Although Mark Z. Danielewski has always been hit or miss with me, I knew I wanted to read The Familiar: One Rainy Day in May. It appeared to be yet another unique experimental work the author has accustomed us to; the sort of crazy fucked-up story that only Danielewski can come up with.
From a production standpoint, The Familiar: One Rainy Day in May is a work that's as beautiful as it is original. Everyone involved in the creation of the visual effects did an incredible job. The book itself is terrific and innovative.
Unfortunately, in terms of storylines, this novel fails to deliver on basically all fronts. Indeed, after more than 800 pages, I still have absolutely no idea of what this tale is supposed to be about. When I asked one of my friends how she would sum it up, she replied that it was about a sick girl who's supposed to get a dog, but she ends up with a kitten. I reckon this description is as good as any other.
Here's the blurb:
From the author of the international best seller House of Leaves and National Book Award–nominated Only Revolutions comes a monumental new novel as dazzling as it is riveting. The Familiar (Volume 1) ranges from Mexico to Southeast Asia, from Venice, Italy, to Venice, California, with nine lives hanging in the balance, each called upon to make a terrifying choice. They include a therapist-in-training grappling with daughters as demanding as her patients; an ambitious East L.A. gang member contracted for violence; two scientists in Marfa, Texas, on the run from an organization powerful beyond imagining; plus a recovering addict in Singapore summoned at midnight by a desperate billionaire; and a programmer near Silicon Beach whose game engine might unleash consequences far exceeding the entertainment he intends. At the very heart, though, is a twelve-year-old girl named Xanther who one rainy day in May sets out with her father to get a dog, only to end up trying to save a creature as fragile as it is dangerous . . . which will change not only her life and the lives of those she has yet to encounter, but this world, too—or at least the world we think we know and the future we take for granted. (With full-color illustrations throughout.)
Apparently, Mark Z. Danielewski is planning twenty-seven volumes in this series. Which might explain why so little actually takes place in The Familiar: One Rainy Day in May. Yes, the book is ambitious and sprawling. Yes, it is experimental and impressionistic in form and approach, and hence a challenging read. And yet, as far as storylines are concerned, not a whole lot occurs over the course of those 800+ pages. It's not that this book is an introduction for what will follow. I can't even go that far. It feels more like an introduction to the introduction. Trying to make sense of what the tale is all about and where it's going is an impossible endeavor.
Hardcore Danielewski fans might be able to let that slide and just buckle up and enjoy the ride. But those readers expecting things to make at least a little bit of sense might find the going to be a lot more arduous. That I was totally clueless as to what this story was supposed to be about after 250 pages or so, it was no problem for me. Given the author's style and imagination, that was to be expected. But feeling the same way once I reached the end of the book was a disappointment. And a bit of a letdown, to be honest. How many installments will one need to read in order to have an inkling as to what the heck is actually going on and how the disparate plotlines are somehow connected? Five? Eight? Twelve?
Throughout The Familiar: One Rainy Day in May, the author introduces several themes and a completely diverse cast of protagonists from all over the world. The whole thing is as weird and creative as anything he has ever written, but it seriously lacks purpose. Xanther, a young epileptic girl, more or less takes center stage. Not only through her own POV, but also through the narratives of both her parents, Astair and Anwar. Theirs are the only POVs that have any emotional impact. Beyond this trio, the rest of the narratives are opaque and often hard to follow. I'm well aware that it's too early to tell, what with this being a series that will be comprised of 27 volumes, but I'm wondering if this book needed so many different perspectives. Could some of these storylines have been introduced in subsequent installments?
I mean, I'm all for complex and multilayered novels. But not when they engender more confusion than anything else. Pacing and characterization are serious issues that take a lot away from the overall reading experience. But it's the permanent confusion that permeates every single portion of the book that really kills The Familiar: One Rainy Day in May.
Will I read the second volume? As crazy as it sounds, I just might. Just to discover if things begin to make even a little bit of sense, or if it's another clusterfuck of a book. Having said that, it's not like I have much faith in the author at this point. . .