The Familiar Volume 1 & A Stranger In Olondria
“But preserve your mistrust of the page, for a book is a fortress, a place of weeping, the key to a desert, a river that has no bridge, a garden of spears.”Sofia Samatar
I’ve long been fascinated by virtuosi and recently I’ve read two almost without equal.
Mark Danielewski and Sofia Samatar are virtuosi, writing speculative fiction with astonishing prowess. Danielewski in particular is challenging the very form of long form prose, while Samatar ploughs a fantasy furrow different from almost all of her contemporaries.
The Familiar Volume 1 by Mark Danielewski is a significant step on from the wonderful House of Leaves, which I previously wrote about here. As challenging as this book is, its idiosyncratic brilliance and its originality are the reason it exists at all, particularly as there are supposedly twenty six more volumes weighing in at exactly eight hundred pages each.
Pantheon (the publisher) and a few thousand enthusiastic readers might be the only ones to make it through what is surely his magnum opus. I sense a labour of love on the part of the publisher, for this volume is sumptuously produced; thick glossy pages, a cover that folds out and has cutout, full colour collages and art throughout, along with his trademark play with typography. All of it is up a gear from House.
You can do no worse for an explanation of what’s going on, and a summary of the nine narrators whose partly connected lives will, I presume, more intensively overlap as the story progresses, than to go to the wikipedia page.
Regardless of the changes in typography and spacing for each of the narratives, all taking place simultaneously over 24 hours, the voice for each section is brilliantly observed; patois (rendered literally in the third-person prose) of LA through to Singapore and Mexico, gangs to tech startup entrepreneurs and hardbitten cops. Tone and jargon are utterly distinct and complete, an eye-popping act of ventriloquism.
I’m in love with it because I can, on one level, say that it is about a very dangerous baby kitten: the entire volume is about one of these characters finding the kitten and one losing it (apparently it gets a name in volume 5!), while the others can all hear it, all over the world. I can also say that the novel starts with someone talking to us from the end of the universe about mankind, war and time. There are conspiracies, there’s a dark, powerful magic centered around the cat, the challenges of caring for a schizophrenic daughter, her schooling, her medication, the challenge of status in a violent gang. These are lives in media res. It is disorientating, but Danielewski is not going to dilute the work only for the sake of accessibility. Sink or swim, but the current is very strong.
You may be reading this and wondering why I’d suggest you get it. Unlike most books I recommend on this blog, this is one I don’t unequivocally recommend. I’m only recommending it to those of you who want to see a master craftsman experimenting more fully with the form, pushing at structure, responding to the change in other media with a proposal for the book. The scale of the ambition is fascinating, monstrous.
I have to go with him on this journey, at least another volume, to confirm that he has embarked on a titanic literary feat that, in scale and originality, is so far unmatched.
On the other end of the scale is prose that reads like a violin to the bombastic musculature of Danielewski’s orchestra. Like the violin it can be as visceral and painful as it can be airy and sweet. Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger In Olondria is the story of a young man, Jevick, who has lived all his sheltered life in his homeland of Tyom, and longed to leave it for Olondria and its legendary city Bain. To him it represents everything cosmopolitan and sophisticated, a place (and the subject) of books and high culture. On his first visit to sell his father’s spices, Bain then exceeds his imagination, but soon he finds himself literally haunted by the ghost of a girl from his homeland, a condition which shortly finds him imprisoned before becoming a pawn in a far greater sectarian struggle.
Samatar keeps her focus on Jevick throughout. The novel is intensely about him, and, unusually for a fantasy protagonist, he is not the agent of change as such. The haunting is an awful experience for him, but this and the privations that follow as his life alters course dramatically are mainly in service of a ‘coming of age’ tale. I was faintly reminded of Frodo, a protagonist who doesn’t entirely succeed.
What makes this book so spectacular for me is Samatar’s ability to bring the story (and there’s more than one that matters during the course of the novel) and the world so exquisitely to life. As usual, I’ll just throw down some prose I love:
“My days began with a carriage ride through the humid morning streets to the great spice markets…Here, in the shadows the lavish, open sacks display their contents; the dark cumin redolent of mountains, the dried, crushed red pepper colored richly as iron ore, and turmeric, “the element of weddings”. One wanders among the cramped, odorous, warren-like enclosures, among elderly men and women, fresh from the country, who sip glasses of tea as they sit beside their wares, their hands smelling perpetually of cinnamon. There are younger merchants, too; slow-voiced men, gentlemen farmers, who dab at their eyes with muslin handkerchiefs; and in one corner a Kalak woman, one of Bain’s old fishing people, sells the wind out of a great brass bell…there are odors in the air that seem to speak to one another, as though the market were filled with violent ghosts.”
“And he watches her, watches the dazzling light slide on and off of her shoulder, changing as she moves beneath the trees, turning her skin from the color of pale sand to the color of autumn and in the shadows to the color of old silver. Her resplendent skin, which is still the skin of a child. He notices that it is almost the same color as her hair. The difference is infinitesimal: yet in that difference of hue there are desert armies, cities of marble in conflagration. The air is rarefied by the sound of her laugh and the smell of the trees, and then by the sleep and meadows which her arms smell of…A burning memory crackles in his hair.”
In the first extract is the briefest example of what this book is splendidly replete with: the narrator referring to what in that world is a time-honoured phrase regarding turmeric. It’s effective because the phrase is not merely descriptive of turmeric, but alludes to one of its important associations in that world’s culture, it ‘beds’ turmeric firmly into a living context. Samatar is brilliant at this, and goes far deeper, for this is a book that is full of books; books read, tales told, snatches of poems, but also the poets and writers of such books, spoken of by scholars like Jevick. It’s a very hard to execute but very rewarding form of worldbuilding, suggesting that the history and culture of Olondria are in and around the page, breathing into the things that are said, into the cafes and bookshops and asylums and far flung villages. Even Tolkien was clumsier, for all that his invention almost beggars parallel.
I mainly chose the second extract to evidence how original she can be. She finds ways to express herself that surprised and delighted me on almost every page.
I was enchanted by this book. It is a dense and vivid read, not a book to be skimmed, but to be pored over, like Gormenghast. But the book it most reminded me of was One Hundred Years Of Solitude, for a similar bewitching intensity and bringing to life of a place and in that place, though smaller in scope, the agony of love.
She joins that handful of authors, including Mr. Danielewski of course, that make me realise how very far I have to go in my craft