Mark Z. Danielewski knows he’s embarking on a journey as unlikely as it is impressive. “On one hand it’s ridiculously ambitious,” Danielewski says. “But, on the other, maybe it’s just a little more transparent about an ambition that many people have in their profession.”
Danielewski, almost certainly America’s most renowned and popular experimental writer, is already known for exploring and expanding the novel’s outer edges. Yet his newest project is an undertaking that will take him years, even decades, to complete. One Rainy Day in May is the first volume of The Familiar, a project slated to fill an epic 27 volumes. That’s right, 27 volumes.
The second volume will be released in October and Danielewski will have a series of constant, tight deadlines that reach forward over years. Yet he views the project not as an artist’s whim but as a vocational choice. “If you decide to be a surgeon, or an architect, or a public servant, those are long careers that easily go beyond one decade,” Danielewski says. “And if I’m fortunate enough to have the chance to continue writing this series then it’s a decade-plus of work. That doesn’t seem as ridiculous when thinking about other careers.”
The Familiar not only allows Danielewski to explore his ideas and his story with patience, but it also provides him with valuable structure. “[Undertaking] this project is like saying this is how I want to exert myself. This is how I’ll focus,” Danielewski says. It might seem surprising but the scope of the project and the constant deadlines have actually made Danielewski’s writing life easier. “One of the great gifts of this project is how immense it is. There’s no time for stress. As I was being overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done, I realized I wasn’t stressed. I have no energy for stress. There’s no excess. Whether it’s physical or mental, you quickly drop away those excesses.”
Danielewski’s debut novel, House of Leaves, exploded onto the literary scene in 2000. That kaleidoscopic novel was characterized by its extensive use of footnotes, an unusual layout that left some pages with only a handful of words, and a structure that circles back in and out on itself. Despite its challenges, House of Leaves was a bestseller and Danielewski’s follow-up, 2006’s Only Revolutions, was a finalist for the National Book Award.
One Rainy Day in May shares many of the narrative and typographic features of Danielewski’s other work. Perhaps the biggest difference, however, is the symphony of voices that make up this volume. Each chapter is narrated by one of nine characters. Not only does each character have a totally different narrative style, but they also have separate fonts and page layouts. Xanther, a 12-year-old girl who is the closest One Rainy Day has to a main character, is written in a font called “Minion” and fills the page in a traditional layout. Astair, Xanther’s mother, is written in “Electra LH” and her narration is broken apart by constant asides, clarifications, and interruptions. On other pages, the words form into shapes representing raindrops and animal prints.
In this volume, with the exception of Xanther and her parents, the nine narrators have few interactions with each other. It’s an experience closer to reading nine linked novellas rather than one epic novel. What binds each character is a sense that they’re all hurtling towards\ a shared crisis. Each chapter begins and ends with a timestamp that includes the day (May 10, 2014) and the beginning and ending time for each chapter. They all flow together to give us the full range of this rainy day from 8:03am to 11:32pm, from Singapore to Marfa, Texas.
The multitude of voices and styles emerged from the years of work Danielewski has already invested into the project. He first started developing this story nine years ago. “It’s the first few years that the characters are in gestation,” Danielewski says. “Then, about four or five years in, they suddenly have their own mass, their own gravity, and you’re pulled into what the book is doing. That’s a very energizing experience. It’s interacting with a living organism.”
Danielewski thrives on these moments when the power of his quickening work pulls him forward. “The subject matter at a certain point takes over, and then it begins to direct the project. The characters begin to demand certain things,” Danielewski says.
With work stretching back nearly a decade, and work to come reaching at least one more decade, Danielewski’s career may well be defined by The Familiar. Yet Danielewski not only embraces the challenge, he’s energized by it. “The energy comes from the terror,” Danielewski says. “If it wasn’t terrifying I don’t know that there would be any energy. But the open wholeness that persists [in this project] is very exciting. Every day I get up and wonder what will happen.”
With a story that ranges from aspiring gang kingpins, to genius programmers, to a couple who may have invented a machine that sees the past, to a crying kitten that each character can somehow hear, One Rainy Day in May builds a gripping mystery. Thankfully, Danielewski is ready to bring us the next 26 volumes.
Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Morning News, Cosmonauts Avenue, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and many others. He’s at work on his first novel and can be found at RichardZSantos.com.