produce the heretofore unseen trick of going from fully up-to-date to capturing a past moment in history in the same series.

The Dirty Dust by Máirtín Ó Cadhain

dirtydustDon’t know if I am in the Pound grave, or the Fifteen Shilling grave? Fuck them anyway if they plonked me in the Ten Shilling plot after all the warnings I gave them. The morning I died I calls Patrick in from the kitchen, “I’m begging you Patrick, I’m begging you, put me in the Pound grave, the Pound grave! I know some of us are buried in the Ten Shilling grave, but all the same…”

— first paragraph of the novel and introduction to our protagonist, Catriona Paudeen, newly interred in the cemetery clay.

You see, all the characters in The Dirty Dust are dead. And they will not shut up about it. All the petty squabbles, the timeless gossip, matters of inheritance and land ownership, continue underground. Indeed, Catriona as a corpse, much like in life, is almost entirely motivated by a feud with her hated sister, Nell. Her greatest wish is that no one be buried in the cemetery before her.

The novel is entirely dialogue. Unattributed dialogue. You get the hang of who is speaking by the manner in which they speak. Some are really obvious like the guy who is always bitching about his faulty heart or the guy always cursing Billy the Postman (who married his wife shortly after his death) or the french guy or the guy who starts every sentence with “Bloody tear and ‘ounds, Catriona!”, but sometimes it’s much less clear, often on purpose. Just a cacophony of voices of the dead. On top of that, some characters don’t even get names, but are referred to by their relationship to others — Nora Johnny’s daughter or Tom’s old one, for instance. There’s also two different Tom’s (Redser Tom and Fireside Tom) and Tim Top ‘O the Road. A motley crew. It achieves the desired effect of making you, the reader, feel like you’re in a crowded pub catching pieces of conversation without ever having the full context.

Part of the mystique of The Dirty Dust is that it was written in 40s, in irish, and only just now translated into english, partially due to the mistaken notion that O Cadhain, an ardent IRA supporter, never wished it to be translated. There’s much praise on the cover that it’s the greatest novel ever written in irish. The praise goes further into grandiose ultimate truth territory by declaring that the novel reveals some axiomatic elements of human nature. I guess there’s something to it. By reading some humans gossip, you can extrapolate that, yes, all humans gossip. Feels kind of banal and useless though.

Instead, the real triumph of this novel is how perfectly O Cadhain wrote dialogue that sounds like how people speak. This is no easy feat. The repetition, missayings, inconsistencies, and contradictions of human speech cannot be directly transcribed and remain enjoyable (not to mention sensical) to read. So it’s a real skill to be able to achieve that effect anyway. Behold, an excerpt, at random:

– What kind of cut or shape of woman was she?

– A long tall sally. Blondy hair dripping down her back.

– Earrings?

– Of course.

– Dark eyes?

– I haven’t a clue what kind of eyes she had. I wasn’t thinking about them…

– A broad bright grin?

– She was gawping away at the Master all right. But she wasn’t gawping at me…

– Did you hear where she hangs out?

– No I didn’t. But she’s working at Barrie’s Bookies, if there’s such a joint. The Derry Lough Master and the Priest’s sister are getting married next month. They say he’ll get a new school.

– The one with the pants?

– The very one.

– Isn’t that weird she’d marry him?

– Why so? Isn’t he a fine looking specimen, and he doesn’t touch a drop.

– But all the same. It’s not every man would want to marry a woman who wears trousers. They’d be a bit more pernickety than other women…

– Ah, cop on and get an ounce of sense! My own son is married to a French one in England and you wouldn’t have the least clue on God’s earth what she was gabbling on about no more than the gobshite buried over here. Shouldn’t she be even more pernickety than any one that wears a pair of pants…

There’s no narrative arc. The book could have gone on another three hundred pages. Or three thousand. Or it could have ended two hundred sooner. A bunch of corpses nattering, endlessly, ad infinitum. This is why I’m going to categorize The Dirty Dust as something interesting to read, something I don’t regret reading. But, while sometimes funny or engaging, it wasn’t all that enjoyable. Not one of those books I just can’t wait to dive back into, but one of those books that left an impression somewhere; I can still hear the voices blathering on down below in the dirty dust.

Passages by Ann Quin

passagesHe    Are you happy or unhappy?
She   That’s not a very important question

This is a story of depression and annihilation and co-dependence and/but it’s very beautiful.

A man and a woman wander through Mediterranean beach towns, possibly all on the brink of war, searching for the woman’s lost brother, who may or may not be dead, and for themselves, neither of which they can seem to find.

