The Word “Familiar” Doesn’t Act Quite So

Sometimes a title can simply serve as a heading for a novel. Other times it serves as some sort of foreshadowing, or a revelation that can only be understood after the whole of the novel has been read and digested. In the case of Danielewski’s The Familiar, I can’t say that I have any idea as to where he plans to go with the significance of this title in reference to his work. Something that stuck out to me in the first 200 pages was the hint that some animals may be play a part as partners to humans, a similar role to the typical familiars seen in popular myths of witches where they act as their loyal helpers and protectors.

After a class discussion it was made clear to me that Danielewski is one to decorate his books in a fanciful way, weaving a number of significant and colorful design choices into his novels that help to both illuminate and enhance his reader’s experience. While the novel as we are reading it is still in its developmental stages and the design changes that Danielewski is bound to employ in his finished version of the novel are still unknown, it is important to note the subtle nods to these design elements that can be seen in this incomplete version. The one that stands out most prominently to me at this time involves the presence and peculiarity surrounding the word “familiar”.

On separate occasions in the text, this word is used in a variety of different stories and contexts. Despite the variability of its use, the slightly faded coloring of it from the makeshift cover of the novel to its place in the text seems to consistently remain the same. This occurrence of the word is sporadic, most notably in a considerably close cluster on pages 124, 135, and 175, though as far as I know every use of said word has been presented in a slightly faded hue. Another interesting feature includes word not only being faded, but the only part that retains such discoloration is the strict root of just “familiar” (i.e. in the word familiars, the s is not included in this color deviation).

I first interpreted this trend as a nod to the kind of shadowy presence that an animal familiar typically is thought to have considering it is a creature that protects and aids its master/partner silently from the sidelines. Despite this being a possible basis for the word’s faded nature I think that the traditional animal definition for the word “familiar” will probably play out in a bigger way in the text considering the evolving use of animals in these early stories. As to what kind of connection this might actually have to the word or title, though, I am still quite unsure and very curious to find out.

Apart from my assumptions, I think that more questions can be asked concerning this trend. What significance might this discoloration lend to within the scope of the novel? Does it serve as a nod to the title, or will it hold some deeper meaning that can only be discovered upon further reading and analysis of the novel? I’m very interested to see how the word and the stories continue to evolve throughout the rest of the novel.

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3 responses to “The Word “Familiar” Doesn’t Act Quite So”

  1. kasey says :

    In the world of MZD, he started with the word “house” which was in a very specific shade of blue, a shade, he said in an interview, that was the same shade used in special effects photography of the time, the “bluescreen” which we have now come to know as the “greenscreen” – I assume the color green held more advantages.

    Then with Only Revolutions, you have the contrasting “o”s both in a hazel/brown shade and a sage/green shade, to go with the eye color of Sam and Hailey.
    The Fifty Year Sword used various autumnal hued quotation marks to identify characters of which dialog was attributed.

    The Familiar, employs a (shaded in the ARC) version of the word we must assume to be pink, as the other color is black (or almost black). What will this color signify? We can’t be sure yet. There are any number of theories ranging from feminine, to newborn, etc… But what you can be sure of is that the word will forever be possessed of a meaning beyond definition now that it has been chosen for a unique color.

    It is perhaps another tool in his kit to get us to pace our reading, to stop and recognize a word as special, not just because it is reflected in the title, or because of what it may come to mean, but because the word carries multiple meanings.

    In HoL, house became this thing that you read, at first you were taken aback by the blueness, then you kind of started looking for it, then when you came to it you stopped down, and at least with me, it made me think about the instance of the word in that sentence – why this blue house matters right here.

    I am confident we will see a similar use of “familiar” whatever color it turns out to be (I’m betting pink) and perhaps maybe a lone non-hued instance like we saw in HoL with the one instance of house not in blue, that REALLY messed everyone up.

  2. ktoney2015 says :

    I think that what Danielewski is trying to accomplish with this discoloration, or fading, as you call it, is to draw our attention to the nature of the word itself and to perhaps allow it to take on a new level of meaning. There are moments when we as readers fall into the trap of passivity. Taking this sort of step in the stylizing of the narrative helps to combat that immensely. It is interesting that because this copy of the novel is in black and white, what might be in color is almost fading into the background here. We often think of what is familiar to us in our daily lives as “fading into the background,” but here, we notice it. It is as if the word is calling to readers subconsciously, begging them to re-conceptualize the word “familiar.” The change in color catches readers off guard. It almost serves as an alert system for readers. When we come across the word familiar when reading the text, it stands out from the rest. It is not as familiar as the others, as you say. These characters use the word “familiar” to remark upon the things in their life that they deem unremarkable, the things that won’t cause them unease, as do we. Still, in placing this word, presumably quite literally, in a highlighted situation, Danielewski causes us to feel tension. We anticipate some stress for the characters around the corner. Our senses are heightened. We examine what that state of “familiar” means for different characters in this novel. For Anwar at one point, it is the ways his house and family look at night. For Luther, it is how a bottle of liquor should taste after a night with his crew. In engaging in this examining of the “familiar” in these characters’ lives, due to the immersive nature of this novel, we are called to examine what is familiar in our own lives. What causes these characters to become “familiar” with the things around them, to feel at home enough to develop the rhythm that will eventually earn that “familiar” moniker? Is it love? Hope? Pride? Ambition? Or is it something entirely different? The same questions may be asked of us, the readers of The Familiar. These characters have complex motivations that drive their storylines and make up the world that they call home. In taking the word “familiar” and changing the way it appears in the text, it takes on a different connotation. Instead of putting us at ease, we are called to question both what we see on the page and outside our windows every day.

    • Luke says :

      I’m not entirely sure that in the finished copy the word “familiar” will appear in various shades of grey as it does in the galley print. I assume that as it appears in different chapters, ascribed to different characters, it will change in color.

      Another possibility is that the word is the same color throughout. Perhaps, like the title of the galley print, the word “familiar” will appear pink throughout the novel.

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