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The Familiar, Volume 4 Reader’s Guide

By Mark Z. Danielewski

The Familiar, Volume 4 by Mark Z. Danielewski


The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s conversation of The Familiar, Volume 4: Hades, Mark Z. Danielewski’s entrancing new novel, which continues to trace the paths of nine diverse characters as the Season One Finale approaches in Volume 5. Feel free to wander in your discussions as you share different perspectives and explore the increasing interconnections and mysteries within this vast world.


Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar, Volume 4: Hades brilliantly combines inventive visuals and a paradigm-shifting narrative to create a stunning multisensory reading experience.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Hades is both the ruler and the realm of the dead. What ghosts are (re)visited in TFv4? Do you think the play Hades is a metaphor for something in the novel? If Astair is Demeter and Xanther is Persephone, who is Hades? What is the relation between Hades and cages, one of the keywords for this volume?

2. Danielewski has said that The Familiar would have been “impossible to conceive had it not been for the sudden efflorescence of great television” (NPR interview). Now that there are four volumes and the finale for the first season is on the horizon (Fall 2017), compare your experience in reading this novel with your experience watching one of the “big” televisual narratives such as The Wire, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, or Breaking Bad. What is it like to read a new volume every 6-8 months? In what sense does Danielewski seem to function like a showrunner? What are the similarities and differences between serial television and a serial novel in today’s media landscape?

3. The word “clip” appears throughout TFv4—as the vignettes Cas views in the orb (pp. 235-238), as the video of the lioness running at Xanther (pp. 142, 211), and as the part of a gun that holds rounds of ammunition (p. 120). What are the similarities among these different kinds of clips? How do video clips circulate in this novel? How and where do guns appear in the different narratives?

4. Smells—honeysuckle, vanilla, smoke—are represented visually with swirling typography. Why and how do smells matter in this narrative? How do they compare with other sensory perceptions? What are the hourglass-like symbols (p. 147) that often accompany scents? 

5. Police officers address Bobby and Cas as Sam and Hailey (p. 62)—the “allways sixteen” road (and time-)tripping lovers from Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel Only Revolutions. In what ways are Bobby and Cas like Sam and Hailey?

6. In her nightmares Freya sees “a ladder in the floor” (p. 217). What is this significance of this ladder? What ascents and descents occur in Volume 4?

7. Why do you think Xanther continues to find it so difficult to name the cat?

8. One of Xanther’s possible names for her cat is “Sadat” (p. 436), and the former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat makes an appearance in a Preview at the beginning of the volume. What does knowledge of President Sadat’s biography add to the story of The Familiar? How are historical traumas—the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Armenian genocide—woven into the fictional world(s)?  

9. More connections between the nine primary characters are established in this volume, such as Luther crossing paths with Özgür at the shooting range (pp. 138, 674) and with Jingjing in Venice (p. 570). Why is it significant that we see the characters through the eyes of other characters? What information is provided that we do not get from the Narcon or other narrators? 

10. The lioness who charges Xanther is named Satya—a Sanskrit word meaning “truth,” or the virtue of truthfulness in actions and in speech. Who demonstrates satya? Why is the lioness named this?

11. Who or what is “A Circle Round a Stone Production” at the very beginning of the book, and what is its possible connection to the nightmare stones that Freya and Shasti are hoarding (p. 748)? Could there be a connection between the nightmare stones and the stones that Xanther flicks (TFv, pp. 251, 388), or the ones that appear on people’s eyes (TFv3, p. 404)? And how do the Circle Round a Stone Production pages differ from each other throughout the volumes?

12. Over the course of Volumes 1-4, we learn that Galvadyne is a massive corporation that wants Anwar to work for them. What might Galvadyne want from Anwar? Given Warlock’s interactions with Özgür and Cas, do you think Galvadyne has any connection to VEM or Recluse?

13. One of the reasons Anwar becomes squeamish about working for Galvadyne in spite of the lucrative job offer is the “drone stuff” (p. 824). How does this possibly connect to the drone attack described in the opening chapter, “Near Little Switzerland” (p. 50)?

14. There is a notable anachronism in the chapter “slashes,” when Xanther asks the Galvadyne executive if he can get tickets to the musical Hamilton. TF-Narco 27 confirms that indeed, in September 2014, this request is “not part of her historical possibilities” (p. 450). There is a related “error” when she translates the Italian phrase, “La perfezione è nemica del bene,” because she doesn’t speak the language (p. 512). And her new math skills are also surprising (p. 746). Where are these abilities coming from? 

15. Consider the role of music in this volume: how do you understand the journey that Shnorhk takes with different musicians in his cab? What is his reluctance to play? Why is one of Özgür’s pivotal scenes set in a jazz bar? Why is one of the central family rooms in the Ibrahim household the piano room? How is the tone set from the Paleolithic opening, with a Young Man playing a “strange song on flute” (p. 37)?

16. How is the relationship between Xanther and her cat evolving? What do you make of their simultaneous seizures? What does Xanther mean when she says “I just think we’re really connected . . . but not, like, in just a good way” (p. 691)?

17. One of the keywords for TFv4 is “cynegetics,” which means “hunting” or “chase.” Who hunts and is hunted in Hades? How has your understanding of the Caged Hunt sequences from the Previews changed now that they’ve been incorporated into Isandòrno’s narrative (pp. 182-184)?

18. The folkloric figure of “El Cadejo” is featured on one of Jingjing’s monster cards (p. 779). What does the black hound represent and how does it relate to Hades and/or to the white cat?

19. What happens on p. 53? What has TF-Narcon 27 presumably done? What is the significance of the three references to TFv3?

20. In TFv2 Danielewski used the 2014 Isla Vista shooting as a plot point (TFv2, p. 517), and in this volume he briefly references the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson (p. 435). What do you make of this? Do you think he should include the election of Donald Trump?

21. How is the cross-referencing with previous volumes informing your reading? And how does the pacing of this volume compare with the others? 

22. Why do you think Cynthia makes Isandòrno feel uneasy (p. 387)? Is it because he’s unable to read her as quickly as he can others? Or perhaps he sees something of himself in her?

23. Xanther says that “games should relate to the world around us, and not, you know, the entoptic workings of the game’s, you know, machinery” (p. 447). “Entoptic” describes visual phenomena that originate within the eye, rather than in the external world. How does The Familiar function as a non-entoptic novel?

24. When Jingjing, Tian Li, Anwar, and Xanther are all at LAX, both Tian Li and Xanther say “she’s here” (pp. 299, 307), and Tian Li says someone may “kill her” (pp. 301). To whom do you think Tian Li is referring?

25. In TFv3 we learned that Luther’s dad was physically abusive (TFv3, p. 464), and now we know that Shnorhk’s mom was emotionally unavailable (p. 348). What effects do you see of this early abuse or neglect in their lives?

26. What do you expect will happen in Volume 5, the Season One Finale of The Familiar? What do you think Xanther will name her cat, if she’s able to come up with a name? And finally, how do you think the other characters’ paths will intersect?

About this Author

MARK Z. DANIELEWSKI was born in New York City and now lives in Los Angeles.

Suggested Reading

Shadowbahn, Steve Erickson
Freeman’s: The Best New Writing on Family, edited by John Freeman
Lone Wolf and Cub, Volumes 1–5, Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, presented by Sonny Liew
The Concrete River, Luis J. Rodríguez 
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