Passages is split into quarters. The first and third are the woman’s point of view, which comes as segments of description prose-poetry and staccato sentences, not unlike A Girl if a Half Formed Thing though far more comprehensible and prettier. She alternates between the first person and the third person describing herself, a trick to modulate her distance from events. The man’s portions are his journals, relating the same events as his lover’s, sprinkled with dreams and self reflection. Mad ramblings on Greek mythology and Talmudic script are scribbled in the margins.

The two spend less time actually looking for the missing brother than they do running from a Kafkaesque squad of secret police they’re convinced are following them. And they spend more time than both of those things having rough sex with strangers, or thinking about doing so. Bondage, sadomasochism, whips, and chains. They both fantasize about rape, and there’s segments where it seems like maybe the man is a rapist or maybe the woman is being raped, but it’s hard to really say if any of that is actually happening; more like being at the mercy of sexual primacy and pushed along by a combination of inertia and the force of others allows someone to avoid the fact of their own agency.

In describing this, I fear I make it sound like this a narrative tale of people doing these things; it’s not. It’s fragments, passages. From one paragraph to the next, there may be little or no thread or correlation at all. It’s mosaic.

I read it on the beach and found it excellent.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimar McBride

A Girl IsRather than try and explain the style of this novel, let’s read an excerpt:

I do not want. I do not want to hear this. But suddenly it’s clawing all over me. Like flesh. Terror. Vast and alive. I think I know it. Something terrible is. The world’s about to. The world’s about to. Tip. No it isn’t. Ha. Don’t be silly. Stupid. Fine. Fine. Everything will be. Fine. Chew it lurks me. See and smell. In the corner of my eye. What. Something not so good.

And that’s one of the more comprehensible paragraphs. A staccato rush of the unnamed protagonist’s thoughts and experiences, trapped inside her head which is likewise trapped inside a cruel, cruel world.

Did I like it? Yes and no and. Yes. Sometimes, it’s too difficult to follow and too much is lost. Especially in the opening chapters where our half-formed girl is literally so, being a foetus in her mother’s womb while her older brother is operated on for a brain tumor. Elsewhere, it’s beautiful. It drives the prose into a breakneck pace even when not much is physically happening. When the protagonist’s mind is racing, the language itself delivers the same sense.

That’s the first most striking thing about the novel. The second is its uncompromisingly brutal and harrowing plot.

At first I thought this was going to be another iteration of the timeworn tale of stoic Irish working class misery. Overbearing catholic mother. Absent father. Financial issues. Social issues. Small town woes. But no, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Early in the novel, at age thirteen, the protagonist is raped by her uncle and the novel sidesteps into sexual abuse and its fallout. Make no mistake: this isn’t a side plot or a stepping stone or a little dash of thematic oomph, this is a book about relentless trauma and never once is there a bright side or an upside or a silver lining, but just a constant plunging fall, from chasm to cliff to chasm to cliff, cut and bloodied and tripping further and further while you wonder how it can even get any worse. But, of course, before the novel ends and it does get worse, by that point you already knew exactly how it would.

I desperately hoped it would be otherwise.

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

radiance!Here’s a book I liked but am mildly disappointed because it has all the elements of something I should love.

  • A twisting, unique narrative: the story moves not merely back and forth in time, but also into the actual screenplays and in-film narrative of its cast of directors and set people. A fictional filmography essential to the plot (like Infinite Jest!)
  • Good writing: Rare among SFF writers, Valente gives a damn about prose/style/craft and the sentence to sentence work of Radiance is quite good.
  • A fun sci fi premise: Radiance jumps around an alternate history of the early 20th century, where space travel rapidly exceeded the pace of our world’s and all the planets of the solar system turned out to be habitable.

A woman is missing. Severin Unck, the most skilled documentarian of her time and daughter to Percival Unck, a renowned pulp genre director. After shooting a series of films across the solar system — from hunger strikes on one of Mars’ moons to the final cruise of Neptune’s city-boats before the planet goes behind the sun — Severin sets off to Venus. Venus is unique among the planets because it is home to the callowhales — enormous, country sized beasts (or maybe plants, who knows?) — from which humans harvest ‘callowmilk’. Callowmilk is basically oil ramped up to a hundred. It’s an essential ingredient in everything from fuel to heroine. A village full of callowmilk divers recently disappeared — well the people disappeared, the village was smashed to bits — and Severin and her crew set out to film it.

And then she disappeared too.

We never see Severin’s point of view. Just that of the people around her, or segments from her films. There’s a point early in the novel where a character is watching one of Severin’s documentaries and observing how everything is staged. Her hair, clothes, the lighting, tone of voice, pauses, the dialogue itself — everything is framed completely by the director despite its aim of authenticity and gritty realness. It’s effective. And true. Most documentaries have an angle, manipulate their facts just the right way, and lie by omission. Doesn’t it gall to discover all this when reading about it later on the internet after being impressed upon, had your passions risen by a particularly good documentary?

