The Familiar Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May

the-familiar-jacket-final-524x800

If Mark Z. Danielewski is known for one thing and one thing only, it’s that he isn’t afraid to put his readers to work. With House of Leaves, my mind reeled as I held the book sideways and upside down and flipped back and forth from footnote to footnote. And if that book taught me anything about Danielewski’s writing, it’s that the payoff will be worth it.

And so I tore into The Familiar, Vol. 1: One Rainy Day in May—the first of a proposed 27-volume series—like a child on Christmas morning, devouring almost 900 pages in just a couple of weeks. Granted, it’s the fastest 880 pages you’ve ever read thanks to Danielewski’s love of inventive page layouts, spacing, and fonts. But trust me when I say that this book puts you to work.

egueers5txjhbygzeyhv

An example of a page layout playing with the recurring imagery of the rain

Inside its pages you’ll find the story of nine intersecting lives that span generations and languages and take place around the world from LA’s Echo Park to a high-rise in Singapore. At its heart, though, is the story of a little girl named Xanther who heads out one rainy May morning to get a dog. What a terrifyingly simple premise to kick off the thousands of pages to come.

And One Rainy Day in May—like Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses before it—covers just that: a single rainy day in May.

Aside from Xanther, we hear the voices of jingjing, a drug addict in Singapore; Luther, an LA gangbanger; Anwar and Astair, Xanther’s parents; Cas, a computer scientist in Texas; and Isandòrno, whose chapters I couldn’t understand at all (Wikipedia tells me he’s an existentialist in Mexico, which I personally think is about as good an explanation as none at all).

It’s unfair to expect the connections between these characters to be obvious this early on—after all, there are 26 volumes to go with this tale. So I did my best to cut the book some slack there. Sometimes I could see the threads, however thin, that were tying things together, but when I couldn’t I resolved not to focus on it and to simply plow forward.

That seemed to be my motto during this book: forward, ever forward. At first, I’d get hung up on the details, pushing myself to make sense of them and often trying in vain to understand whatever I felt I was missing. But then I remembered that I wasn’t reading this to punish myself.

No one was going to quiz me at the end of the day. No one would mock me for my imperfect understanding. No one would hate me for finding it difficult or, dare I say, unenjoyable at times.

So I moved forward.

I picked up whatever crumbs I could along the way and arrived at the end with a sense of accomplishment.

Ultimately—and I’m hesitant to admit it—I think I’m a bit disappointed with Vol. 1. I had such high hopes, but I found so much of this volume inscrutable. The first time I met jingjing, I had to scour the internet for some kind of summary because I just couldn’t make sense of what was happening or even who was talking. An excerpt will help illuminate my struggles:

“they saysay she tutor demons, lah. saysay mice dance to her finger snap and a pelesit :.Animistic spirit frequently aligned with Polong.: does her bidding. saysay sa-rukup rang bumi :. World Coverer .: fly to her window and call her mother. they saysay a lot.”

In rereading a portion of that chapter just now, I’m delighted to discover that I found it infinitely easier to parse out. But I’m not here to theorize on the potential benefits of rereading. I’m here to talk simply about what I’ve read.

And I just couldn’t wrap my head around this book enough to see the meaningful connections I know Danielewski wanted me to find. A second pass appears to be mandatory for me if I’m to truly get everything I can out of this and I’m unsure how I feel about that.

I don’t mind putting the work into reading a book that I feel deserves it, but I’ve never encountered one that seemed to ask quite so much of me. At the same time, I don’t think it’s fair to consider that a fault or a flaw.

Still, I am far from all sour grapes and disappointment. On the contrary, I couldn’t be looking forward to reading Volume 2 more. I know I’ve only just entered a labyrinth and that it’s here that it feels the most daunting. But I’m willing to let Danielewski lead me deeper because right now? I still trust that what I’ll find at the end will be well worth it.

Advertisements

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Who would I be at the bottom of a well wrapped up in darkness so absolute that time and space seem not to exist? Who would I be in the dark? I don’t know, but Haruki Murakami has me asking the question with a seriousness that felt impossible to imagine before reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

It almost feels like a disservice to even try to explain what Chronicle is about. It’s so much like a dream, where everything feels real until you reach the end of a chapter and then you’re not sure if it all really happened.

Ostensibly, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is about Toru Okada’s search for his missing cat, which then becomes a search for his missing wife. Along the way, he simultaneously retreats deeper within himself and forms connections with a cast of bizarre characters who then populate his increasingly bizarre world. From the mysterious psychic Malta Kano to a WWII veteran with dark tales of the war to a morbid 16-year-old girl, Toru drifts from one encounter to the next as he tries to unravel the mystery of where his wife has gone and how to get her back.

This being my first experience with Murakami, I didn’t know what to expect from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The first few pages did their best to let me know that this would be anything but typical, but I think about 100 pages into the novel, I realized that the chapter titles might be even better at getting at the overall theme of the book.

