A question on narration and representations of consciousness

Something that interested me when starting to read The Familiar was its narrative style. Throughout Danielewski’s oeuvre, readers have seen him match styles of narrative voice with his characters. This has included choices of font as well as linguistic idiolect.

In The Familiar, chapters are aligned with different narratives and different characters and once again we can see Danielewski alternating font and style. To what extent can we interpret his stylistic choices as attempts to render the cognitive processes and styles of his characters?

As an example, through pages 1-199 there are 3 chapters that we might think of as relating to Xanther’s story and all are presented as third-person narration. However, the focalisation differs: ‘Is Everything Okay?’ is written from Xanther’s point of view, ‘Square One’ from Anwar’s, and ‘Big Surprise’ from Astair’s. As a result, there are some interesting differences in thought presentation. Parenthesis is used throughout Anwar’s and Astair’s narration, for instance, to represent digressions of thought, though the punctuation symbols differ between the two.

I therefore wanted to pose a question: To what extent can we consider style, punctuation, and visual-multimodal elements in Danielewski’s writing as being used to represent character cognition and mind style? Can an argument be made about contemporary fiction and innovations in stream of consciousness?

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9 responses to “A question on narration and representations of consciousness”

  1. kasey says :

    In answer to “what extent” – I’d say we should consider these elements to a greater extent than we would of any other writer. By that I mean that, as a reader, one must not ignore the font choice, the layout choices, margins – the entire verso/recto relationship. The metanarrative very much informs the narrative.

    As to how this could be seen as an innovation in SOC in contemporary fiction, I’d say certainly. I see in this style the ability to inform on a subconscious level (to the act of reading at least) something about the passage you are reading. While not as overt as House of Leaves, or as ambiguous as the multi-colored quotation marks in The Fifty Year Sword, MZD’s use of format/font/layout in TFv1 seems to be very informative, very planned, very much a necessity to the narrative.

    Just some observations to your point(s):

    Xanther’s passages are more conventional – more, familiar – in that they employ classical literary forms: quotes to attribute dialog, etc… while her passages still have variances, like when they get compressed towards the “Fraidy K” passage, overall her sections, for now, run on the more conventional side of things. Note that she shares the same left and right justification of her parents. Her font is named Minion, which speaks to her role and hierarchy in this whole account.

    Özgür only occupies the top half of a page (maybe 3/5ths?) – a very bold type – which at once gives us the sense that we are missing a lot of his story (2/5ths of it?) and that he is rather monolithic about it. Baskerville, as a font name, calls to mind John Baskerville who created the font in 1724, but also Sherlock Holmes, which is appropriate for Özgür.

    Wizard is centered between the header and the footer – with the negative space of an orb slowly progressing from left to right across the passage. Centered but still governed/ruled by the confounded Orb. His life is pushed around it, pushed by it, completely affected, physically, by this Orb. Apolline conjures up a contemporary of Paul, from the OT – perhaps The Wizard will help someone to attain a great work? Will he be spoken of positively at some future point in time by someone else?

    Astair is closer to the gutter of the book (with all the as yet uncoded “trash” in there), with a substantial outer margin – one could see this as being physically drawn up at the shoulders, one could also see this as her academia showing through, those large margins for note taking. Her parentheticals I think speak to her insecurity – her doubt (and double doubt (and self-doubt)) of a given scenario. Note too that her passages are right-justified. Neatly laid out. Framed, even.
    Jingjing is double-spaced (maybe even 2.5?) with a much more compressed header space. Not justified. This gives the impression of speed, of quick language, not dense. His font comes closest to a basic-delivery-of-information type font – no artistic flourishes, almost lucida, almost courier – but still foreign. Add to this his multilingual passages and what he lacks in physical flourish via his font he more than makes up for as a polyglot.

    Anwar’s passages are formatted almost opposite of Astair: his far away from the gutter. Though still justified. His parentheticals echo his primary preoccupation: programming. Their formatting speaks to something quite different from Astair’s doubting nature but more to a confidence that comes from cataloging – of assigning order and value to things. His parentheticals speak to control/mastery – false or otherwise. Anwar’s font is Adobe Garamond – could you get more corporate/IT than that?
    Luther’s passages are pinched – with ample room on either side of the narrative. A font not as heavy as Özgür’s but still darker, thicker than the rest. We see more of him in his passages than we do of Özgür, but he is still not what one would call the sharing type. Imperial BT is his font – he does seem to rule his empire rather well.

