Building on the latest post about Jakob von Uexküll, I wonder if anyone wants to venture a reading of the epigraphs on page 374 and page 518. Someone has already posted the (as yet unanswered) question about the Deadmau5 quote, and I’d like to situate it alongside the xkcd comic and invite discussion of the two as possible framing statements for The Familiar. The full xkcd comic is here. What conceptual work are the two epigraphs doing? In what sense do they offer a lens through which to re-consider the issue of the Narcons and the programming of Paradise Open?
Jakob von Uexküll’s epigraph at the beginning of Xanther’s second chapter “Dr. Potts” (pg 178) is: “We must first blow, in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions which it alone knows. When we ourselves then step into one of these bubbles…” This quote is from Von Uexkull’s article “A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men”. The excerpt is relating to his theory of Umwelt, which is the idea that every human and animal exists in its own environment and even though those environments are often shared each creature experiences its own individualistically; the term translates to something like “self-centered world”. The rest of the quote (which is not included in the epigraph in the book) continues “…the familiar meadow is transformed. Many of its colorful features disappear, others no longer belong together but appear in new relationships. A new world comes into being. Through the bubble we see the world of the burrowing worm, of the butterfly, or of the field mouse; the world as it appears to the animals themselves, not as it appears to us. This we may call the phenomenal world or the self-world of the animal.” First off, Danielewski cuts the quote off right before the words “The Familiar” which is just his own playfulness. More than that though, the concept that von Uexkull is talking about applies in a really interesting way to this chapter and to Xanther as a whole. This is the chapter that Xanther is talking to her psychologist and we get to see the larger impact that her disability has on her life. We get to see how Xanther experiences the world. In other words, we experience Xanther’s Umwelt. We step into her bubble (orb?) and see the world through it (like the worm/butterfly/mouse in von Uexkull’s quote). This is our foundation for empathy for her and her family’s life, which is the reason the Xanther/Anwar/Astair chapters were so captivating; this is the story we’re invested in. Again, Danielewski is challenging how we read novels. Despite the very little plot or action, we become totally engaged in Xanther’s life because he allowed us into her bubble (orb) and we can see the struggle for this precious little 12 year old girl who gets trapped in her own mind. The book doesn’t allow you just to read it as an observer – it forces you to become a participant, and that’s the literary genius of it.
This might be out of context, or it might be brilliant. I have no clue. I’ve seen a couple of people elude to it but not seen someone come out and say it: I think the kitten is a Narcon physical construct.
And here’s why:
Let’s start with the Narcons and their rules.
Parameter 1: MetaNarcons Do Not Exist.
Parameter 3: Narcons cannot interact with non-narcons. and vice-versa. No matter what.
Parameter 5: Form is not a narcon limit.
The Narcon9 can lie. “last one… So okay, I was wrong. Not the last one. Sue me” (574-575).
Narcons can appear as animals. “Narcons can take on multiple shapes whether textual, musical…. Narcons may even appear as animals. Say a killer whale, boar, hyena, even a markhor, or an owl” (575) [By the way, the owl in the next book. hint hint. come on now. Tell me you saw that.] “This is often the case when personality factors determined to be significant are compressed in order to preserve future renderings of character.”
There is a form of meta Narcon that Narcon 9 is aware of but he lies to us in parameter one. “a superset [being Narcon 9] is always a subset [being the characters the Narcon 9 encompasses]. I’m the superset of my suvsets where I’m also an I. Just as I am a subset of a superset where I is also I.”
Trickster. Now let’s switch gears.
Remember Tian Li’s shadow cat that gave her magical healing powers? Anyone find it funny how is just up and disappears right before Xanther finds a kitten?
Okay so, here’s the theory a little bit more fleshed out. I’m supposing that Xanther is a special character. Obviously she needs a little healing. And maybe something in Xanther’s world needs preserving? So, I’m not suggesting Narcon9 but maybe a different Narcon that was helping Tian Li, took on a physical form of a kitten to preserve something in Xanther’s world and possibly healing Xanther?
It’s just a little connection I made. Hope you at least enjoyed reading it.
I kind of answered this in a response to another post but, what if the cat Xanther found was meant to be with her. I’ve been wondering if maybe the reason some characters can hear a meow or cry might be that the cat is trying to get attention from the character it needs to be with. Or maybe, since the theory is that Xanther can hear/see narcons, the cat “knows” that Xanther can do this and was deliberately trying to get her attention to be with her. Whether to protect or harm her remains to be unseen. However, since this book has been described as a story about a girl and her cat, I’m getting the feeling that the cat might have been sent to protect her. Here’s hoping for a Girl and Cat Space Adventure.