This chapter lays a pall over the rest of the novel. You know you can’t trust anything Severin says. You know you can trust her dad even less, and large swathes of the book aren’t actually happening in your run-of-the-mill narrative sense, but are excerpts from a new film written by Dad to honor Severin.

The book only sort of wants us to buy into this criticism though. It’s actually married quite closely to these characters and their fates. From the overly saccharine excerpts of Severin’s childhood (she’s just so precocious) to the brooding fate of the child Severin found on Venus shortly before her disappearance. What I mean is that the gorgeous styling is not the point of the book, the story is still the point of the book and I just don’t trust these characters or feel invested in their twice fictionalized fates.

Furthermore, and I’m still mulling this notion over because I’m aware it sounds half-formed and contradictory, I started to rotate this ‘is she lying?’ lens from Severin to Catherynne M. Valente, the author herself! I understand this sounds ridiculous. It’s a work of fiction, of course the author is ‘lying’, she’s making it all up and we all know this. But I mean more in the tonal manipulation the narrative warned us Severin is employing. I started to notice the commonalities between author and heroine. From the blurb calling this “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space-opera mystery”, which is some mystical in-group nonsense to the almost too-self aware look at me look at me retellings of old advertisements and gossip rags. Some indefinable sense that this is less a novel and more like a too-personal performance of which I wasn’t supposed to be able to see the strings. But I did, and felt mildly embarrassed for everyone involved. Like the child Severin wasn’t Severin but instead it was Valente writing Severin without knowing she was writing herself. This was followed up in the acknowledgements where Valente reveals she’s the daughter of a filmmaker and the phrasing Severin uses with her lover “I love you right in the face”, she deploys to her lover. So the question is, is Valente playing me like Severin is playing her audience?? Don’t all good authors? Should I let her play me?

With a more absorbing tale and dramatis personae, I think the answer would have been a resounding yes, willingly or not. I wasn’t sold. I gush enough about Infinite Jest on this blog but to compare to a similar conceit, even though I know David Foster Wallace was making it up, I still believed James Incandenza made those movies. I could find them, somewhere. Complete. By contrast, Severin’s films were a mere author-brain construct.

So it’s ultimately a beautifully stylistic romp, that lacks character depth and some sort of immersive spice. The first part makes it worth reading, one hundred percent. But it also left me wanting something more.

The Familiar Volume 2: Into the Forest by Mark Z. Danielewski

familarv2

Two volumes in the same series in one year! Some of my favorite and the most surprising books of the year, and not just because they prominently feature a scrying orb. Can he keep up this pace?

Review for Volume 1 is here. This one will contain some minor spoilers from book 1.  

Volume 1 was likened to the pilot of a TV show. There was a few main story arcs — Xanther and her family discovered the Familiar, in the form of a helpless, blind kitten. Luther resolved the immediate action with Hopi, by killing him (twice!); jingjing dances, learns of psychodrugs, finds out his magical aunt’s kitten is missing. Small plots sort-of reached a conclusion point and the action was tightly packed into a single rainy day in May. V2 is more like the follow up episode — everyone resets and returns to their normal daily routine, more time passes, and seeds of the greater plot are sown.

The thing is — not much happens. Actual plot movement only really occurs in Xanther’s chapters, as what we already guessed starts to manifest — that kitten is bad news. And Cas, the bearer of the mysterious Orb, which we still don’t know what it does (but definitely ties some major things together) also sees movement, reaches an end-beat. And each major point of view character can probably be linked to at least one other in this book, instead of being a jumble of disparate stories. But Luther’s story doesn’t really touch on the happenings of V1, and he kind of treads water. Isandorno the Mexican gangster has almost has zero development, but at least he has the creepiest chapters still. Shnorhk, the Armenian cab driver, two volumes in a row, has zero plot; I was intrigued when the first book flirted with the notion that the Armenian genocide was somehow tied to the greater evil behind The Familiar, but that idea had no presence in V2.

So even at two books a year (Volume 3 is next June), it’s an extremely slow burn. There was a point where a chapter ended with a character’s dire and very uncertain fate, and by glancing at the color coded chapter headings visible from the side of the book, I wondered is that character dead or does he simply have no more chapters this volume? The TV show analogy falls apart a bit because in TV, you have those gaps between seasons, not episodes.

The writing and visual design is still inventive and top notch. The motif of creating rain drops with the word raindrop from V1 is repeated, instead using simple hash lines to create pine trees, which become a forest, both this volume’s title (into the forest) and the metaphor triggered in Xanther’s consciousness. Indeed, the conclusion to Xanther’s story in this one is relayed entirely by images, no prose, just text swirling into illustration. It’s pleasant to read, regardless of story arc momentum. Like the first one, I had difficulty moving on to my next book; played Hearthstone on my phone on the bus instead of reading. Looking forward to next June.