Monday, May 08, 2017

Mark Z. Danielewski's at it again in The Familiar

I have set myself the always-daunting task of reading another of Mark Z. Danielewski books, 2015's The Familiar Volume 1, subtitled One Rainy Day in May.
It is probably the heaviest book I have ever read, weighing in at 1,650g (for context, my copy of Ulysses only weighs 430g, my Complete Works of Shakespeare is 810g). The paper is very high quality and glossy, and there are at least 840 pages, if the book's sporadic page numbering can be believed. It even comes with convenient built-in page-marker ribbon. Like a Bible. My Bible weighs 730g.
But, being a Mark Z. Danielewski book, it is not only heavy in terms of grams. Reading it is not a passive exercise. There are a number of different story arcs under way (nine in total, I believe), each of which take place over the course of the same single day, and which may, or may not, eventually come together. Each story arc, helpfully identified by time-stamped colour-coded page corners, employs a completely different writing style, not to mention different typeface(s) - there is an appendix of typefaces at the end, for God's sake - different page design(s) and layout(s), as well as assorted other species of visual and literary trickery.
Indeed, like Danielewski's earlier book, House of Leaves, (which I have also reviewed in these pages), it is a graphic designer's (and typesetter's) wet dream. Some of this visual trickery even out-House of Leaves his own House of Leaves: blocks of text may be fashioned into shapes, or moulded around voids; pages may comprise hundreds of tiny lines, or just one word or phrase; text may be horizontal, vertical, or skitter around at random angles; it may appear as screenshots of a computer program, as a medical log, or as a full-body tattoo; it may wander drunkenly around the page, or spiral into nothingness with scientific precision; punctuation may be almost completely absent, or be replaced by computer-language-style nested parentheses; etc, etc. Eventually, the brain-jarring design innovations do calm down a little, as the "story" proper unfolds, but, in terms of typesetting, page layout and off-kilter presentation, there is very little that is not attempted here at some point.
And those writing styles? A few representative examples may help.
  • One story arc is written in what I take to be Singlish (the almost impenetrable colloquial patois or creole popular on the streets of Singapore): "they saysay she tutor demons, lah. saysay mice dance to her finger snap and a pelesit does her bidding. saysay sa-ruckup rang bumi fly to her window and call her mother. they say-say a lot."
  • Another is almost poetic in its pretensions, despite the geeky science-y subject matter it covers: "She scrolls to the peak of the present and still discovers the temple unmarred. The unplayed music of this structure never repeals its secrecy. At least on this edge, where the future waits, explanation and hope also wait."
  • Yet another employs sassy, uber-urban, obsessively name-dropping, jargon- and acronym-laden, West Coast cop-speak, like Thomas Pynchon on steroids: "Helicopters still overhead, KTLA and LAPD. Journalists by van and taxi. Police Scanner Twittidiots. What a former South Bureau deputy chief nicknamed PeSTs. Supervising sergeant already running things. Even DRE. Though Ösgür has yet to sense any drug connect. It all looks Robbery-Homicide."
  • Or how about skanky Latino underworld gang argot: "'¡Lo que es un escuincle!' Lupita laughs. Pleased. Almoraz holds his tongue. Most of the crew drifts into the kitchen, her latest cucarachas settling around Almoraz at the big table, same veteranos Luther's known over the years, none as old as Miz but a few getting there."
I could go on, but you get the picture.
This is probably not beach reading (the book's weight alone would preclude that). It's the kind of book you will either love or hate - there will be very little middle ground. My erudite bibliophile wife, for example, hated it, did not get past 50 pages or so. She found the constant type changes and the so-called "visual writing" (what Danielewski himself describes as "signiconic" work) distracting, annoying and self-indulgent, and the effort required to penetrate the text not worth the rewards. Me, I think I love it, although it's a close thing. Just having absolutely no idea what you are going to find on the next page is actually quite refreshing, the very epitome of a page-turner.
And the Volume 1 part? Apparently, this is the first installment in a proposed 27-volume serial novel, which Danielewski appears to visualize more as a television series than as a work of literature, and about which he laconically says, "The story concerns a 12-year-old girl who finds a kitten". He is currently churning out 800+ page volumes at a rate of one or two a year (four volumes are available as of early 2017). Never let it be said that Mr. Danielewski is not ambitious.

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