(Containment) and Its Failure

While the relationship between the narrative arcs remains uncertain to this point (395) of the novel, a tension between containment and excess ties many (or all) of them together thematically already; perhaps more significantly, it offers as one primary link between the content level and the experimental design. Because this is occurring on multiple levels in big and small ways, I’m going to break it into a few different (arbitrary and permeable) sections for now.

On the content level, Xanther of course evokes this explicitly, from the start. Her concern with counting the raindrops isn’t just the difficulty of finding a way to track them all; rather it’s a concern for the impossibility, the ways that the number would exceed our sense of measurement. She wonders, “What kind of counting equals this sort of overwhelmingness? . . .  It has to exist, but if no one will ever name it, is it ever real?” (61). This concern persists so that she later asks Talbot and team if it would be possible with their program (348). The question resonates with her seizures, as she notes that “sometimes people describe seizures as an overwhelming amount of information in the brain,” fearing that makes her an “A-hole” (350). Furthermore, she relates it to her parents and the deluge of calls and emails, which starts to open up the fact that even though Glasgow dismisses her rain question, the other characters often share the concern. The idea of programming an AI evokes this, as it’s an attempt to create “rules,” a form of containment, for something that will exceed those rules and be able to make its own decisions. Bobby describes how “the distribution went everywhere. Self-replicating” (144). The human/animal relationship similarly evokes this; Astair thinks of the seizures as a “wild beast,” “shapeless except for claws and teeth” (254), and Luther’s crew tries to control the dogs for pit-fighting. The animal is suggested as specifically at odds with containment, by Astair who questions, “Was repression at work in Xanther? or had the vital threat of such events drawn forth animal reactions” and by Isandorno, who calls the human chest a “fragile cage” and sees in the totems “everything he cannot tame” (319, 323).

The other two levels of this discussion are a little more general. The attempt and inability to contain is apparent on the level of language as well. Anwar’s and Astair’s narratives are notably filled with brackets that try to hold together their thoughts, which nevertheless scatter beyond control. We think of something like brackets as an aid in clarity, and the nesting should theoretically help that, making each part belong to a larger group; instead, the nesting shows more how their thoughts come to mirror Xanther’s Question Song, with digressions leading to further digressions. Exponentiation echoes this, with the repetition of 3/9/27. And the wordplay does so as well, as a resistance to language’s goal of precision and clarity. Lastly, the design aspects show the resistance of thought to the supposed containment of an artistic work. Books especially create a sense of containment in the bound pages and covers, but of course, historically that’s never been an effective constraint on where the audience’s imagination expands the pages. However, Danielewski has made exceeding the boundaries of the book a practice in the past, and immediately does so here. One of the first prefatory pages shows some of the acclaim stretching beyond the page limits, the “previews” allow content to exceed the title page, and the standard Danielewski-ism of experimental formatting breaks the conventional constraints of the page.

This post is getting rather long, but I think what this suggests, and what I imagine we’ll see developing more, is a thematic consistency centering on the idea that the “pre”-human animal and the post-human programming/AI are linked in their resistance to the human drive toward control (a drive suggested even in my making the animal “pre-human” just now), but also that human creations themselves (art, language) break free of their supposed boundaries.


About Andrew Todd

Postdoctoral Lecturer at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Primary instructor for English 102--Inquiry into New Media.

2 responses to “(Containment) and Its Failure”

  1. atodd102015 says :

    Perhaps ironically, I originally tried to title the post with the angled brackets rather than parentheses but they must make text not appear, so my attempt at containment failed.

  2. mzieger2018 says :

    I’ve found the failure of limitations and structure in The Familiar to be very intriguing as well, perhaps more on the thematic and content side as you mentioned when discussing the language that suggests the uncontrollable and untamed nature of the world. In the sections written in Xanther’s perspective, the overwhelming view of the world she takes is clearly evident as she omits absolutely nothing. While the details might seem insignificant and unnecessary, this stream of consciousnesses might be the most realistic interpretation of human thoughts and provides the greatest clues to the puzzle that is the Familiar by providing a direct and transparent voice. The fear Xanther possesses regarding her epilepsy and her tendency to panic at the thought of the unknown (which she tries to reduce by her constant questions) could be representative of a very common fear of the unexplainable and unknowable elements in our world. The Familiar uses the serialized format, untranslated words, and situations mentioned above in the different story lines to possibly represent that some things are just too vast and too difficult to understand, and potentially uses Xanther as a manifestation of this theme to show the frustration and struggle humans feel in trying to order the unrecognizable. Books traditionally are contained, with clear beginnings, endings, and identifiable plot elements, however the very irregular format of the Familiar defies this traditional limitation or containment with the attempt to represent the messiness and overwhelming reality of life.

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