Why We Read Novels
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Why We Read Novels

Mark Z. Danielewski’s One Rainy Day in May is epic—audaciously so. For starters, the nearly nine-hundred-page novel is the first of a planned twenty-seven-volume series, The Familiar, that Danielewski and Pantheon are betting we will want to devote hours upon hours to reading. Like Danielewski’s previous works—House of Leaves (2000), Only Revolutions (2006), and The Fifty Year Sword (2005, 2012)—it is also the subject of an official online discussion forum to which the publisher hopes we will want to devote hours upon hours. Danielewski has been quite successful in using discussion forums to showcase how his writing is designed to reward sustained attention and obsessive reading and rereading. Should we want to devote all of this time to reading, rereading, and discussing this series? The risk Danielewski is taking with The Familiar is that readers won’t want to stick with it. One epic novel is fine, even interesting, but twenty-seven? What’s at stake in the series’ epic pretensions is the question of why we read novels at all. Because what’s truly audacious about The Familiar is that if the rest of the series is anything like One Rainy Day in May, we will want to read it all. The Familiar may be Danielewski’s most ambitious project yet—and that’s saying a lot—but it’s also his most intimate. This intimacy comes from the care the novel takes in portraying and embodying its characters, as well as from an enticing and sometimes unsettling familiarity that seems to take the reader’s responses into account. [End Page 386]

One Rainy Day in May also tends toward the epic through its narrative complexity and intricacy. The novel brings together the lives of nine different people over the course of one day, each one of whom narrates his or her own chapters. It spirals outward from its focal point, Xanther, a twelve-year-old girl who rescues a kitten from a storm drain during a rainstorm, to encompass a diverse array of characters, including Xanther’s parents, Anwar and Astair; Luther, the leader of a gang; jingjing, a drug addict taking care of his auntie, a healer with mystical powers; and Cas, a computer scientist on the lam. Some of these chapters, like those about Xanther and her family, take place in Los Angeles; others take place in Singapore, Veracruz, and Marfa, Texas. These narratives are intermittently interrupted by semi-omniscient Narrative Constructs, “Narcon for short” (565), which, we eventually learn, are computer programs that have essentially written the novel we are reading.1 The Narcons cannot communicate with one another because they are organized hierarchically: TF-Narcon9 is the main Narcon narrator, but it is occasionally interrupted by TF-Narcon3, which seems to lack self-awareness, and by TF-Narcon27, which seems to know more than TF-Narcon9 about what the Narcons are and how they work. The Narcons, in turn, appear to have been programmed by the mysterious VEM Corporation, an entity referenced in Danielewski’s previous novels. Throw in seemingly endless allusions to genres such as fantasy, manga, cyberpunk, science fiction, hard-boiled detective fiction, Victorian realist fiction, and literary theory, as well as to Danielewski’s other works, and it’s a lot to take in. But that’s really the point: the extravagance of it all comes not only from the novel’s elaborately nested structure and its excessive literariness but also from the proclamation that this volume is just the beginning.

One Rainy Day in May is in many respects typical of what readers have come to expect from Danielewski. Like his previous works, it experiments with the conventions of print form using images, typography, page design, and color. Jessica Pressman has identified such experiments as part of “the aesthetic of bookishness,” a contemporary [End Page 387] genre in which novels “exploit the power of the print page in ways that draw attention to the book as a multimedia format, one informed by and connected to digital technologies.”2 Like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes (2010), Steven Hall’s...