The Familiar Volume 5: Redwood by Mark Z. Danielewski

My reviews for the first four volumes: One Rainy day in May, Into the Forest, Honeysuckle and Pain, Hades.

Thus we reach the latest novelty of the Familiar experiment: the season finale. The first four volumes slowly drew the disparate characters of the The Familiar, who have spent thousands of beautifully type-faced pages engaging in mischief, violence and introspection, directly into eachother’s paths. At last, we see them meet.

The great majority of Redwood is concerned with a single scene occurring in the Ibrahim’s living room. A gathering of main characters clashing over the fate of the eponymous kitten. It is a perfectly good scene. An interesting scene. Character and plot. It does what a good scene should.

But it’s the same scene repeated by the five different point of view characters present. There’s sundry details revealed in each chapter. Naturally one person will notice things that another does not. This includes some neat bits like seeing the Ibrahim’s comfortable middle-class house and lifestyle observed by other, less-privileged characters when we’ve already spent multiple books listening to Astair and Anwar struggle with money. Hardly enough to justify the repetition though.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a tight focus. Volume 1 comprised a single day, one rainy day in May, which felt lovingly crafted and well-paced, delving into the recursive depths and quotidian trauma a single day can hold. By contrast, volume 5 feels scant, even sloppy. It’s not merely the scene repetition — the writing itself feels imprecise, less sure-footed, the fantastic bits too muddy. I was not captivated nor satisfied in the way I expected to be.

Not everyone is in the Ibrahim’s living room. There’s movement elsewhere. Luther finally catches up with Domingo, though his arc continues to flirt-with but not commit-to the larger drama. The framing stories that open each volume receive conclusions or further clarity. The gruesome youtube clips of men shooting baby animals concludes and is tied into the main plot and wrapped up by Isandorno. The sections following cave people and far-future humans is far more cohesive and sensical, if still opaque.

I’m still on board the Danielewski train. One clumsy episode does not ruin a great TV show either. But it was certainly a let-down having the series first season finale be the weakest book thus far.

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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 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.