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Will 'The Familiar' Kill The Novel? No, But It Comes Close

For five minutes, I thought this was it — the novel that was going to kill the novel. The book which, finally, was going to bridge that psychological, ideological and semantic gap between the fusty old books of our grandparents' age (just a bunch of words on paper representing characters, plot, action logically progressing to a known and comprehensible conclusion) and the mythical books of our future (which would have none of this, being composed exclusively of smells, or written on lasers or whatever). Pretty much since the publication of the first book and the birth of the first literary critic, the one has been telling the other that it is over, donezo, yesterday's medium fit only as a stepping stone to something finer, more pure, more refined.

And everyone forever has been wrong.

But for 50 pages or 80 or maybe even 100, I felt like this — this! — was really gonna be the book that threw a conclusive rigging across that gulf between novel and graphic novel. As I ripped through the opening of Mark Z. Danielewski's new thing called The Familiar and held the book sideways and read about money and cavemen and the end of the world, I felt an engine cycling up in my chest. A turbine, fed by possibility, milking fuel out of the The Familiar's slick opening pages, its innovative typesetting, comic book boxes of text, illustrations and, most of all, its language. Danielewski, man ... The dude can sing. I could not for the life of me tell you what was happening. Who was who or what was what. But for these few, brief, thrilling moments, I believed.

It was the parentheses that ruined it for me. The parentheses and the fact that it is an 840-page book about nothing. About noise and light and rain and a girl and a dog.

"It was the parentheses that ruined it for me. The parentheses and the fact that it is an 840-page book about nothing. About noise and light and rain and a girl and a dog."

Let's start with the parentheses though because it was the parentheses — so many damn parentheses — that burned me first. Single sets of parentheses (like this) I can handle. But single parentheses aren't enough for the modern novelist. No, it's the multiple, nested parentheses. The ones that (standing like marking posts (or like bulwarks against comprehension (truly)) in the middle of otherwise harmless sentences) sprout like beards in Brooklyn or tattoos on bartenders — signifiers of allegiance to clan or clade and, in this case, de rigueur proof of belonging to the family of style-obsessed modernists.

What's worse is that Danielewski uses this trick to muddle the beautiful and fairly lucid central narrative of Xanther, a young girl in Los Angeles living with epilepsy and some other rough baggage, who is going out with her dad on one rainy day to get a dog.

That, by the way, is also the entirety of the plot. Little girl goes out to get a dog. Also, she doesn't actually get the dog. They find a cat on the street and bring that home instead. And even though the cat isn't entirely a cat (or is maybe somehow more than a cat), and even though there are some flashbacks and flash-sidewayses to Mexico and Singapore and Marfa, Texas for stories that might (or might not) be related, somehow, to the not-getting of the dog, that's still basically it.

Mark Danielewski is also author of <em>House of Leaves</em> and <em>Only Revolutions</em>.
Emman Montalvan / Courtesy of Pantheon
Courtesy of Pantheon
Mark Danielewski is also author of House of Leaves and Only Revolutions.

But whatever. I loved Xanther. Parentheses aside, I loved her story — the weirdness and hauntedness of it, the nail-biting drama of the storm and the cat, and Danielewski's absolute commitment to telling Xanther's story exactly the way he wanted to tell it. There were moments when she was on the page that transcended all the trickery (multiple fonts, yawning white space, lovely full-color splash pages, color-coded corner tabs) and achieved a kind of magical fusion of style and substance, offering a fresh hit of wonderment and inspiring a (not entirely grudging) respect for the highwire game Danielewski is playing here.

Because bear in mind that while The Familiar is not that fabled post-novel novel, it might come closer than any other attempt (save, perhaps, Danielewski's 15-year-old debut novel, House Of Leaves, a similarly looping, typographical monster). Which means that, depending on the way you look at such things, it either fails less than every other book of its type, or succeeds more consistently.

And the craziest thing? This book, which is subtitled One Rainy Day In May, is just volume one of a promised 27-book series.

No, you shut up. I'm serious. 27 volumes. One Rainy Day In May is, in essence, just the first, shattered chapter of something for which the word "epic" is laughably inadequate. The L.A. drug gang, the aliens, the renegade computer scientists in their trailer in Texas and, of course, Xanther and the cat are all going to be back.

And there's a part of me that, despite everything, is really curious about what happens next.

Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his newest book.

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Jason Sheehan