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Literature / The Familiar

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Words need worlds in order to be worlds. Worlds though don't need words in order to be worlds.

The Familiar is a book series written by New Weird author Mark Z. Danielewski, best known as the author of House of Leaves and Only Revolutions. Much like those books, the series is an exploration of post-modernist themes through the usage of the author's trademark Unconventional Formatting and unique writing style. Being a blend of science fiction, horror, conspiracy thriller, crime/detective, and cyber punk, it is quite the Genre Buster.

Danielewski has likened this book project to serialized television, and originally the series was planned to consist of 27 novels. However, Danielewski announced in February 2018 (after 5 Volumes/1 Series had been published) that the series will be "paused" for now. As such it is uncertain if the envisioned Volumes 6-27 will be published.

The "series" is split into "seasons" of about 5 books, with Volume 5 the "first season finale".

As of 2018 the series consists of:

Season 1:

  • Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May (May 12, 2015)
  • Volume 2: Into the Forest (October 27, 2015)
  • Volume 3: Honeysuckle and Pain (June 14, 2016)
  • Volume 4: Hades (February 7, 2017)
  • Volume 5: Redwood (October 31, 2017)

Not to be confused with The Familiars, an unrelated children's fantasy book series, Familiar, an unrelated fantasy novella, The Familiar, the 41st Animorphs book, or with the trope of the same name, which is featured in this work.

This series provides examples of:

  • Aerith and Bob: Many characters have unusual names—like Isandòrno, Shnorkh, Mnatsangan—that seem to have been completely made-up by the author. On the other hand, there are characters called Anwar, jingjing, and Catherine (the first two are normal names in Arabic and Chinese respectively).
  • Alliterative Name: Alvin Alex Anderson, who later turns out to be the same person as somebody previously Only Known by Their Nickname.
  • Arc Numbers: 3, 9 and 27 (3^1, 3^2, 3^3 respectively). There are 9 narrators; Luther has 9 dogs; Shnorkh is helping his friend move 9 boxes, etc. There are 27 books planned for the series by the author. The NarCons are named Narcon-3, Narcon-9 and Narcon-27.
  • Arc Words: In Özgür's chapters, the word katla ("fold" in Turkish) often appears within the text at important points in his story. His character has origami as a hobby, which explains the word "fold". The word often appears on a line of its own to emphasize it note , and appears either once, two-fold or three-fold.
  • A Day In The Lime Light: With nine protagonists each telling their story, a scope around the globe, and 27 books planned, there are many characters getting the limelight in turn. A summary listing most of them can be found here.
  • Bilingual Bonus: Plenty of foreign language text throughout. Most notably Spanish, Cantonese Chinese and Arabic, but also some Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Hindi, Russian, Hebrew and German. And braille signs. Plus, C++ computer source code. Sometimes it's translated, mostly not - actually lampshaded by the narrators of the book, who comment "What? I'm not your Google bitch." after the first instance of foreign language.
    • Some of Anwar's (a computer programmer) lines are preceded by // which might seem like just another typographical gimmick/oddity, but if you know even the most basic C++ (or other computer language), you'll recognize that it denotes a comment—and indeed, this text is mostly himself commenting on his own thoughts.
  • Canon Welding:
    • The Familiar features many references to something called "VEM" which has been namedropped in many other MZD works dating back to House of Leaves.
    • The House from House of Leaves itself has been subtly referenced (e.g. how jingjing describes zhong's apartment in V01Ch12, "palace above the day", and the fact that the word House sometimes is printed in blue).
    • The short story Clip 4 is almost like a prologue to TF, while also containing numerous callbacks.
    • Much like in House of Leaves, The Fifty Year Sword and Only Revolutions, allways is always printed with two Ls.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: Astair is about to become a certified psychotherapist, specifically a family psychotherapist. She has many issues with regards to her own family though, like she has difficulty relating to her oldest daughter Xanther, and she frequently snaps and yells at her daughters and then feels guilty about it.
  • Color-Coded Characters: Each character's chapters are represented by a different color, found in the top corner of each page.
  • Cute Kitten: Inverted for Xanther's kitten, who everybody except Xanther feels something is very "off" or creepy about. And then the vet reveals that, despite looking like a kitten from the outside, it is actually very old, something he can't explain. It seems to influence people close to it supernaturally (tian li's healing powers) and physically (Xanther getting sick when the kitten is not near).
  • Doorstopper: Each book is 880 pages, and weights a hefty 3.6 pounds / 1.65 kg (because it's also printed on remarkably thick paper). There are twenty-seven of these books. However, Downplayed by the fact that many pages only contain a few words and many pages have very broad margins - the book has been likened to contain the amount of text of a book of 200-300 pages instead of almost 900 (that is, purely considering how much text it contains; due to the complexity of the story and all the Mind Screw, reading it might then again take as much time as for almost 900 pages).
  • Fictional Social Network: A fictional app called Parcel Thoughts is used by Xanther and her classmates, and by Luther and his gang note . It apparently is the most ubiquitous social media app In Universe, although Real Life social media like Twitter and Instagram also feature often.
  • Genre Roulette: The book as a whole is a big Genre Buster, but each of the narrators' chapters accentuate different genres. The most obvious ones are: Horror (with a bit of Young Adult) for Xanther's chapters, Cyberpunk for Anwar's, Crime/Detective for Oz's, Conspiracy Thriller for Cas's; while Astair's and Shnorhk's are the least specific qua genre and the most most general novelizations.
  • Immediate Sequel: Each book starts one second after the ending of the previous one. This is because each chapter within the series is time-stamped and immediately follows the previous one, and this is applied between books as well as chapters.
  • Mind Screw: Even before the weird stuff starts, the huge number of characters, constantly shifting point-of-view and weird structure make it a real challenge to read. By the time you've gotten a grasp on how to read it, the plot begins sliding into strange as well...
  • New House, New Problems: The Ibrahims have moved to Los Angeles at the start of the story. In their new city, they find the cat and take it in, causing all the horror-like things starting to happen with Xanther. Also, even before that, the house itself is in bad shape, with a leaking roof, which seems to be foreshadowing.
  • No Name Given: The cat Xanther takes in is not given a name until volume 5, and just referred to as the cat/kitten.
  • Orphaned Series: The series was prematurely stopped in 2018 at 5 books out of 27 complete because poor sales convinced its publisher that further sequels were not worth time and effort.
  • Postmodernism: Dives right into this with full force, filled with fourth-wall breaking, weird typography and use of language, and an air of incomprehensibility about the whole thing.
  • Posthumous Character:
    • Dov is dead from the beginning of the first book on. He's Xanther's biological father and Astair's Amicable Ex, and sometimes is featured in the narrative even though he's dead.
    • Realic is a character we only hear of after he was murdered. He knew both Anwar and Cas, and frequently pops up in their narrative; also, Realic's article "Clip 4" is very important to the plot.
  • Shout-Out: Lots of (popular) culture works are mentioned.
    • Alice in Wonderland: When Oz sees a cat on the street he ponders that it won't smile because "it was no Chesire, and Oz sure was no Alice", referring to two famous characters from this book.
    • Battlestar Galactica (2003): Xanther is a big fan of this series, and it is often referenced in her narrative, such as when she thinks something strikes "like Boomer stroke the cylon fighter".
    • Dexter: When Oz and Planski discuss Realic's particularly gruesome murder case, they say it's "very Dexter".
    • Edge of Tomorrow: When Xanther and her friends are playing computer games in early June 2014, Xanther mentions this movie recently opened and has to do with "gaming or doing things over and over".
    • Fight Club: When Juarez is acting crazy and "fighting with himself" in a park, and two kids laugh at him, Luther thinks it is "like Fight Club but a cartoon".
    • The Great Gatsby: Cally, a woman Oz meets in bar, mentions an unabridged reading of this book by a theatre group has "changed her life".
    • The Lord of the Rings: "The Eye always fails to look at Mordor".
    • The Office (US): The Ibrahim family spend an afternoon during Memorial weekend watching this show.
    • Rihanna: jingjing mentions he hears her songs when in a night club,and lyrics of her songs are quoted as chapter quotes.
    • The Wire: Oz mentions his friend and detective co-worker Planski looks like Beadie Russell, a character in this show.
  • Shown Their Work: Places, landmarks and streets are described in much detail as they exist in real life. Danielewski lives in Los Angeles himself, and most of the chapters take place there; but he also purposefully lived in Singapore for a while, as that city also plays a big role. He also spent time with a L.A. detective and with computer programmers to portray Oz' and Anwar's professions right. Then there's the sheer amount of foreign languagues used (including Chinese and Arabic).
  • Title Drop: Played With for the book's title itself—any occurence of familiar is printed in pink to emphasize it, but they always occur as either part of a longer word ("familiarize", "familiarity") or are just the adjective of the word instead of the noun as in the title.
  • Unconventional Formatting: Among other things: Some text is printed diagonally or vertically over the page, in shapes like circles etc., in many different sizes of the font on the same page. Some pages consist of letters / words / phrases in font sizes so small that you can't discern individual letters, but they make out a pattern (a picture, sometimes). Words covered by a Censor Box or otherwise made unreadable. Each of the nine narrators has a different font, different page margins and line spacing. Any time "Familiar" or "familiar" appears (even if it's part of a longer word), it's printed in pink. Dots like braille letters appear around text inserted by the "NarCons" note . When computer source code appears in the text, it's printed in a fixed-width Courier-looking font, and indented and color-coded just like in real life code is (conventional formatting for programmers, but unconventional formatting for a novel). The page with the books' Copyright declaration and ISBN number doesn't appear at the beginning of the book like usual, but only on page 842 - after the novel itself is finished, and before the Acknowledgements.

Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May provides examples of:

  • Character Title: "Dr. Potts" (Xanther's psychiatrist she spends the chapter with) is a chapter title. "zhong" and "raeden" for jingjing (one of tian li's clients he's at during the chapter, and zhong's son whom zhong asks tian li to heal), and "auntie" (the way he addresses tian li, Singlish way to address older ladies).
  • Couldn't Find a Pen: On the crime scene Oz visits, where three people have been murdered, the letters "VEM" have been written on a window with what only is described as "some greasy substance". Presumbably, VEM is an organization involved in the murders, and either VEM themselves (as a threat) or the murder victims (assuming they didn't die instantly, and to point to their killers) did that.
  • Dramatic Ellipsis: "If Anything...", the title of the last chapter of Book 1, that is the cliffhanger to Book 2.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Considering how BIG the book is, the fact that all of it takes place in just one day (hence the title; and to be precise it even is only 15 hours) is remarkable. Probably Justified because there are so many characters to introduce.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Xanther mentions she has a classmate called Lindsey, and herself wonders that that's an uncommon name for a boy.
  • The Pilot: This first installment is focused on introducing the characters, more than much happening in it. The ones following it, take up the pace and up the action. The author himself even literally called it a pilot (and the entire series was written as "a TV-series in book form", so this is fitting).
  • The Place: "Lupita's" and "Square One" are the places where respectively Luther, and Anwar & Xanther have breakfast in in a chapter. "palace above the day" is this in a more abstract way, as that is how jingjing describes zhong's (pent)house in a chapter, and that place plays a big role in that chapter. "Bones Nest" is the pet shop Astair is in in a chapter.

Volume 2: Into the Forest provides examples of:

  • And Your Reward Is Edible: Xanther puts a lot of effort into finding the owner of the cat, by distributing posters. Anwar, knowing she does this despite being attached to the cat herself, because it's the right thing to do, afterwards takes her out for an ice cream because he's proud of her. It's more heartwarming considering that she's on an extremely strict, "ketogenic" diet and hasn't eaten sugar in any form for a long time.
  • Character Title: "Eldon Avantine" is a chapter name, and is Astair's newly-assigned supervisor for her writing her thesis. "Planski" is a chapter title and Oz' co-worker. "The Mayor" is a title as well as a minor character, the criminal boss of Isandorno.
  • Call-Back:
    • Oz recalls the robbery in Koreatown, that happened in the previous book.
    • When Xanther chooses Pomegranate flavour for her ice, she thinks she did so because Anwar's friends had given her Grenadine at Anwar's office party—this indeed was described in the first book.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: Someone posts a message in Fictional Social Network app "Parcel Thoughts", consisting of:
    fuck yellows, fuck blues, fuck this fuckin pink latch
  • Embarrassing First Name: A client of Astair's is called Ananias. Even Astair herself can't help think "What a name!". It is only one letter off from what is the word for "pineapple" in most languages except English: ananas. It doesn't help that the client seems to be a Cloudcuckoolander, too.
  • The Place: "Frogtown" is a chapter title, and a neighborhood of Los Angeles where the chapter takes place for Luther. "The Loyal Hawaiian" is a hotel, and the place another Luther chapter takes place.
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: When Xanther wonders if the cat really isn't a kitten, the NarCons comment "It. Is. Not." to emphasize it really isn't.
  • Spiteful Spit: Shnorhk arrives at the clinic just before closing time, only to find out that the clinic is closed and abandoned. Angry because he now blames the clinic for breaking his promise to Patil, he spits at the clinic's door.
  • Title Drop:
    • "be extraordinary": jingjing reads this on a poster for recruitment for the police.
    • "so it begins": jingjing thinks this to himself when he goes buying drugs again after having been clean for four years.