Speculation about the Nature of Reality in The Familiar

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?

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One response to “Speculation about the Nature of Reality in The Familiar”

  1. ki7sune says :

    I really hate that “The Matrix” is such a great analogy for so many things in The Familiar because I am starting to feel like a crazed fanboy, but I promise I’m not. When we look at the levels of awareness in the book, I can’t help but feel like the story within the book is like the Matrix. It is a construct, the people in it are not aware that it is a construct, and someone viewing it may also not know that it isn’t real. The book itself, or the reader, is in “the real world,” where the book and the reader are aware that they are experiencing something that is a fiction. While we all ultimately know that movies, books, television, etc. are not real, there is something satisfying about losing myself in a well written/created fiction. I feel a bit like Cypher when he wants to be plugged back into the Matrix. I don’t want that extra level of awareness. I just want to enjoy myself.

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