Review: The Familiar Volume 1 – One Rainy Day in May

Mark Z. Danielewski’s One Rainy Day in May is the first of a projected 27 (!) volumes about a 12-year-old girl who rescues a kitten.

I wish I was joking.

I love Danielewski’s seminal House of Leaves; I honestly think it’s the best Gothic haunted house novel out there, and what’s more it’s supremely aware of itself as haunted text, and I’d better stop there because otherwise I’ll fall down the critical-theoretical rabbit hole that is Thinking About House of Leaves. The point is: the postmodernism in House of Leaves is fascinating and thought-provoking and scary; whereas just reading a review of One Rainy Day in May makes me feel exhausted.

There are a handful of frame narratives to the book, including some Youtube mock-ups that remind me more of Marisha Pessl’s Night Film than anything else. The meat of it, though, is made up of the points of view of nine different people – I’m going to quote from the Strange Horizons review here, because writing them all out is just too tedious:

Xanther…a 12(ish)-year-old girl who has epilepsy. Her parents, a game designer and a psych-in-training, have a surprise for her one rainy day in May…Meanwhile: a gang pretends to initiate a new member only to kill him; an older couple is on the run from someone for the possession of an Orb which seems to have some connection to a possible alien intelligence; someone in Singapore steals a bunch of chocolate coins and takes a bunch of molly while working as a translator; a cop investigates a case; a man goes to court against a cop and helps a professor move some boxes; and someone practices superstitions and helps deliver some crates.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Danielewski uses typographical and stylistic tricks to represent the unique and digressive nature of thought as opposed to narrative: so, for example, Xanther’s mother Astair’s narrative is full of nested parentheses; her father Anwar, a game designer, thinks in square brackets and >>s and {}s; Singaporean Jingjing’s thoughts are rendered in Singlish; a different font is used for each character’s sections. What’s interesting about this is that the typographical choices aren’t just used to reflect who each of the characters are, as might be the case in a lesser author’s work; they also reflect how the characters think of themselves – their Second Thoughts, as Pratchett might have put it. It’s that level of self-reflexiveness that saves Danielewski from the rather uncomfortable fact that an Armenian character’s thoughts are rendered in broken English – it’s not because he can’t think fluently in Armenian, but because he chooses to see himself as someone who speaks English.

As we might expect from the author of House of Leaves, a novel ultimately about meaninglessness, Danielewski’s well aware of the irony of the fact that he’s using language to try and represent thought, the unrepresentable. Language, and, more specifically, text, is tricksy in One Rainy Day in May; unreliable and threatening, as when the question “How many raindrops?”, repeated tens of times, falls rain-shaped across the page, the onset of one of Xanther’s seizures – an overload of text that brings not meaning but meaninglessness, because the question can’t be answered; or when the thoughts of Cas arrange themselves on the page to outline the shape of the Orb she’s deliberately not thinking about. In other words, by formally innovating to better imitate the patterns of thought in text, Danielewski’s also revealing the exact inadequacy of text to do just that; a (Post)Modernist paradox if ever there was one.

There’s also the over-arching SFnal “plot”, for want of a better word, which further underlines the artificiality of narrative: it becomes clear as we read that the nine characters are actually being narrated by what seems to be a storytelling artificial intelligence, TF-Narcon9. This device serves to defamiliarise the act of reading; to highlight the alienness of having apparently omniscient access to another person’s mind, the point of view we as readers are so used to.

It’s clever. I’m not going to argue with the fact that Danielewski is probably a genius, and that he’s doing work that will probably be studied in universities in two hundred years. (His work actually reminds me quite a lot of William Blake’s: their texts have a similarly deliberate visual quality, an interest in how a book looks as well as what it says.) But it’s also a bit – sterile?

I’ve never been a fan of Modernist novels. Ulysses annoys me with its meandering, unreadable pretentiousness. Virginia Woolf bores me. Don’t talk to me about D.H. Lawrence. Formal innovation is important, of course, but it seems to come so often at the expense of any reason to care about what we’re reading. As with One Rainy Day in May, there doesn’t seem to be a point to showing up the falsenesses of narrative, beyond revealing that it’s all a lie. And that particular point’s been made before, over and over again (I mean, Chaucer did six hundred years ago in his Parliament of Fowles, did you really think there was anything new under the sun?).

This is definitely a personal thing, and it may be that I just prefer the consolations of traditional narrative to the excitement of formal innovation. But, to me, One Rainy Day in May, though not a slog by any means, feels more than a little like sound and fury signifying nothing much.

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