Familiar Patterns – Part One – Pages 1-199
Hello to all, I just wanted to give a brief introduction to my post before getting into the main topic I wanted to discuss. Along with researching formal innovation in the novel in the 20th and 21st centuries (most notably from B.S. Johnson to Mark Z. Danielewski (PhD thesis coming soon (fingers crossed))), my academic background is partly rooted in visual composition and contemporary painting. Because of this, when reading a new book for the first time, I’m always drawn towards seeking out patterns (and structures (and repetitions)) in a text’s formal and visual devices, as well as irregularities and anomalies. I describe this to myself as a process of building a toolkit for reading visually and formally unorthodox writing; albeit one which naturally evolves, expands and contrcats, under a constant process of revision and re-evaluation as I progress through the text. It’s an instinctive thing I’ll do whenever I’m confronted with something new to read, and a habit from which I often have to restrain myself – but for this discussion, I’ve decided to run with it.
It’s with that in mind that I’ve put together some notes on the most prominent structures and patterns which I’ve found during my first reading (and follow-up group discussion) of The Familiar. Most of these will be easily-observed by those who’ve read the text, and perhaps self-explanatory, but I wanted to provide a breakdown of how the book appears to be structured, as a starting-point to discuss the potential significance of forms and layouts used, or their usefulness to help guide our reading. What do you think the selection of these forms achieves? Can we read any particular significance into the arrangement and structuring of individual narratives?
Please note that although I’ve tried my best to avoid discussing any significant plot points, this post will contain some spoilers for pages 1-199.
(OVERARCHING?) NARRATIVE STRUCTURES
Prologue (Prelude? (Preview? (Introduction? (Untitled.))))
Within its covers, The Familiar’s title doesn’t appear until the book’s 45th page and, alongside the expected indications of Danielewski’s previous works and critical acclaim, is preceded by a montage of images and short narratives apparently collected under the title ‘NEW THIS SEASON’. Mirroring a television broadcaster’s highlight reel, the book presents us with four brief stories, largely unpaginated and formally stylised:
- ‘Our Common Horrors/Astral Omega’ (white text on a black background, printed in a landscape arrangement of two columnar text boxes)
- ‘Tom’s Crossing “Even in his Feet”’ (a second landscape arrangement of text boxes, including italicised dialogue, 1st and 3rd person narration, images of a steadily deteriorating heart monitor readout and medical statistics mirroring this development)
- ‘Caged Hunt: Part One’ (a third text in landscape, presenting a paper analogue of digital video software displaying text consisting of dialogue and 3rd-person narration)
- A full-page illustration/diagram (R – Rain, S – Signiconic, V – Violence, P – Planetarity, C – Custody)
- A second image (Twin Rivers Ochre Artifact)
- A seemingly untitled fourth narrative (comprising a summary page detailing time, setting and characters, followed by dialogue attributed to ‘Boy’ and ‘Girl’ in a bold typeface, and third-person narration in italics).
Pagination begins at p.34 (the Twin Rivers Ochre Artifact), as does a mode of attributing narrative voice in the form of four dots, arranged to simultaneously resemble colons and quotation marks. Unlike the previous three narratives, these characteristics (pagination, dot-attribution (dottribution? (no, don’t be silly))) are sustained throughout the main body of text following its title page, suggesting this narrative to bear a more significant connection to the rest of the book than the preceding three.
(As I mentioned, I think much of this section appears to mimic the kind of preview reels aired by American broadcast networks like AMC or HBO near the beginning of a broadcast cycle, giving sneak peeks at the shows they’ll be showing and promoting (hence: NEW THIS SEASON). I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of these shorter narratives revisited more substantially in later volumes of The Familiar, and their inclusion at this stage turns out to be a gesture at the broader context in which One Rainy Day in May will eventually sit.)
