Review: Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘Familiar’ a monument to semantic encryption


Mark Z. Danielewski’s newest novel, reportedly the first volume of many, is an 880-page tome that, through some curious printer’s alchemy, feels even heavier than even this surfeit of pages would seem to warrant — as though a leaden object had been secreted craftily within its spine. And that wouldn’t shock, for “The Familiar: Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May” is a sprawling postmodern monument to semantic encryption, part paean and part parody, whose action takes place over the course of a day.

Danielewski is known for his unwavering commitment to so-called experimental fiction — that is, nonlinear or difficult fiction — and has had a significant following since his acclaimed first novel, “House of Leaves,” was published in 2000. “The Familiar” will be a delight to fans of “Leaves” for its characteristically elaborate, even baroque physical production as well as its cryptogrammatic content: This, like all of Danielewski’s work, is a verbal structure made for puzzle solvers — cerebral doers of crosswords, readers devoted to decoding, practitioners of mental calisthenics longing to flex and possibly display their muscles.

Set mainly in Los Angeles with side trips to locales across the world, including Singapore and Marfa, Texas, “The Familiar” centers on the family of a teenage girl named Xanther, a precocious, anxious and sweet-natured sufferer of epilepsy who (one suspects but does not know) seems to have been mysteriously anointed for some obscure, still-to-be-revealed greatness, possibly related to kittens and/or “Orbs.” Her father and mother, Anwar and Astair, are also followed closely. Though this family is the core of the action, there are numerous other perspectives as well, including a Mork-from-Ork-type cab driver who speaks pidgin English even in his interior monologues, a sadistic gang leader named Luther and an aging scientist/New Ager named Cas, seeker and finder of vague and possibly supernatural intelligence and who dwells in a trailer in the desert.


Seeming to move at such a snail’s pace, often, that its turgidity becomes a kind of stubborn or even passive-aggressive gesture, “The Familiar” is performance art as well as book — a heterogeneous mosaic of content that can either, depending on your reading preferences, dazzle and intrigue or torment and repel. It eschews continuity of thought for interruption and lucidity for obfuscation; it uses luxurious white space to dramatize one-liners not deep or complex enough to carry a whole page’s weight, then crowds the next two-page spread with inscrutably tiny characters we can’t make out unless we first scurry off to find a magnifying glass.

“The Familiar” is clearly located within a lineage of formal innovation, yet in a sense it’s less innovative (since most of these devices have been used before, though probably not all at the same time) than interdisciplinary. It features colored page corners like an old-fashioned reference volume, scads of typographic eccentricities, pages of photo-like illustration, collage, poetry, a pastiche of epigraphs from cultural sources both pop and high, and smatterings of foreign languages.

This is a novel that’s both brashly contemporary and deeply traditional. The contemporary part is obvious, with a narrative consisting of multiple points of view from multiple cultures and genders, seeking to encompass the world of the video game maker, the world of the immigrant, the world of the grad student/mother, the world of the mystic. But “The Familiar” is also materially traditional, both for its bombast and its coup-like seizing of authority, in a continuum with, say, Proust, Joyce or Pynchon (though in some particulars less accessible than these authors). Like a big man bloviating at a party, it makes no apologies for its enormous requisition of readers’ time and attention: Give yourself to me, its bulk demands. I am worth it.

“The Familiar” is traditional too, in that it asks its readers to return to a culture where instant gratification is neither offered nor expected; where all words, be they ever so minute in their effect, should be taken as sacred; where mental immersion must be dedicated and complete. If you don’t find pleasure in the particular offerings of this immersion, “The Familiar” will be useless to you — yet the same could be said of most literary novels, whose nature is to balance pleasure with pain.

Many passages are impossible to reprint handily in the context of a review like this, because of their prolific use of nonkeyboard symbols, complicated art direction or alternative alphabets. But the following excerpt, a purposefully stern and desiccated address to the reader by a narrative construct, is fairly easy to reproduce: “By contrast, TF-Narcon9 (TOTAL) is too vast to represent. A pretty funny joke though. Ha. Or as Xanther would put it (TOTALLY). Haha. Never let it be said that this TF-Narcon9 has no sense of humor. However, to cover every sensory experience reexperienced through cerebral classification and subsequent evaluations, combined with analytical, affective, or predictive faculties, which all in turn are associated and reassociated and so on…”

At times, such shows of apparent intellectualism (or maybe not?) seem to be challenging us, like the tailors who famously made invisible clothes for the emperor to wear, to be as smart as they seem — or at least not to admit we’re not. Reader, are you Charles Atlas? Or a 97-pound mental weakling? In this way, “Familiar” performs and re-performs its gateway confrontation, the small door in the wall of the citadel that opens into a hidden landscape.


“The Familiar” readers’ eventual mission will be to see beyond the fragmented, often obscure individual narratives to the intents and patterns of the meta-narrative (presumably to be further elucidated in Volume 2, coming in the fall). Those with devout allegiance to the lucid and succinct, like me, may champ at the bit and decide to take their favors elsewhere — but to the intrepid literary cryptographers and meaning sleuths among us, the shifting signposts and pixels of this ciphered text will surely resolve in time from a fractal into a grandiose abstract.

Millet is the author, most recently, of the novel “Mermaids in Paradise.”

The Familiar
Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May

Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon: 880 pp., $25 paper