    Then there are the Narcons… 27 is Arial MT (in bold perhaps to signify 27 as a multiple of 9 and 3 thereby a heavier font?), 9 is meta plus minus (more or less? Neutral? To be neither trusted nor ridiculed?), and 3 is manticore – the maneater(!).

    Again, just my observations, but given that I could extract so much intended or unintended metadata to each narrative, to each character solely based on font and formatting – I think it works, I think it really shows what a careful author can do when he pays as much attention to the frame as he does the canvas.

  2. katieobrien219 says :

    I agree with the above comment. Though I have not read House of Leaves, I get the impression that it features a similar attention to detail. It was also written nearly fifteen years ago, when stylistic type choices may have been harder to produce. Also, my professor mentioned in class that Danielewski does all the page-setting (probably not the right word) himself. I think that all of this means that each detail in how a particular narrative is presented can be considered important.

    However, I would argue that this does not necessarily mean that each detail is essential. The rain scene was mentioned earlier. I think that this particular sequence is more about the overall effect of the type than the words (though I, as you did, turned the book on its side to make sure I didn’t miss anything).

    kasey, your comment about Astair’s particular type is interesting. I agree with the image of the shoulders being drawn up as a reflection of the placement close to the gutter. Perhaps the gutter leaves room for comments (in relation to her academia) or perhaps it is a buffer zone, keeping the important things close to the heart of the page. Maybe it could be a reflection of her own emotional protective walls. I found her parenthetical tendencies less a sign of self doubt and more a sign of several different running monologues within her head. She is able to think about things from several different perspectives seemingly at once. It will be interesting to see how her story plays out (beyond page 199).

    There is one section that breaks with her tight typeface- page 117 has a large blank space. Any ideas as to how to interpret this? I almost see it as a distraction. At this point her mind is moving at a mile a minute, and all of a sudden the water falls. It is as if her thoughts are suspended as it moves through the air. Thoughts?

    • kasey says :

      When you first open a book – perhaps at the bookstore while perusing the shelves, and flip through those pages, casually noticing all that text page after page, but then you see one page where there is just a paragraph in the middle, what do you do? You stop down at that page. Why? well this page is different, isn’t it. why did they decide to devote this rare real estate, a page in a novel, to this one thought, this one passage? By virtue of its existence, then, it is given a measure of importance above and beyond all that other narrative. All that whitespace serves as some sort of gate/hedge/buffer to protect/respect the message it contains.

      However, on page 117 this is done in opposite – the canvas is stretched here, mid-thought, to add weight to the connecting words “into her tea)))).” with the preceding “it’s bombs away ( “. is there some irony in the sentence? some extra-narrative value in that passage? what visuals come to mind? tempests in teapots? London at wartime? How this inconvenience of these leaks became personal, invading her very cup of tea? And what about contrasting bombs with that most relaxing of afternoon traditions?

      If that space hadn’t been there, would we have stopped down to think about it? I doubt it. Any time there is a break in the narrative flow of a given character, you’d do well to stop down and take a look at what was just read and what is coming ahead.

  3. Katie Hayman says :

    To add to some of the previous thoughts about Astair’s section, I think that the nod to her academic background is extremely relevant, however, I believe that the combination of format and content may be interpreted even further. I read her parenthetical text as a process of editing. She thinks the way she writes – putting out her first ideas then going back to revise and revise again. In a manuscript, these edits might be confined to marginalia (space for which, as you pointed out, has been left open), in the real time of her internal monologue, they must be added linearly, as the thoughts come to her. We know that editing is a process that has consumed her for years, indeed that she is someone whose life for the past 9 years has revolved around her graduate dissertation. From here, I think we can see more of her character. She has chosen to pursue graduate education – an education which is very much based on the approval of others. Much of her story is consumed by thinking of how she is perceived by others. She celebrates her professor’s approval and is conscious of the social media presence of her colleagues. Social media gives individuals a platform by which to project some image of themselves to the world, which is exactly what Astair seems to be concerned with. She even goes so far as to be jealous of her twin daughters, resentful of their beauty. However, the word “resentment” is the only one (I think, though I could be wrong), to actually have the strikethrough, showing an almost violent urge to hide the thought (pg 127). She is protecting even her thoughts from the censure of others.

    All of Astair’s insecurities seem to appear in her concerns for Xanther. She is worried about her daughter’s physical deformities, as well as by how she is received by her peers. She is concerned about her daughter’s ability to fit in even within the family, possibly even more than she is worried about her health. She is well-intentioned, but does seem to impose her own shortcomings on her daughter.

