Form Mirrors Function in The Familiar
No two pages in this novel are set up exactly the same way. On some pages there are but a few words, on others, the words form a picture. Some pages have no words at all. It is often said that form mirrors function, and I think that The Familiar does an excellent job of showcasing this idea. But what does this all mean? What could Danielewski wish to accomplish by arranging the text in this manner?
It is difficult to supply a concrete answer to this question. One aspect I find particularly interesting but ever-changing is the length of the passages on each page. Sometimes, the longer pages take the form of busy or excited conversation. When Xanther is playing Anwar’s game for example, the dialogue between the group in the room with her fills up the page, but the pace of reading it is extremely quick.
The pages with few to know words appear to perform the opposite function. They take place in moments of contemplation. They stand out amongst the rest. The time on page 252 for example is an important detail important for the doctors to save Xanther’s life. (It should be noted that this page is not numbered. The focus of this page is not to orient the reader to a specific point in the progression of the novel; it is to emphasize a powerful memory in the mind of a parent.) It causes the reader to focus on that detail for an entire page, even if it only takes them a moment to read it.
The structure of the text blocks on these pages is also particularly fascinating. The blocks of text that make of Shnorhk’s chapters also showcase the idea of how the shape of the text accomplishes a specific task. Shnorhk feels isolated and misunderstood. The majority of the pages of his section in the narrative take the form of two distinct blocks of text. He is trying to piece together a moment in his life that has prompted great reflection. He is also attempting to understand the world in which he now lives. His altercation with the cop/legal system have left him disillusioned and confused. He has, as of page 395 in the novel, yet to come to a solid resolution. Perhaps the shape of his narrative will change along with his state of mind?
The organization of the text on these pages does indeed reflect something about a character’s state of mind at a given moment. Xanther’s anxiety can be seen in the pages where the words take the form of a torrential downpour. It is a strain for readers to understand these words, to sort through their meanings. Sometimes, it is easiest to just turn the page, to tune it all out and wait for the next page, where the words are situated in a way that is more familiar to us, to come along. But these pages are important. They are visual representations of feelings. Something intangible is presented right before our very eyes. A powerful moment in my mind is when Xanther is at the party in Anwar’s office and she begins to feel overwhelmed again. This sensation is conveyed to us in a page where certain parts of unrelated conversations stand out to her among a sea of unintelligible conversations. The parts she hears look like clouds in the rainstorm.We cannot see Xanther’s face as she undergoes her episodes of increased anxiety due to her existence as a character in the pages of a novel. Still, we are not cut off from her completely. The way that the text forms these kinds of visuals allows us to “see” her face and enter her mind to feel something similar to what she feels. The visuals engulf us as readers, and we are just as overwhelmed as she is. We feel just as confused and misunderstood as Shnorhk does. We relieve the panic that Astair felt when she thought she might lose one of her daughters. Danielewski is remediating not only the way read, but the way we feel.