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Mark Danielewski: The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May

Twelve-year old epileptic girl sets out on a journey in rainy Los Angeles with her father (though not her biological father), in order to ger her a dog as a present, though she does not know this. Car stops. She hears a sound, rushes out and rescues a tiny kitten which is just about to be swept down a drain. They take it home via the vet. That’s the plot of this novel. It is 880 pages long but that is not, in fact, as daunting as it sounds. At least it is not the length that is daunting. Danielewski has turned on the full post-modern array for this book, with a variety of fonts, text written at various angles, graphics throughout the book, often in the middle of text, some of which seem to have a purpose and some of which seem to be… well, I am not sure what they seem to be, really annoying multiple brackets , the word familiar invariably printed in a difficult to see pale mauvish colour, and other quirks that may make the book somewhat difficult to read (and don’t even think of reading this on your e-reader; if you are going to read it, it has to be the print version.) How many languages do you read? Well, to fully appreciate this novel , you will need to read Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian and Chinese, at the very least. Though it is written in English, with bits of these other languages thrown in, there is a heady mixture of Englishes. Indeed, in the prologue, there is a scene set in prehistory where the characters speak that well-known language, Hollywood Stone Age English (e.g. You got spear? Yes, me got spear). We move onto Mexican Spanglish, Singapore English and so on. Tricky? Yes, indeed. There is a price to pay for post-modernism. And the price is far from finished. Apparently, this is just the first of a twenty-seven (sic) series, allegedly, at least as far as the length goes, influenced by Breaking Bad. My heart goes out to the typesetters. Indeed, if by the time you reach page 880 and Xanther has got home with her kitten, there is a preview of the next book.

There is a plot. No, there are lots of plots. However, our main plot involves Xanther, a twelve year year old, epileptic girl, who lives in Los Angeles. Her parents are Astair and Anwar. They are her parents in the sense that it is they who are bringing her up but her biological father is Dov. Astair and Anwar know this but it is not clear if Xanther does. Dov was in the military but is now dead, killed in Afghanistan. Xanther has two younger twin sisters, Shasti and Freya, who live in a world of their own, so poor Xanther is something of an only child, not helped by her epilepsy. At the start of the book, Anwar and Xanther are off somewhere in the pouring rain. It is not till page 132 that we learn the reason for their journey – to get Xanther a pet dog. (We learn this on page 132; Xanther does not.) She hears the kitten on around page 500 and gets hold of it on page 580. In between all of this are a few other stories, pages with only a few words on the, pages with graphics, some of which seem to make some vague sense and others which, frankly, do not, at least to me.

The other plots, which may or may not be elaborated in the later books, consist of: 1) The Mexican Spanglish story involving gang violence; 2) the Singapore one, involving a reformed junkie summoned to help a millionaire in the middle of the night; 3) two ageing scientists, apparently on the run from some insidious force, and hiding out in Marfa. There are other plots involving Anwar and Astair, Anwar building some powerful game engine and Astair taking a degree in psychology and receiving her marked thesis early in the book but we do not get the results or the subject till near the end.

Xanther, however, is the focus and, in particular, her relationship with her fathers, both Anwar and Dov. She misses Dov. She has a good relationship with Anwar but he is always asking questions and responding to questions with other questions. He has a word of the day, which generally fooled me and undoubtedly would fool a twelve-year old, however bright. But an 880 page book about a twelve-year old girl going to get a dog and ending up with a kitten? Even though it is seriously post-modernist, I do not think I will be reading the remaining twenty-six.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Pantheon