- 1 – p48: “Is Everything Okay?” (key quotation from content of chapter (includes illustration of still raindrops + quotation from Henry David Thoreau))
- 2 – p73: Lupita’s (name of café/diner where chapter is set (includes illustration of locks (?) + quotation from Luis J. Rodriguez))
- 3 – p83: Square One (name of café/diner where chapter is set (includes image of Square One café chalkboard + quotation from Norm Schryer))
- 4 – p100: zhong (name of character introduced during chapter (includes unclear image + quotation from Lady Gaga))
- 5 – p114: Big Surprise (previously-referenced event discussed further in chapter(includes image of birds’ nest + quotation from Moonrise Kingdom))
- 6 – p133: The Orb (unclear reference, though image is sustained by concrete prose form used in chapter (includes image of sphere (smoke?) + quotation from Blade Runner))
- 7 – p160: Power Draws a Crowd (thematic to chapter content (image of film reel of police car + quotation from Bill Evans))
- 8 – p178: Dr. Potts (character/setting introduced during chapter (includes image of Rubik’s Cubes floating within bubbles + quotation from Jakob von Uexkull))
Xanther and members of her family (her mother Astair, her stepfather Anwar, her sisters Freya and Shasti) are the main focus of chapters 1, 3, 5 and 8, establishing she/they to be the main narrative subject(s) of the book so far.
(Though the chapter structure here appears to be reasonably conventional so far, I’m interested to see if this is sustained throughout the rest of the novel, or if there ends up being deviation from this pattern. For example, at present only Xanther’s family are spread across multiple chapters, with characters from the others remaining distinct – yet Chapters 2 and 7 operate within the same location (LA), indicating the potential for them to cross paths at a later point. There are many shared characteristics in terms of narrative voice, language, and style, but I want to save discussion on those particular points for my next post.)
Each chapter bears a time stamp at its beginning and another at its end, providing a location, a date and a time:
- Los Angeles, California – 10/5/14 – 08:03:05
- Los Angeles, California – 10/5/14 – 08:19:16
- Los Angeles, California – 10/5/14 – 08:43:59
- Singapore – 10/5/14 – 00:19:21
- Los Angeles, California – 10/5/14 – 09:36:15
- Marfa, Texas – 10/5/14 – 11:51:10
- Los Angeles, California – 10/5/14 – 10:04:08
- Los Angeles, California – 10/5/14 – 10:38:39
The predominant setting for the novel so far is Los Angeles, California, which provides the setting for 6 of the first 8 chapters.
Including the time-zone differences of 9 hours between CA and Singapore, and 2 hours between CA and TX, the chapters present a linear and sequential timeline taking place in real-time over the course of 2 hours, 56 minutes and 17 seconds on ‘One Rainy Day in May’ – being the 10th May 2014.
The time stamps give the main body of text the appearance of a historical document, dated and located for a reader examining it retrospectively. They also separate this body of text from the prologue (etc. (etc.!)) section, perhaps suggesting that they operate on a separate narrative chronology (?).
(As mentioned, the inclusion of these time stamps gives the suggestion of reading the main body of text retrospectively, from a point in time at which such markers would be necessary.
‘Our Shared Horrors/Astral Omega’ seems to suggest the potential for narration situated far into the distant future – perhaps it is worth thinking about where we are being positioned in relation to the events of the narrative. Allusions to an omniscient narrator seem to be present through the dotted annotations throughout several chapters, both between reader and narrator, and between character (eg. Xanther) and narrator.)
THAT’LL DO FOR NOW
So those are (I think) the three key, observable, formal structures which largely dictate the shape of the first 199 pages of the book. I’d be really keen to carry on the discussion here in terms of:
- What’s the significance of these structures?
- What additional information can we extrapolate from them?
- How reliably/consistently are they adhered to?
I’d like to hold off on discussing the forms and devices of NARRATIVE VOICE where possible, as these will form the basis of my next post/thread, and I think it would make for a more useful/readable discussion if we keep things on-topic where possible (though I accept that there will (probably) be a significant degree of overlap, and I don’t want to curtail a productive discussion).
Feedback is, of course, appreciated too.
Thanks for reading!