As the old Narcons put it: "There is not space in the universe to tell the universe to the universe. Therein lies the peculiar beauty and sadness of stories: to tell it all without all at all."
The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, by Mark Z. Danielewski. Yeah. I don't know how to talk about this book. I don't even know what this book is about.
I can tell you:
- This book is beautiful as an object.
- The experience of reading this book is somewhat otherworldly.
- I fucking love this book.
- I wish there were more books like this in the world.
This book is heavy. It's printed on art-catalogue-quality glossy paper, 880 pages of it. The binding is such (with pink thread) that if you open the book to any page, it will lay open.
There are full-colour plates between chapters, with epigraphs quoting the likes of Emily Dickinson, Lady Gaga, and Norm Schryer, or featuring lines from movies like Moonrise Kingdom, Blade Runner, and Chinatown.
The top corners are dipped in colour, each chapter colour-coded according to the character perspective (of which there are 9). The beginning and end of each chapter also include a timestamp, place, and date to help orient the reader.
Each chapter picks up at the second the previous one left off — the story covers 08:03:05 to 23:32:09 on May 10, 2014. It spans Los Angeles, Singapore, and town in Texas and Mexico.
Each character perspective also has its own font (these are detailed in the credits). The text includes Russian, Chinese, and Arabic script, and lines in few other languages.
There is a design element along the centre seam, which varies from character to character. These are fractal-like, and many forum pages are devoted to theorizing about them: they likely indicate static or frequency, functioning as a narrative ECG.
There is a lot of white space. Some pages have just a single word. On some pages, the text seems to fall away. One chapter has extremely wide margins; the text is focused in a tight block. In another chapter, the text wraps around a circular whitespace; if these pages were flippable, the orb might appear to move across the page.
On other pages, text scatters and runs sideways. This happens consistently with one character, indicating a cognitive break, or sensory overload, or the onset of one of her seizures.
So none of these design elements is arbitrary. Form reflects content.
Pages 563-578 are whiter than white, blank of many of the elements mentioned above. They are distinct from the creamy pages of the rest of the story. These are the pages of a Narrative Construct, or Narcon for short.
Book as story
Xanther has her own thread, and her mother and stepfather each have one too, so it's easy to feel that the story centres on her. As for the other character threads, I have no idea what they have to do with anything.
And I'm fine with that.
Around the world, it's raining.
There was this moment in writing when I realized that every character was in the rain. If Kubrick was the patron saint of House of Leaves, Akira Kurasawa was sort of the patron saint of The Familiar.The Narcon chapter helps explain things. It describes some of the formulas used to create narrative and develop character, and defines its parameters. It is self-aware but only so far as it's been programmed to be. Well, this chapter may or may not explain things.
Book as experience
This is a puzzle of a book. I love puzzles.
The discovery of all those elements noted above is a pure joy. It makes this a very visual and tactile read.
The Familiar is also full of nested parentheticals, so reading is a bit like diagramming sentences, but on a more psychosemantic level than a mere grammatical one.
Danielewski has spoken about how The Familiar is conceptualized like a ("quality," modern) TV series, like The Wire or Mad Men, in how it develops character over long-form narrative. The way it shifts character focus, the way individual character stories intersect; how small events play into a season-long story arc.
This volume includes season previews (which don't (yet) appear to be linked to the novel proper), and pages of credits at the end.
It's highly conducive to binge reading. Just one more chapter.
The formatting helps pull the reader along. It feels a little like a graphic novel in this way, like where text spans frames and physically leads you where you're supposed to go.
If the text of this novel were conventionally laid out, it would be a standard 300-page novel. I believe I read it at a slightly faster rate than my usual, because the design factors were so compelling. The only hindrance was the weight, making it a bitch to commute with, which led me to plan my reading time a little more carefully.
The future of publishing
As soon as I finished reading volume 1, I rushed out to buy volume 2. I have a couple other things to read first, but I needed to ensure that I have it, for whenever I'm ready. I need to do a little catch-up, but I expect I'll be lined up to get volume 4 the day it's released.
It would be easy to dismiss this book as gimmicky if it weren't so goddamn beautiful and narratively compelling. It must be very expensive to produce; someone must have a lot of faith in this project.
I've showed off this book to a lot of people. This book is coveted. It has been fondled.
What if publishers made books beautiful? Good book design can be more than just a pretty cover. It's the paper, it's judicious use of colour, it's white space (white space is so underrated).
So 27 volumes of 800 pages may be a bit ambitious. Books don't have to be oversized to capture attention. But there are shorter stories. There are short stories, for example. Many texts could lend themselves not just to illustration but to design-sensitive interpretation. Or serialization. Graphic novels do this to a degree, but as mainstream as they are, they're not for everybody.
I happen to love ebooks, and in general I believe that the content of a book is more important than its form(at). But there is a market for beautiful books. People appreciate fine detail.
Make people want to turn pages.
One thing I admire about The Familiar is that it never becomes a graphic novel, can never be a television show. It does not resort to incorporating artefacts or referring to complementary online material; there are no fussy envelopes or reproduced postcards; there is no CD included. This is not amultimedia production, but it is fully immersive.
It's stretching our idea of a novel, but remains contained, remains very definitely a book.