Review: The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski

The Question (and Xanther) Song


Two of the reviewer's own Narrative Constructs* discuss the latest book (?) by Mark Z. Danielewski

TQSNarconQ: Will Mark Z. Danielewski change the way we read fiction?
TQSNarconA: There's a question I'm sure has been asked since the publication of his groundbreaking text , House of Leaves. He has definitely changed the way people read his fiction. His prose is a mash-up of style: Joycean, Pynchonesque; tone: Jacksonian, P.K. Dickish; and form: graphic novel, expressive typography, use of signicons (signs+icons), and fonts as identifiers. However, I don't think his influence is strong enough to trigger a paradigm shift in literature.

TQSNarconQ:  What has he written for us lately?
TQSNarconA: His latest work is entitled The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May. It is the first volume (840 pages) in a proposed 27 part epic work revolving around 9 core characters.

TQSNarconQ: Why is it called The Familiar?
TQSNarconA: As far as I can determine the title most likely refers to the meaning:

familiar: noun

9.Witchcraft and Demonology.
  1. an animal, as a cat, that embodies a supernatural spirit and aids a witch in performing magic.
  2. familiar spirit.
 excerpted from
TQSNarconQ: Wow, sounds spooky, what's it about?
TQSNarconA: Well as I said there are 9 core characters, 9 points of view (not including the 3 Narcons, or Narrative Constructs, absurdly structured voices who barge in on the tale periodically), but 3 are immediately related to each other. So there are 7 distinct story lines, which may (at least I hope) by the end of the 27th volume, merge into one coherent narrative. 

The main story line is about a married couple from Los Angeles, California, Anwar and Astair, who have three daughters: the twins Freya and Shasti, and their very special epileptic daughter, Xanther, 12 years old (the X Factor of the tale). Xanther is Anwar's step-daughter, her real father, Dov, having been killed-in-action, a hero of a foreign war. Anwar and Astair have decided to buy a dog for the family in hopes of aiding Xanther with her debilitating condition. We pick up the action as Anwar and Xanther venture out on "one rainy day in May" to purchase a canine surprise. As it happens, and I won't spoil it for you, not that it hasn't been spoiled already, they get sidetracked, but arrive home safely..

TQSNarconQ: That's it? That's the entire plot?
TQSNarconA: Well it is only part 1 of 27. We also learn a lot of back story, like about Anwar's career as a video game designer (AI/Engine his specialty). And besides, a lot more happens in the chapters featuring the 6 other characters.

TQSNarconQ: OK, who are these other characters?
TQSNarconAThey vary from Jing Jing, a Chinese drug addict in Singapore, to Shnorhk, a taxi driver in Los.Angeles., to Isandôrno, a superstitious traveler in Mexico. From The Wizard (Cas) and her Orb in Texas to the gang leader Luther, and the detective Özgür both from L.A. They are a mysterious and random bunch, yet there are some common threads that can be drawn between them. For instance, each one of them can sense the faint cry of their so-called familiar (...), a plea for salvation. 

TQSNarconQ: What the hell is the point of all this quotidian trickery? 
TQSNarconA: To be honest, which, by the way, I cannot be otherwise, I haven't too much of a clue (one book's worth to be exact (840 pages)). Here's the thing, the reader needs to place some trust in the writer, otherwise the question of time and money spent can get a little dicey. I, for one, am willing to extend a soupçon of faith to the author, at least until Part 2 drops in October (the birthday of Book Jones)

TQSNarconQ: OK, I just sneaked a peak at the title of this review. What in the reviewer's name is "The Question Song" a reference to?
TQSNarconA: Why, Xanther's coping mechanism in the book of course. "Curiosity was her constant" says Anwar of Xanther. She vocalizes her anxiety in expectation of a possible seizure by asking series of questions until they mimic a song. Unverbalized, however ("how many raindrops?" (obsessed over on that rainy day in May)), they can lead to trouble.

TQSNarconQ: I'm guessing you really enjoyed this new novel by MZD, as the author has been referred to. Is this correct and if so, to whom would you recommend it?
TQSNarconA: You guessed right, partner, I did kind of enjoy this odd foray into combi-form writing and graphic story-telling. And I look forward to sharing more commentary about The Familiar, Volume 2: Into the Forest at the proper time. 

If nothing else, the book itself is a beautiful object, a softcover tome which makes use of thick, art quality paper; if has an important feel and heft to it. Danielewski succeeds in plying his literary trade without seeming too pretentious, a tough trick accounting for the breadth of originality he invokes (I mean: there is even this from the top of the copyright page: "Because Fiction's province is the imagination and thus concerned with the argument of empathy over representation, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales, no matter how familiar, shall be considered coincidences born out of the readers' very keen and original mind"). 

Thoughtful open-minded and curious humans with patience to indulge on borderline eccentric art will reap some rewards from this particular volume. Books such as this often require supplemental material to garner a more substantial understanding and informed interpretation of their obscure themes and cryptic messages. A fairly comprehensive and scholarly resource can be accessed on line at One caveat: please do not read this book on an electronic device such as the Kindle, you will not take advantage of the full sensory experience.  

OK, TQSNarconQ that's it for now, We'll reconvene for the next volume in the Autumn of the year.

TQSNarconQ: Promise?
TQSNarconA: I will give you my word (familiar), In full color, no less. 

MZD w/ white cat
* Rules governing the Narrative Constructs in this review do not apply to The Familiar's family of Narrative Constructs.

~4.7 Stars