- Familiar Core
Mark Z. Danielewski
880 Pages; Print, $25.00
The Biggest Book of all will be Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar if he completes the 27 volumes he plans. The first volume, One Rainy Day in May, was 880 pages, and so is volume 2, Into the Forest. But the number of pages is somewhat misleading because design features leave a considerable amount of blank space on most pages. House of Leaves (2000), Danielewski’s first extra large novel, sometimes had only a word or two on a page, but many pages were also exceptionally dense, font and spacing and margins reduced to cram in his learned references. Looking back on the big American novels of the 1970s and 1980s that I wrote about in The Art of Excess (1989)— works such as JR (1975), Women and Men (1987), The Public Burning (1977)—and excessive novels that have succeeded them (Underworld , The Gold Bug Variations , Infinite Jest ), I think an important element they have in common, besides hypertrophy, is extravagant linguistic density. By that I don’t mean just many words per page but stylistic, formal, and referential methods that created vast intra-and inter-textual systems using sometimes multiple meanings of words connecting across hundreds of pages. Probably the title of Barth’s Letters (1979), as well as its creating a sequel to his six previous novels, best exemplifies the palimpsest or crossword or network kind of verbal density I mean.
These novels presented the difficulty of processing huge databases before e-books allowed readers to do word searches. Though not as linguistically dense, Danielewski’s two volumes may be more difficult because they set readers a less familiar task: to also process the spaces between and around words—the different page designs for each of his nine alternating stories, variations on certain crucial icons, the photographic collages that separate chapters, and various other visual materials including some black on black pages. A metaphor for this difficulty and, perhaps, for The Familiar as a whole occurs about half way through Into the Forest when Danielewski presents a full-page line drawing of 12 pet cages, 3 high and 4 wide. They create a relatively dense grid like the systems novels I’ve mentioned. In the following pages, the cages are partly open and then fully open, leaving white spaces for readers to notice, connect with other open spaces, and interpret. For Danielewski, blank space is not just background. In the communications loop, no message is itself a message. Combining the digital and analog, The Familiar resembles two encyclopedic novels by women—Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985) and Yamashita’s I Hotel (2010). A book about these three works might be titled The Excess of Art.
Neither Into the Forest nor One Rainy Day in May is a stand alone work (see David Letzler’s companion review earlier in this issue). If you have not read volume 1, you can also consult my own take on the earlier novel in the New York Times Book Review.
I realize that sending you away risks your never returning, but I believe your temporary absence lets me best use the limited words I’m allotted to discuss Into the Forest.
Welcome back. In both volumes of The Familiar, it’s not just the empty spaces on pages that challenge readers. It’s also the many gaps— geographical and cultural and narrative—between the characters and stories. Like One Rainy Day in May, Into the Forest does give readers a familiar core with the family story of Xanther, her mother Astair, and her father Anwar, whose narrations lock into one another and take up about half the book. The cat that Xanther rescued is now recognized as old and ill, the extrasensory perception that allowed Xanther to find the cat develops into her psychokinetic ability to open doors, and cat’s eyes become the crucial symbolic design in the book. I understand that Danielewski needs an essentially realistic (and possibly paranormal) core...