Ten minutes ago, I finished Mark Z. Danielewski's The Familiar, Volume Two: Into The Forest and my brain isn't quite right yet. Not quite entirely back in my skull from wherever it is brains go when they get into the serious weird stuff and the heavy stuff and stories that exist right on the raw edge of being more than stories. More than books, but also less.
Six months ago, I reviewed the first book in this series (by the guy who rocked the fusty book world with House Of Leaves, that darling of typesetters and font-nerds everywhere) and said it was almost (but not quite) that mythical book that would kill the book. The missing link between graphic novels and actual novels, between plain old boring words on a page and something much, much stranger.
That book was 900 pages, about a girl going out with her father to get a dog. And then not getting a dog, but getting a cat instead (which was not just a cat and, somehow, more than a cat, too). There were also drug dealers and mystics, conspiracy theories and cavemen. But really, it was a story about a girl (Xanther) getting a cat. It was a 900-page-long Chapter 1 for a series promising 27 volumes.
Now we have Volume 2 (Chapter 2, really) and it is somehow, remarkably, amazingly, almost impossibly better. More confident and self-assured. More consistent in its chaos — its flurry of parentheticals, its screwball layout with words scattered and made into shapes, its glossy insertions of counter-textual material (pictures and illustrations, un-mated parentheses used as raindrops spattering the page). It is the story of Xanther and her cat-thing again. This ancient kitten, rescued from a storm drain during an apocalyptic downpour, brought now into her home where it is forever dying of ... something. Of hunger, I guess, even as Xanther makes the feeding of it her entire life; the focus of her universe.
And the thing that's better is maybe my brain (less shocked, more willing to bend to Danielewski's will). Now I kinda recognize that every character in The Familiar has a signifying color and their own font and a certain way their type is set. Diving back into the visual language is easier the second time around, absolutely.
But maybe it's also Danielewski who has gotten better. Cleaner. The Familiar has nine storylines occurring simultaneously — nine narrators and nine distinct voices and nine different styles — but connections between them have begun to develop. The massive, clotted, recursive use of nested parentheses and brackets (which drove me a little bonkers last time) is now a thing mostly for Astair, Xanther's mother, to perfectly illustrate her distraction, the multiple trains of thought tearing through her, her worries over her family, her husband, her daughter, herself.
The cat (or whatever) is hungry. Always. Xanther is hungry. Always. When she leaves it (for school, a trip to the beach, to sleep), it withers, and Xanther herself gets sick — feels like she is going to burst into flames — only to recover the minute she has the cat back in her hands again. They are feeding on each other somehow. Bad things are happening.
That's the plot. Boom, done. Except not really, because Danielewski is deliberately using this stone-simple through-line of a girl, a cat, a family, as a clothesline from which he can hang ten thousand freak-outs. And where, in Volume 1, they sometimes seemed indulgent and disconnected and, occasionally, at worst, like LOOK AT ME BEING SO GODDAMN CLEVER literary showboating, that has burned away now.
Blood and death and bullying and videogames and hunger — starving, aching hunger. That's Volume 2. The Singapore street hustlers, car chases, magical orbs and end-of-the-world visions crawling up out of the margins? That's just spice. Something extra. Within the trio of Xanther, Astair and Anwar (her father), the domestic story is beautifully rendered and painfully sad. And always, it drips with menace. With the sense that not only is something not right here, but maybe nothing is right. In the shells of stories that surround them, there were pages I couldn't read. Passages I glossed through in a kind of fugue state — incapable of taking in any more strangeness. But Xanther's story held it together. I have never worried so much for a character as I did for her in the final pages and, honest to God, I'm not even entirely sure what happened. Or to whom. Or how. But maybe Volume 3 will make it clear.
Only six more months to wait. That ought to be just about enough time to recover, I figure, before The Familiar crawls into my lap and blows my mind all over again.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphiamagazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.