As you may already know, The Familiar is not a book/series that lends itself easily to review. Instead of trying to summarize the complicated and many-faceted plot, I will rather share a few thoughts on the experience of getting through Volume 1.
To be honest, when I first read the announcement about this series something like five years ago, my initial thought was, “That sounds pretentious and exhausting.” I had already read Danielewski’s House of Leaves at the time and enjoyed it quite a lot (challenging though it was), but a story that was projected to be 27-volumes long about a girl and her cat(??) sounded like too much.
However, after having recently heard Mark Z. Danielewski interviewed on Bret Easton Ellis’ podcast in promotion of Volume 2 of The Familiar, my interest was piqued. Danielewski was completely down to earth in the interview and his personality seemed the farthest thing from pretentious. His fervor and passion in talking about the project was too intriguing to ignore.
How wrong I was in my initial assessment!
This past week, I flew through Volume 1; I could not put it down. And yes, it was challenging at times and required an extra layer of careful attention that many books do not demand, but there was enough intrigue and mystery happening to keep me wanting more and moving forward. And I discovered quickly that that was the key: moving forward. Similar to the works of William Faulkner or James Joyce, it is best not to get too caught up in the moments that are unclear or confusing and push onward, because eventually those threads will begin to come together and your questions will be answered. If you try to read into every little clue and image or theorize about where the plot is headed in the middle of the book, you’ll drive yourself insane. Keep going, the story does pay off. Also, this being only the first of many volumes, the author isn’t going to reveal all of his tricks at once.
There was something enticing even in the physical act of turning pages at a fairly rapid pace, as many of the fonts are large or some pages have nothing more than a single sentence or word. Although the page count is 880, the word count adds up to something closer to a 250- or 300- page novel, and a quick-moving one at that. There was a wonderful balance of uncertainty and payoff, as well as weirdness and warmth. There are some enormous head-scratchers and curious elements throughout the book that may not be explained until many volumes down the line, but Danielewski isn’t just trolling us with a series that is bizarre and difficult for the sake of bizarre and difficult. There is a very clear story going on here with vivid, beautiful, and heart-engaging characters, particularly the family unit of Xanther (the teenage girl who rescues the cat), her mother Astair and her stepfather Anwar. Certain other characters only drop in very briefly and their passages are abstract and difficult to discern, but then again, we’ve only just met them, and surely their roles in this overarching tale will be revealed in time.
While reading the book I got a frequent sense of its bigness, and I don’t just mean page length or knowing how many more books there are to come. The story itself is something like a small peek into a vast universe; there is a strong sensation of much, much more lying just “beyond the curtain” of this world. The Familiar blends and transcends space, time, countries, races, species, technology, humanity, spirituality, and is meta and self-referential even in its structure as a novel. From front to back cover, not a single page is wasted, for even the pre- and post-story content is artful and intentional, offering more clues into the universe Danielewski is unveiling for us. The book is more to be experienced than read, and it is so visual and presentational in nature that it could be likened in many ways to a feature film. Lucky for us, this is only the first act.