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

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

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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.

The Familiar: Volume 1 by Mark Z. Danielewski

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how many raindrops?

 

One rainy day in May, 2014, a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated but absolutely absorbing events happen. A 13 year old girl with epilepsy tries not to lose herself contemplating how to count all the raindrops in the sky; a gangster initiates a strange new recruit; a hard-boiled detective contemplates his love affair with LA; in Singapore, weird shit is happening; in Texas, weird shit is happening; plus several other plotlines. By the end of this book, volume 1 of 27 (!!), very few of the stories connect in anything but general atmosphere, but like the engaging serial TV dramas it evokes, I can’t wait to figure out how to they all come together.

 

how many raindrops how many raindrops how many

 

Mark Danielewski of House of Leaves fame, occasionally accused of gimmickry, is known for breaking down the traditional novel format by altering typography and spacing to match the narrative content, inserting images, changing text axises (causing you to flip the book around at various angles), and literary-mathematical puzzles. House of Leaves example: Characters crawling in a tight space means the text itself shrinks and takes up dramatically less space on the page. For several pages. The Familiar example: Xanther, our epileptic and anxiety-ridden protagonist ponders how to plot the number of raindrops falling from the sky and the text itself is twisted into falling rain, puddles. As Xanther’s unease mounts, the image is rearranged to confuse the eyes and trigger her anxiety in the reader. It works!

Likewise, characters spend a lot of time thinking, especially Xanther’s parents, and their thoughts are distributed in nested parentheticals (It’s occasionally hard to read (but it’s more like people actually think (do you reflect in clear sentences all the time?)) that do a great job of revealing character’s desires and concerns (thus ends my example of nested parentheticals)).

 

how many raindrops

 

Sometimes you’re reading one sentence or one word per page. This arouses an immense and inexplicable amount of hostility from some readers/reviewers. Like challenging form is some kind of literary offense. Danielewski’s single word pages have delivered superior content to many five hundred word pages I’ve read. One thing I will allow: Danielewski is a skilled writer, but it is the style and composition of the novel that is his unique and lasting skill; the multi-plotted storyline of The Familiar is reminiscent of other authors (David Mitchell comes to mind immediately) and while it’s quite good, it wouldn’t stand up as well as a standalone vanilla text. But the style is not an affectation — it’s deeply rooted in the conception of the novel itself — wondering what The Familiar would be like without all the stylistic, typographic, and narrative quirks is missing the point.

 

how many

 

Danielewski is a nerd. All his books pull deeply from sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Pulp detective stories. A plot line in the book involves Xanther’s dad, a video game dev, and there’s segments of his code on pages of the book, discussion of which physics engine to license. The Matrix is key. There’s a hilarious aside where the dog-fighting gangster character, Luther, compares his life to that of Michael Vick. Indeed, Danielewski does not shy from current events — the characters engage with modern smartphone tech: skype, instagram, etc. It shortens the gap for the made up social media apps in the novel, which will absolutely become more important in future volumes.

Future volumes I will assuredly read. I love this stuff.

 

raindrops?