    Finally, you make the point that her format could show her as a character “drawn up about the shoulders,” and, though I didn’t think of it before reading your response, I think that would be a posture congruent with her personality. She bears the worry of her entire family, lending physical tension, but also seems to want to make herself smaller, to draw in upon herself. If she can fold her consciousness as close to the gutter as possible, there is no way for anyone to access it – to see her unedited version.

    I wasn’t sure either what to do with the open space on page 117. I agree, it seems that the water has disrupted her thoughts, but it seems to me also to evoke the fall of an actual bomb. Hearing the engines cut out, then silence as it falls, unable to do anything but wait for the destruction and try to clean up after. The movement of the reader’s eyes down the page seems to mirror this experience as well.

  4. Ashley Puffer says :

    I agree with much of what has been said here already, particularly the notion that each chapter or section of the book represents the stream of consciousness of a particular character. But while I find the differences in the formats of each section (such as the liberal use of parenthesis in Anwar’s section or the diagonal formatting of the repeated question “How many raindrops?” in Xanther’s section) interesting, I find the formal similarities between the sections to be particularly revealing.

    For example, I was surprised to find the primitive-looking five-dot construction, which is used to begin every line of dialogue between the cave-girl and cave-boy in the intro section, appear again in Anwar’s section. In this sense, Danielewski uses formal language devices not only as a means to differentiate between characters and develop their stream of consciousness, but as a tool to link the seemingly disconnected, almost “flash-fiction” stories, which in turn suggests that there is something deep that is connecting these disparate characters and stories on a lingual level even if we cannot yet see how they may be either thematically connected or connected through the plot.

  5. cpuma77 says :

    I think that within each chapter, there is a certain aesthetic or signature to each group of characters. For instance, while there are differences between Xanther, Anwar, and Astair’s perspectives, they are nonetheless more similar to one another than say Xanther and Ozgur or Tian Li. Perhaps this is because Xanther, Anwar, and Astair are in the same family and thus may have similar ways of thinking and/or expressing themselves, but I think it is more of Danielewski creating a different sub-world within these different chapters.
    This seriality makes it more interesting because the Chapters from the same “world” as one another could be strung together to create a single narrative, but perhaps the order in which Danielewski mixes up the various Chapters will have some later significance or impact in how we interpret the latter events in the novel (beyond 1-199, that is).

  6. Jim Hutchins says :

    As I read your post and the comments, I keep coming back to a moment from the album “Haunted” by Poe.

    To set the scene, in “Haunted”, Mark Danielewski’s sister Annie (stage name Poe) mixes in elements from her brother’s book House of Leaves, and recordings of their late father’s voice. Tad Danielewski was a fairly minor director and Hollywood figure.

    For those who’ve read House of Leaves, the connection to Mark Danielewski’s earlier book will be obvious. Here’s what Poe selected from her father’s reel-to-reel recordings:

    “Communication is not just words. Communication is architecture. Because of course it is quite obvious that a house which would be built without sense, without that desire for communication, would not look the way your house looks today.”

    (The audio is found at the 8:30 mark in this audio file of “Wild”, which is a good example of the integration of House of Leaves, Poe’s original composition, and Tad Danielewski’s recordings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWYBdzduIiY)

    This feels to me like a neat answer to a lot of questions Danielewski is asking, and answering, in his narrative.

  7. lenolora says :

    I’m interested in what Kasey mentioned about how Jingjing’s sections are double-spaced. In class, ajelias described Jingjing’s font and section as airy because of all the space between lines and how the text flows. The lack of capitalization allows the reader to transition more smoothly between sentences because beginnings and ends of sentences are not clearly delineated. I was thinking that this airiness could be related to the bird references that show up throughout Jingjing’s chapter.

    Tian li is compared to a bird multiple times:

    282: “hold both shoulders, like holding wings of a bird. with no feather, just bones.”
    283: “tian li wide-eye as owl, swivel heading too.”
    522: when tian li has her first seizure she is described as “like broken bird”
    536: tian li is described as having “bird bones”
    691: tian li gives Jingjing a necklace with a carved acorn that looks like a quail egg
    695: tian li can calm the birds that live downstairs

    Also, owls come up several times:

    282: the owl room at Zhong’s place that tian li says she has been to before
    529-530: when Jingjing draws a monster card for Zhong’s son it is an owl

    Additionally, there is a lot of imagery about the sky, height, and wings in Jingjing’s chapter. For example, Zhong’s place is 27 stories high (272) and Jingjing feels like he “had wings ready to grow full at last” (533).

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