- Familiar, Vaguely Familiar
Mark Z. Danielewski
880 Pages; Print, $25.00
Everything’s connected. So we are told explicitly by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), and implicitly by everything from TV series like The Wire (2002-2008) to popular movies like Love, Actually (2003). But the maxim’s breadth can deplete its meaningfulness, because it conflates all types of connections. As everyone who has read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) knows, one can connect anything to anything else if one tries hard enough, and the results might range from the trivial to the monstrous. Osama bin Laden was connected to Mullah Omar by a history of collaborations lasting a quarter century, and also connected to Saddam Hussein by virtue of being Arabs who disliked the United States and wore distinctive facial hair, but the former connection was considerably stronger than the latter: better distinguishing the two would have improved American foreign policy considerably.
Long novels from Tristram Shandy (1759-1767) to Middlemarch (1874) to Infinite Jest (1996) have always thrived on connectedness. At their best, they investigate how much connectedness is meaningful and how much is nonsense, as in Saleem Sinai’s failed efforts in Midnight’s Children (1981) to create a coherent sense of Indian identity within himself. But the pleasure of accretion can drive them toward frivolity—what James Wood has termed “hysterical realism”—as in the arbitrary [End Page 7] runes linking the otherwise-unrelated layers of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004).
But there are big novels and big novels, and Mark Z. Danielewski’s twenty-seven-volume The Familiar (the first two parts of which were released in 2015) is on a different plane from even the hefty tomes above. Tom LeClair, whose review of the second volume is included later in this issue, has called Danielewski “America’s foremost literary Magus,” because his fiction has leveraged the physical properties of the book to an astonishing degree. His debut, House of Leaves (2000), was a haunted-house novel with layers of marginalia telling embedded stories, while his sophomore Only Revolutions (2006) features two recursive poems aligned to a chronicle of modern history. Between his books’s non-linear physical structures, experiments with font and typography, and superpositioning and distortion of characters, Danielewski has attempted to do things with the novel that no one else ever has. If any writer were to attempt a twenty-thousand-page fiction, it would be him.
However, his books’s marvelous design often stands in contrast to pedestrian narrative. Once you figure out how to work across a given page, the tale of Will Navidson’s journey into his house’s impossible labyrinth, or of Sam and Hailey’s road trip through American history, turn out to be grounded in standard horror and romance conventions. While these books engage elements of the novel-reading experience that cannot be duplicated on an e-reader or plaintext file, they sometimes neglect those that can. It would be uncharitable to say that Danielewski’s work is geared more toward the visual cortex than Wernicke’s area, because he has an exuberant knack for Joycean wordplay and Whitmanic catalogs, not to mention a strong campfire-storyteller voice. But the imbalance between audacious form and blander content often renders his books’ grand philosophical intimations a bit silly. In particular, the immense connectivity promised by his layout tends, on examination, to be weak: Johnny Truant’s efforts to parallel his personal life to Zampanó’s labyrinthine theorizing are strained, as are the links between Sam and Hailey’s adventures and the historical record.
The Familiar, though, has ambitions on a different scale. In an interview with NPR, Danielewski claimed the work’s volumes will be conceived like the seasons of “visual novels” like The Wire and Battlestar Galactica (2006-2009), suggesting he seeks to incorporate the audiovisual into text the way that the literary has lately been incorporated into television. That could, potentially, represent a formal...