Every chapter had a multipart title such as “Tuesday’s Wind-Up Bird / Six Fingers and Four Breasts” or “Magic Touch / Death in the Bathtub / Messenger with Keepsakes,” which never made much sense. It was only after reading each chapter, then flipping back to the beginning to reread the title that you could understand its meaning.

It reminded me of the way a dream feels both real and mysterious until you wake up and begin to see how all the mundane parts of your day burrowed their way into your brain while you slept. Then it all seems to plain and so simple. It makes sense without needing to make sense.

Ultimately, it’s just one of many ways that Murakami is playing with your sense of reality. He puts you in this dreamlike state of confusion and uncertainty and then populates your world with unreliable narrators and unreliable narratives within unreliable narratives in a way that builds until by the end of the book, you feel completely unsure of what actually happened. But by this point, you also know it doesn’t matter.

What really matters are the questions you ask yourself, what he can force you to think about or reconsider. As Toru recounts at one point,

It was reality. True reality. But each time I recognized that fact, reality felt a little less real. Reality was coming undone and moving away from reality, one small step at a time. But still, it was reality.

I was completely wrapped up in the writing. I hadn’t really felt that way about any book since House of Leaves, and I loved it. It felt like an exploration of what a novel could be—how it could break the rules—and what it really means to be human. It’s weeks later and there are still mysteries in the text left to be unraveled.

I’m not even sure I know what the wind-up bird is, but I’m in love with the question.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle falls squarely in that subset of books that have me hungry to read more. I don’t know what Murakami I’ll pick up next, but I know I can’t wait to see what I ask myself when I’m done.

House of Leaves

House of Leaves

What can I make of House of Leaves? Where to start? How to say enough without saying too much?

It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and from the moment I picked it up, all I wanted to do was talk about it with someone, anyone. But everywhere I looked, even among my most literary friends, I couldn’t find a single person who’d read it. The compulsion to share this thing I’d discovered was overwhelming, but despite all that, I still have an almost impossible time putting my feelings into words.

At it’s core, most call House of Leaves a horror story. Some call it a love story. I call it a bit of both along with something else entirely. Something unnameable.

Before even the introduction, instead of a dedication the book begins with a warning:

“This is not for you.”

In this way, the book pulls us in with one hand and pushes us away with the other. If it’s not for us, then who is it for, we wonder?

There’s only one way to find out.

The book centers on three main characters: Zampanò, Johnny Truant, and Will Navidson.

Elderly, blind Zampanò spent his life writing a scholarly analysis of a 1993 documentary called The Navidson Record. In the documentary, Will Navidson realizes that the inside of his house is bigger than the outside and decides to tape his increasingly terrifying exploration of the anomaly. After Zampanò’s death, Johnny Truant discovers the pieces of the manuscript and becomes obsessed with completing Zampanò’s work, adding footnotes for clarity or, more frequently, to share his thoughts and discuss his life since discovering it. And if that weren’t enough, Johnny insists that The Navidson Record doesn’t even exist.

The process of reading this book was quite possibly the single most challenging and rewarding experience with a book I’ve ever had. Danielewski experiments not just with narrative construction, but with the very page layout itself. Some changes seem to be for coherence, while others are part of a masterful attempt to manipulate the reader’s emotions.

Example of the text’s shifting layout style

As the text jumped around the page and the footnotes became more entangled, I was struggling to keep up. I would read and re-read portions, searching for my place, feeling lost and bogged down.

But none of that was without purpose. Ultimately, Danielewski (or should I say Zampanò?) led me to the answer:

“In order to escape then, we have to remember we cannot ponder all paths but must decode only those necessary to get out. We must be quick and anything but exhaustive. Yet as Seneca warned in his Epistule morales 44, going too fast also incurs certain risks:

This is what happens when you hurry through a maze: the faster you go, the worse you are entangled.

. . .

Therefore anyone lost within must recognize that no one, not even a god or an Other, comprehends the entire maze and so therefore can never offer a definitive answer.”

It’s not meant to be possible to follow every thread in House of Leaves on a first reading. You can only go where it’s possible for you to follow. Some passages may feel inscrutable, others obvious.

That confusion and frustration? That’s how Danielewski wanted me to feel. I was just as lost as the characters, just as uncertain. My empathy for Will and Johnny was being thrust upon me. I had no choice because it was as if we were on this journey together.

More than this though, I felt that in reading House of Leaves, I was seeing for the first time what a writer could do with text, how differently a story could be told. It was thrilling and suspenseful and above all else emotional.

Though it certainly appeals to a specific kind of reader, I can’t recommend House of Leaves enough. It’s rocketed straight to the top of my list of my favorite books of all time. It’s something incredibly special that deserves all the energy it takes to get through it.