Insistence on Familiarity: Absurdism and The Familiar

This post may contain spoilers up through the end of the book.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I wanted to talk a little bit about my interpretation of the text. Specifically when I got to narcon section, the term theatre of the absurd popped into my mind (flashback to high school) and I haven’t been able to shake it. Disclaimer: I’m not a philosopher, nor am I particularly versed in absurdism, but I thought that there was at least an interesting relationship between Danielewski’s The Familiar and absurdism that needed to be examined.

For the basis of this post, I’m defining the absurd as the confrontation between the world and one’s self, the conflict that arises from humanity’s desire for rationality and meaning and the world’s inherent irrationality. This definition is extrapolated from the quotes from Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, “The mind’s deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man’s unconscious feeling in the face of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity,” and “But with its first move this world cracks and tumbles : an infinite number of shimmering fragments is offered to the understanding. We must despair of ever reconstructing the familiar, calm surface which would give us peace of heart,” which describe the conflict between man’s deepest desire, and the reality of the universe being only partially rational.

In The Familiar, this question of the absurd pops up in several places. One of the most immediately noticeable throughlines regarding this is the prevalence of numbers. Specifically in Anwar’s chapters, focus on the irrational parts of the universe in the indeterminate forms surrounding zero and infinity (see page 771). Setting aside binary interpretations, which I don’t know enough about to figure into my analysis, I’d like to examine this numerical paradox. Numbers and math are things we see as indisputable or hard logic and fact, yet the narrative, very early on (page 59), sets these up as being logically fallible. Not only does this cause the reader to begin questioning their interpretation of the narrative’s world, but it also sets up the universe as being inherently irrational.

Whether intentionally or not, the title brings to mind Camus’ definition of the absurd. Each for their own reason, the characters are at drift in the narrative. Focusing on the Ibrahims, each of them are recovering from the loss of Dov (be he friend, lover, or father) and the sudden omnipresence of death in their lives, especially in regards to Xanther’s epilepsy. Through this they seek the “familiar,” a concept which proves illusive. Even at the point of mathematical logic, there is inconsistency and irrationality when we are led to the conclusion that 1=2.

At a structural level, the novel also displays a certain absurdity. In class someone pointed out that everything seems to go wrong in the narrative, or at least be at a disadvantage to normative society (Xanther being epileptic, the dead father, racial inequality, gangs, etc.). This, I believed was an interesting statement considering novels are always about everything going wrong, but I do think that perhaps in The Familiar, we are more prone to noticing these patterns. Like the famous coin flipping scene in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the sheer improbability of some of the narrative makes us very conscious of the fact that this narrative does not follow the typical structure of a story.

The other aspect of absurdity that appears in The Familiar, is that of the existential idea that life, events, and the world, are meaningless. This particularly hit home with me when, during the vet’s office scene, TF Narcon^27 says, “Neither Tessera nor Dr. Brady will remember this occasion, and what they hear about on the news later will remind them only of their own good fortune and only because they have yet to know the fortunes of their future,” (826). A typical novel is thought to be (primarily) self-contained. That the universe of the novel does not end with the characters we see is not only a jarring revelation, but makes possible the concept of not only the characters’ lives, but the story itself being meaningless and insignificant.

I haven’t decided yet whether or not I think that the fact that The Familiar seems to be self-aware of its status as a novel (evidenced by the narcons and the concept of constructed awareness/AI in the computer game as well as the orb) strengthens the idea of absurdism in the text or nullifies it.

Has anyone else noticed themes of absurdism in The Familiar? Does the fact that this book seems to be “aware” of its status as a narrative influence what is absurd about it?


The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus

“Philosophy Core Concepts: Albert Camus and the Absurd” (video) by Gregory B. Sadler

Coin Flipping Scene from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)


One response to “Insistence on Familiarity: Absurdism and The Familiar”

  1. lheyman says :

    After reading this post, I can totally see how this play is related to the theatre of the absurd. Being a theatre minor, I have taken classes and studied absurdist playwrights and find the thought of relating a novel like this to theatre very intriguing. Ideas absurdist plays are rooted in also play a part in the way the characters in The Familiar behave if we align ourselves with the notion that these characters are being controlled by the Orb, VEM, Danielewski, or any combination of the three. In Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the characters are aware of a higher power that they are waiting for that ultimately never comes, but they are aware of something else out there that is beyond their control. This brings about a need for discussion and investigation because we are not told how much Cas, Bobby, Anwar, and the Sorcerer (Mefisto?) are aware of a higher power having the power to control them and their future. Relating The Familiar to theatre also makes me wonder how insane this story could be if it was put on stage. However, I’m not sure it would be the experience Danielewski would want since everything in the book is so intentional. He has the experience planned out that he would like the reader to have, and moving a novel like this from being read to being spoken and acted could change everything. Just some food for thought.

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