The Revealing of Character Through Formatting

One of the most interesting things for me about The Familiar is the fact that Mark Z. Danielewski takes the time to pick out how the different chapters for each character will be formatted. I’m not sure if this topic has been covered before (it is my understanding that my class is a little bit behind some of the others) but regardless it is one that has caught my interest and I was hoping to get some ideas and feedback on the matter from others in this forum.

When it comes to the formatting of the different points of view, I’m not talking so much about the font size or the line spacing but more about the punctuation. Each character has a distinct format that makes it a little difficult on the first run through to distinguish who is who and how they think, and what new sort of weird format am I going to have to deal with this time but it gets easier as the book continues.

Though each chapter follows a sort of ‘stream of consciousness’ with each character, which is definitely not unheard of, I don’t think I’ve seen it vary quite this much from character to character before reading The Familiar. Seeing as Danielewski doesn’t seem to do anything without reason, I would mark these differences as important. In fact, I would argue that the distinct formatting of each character’s chapter reveals a little bit more about them without having to come right out and say it to the readers. It’s actually a really clever way of getting to know them.

For example, Xanther takes us into her mind and it is with her that we get to experience her Question Song firsthand before we see it through her parent’s point of view. Readers get to experience Xanther jumping around from thought to thought and some of the ongoing anxiety that comes with this type of thinking. Almost immediately readers deduce that something is not quite right with her due to how her chapters are set up. Her thoughts about ‘how many raindrops’ make this most explicit when she runs herself into a state that she can’t control, “Exhausting herself. Like running-of-of-breath exhausting herself” (64). Long before it’s revealed explicitly that Xanther has epilepsy, it’s made clear by her thoughts that not all is mentally sound within her.

Anwar’s narration, on the other hand, is set up to resemble programming. Rather than using normal punctuation, his sections of The Familiar use brackets (both curly and standard) as well was slashes to organize his thoughts. It’s very reminiscent of HTML or something similar. Through this narration choice, readers can conclude that Anwar is a problem solver, the biggest puzzle in his life being his daughter. Again, as with Xanther, it can be speculated that he is some sort of programmer before it’s stated plainly.

Astair’s thoughts read much like she is still writing and rewriting her thesis,‘Hope’s Nest: On the Necessity of God’ (121), with large (almost unnecessarily so) words scattered throughout and parentheses inside parentheses which are inside even more parentheses. She is constantly in the process of analyzing and editing, even within her own mind. Though it is stated rather early in her narration that she is a student, her thought process proves to reaffirm this showing how she approaches education (as well as being a mother) with diligence and maybe just a little bit of over thinking.

Since these are the three characters I feel like I’ve learned the most about, I haven’t gotten a good grasp on what the different formats would mean for the rest of the cast and was hoping to get some feedback about that. Any ideas?

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5 responses to “The Revealing of Character Through Formatting”

  1. chelseamaki says :

    I know that we touched on some of this in class today, but I thought that I would write down some thoughts that came up during our discussion:

    1. Özgür – His format never reaches the bottom of the page. I theorized that this is because he is a detective trying to get to “the bottom” of something.

    2. Isandòrno – His formatting is tight and justified. It takes up a small amount of space, as if it doesn’t want to reveal too much. In his sections, the margins become as vocal and significant as the text.

    3. Shnorhk – His “checkered” text format reveals to me that he feels incomplete. If the reader is to layer several of his pages together, the “shadow” of a full page will exist. As if Shnorhk himself is trying, but failing, at becoming a whole person.

  2. melindaborchers says :

    Wow. These are some great thoughts on the formatting of the individual narratives. I don’t have anything to add at the moment, just wanted to praise the existence of this thread.

    Who does that leave us with?

    The Wizard
    Luther
    Jingjing

    • atodd102015 says :

      As a starting point, the text of “The Orb” slowly forms a circle over the course of the chapter. Not the circle itself but the outside of it. On an overly literal level, this parallels the way they talk around the Orb, rather than directly about it. The Orb is the unignorable absence at the center of the chapter.

      I don’t know what their later chapters look like yet though.

  3. smartysloan says :

    I think this formatting is what most defines his characters. I have noticed I don’t read his characters so much as experience them. Most significant was Xanther’s seizure. He perfectly conveyed the sense of time slowing down amidst a traumatic event. The emotions of panic and terror Astair feels is evident in contrast to the absence of Xanther. Xanther is dominant in her mother’s thoughts but absent from the page. I don’t think the emotional intensity of the seizure could have been expressed as well traditionally. The countdown with the numbers not only adds tension but also had me visualizing the violent spasms occurring then resting where the numbers are absent.

  4. jimhutchins says :

    I thought I had posted this on another thread, but now I can’t find it, so maybe it never went through.

    As we’ve discussed in class before, having read House of Leaves gives one a leg up on what Danielewski is “trying” to do here. You may remember that House of Leaves has a sort-of complimentary album called “Haunted” which was recorded/constructed by Mark Danielewski’s sister Poe (neé Annie Danielewski). In “Haunted”, Poe mixes recordings of her dead father with images and words from her brother’s book to quite chilling effect. One of those passages (purportedly about the titular House in House of Leaves) is this quote from Danielewski pater, Tad Danielewski:

    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.

    Substitute “book” for “house” and I think it’s an interesting perspective on Mark Danielewski’s work.

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