This may be way off, (or I’m just hoping), but could there be a possibility that all the characters will team up, whether responding to a call from Cas and the Orb, and fight what appears to be, an evil? It’s a crazy thought that’s probably not even close to the truth, but at this point, which is the end of the book, I just want answers. Not “is this what I think it is? What do you think it is?” I just want to be told what’s going on and I want it to be something epic.
First of all, the Narrative Construct idea fascinates me. While I don’t necessarily think it was the best name for them (for some reason they sound too explanatory for their actions, like naming a character who’s evil “bad guy.”) But, at the same time, I do not have a better name for them myself, so I cannot judge (maybe Architects? Wait…that’s been done before.) Regardless, it is interesting that in a fiction book we are constantly pointed to being reminded we are experiencing a fictional world, which is the exact thing professors tell you not to do in your own writing. I mean, it’s writing 101, “the suspension of disbelief,” was relayed to me over and over again in all of my writing classes. Yet here, MZD has drawn our attention to it time and again, the most powerful of which being set in the Narcon section. The Narcon is something that I think we can all conceptualize with decent aptitude. Their section has no page numbers, so they do not exist within the same realm as the story. They are written weirdly, like a play, taking them out of this genre (whatever this genre is.) They are formatted nothing like any other character, so they (if I’m reading the book correctly) don’t even share a similar universe or don’t occupy the same dimension as the other characters. They define their own rules, however, they date them back before their existence (whatever that means,) point being, regular fiction characters do not ever define their rules in a story. The author defines the rules for fictional characters to follow. It is interesting to keep in mind that, at least for me, the Narcons felt like they had more agency than the characters in the story. They felt like that because of the reasons I just mentioned.
But it’s not true! They have equitable if not less free will than the regular characters in the story. The Narcons must follow rules set by MZD and MZD has to make them follow the rules that they (Mark) has set for them, so their free will is really constricted to a few sentences (by comparison) to other characters. Narcons must be controlled, and if there is anything I know about characters being controlled, they tend to rebel.
I’ll flat out say it, I think the Narcons will turn out to be villains or something similar as the 27 volume series plays out. I would like to be proven wrong about this almost as much as I would like to be proven right. To me, it just seems like the natural order of things. In our class, it was mentioned by a classmate that Xanther is the only character that can hear the Narcons or at least the only character that we know can hear the Narcons. It was also mentioned that when Xanther hears the cat outside, it may be something more than just right-place-at-the-right-time action movie garbage. It could mean a little bit more.
After I heard the classmate (I believe it was you, Chelsea) my mind started to reel into analytic, speculation mode where I wanted to make connection upon connection (so, bear with me.) I think Narcon characters (overly oppressed characters, as mentioned above) want to enter to the fictional world like a reverse The Matrix situation. I think that cat may be Narcon incarnate as mentioned above. There’s also a little something something that cat does to Xanther that feels a little wacky and out of the realm of possibility for any other character in the story (soul stuff.) And, and! We don’t know (unless I missed it) what the cat’s name is. But what we do know is that TF-Narcon 3 has the font “Manticore.” Stay with me, I’m telling you, it’s worth it. Manticore is another name for “Man-Eater.” Trust me, I wish in my research that I had found there was some myth written thousands of years ago where the Manticore ate the kings ugly daughter named “Xanther,” but it didn’t exist, so I needed to speculate a bit more. In figurative terms, the cat may have eaten part of Xanther, it’s hard to say exactly but I’m going with it for the sake of my theory. The last thing we know is that no two characters share the same font in the story…except TF-Narcon 3 and some other thing called “G.C.” which is not, to my knowledge, defined or mentioned in Volume 1 at all. But it’s mentioned in the font? Pourquoi, monsieur?! To me, G.C. could be “good cat,” or “General Cathington,” or maybe it’s another one of Xanther’s misunderstood words.
Sometimes, when reading this book, I feel like I’m wearing a tinfoil hat. Anyway, thanks for following me down my rabbit hole. I really hope to see why that font is shared and, who knows? Maybe I am right.
What is a familiar? The simple answer is that it is an animal used and controlled by a person using magic. As I read The Familiar I made a connection between the similarities between a familiar and a video game avatar. The fact that Anwar is a video game engine designer made this connection stand out in the text. Magic is a key element of this description. With greater familiarity with the familiar the stronger the magic binds the person to the animal. But there is one aspect of the person/familiar relationship that I haven’t mentioned: familiars were meant to be sacrificed.
The familiar/avatar connection also connects to sacrifice. How many lives do you get in a video game? And as a writer I know that the reason for creating many characters is so that you can kill them off. I’m really curious if Daneilewski created the character of Anwar as an analog for himself.
