The Familiar as a Novel

Before the page numbers of The Familiar even begin, it is evident to the reader that this is not a typical print novel and while this is intentionally done by Danielewski, the serialized nature of the book and the “front matter” call into question if the work can necessarily be classified as a novel.  The elements of a novel are present such as characters, setting, and to a degree plot however the nature of the book seems to border more as a reference book or a short story rather than a true novel.  The central story line of Xanther and her immediate family could be considered the true plot of the novel, however that would mean that all the accompanying stories merely exist to provide supplementary material to this story line and in that aspect could be categorized as disconnected reference material.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of a novel is, “an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events” and while The Familiar meets the expectation of length, the requirement of “usually connected sequence of events” is called into question.  Aside from the common setting of LA for a few of the stories, there is no evidence indicating any relationship between Xanther and the other characters.  Also the fact that Xanther’s story line is the most developed and readable of the different perspectives, it also calls into question what the important details of the so-called novel are.  While in novels there are main and supporting characters, I don’t believe that the characters not involved in Xanther’s life could even be called supporting because that would mean there’s a relationship present. These characters are central to their plot lines and therefore would be classified as main characters, but this provides a conflict between their status in the novel.

While I’m sure Danielewski’s inclusion of these characters are important, I wonder what their role could be called.  Are they main characters, supporting characters, or merely figures imagined to serve as reference or background to a more complex novel?  And could The Familiar even be called a novel, or is it more of a short story or novella with included reference material to supplement a more important plot line?

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5 responses to “The Familiar as a Novel”

  1. mvanmet says :

    Although the relationship between all of the characters is difficult to find, there must be one. One thing to call your attention to is the time stamps at the beginning of each chapter. These stamps lists a time, a place, and a date. While the majority of the stories do take place in Los Angeles, there is an even smaller detail here that ties all of the stories together–the date. Everything is occurring on the same day, May 10, 2014 (May 11, 2014 for Singapore). Singapore differs because it takes into account the time change. Everything in this book takes place within a days time. The first time stamp, on page 49, is at 08:03:05 in Los Angeles. The last time stamp in the book, on page 839, is at 23:32:09 on the same day in Los Angeles.

    I’m curious whether his next volume will pick up right where this one left off–maybe starting on May 11, 2014 (May 12, 2014 for Singapore)?

  2. kasey says :

    I don’ think there is any question as to whether this can be called a novel or not. Serialized, sure, but a novel nonetheless. “disconnected reference material” is a great descriptor, given that we are reading a new release from a man who wrote a 700+ page book in which half of it was composed of appendices, indices and other reference material all intended to support the previous narrative. If you’ve read HoL, you’ll understand this is the method this author uses – it is still very much rooted in the novel, just with these little whiskers of pseudo-justification. No one doubts footnotes and appendices right? And if a book has these, surely it was miscategorized at the bookstore and should be in non-fiction.

    “…There is no evidence indicating any relationship…” Yet.

    Some relational clues (among the non-narcons):

    LA, rain, cats, epilepsy, language (be it lingual or coded), hunter/seeker mindset, people uncomfortable in their environ, people seen as damaged/outskirts/lost causes, great wrongs in their past, party to a large sum of wealth moving from one to the other. That’s just in the first 200 pages. Given we are looking at 27 volumes in total, we might have to wait a few before all the relationships become increasingly clear. I also think there is a link between Xanther and Hopi, personally, from school. But this is just a theory of mine…

    “I don’t believe that the characters not involved in Xanther’s life could even be called supporting because that would mean there’s a relationship present.” Correct. Present, just not yet identified.

    Aside from all of this, we know the series was sold as “a story about a girl who finds a kitten” so essentially there are your two main characters – everyone else is supporting, we just haven’t been able to string the yarn to the respective pins yet.

  3. griffid2015 says :

    While I definitely think the dictionary definition of a novel is a good place to start, as others have noted, Danielewski is famous for this style of fractured, intentionally complex and at times seemingly opaque style – I don’t think books like House of Leaves were what Merriam Webster had in mind when they wrote their definition.
    I do think the fact that you brought up the serialization is interesting as it relates to that definition- could the release of all 27 volumes be described as a “usually connected sequence of events” in a meta sense? Danielewski’s style has been often been described as “experimental” so I think the fact that we’re questioning whether or not this is a “novel” is not too far off base.

  4. Sarah Voigt says :

    I think the serial style of the work is serving to be the unique novel style that the author wants, but a novel nonetheless, because while in my reading so far (up to page 395) the plotlines (besides Xanther’s) are not all entirely clear . Yes, it’s super long and confusing and seemingly unconnected, but we are also working with only a 27th of the full text. The author has alluded in interviews that this delayed satisfaction for the reader will be exactly what he wants, because that will build a following. Whether or not that will be an effective strategy, is another question. Though, it seems to work pretty well with television series.

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