On the Perils and Power of Ergodic Literature:
A Review of The Familiar by Mark Z. Danielewski
Pantheon. 2015. 880 pp.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s excellent new novel The Familiar was published by Pantheon this week. Danielewski gave a lecture in New York City where he described The Familar as a serialized novel based on, or in dialogue with, the never-ending form of the Mexican telenovela. For those readers unfamiliar with Univision, here’s some context: a telenovela works within scripted 30- or 60- minute segments and introduces short, quick narrative bursts which either never resolve or always self-complicate in order to perpetuate its characters’ stories and lives. Think of Saturday Night Live’s “The Californians,” as an excellent parody of this form. Volume 1 of The Familar pushes this form in a different, interesting direction, and instead of a 30-minute segment Volume 1 is 880 pages of prose, pictures, several different languages, and a relatively straightforward plot that focuses on a young family of five.
The heart of this novel is Xanther, a twelve-year-old girl with epilepsy, living in East Los Angeles in the early twenty-first century. The novel’s core narrative follows Xanther and her father Anwar as they drive to pick up a dog who will help anticipate Xanther’s seizures and presumably help her live a more normal life. However, along the way, amidst a Biblical L.A. rain storm, something happens. As with his debut novel, House of Leaves and his National Book Award-nominated Only Revolutions, Danielewski splatters the pages of The Familar with typographical chaos.
He often effectively represents a character’s interiority (especially Xanther’s) with non-linear (ergodic) prose, and when it works it reminds you of the novel’s unknowable potential. Danielewski does this better than anybody. It’s like he crinkles up a page with words and then straightens it out and pastes it into the book, so that only the most important words remain legible, while teasing you to try to figure out the blurry, scarred sentences hiding in the margins. However, when this doesn’t work, as with a few of the characters (or chapters) called “Narrative Constructs” or “Nar-Cons,” the book reminds you why judicious concision can often strengthen a work, why Pound cut Eliot’s masterpiece “The Waste Land” in half, for instance. There’s a lot of confusing stuff in here, but you move past those pages because so much of the story is excellent. I love Xanther, love her, and I can’t stand the thought of something bad happening to her, and, yes, I’ll keep reading this series as long as her story continues.
Though logging 880 pages, there are probably only 350 pages of actual prose, maybe 100,000 words, so don’t be daunted by the book’s length, especially considering how many pages have only one paragraph, or an image, or even a single bracket on the page, so that your reading experience accelerates or slows with the context of the book.
In describing the project, Danielewski said that he intended to publish 27 volumes of The Familiar and that he wasn’t even sure if he would complete the work. Also in attendance at the lecture, his editor, Edward Kastenmeier, seemed to chuckle in the front row of the audience as if to say: “You better finish it!” And of course his fans, myself included, also hope that he can finish this gargantuan undertaking. At 27 volumes, keeping the current pace, the work would well exceed 20,000 Danielewskian “pages.” That’s pretty hardcore. If you’ve never read Danielewski’s work, Volume 1 of The Familar is an accessible entry-point, so that you could read backwards, moving onto Only Revolutions next, finishing up with what remains his masterpiece, House of Leaves, while waiting for Volume 2 of The Familiar, which comes out this October.