How to read a book written by Mark Z. Danielewski

[this is the book review I did for my local bookstore]

If you’re wondering what that book is on the shelf, the one with the cutout, colorful and comic ‘1’, getting some acclaim and attention, colored dog ears on the pages, weird fonts, layouts and electronic scribbles in the gutter of the spine, you have found The Familiar. Volume 1 to be exact. Of twenty-seven. And you thought John Scalzi had some books to write.

Yes. 27. That’s 880 pages promised for each volume. Doing that math means you’re in for quite a ride—23,760 pages to be exact. Don’t worry though, with Mark’s writing style, formatted uniquely for each character of the story, for each mood and scene, for each transcendental symbol, some, nay, many, of those pages may only contain an ellipsis. If MZD’s past success (or infamy) with his ergodic, jackdaw first novel House of Leaves; his sophmore release, National Book Award-nominee Only Revolutions; or his prose-poem-performed-stitched-story ofThe Fifty Year Sword is any testament, his current attempt at re-inventing the novel aims to bemuse, befuddle and delight.

Ostensibly centering around a girl on a rainy day on her way to get a pet dog her computer programmer father wants as her companion, her mother her own, the rainy day brings the girl instead to find a kitten. Other characters (an L.A. Gangster, an L.A. Cop, a Filipino acolyte, a South American fixer, a N.Y. cabbie, and a technocratic mystic…) complicate and promise, later, to interact, though for this volume, their stories are curious and add layers of mystery, mundanity and science fiction yet to be answered, though fully engrossing in their own rights.

To read this book, one could first follow MZD on forums, Twitter and Facebook like a good internet fan-boy, painstakingly cataloging andrecounting all such strange missives the hermetic Z has released in his writing frenzy. Then, every fortnight, parse and map each strange code, making a patchwork of places. And then star fields, broken and puzzle-like, containing embedded and cyphered text files previewing the first contents, and arguably relevant to the elusive and alien(-like? A.I.) VEM and the entirety of the series. Then, planning your reading chronologically (tagged for ease with the colored dog-ears), or character threaded (again, the colors… so many colors!), embrace the rabbit hole of bracketed, parsed, stream-of-consciousness oddity that this book-cum-artwork only begins to encompass.

Or, like a sane person, you could just start at the chilling preview material those tweets encoded, included for your edification before chapter one, and begin to count the raindrops for yourself. Again, whatever you bring to The Familiar becomes a part of what you get to understand about the Familiar.

MZD himself has said this is his homage to television series, each five volumes roughly equaling a “season”, to be released two to three volumes a year until completion—or failure if it does not live up to it’s namesake. As the current success and bestseller status seem to indicate, he’s got a good shot. A long shot as magnum opi go, but it is truly epic, replete with its own Grecian style chorus commenting throughout, and begins to deliver much. I can attest from a first reading that there is much here left unanswered, but also much to enjoy and tantalize, like pilot episodes: they hook you to read more, and I’m hooked. Danielewski makes works of text fusing to become art, and in the above ergodic sense, one that you must work for, knead even, to get the layers and meanings hidden within to come to the fore.

And, as he encourages from his letter about this first volume:

In one way, The Familiar comes down to a large family, as disparate in background as it is forever bound together. In another way, though, it is just about one remarkable girl, who is as much an act of fiction as she is the daughter I’ve never had, the daughter we together have never had, blindly befriending those who dare encounter her, but most of all befriending the remarkable creature called forth from a place beyond language, maybe even beyond life itself, the necessity we never knew we needed, and just starting to yowl.

Not for its own needs.

But for ours — for we who have forgotten we’re hungry.

Not a light read, but like life—potentially rewarding.

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