Mark Z. Danielewski

When my oldest was a toddler, he went through this phase where he didn’t want to fall asleep unless someone was with him.  Eventually he agreed that he might be able to sleep if he knew I was right outside his room.  For months I would sit in the hallway outside of his room every night until he fell asleep.  Periodically he would call out asking if I was there and I would respond. The things we do for love.  What’s a mom to do while sitting on the floor in a hallway waiting for her kid to fall asleep?  Read, of course.

One of the books I read during those evenings was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (published in 2000, but read by me in 2008ish). House of Leaves  is not for everyone.  It is a dense book with encyclopedic footnotes (all fabricated) that often took up more space on the page than the text of the actual story.  It is either an obsessive account of a mystery that cannot be solved.  It is a book that is a house that is a book and on and on.  Whatever it is, it is haunting and suspenseful and one of the few books that I have found genuinely terrifying, but for many people it may just be boring because there is not a lot of action and it is not an easy read.  I loved every page of it.

When I saw Danielewski’s newish book, The Familiar, at the library I was very excited.  The Familiar is 839 pages, but many of those pages read like an e.e. cummings poem so that the appearance and positioning of the minimal text contributes to the meaning of the words on the page.  Some pages have only one word on them.  On others, the words surround an empty space or are surrounded by empty space to form a shape.  The result is a quicker read than you might expect, although I frequently reread passages to pay closer attention to details of positioning and font size. Throughout the book different fonts are used to denote different characters, of which there are many.

Stylistically, I really liked this book.  Every word, every space is included for a reason and even when I didn’t love the result, I loved the deliberateness of it.

Other aspects of this book, I didn’t like as much.  There is a very meta segment in which we are spoken to by the “narrative construct” that took me out of my head and while I understand that this was the intent, I didn’t like it and I didn’t understand the motivation behind it.  It felt like an indulgence on the author’s part. A writer’s workshop exercise.  Something done for the writer’s enjoyment, rather than the reader’s. This maybe sums up all of Danielewski’s work, but some of it works for me and some of it just doesn’t.

The characters are mostly caricatures, the gangster, the party guy, the mother, the academic…  A few of them are mysterious and unclassifiable, but still not overly complex.  The story is twisty and unclear and while I appreciated the challenge of the text, I kept waiting for something important to happen.  As I progressed through the book, I kept wondering when all of the individual characters’ story lines were going to merge.  Imagine my surprise when I got to the end of the book and they didn’t.  At that point I realized that the big 1 on the front of the book was also intentional (duh!).  A little google searching revealed that Volume 2 was published this October.

So, now I have to decide if I want to read the next one and my immediate response is… maybe?  I had very mixed feelings about this book.  I have a kind of guarded respect for it.  I respect that it requires so much of me as a reader, but I am not sure that I am getting enough in return to dive into the next one.  I’m going to give it some time.


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