I have dyslexia. And a collection of other learning disabilities but dyslexia itself has become a catchall term for “I have a learning disability”. I mention this because my disability impacts everything to do with my reading habits. So my reading of The Familiar is impacted by it as well.
I wasn’t really aware of exactly how much it was being affected until I was in another class explaining my disability to a fellow student. She made the comment that her color blindness made it so that she couldn’t understand anything in a book until a translucent red sheet was placed over the text.
The point I’m trying to make is that my disability creates a way for me to sympathize with Xanther in a way that most people might not have. Dyslexia is nothing like epilepsy but it can be just as isolating. The style in which Daneilewski write’s her character is very effective in communicating her disability.
In first meeting Xanther you can see the calming effect that Anwar’s mathematical logic in saying that 1=2 has on her. Before that point in the book, as he was building up to it an impending sense of panic started to come over me. And I could almost feel the rain pounding harder.
I’m curious if that same style had the same effect on readers without learning disabilities. How effective is Daneilewski’s choices in writing each character as effective to you as Xanther’s is to me?
This post may contain spoilers up through the end of the book.
In class yesterday we briefly touched on the idea that the “reality” we experience in The Familiar is not “real” because it’s synthesized by the narcons. I thought that this was an interesting concept to explore. Does the fact that the story is constructed twice-over (at least)—by Danielewski and then by the narrative constructs (and possibly a third time by the creator of the narcons)—lessen the stakes of the narrative or the emotional connection that the reader feels?
We go into a story knowing that it is not “real” but we still allow ourselves to suspend our disbelief, becoming emotionally involved with the characters. Reading The Familiar, however, several people have mentioned the feeling of being manipulated by the book. This made me wonder whether or not it was a deliberate move on the part of the author, or an unintended side effect of the complicated form of the story. As much as it seems like a strange thing to do (potentially alienating readers during the first of 27 volumes), I thought that the sense of manipulation added something to my perception of the story.
The Familiar is a very non-traditional novel while also being very conscious of its status as a book (such as the rain pages, its status as a codex, and the formatting of the text on the page). This immediately throws the reader for a loop, as the text can be read and interpreted in different ways. There are also references to things the reader may be unfamiliar with and a variety of languages that are not always translated. This is not the way readers expect to consume a book and by asking the reader to search for outside information in order to inform their interpretation of the text, the reader becomes involved in the text in a way that is almost like being another level of the narrative.
After establishing this, The Familiar goes even further, bringing in the idea that the characters we’ve become invested in are all faux-humans created by these “narrative constructs” (565) and aren’t actually real, even within the universe of the story. This makes the reader feel cheated, perhaps like they have wasted their time on these characters that now have no emotional value. This is an interesting feeling considering the reader started the story knowing that the characters weren’t real.
I speculate that this effect is because the reader emotionally inserts themselves at the narrative level of the characters (Xanther, Astair, Anwar, etc.) and by revealing that the characters are unreal twice-over, the author puts the reader in the position of feeling like their experience is unreal. Instead of being a detriment, I feel that this actually improved my own experience with the book. Not only did it add an unexpected twist and futility to their plights, but it helped me to empathize with the characters.
What are your thoughts on the manipulative properties of the text? Do you feel that this cheapened the experience of the book, or added something to it?
In The Familiar, I found that one of the most prominent themes is religion. Several characters share their personal beliefs regarding the idea of faith, god, and religion. Xanther mentioned several times that the Ibrahims don’t believe in heaven or God. Astair, who has a background in the Catholic Church, wrote her thesis on the necessity of God but was given a poor grade. I don’t think this is a coincidence.
Another example is Luther. In class we discussed the significance of this name—it is possibly derived from Martin Luther, an important figure in the Protestant Reformation. Additionally, there was a scene where Luther walked on water which (I believe) drew comparisons between Luther and a Christ-like figure.
Along the same lines, I find it interesting that Anwar designs videogames. Game designers and programmers have the ability to fully render an alternate reality. They can create an entire world and people to inhabit them. And they can make them look, act, or be anything they want. To me, this is something only a figure with supreme authority can accomplish.
With that said, I’d like to offer my take on why Danielewsky features this motif so heavily. I believe Danielewsky is presenting his perspective on the digital age. He is criticizing the fact that with today’s advanced technology, faith is not as important as it used to be. And in the future, the institution of religion or faith-based groups will be an artifact of today’s society.
Now, my main question is what his reason for doing this? Are politics a central conflict in The Familiar? I’d like to hear others’ opinions.