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book review

Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar, Volume 1 is a tour de force.

We have been trained, over our lives as readers, to approach every new novel with a set of assumptions and expectations. While there is, of course, a spectrum of these assumptions, ranging from formulaic genre fiction on one end to experimental fiction on the other, we generally expect a novel to have recognizable characters, introduced in a manner that allows us to contextualize them in relatively short order, developing over the course of the work. We expect a recognizable narrative structure to build, to a greater or lesser linear degree. And we expect a novel to resolve itself in some way, to reckon with the terms and questions it introduces; there may not be a traditional climax-denouement ending, but we expect at least some form of resolution.One of the great delights – and delightful frustrations – of the fiction of Los Angeles writer Mark Z. Danielewski is the requirement that the reader abandon those assumptions and expectations. Novels such as House of Leaves (which remains one of the most terrifying and genuinely uncanny works I have ever read) and Only Revolutions (which was shortlisted for the National Book Award), are challenging almost to the point of forbidding, utilizing impressionistic – nay, fractured – narrative approaches, nesting of narrative in footnotes and margin notes, use of differing typefaces and layouts and a blurring of the line between text and design (in which the shape of the words on the page comes to carry as much significance as the words themselves). A new novel by Danielewski requires a new way of reading.

A different angle of entry, if you will.

For his new book, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, that angle of entry comes from an interview excerpted on the publisher's webpage for the book. After setting out the mammoth undertaking – One Rainy Day in May is the first in a projected 27-book-long series, with subsequent volumes to be released every three months or so – Danielewski describes the book as a continuation of his refraction of other narrative forms through his fiction: "If House of Leaves tackles the movie, Only Revolutions music and The Fifty Year Sword the campfire story, then The Familiar will show how the novel can stalk, take down and devour the television series."

Understanding One Rainy Day in May as something akin to a television program is crucial to reframing one's expectations for the book; the first volume of the series doesn't work, strictly speaking, as a novel, and reading it with those traditional expectations is an exercise in frustration. Reading it, however, as one approaches the pilot to a new TV series, volume one becomes a revelation, a thrilling, compulsive reading experience.

The almost 900-page novel dips into nine separate narratives, all set on the same day (May 10, 2014) spread across the globe, from Singapore to Texas, Venice to Mexico, with several concentrated into the geographic scope of Los Angeles. The characters range from gang members to cops, computer programmers to therapists, scientists to drug addicts. There is crime and punishment, conspiracies and miracles, computer code and internal monologues. There is a mysterious black orb and a mysterious crate. Each narrative has its own typeface, with colour-coded corners to the pages with date, location and time stamped almost invisibly at the beginning and end of each chapter. The reader quickly becomes acclimated to the movement of the novel; while it may never be entirely clear just what is happening, you always know where you are.

The heart of the book, though, the key narrative, follows a 12-year-old girl, Xanther, who lives with her parents in L.A.'s Echo Park. On this rainy day in May, her father takes her out in the car, promising a surprise. Although she doesn't know it, Xanther, who suffers from seizures (which are depicted, stunningly, by the text eventually dissolving into a neural rainstorm of obsessively repeated phrases and questions), is being taken by her father to pick up a therapy dog.

Instead, in the heart of the storm, she finds something else, a tiny creature near death that she brings home, a creature that will likely not live out the night. …

For readers who can reframe their expectations, A Rainy Day in May is a tour de force, less a novel than it is an experience. It's also all set-up, nearly 900 pages of questions building and situations being introduced with nothing being resolved. While we come to know Xanther and her family, to a limited degree, most of the other characters remain enigmas. That's as it should be: This is, of course, just the beginning. But what a start. The next volume – episode – can't come soon enough.

Robert J. Wiersema's new novel, Black Feathers, will be published later this year.

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