The Design, Limitations, and Purpose of Narcons
“Hi.” This congenial, seemingly innocent greeting is what opens Pandora’s Box (and indeed opens paradise) in Volume 1 of Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar. Like some metafictional game of peek-a-boo, the novel’s Narrative Construct pauses the story completely and introduces itself to the reader. TF-Narcon9, as is its designation, exists someplace above and beyond the characters of this novel, so perhaps it can most closely be likened to the traditional, third-person limited perspective, very much aware of a particular character’s words, thoughts, and movements, but not quite omniscient. Seen this way, Narcons are alive in every text: ‘U-Narcon18,’ for example, might serve as the name for the narrative in Joyce’s Ulysses and ‘TO-Narcon18’ might similarly apply to Homer’s The Odyssey. But for Danielewski to literally pause the narrative, to cause this great schism and allow the Narrative Construct to leak through the cracks of the pages, is another matter entirely. Not only is this unprecedented in literature, it obliterates the illusion of the ‘fourth wall’ and changes forever the relationship between the novel and its reader. Despite this great schism, or maybe because of it, the Narcons section of The Familiar is a profoundly enlightening one: links can be traced back to Xanther’s Question Song, Anwar’s Paradise Open, Cas’ Orb, and a number of other miscellaneous enigmas woven in and around the text. That makes the Narcons section, in effect, the ‘intensive’ key to reading The Familiar, which is why understanding more about Narcons—their design, their limitations, and their greater purpose, specifically—is so crucial to understanding the text as a whole.
“I’m nothing but numbers. Zeros and ones.” While the reader is never given too many details about Narcons, one detail that TF-Narcon9 does explain at length is its own programming. It starts with a description of its “crisp,” computer-like code before divulging the fact that a Narcon’s programming determines precisely what qualities it can and cannot have, from complex ideas like “having no interest in knowing where in the first place integers come from” to blurriness. The interesting link, though, is between the programming of Narcons and the programming of Anwar’s Paradise Open game. In his final chapter, Anwar stresses over a glitch in his program, and the nature of this glitch shares a few familiar qualities with a glitch mentioned by TF-Narcon9 earlier in the text. The glitch that TF-Narcon9 describes has to do with addressing “subjects not anticipated,” and it cannot simply be coincidence that Anwar’s glitch deals with his failures of trying to program anticipation. He states to Xanther that “[Polygon Creature Z] observes [Polygon Creature S] moving in a specific direction yet in order to effect an encounter must anticipate where Creature S isn’t now but will be in a few moments” (722). In both the case of Paradise Open and Narcons, the glitch concerns this idea of programming anticipation, something that lies under the blanket of Artificial Intelligence. The other question that arises from this is, if Paradise Open was programmed by Anwar, who programmed the Narcons? Is a ‘Narrative Construct’ programmed by the novel’s author or is there some other force behind Narcons? To get closer to answering these bigger questions, the limitations and greater purpose of Narcons will need to be better understood.
“A good enough time to bring up the Parameters.” Readers know from the section on Narcons that they have certain limitations in their programming referred to as “parameters,” but the strange aspect about these parameters is that they are almost all contradicted. Parameter 1, for example, states that “MetaNarcons Do Not Exist.” Immediately before this, however, TF-Narcon9 considers that it just might have a Narcon of its own, but its “programming forbids [it] to knowingly encounter or even pursue [the idea] as a thought experiment.” With a little digging around, readers can see that TF-Narcon27 behaves much like a Narcon to TF-Narcon9, like a so-called “MetaNarcon.” It explains why “neither TF-Narcon9 X nor TF-Narcon9 knows what happened to Xanther’s former therapist, Mrs. Goolsend,” but why TF-Narcon27 intrudes with details of her entire life story. This is not an isolated incident either. An omniscient intrusion happens again on page 826 when TF-Narcon27 describes the detailed denouements of the two staff members at the emergency animal hospital. So not only are Narcons unaware of their higher supersets, the MetaNarcons, they are similarly unaware that their parameters are merely programming code and not absolute truths. As with their design, the limitations of Narcons tells a lot about their role in the novel and teases all sorts of mysteries to come.
“As equally vague as origin is the question of purpose.” The final question concerning Narcons is the nature of their purpose and whether they truly have one. TF-Narcon9 admits that all philosophical queries, including the question of purpose, are to be “ignored” by outputting a message from TF-Narcon27 which states, in short, that “no IS or IST is capable of total AIM awareness.” From this the reader is supposed to believe that Narcons have no greater purpose, but there are plenty of instances throughout the novel that indicate otherwise. Xanther recalls the time on page 345 when Anwar read to her aloud from The Iliad, and TF-Narcon27 intrudes her thoughts and makes numerous corrections; where Xanther recalls the names “Die-Meaty” and “Knee-Ass,” for example, TF-Narcon27 adds Diomêdês and Aineías as simple alterations that serve as clarifications for the reader. These kind of intrusions are characteristic of TF-Narcon27’s behavior throughout the text. It behaves almost like the ‘editor’ of the series, adding notes or annotations, if only for the sake of the reader’s understanding. But making clarifications is not the only way in which TF-Narcon27 behaves like the series’ editor: TF-Narcon27 is also undoubtedly behind the countless redactions in the text, like those concerning VEM™ and the Orb on pages 629-34. (This is known because whenever TF-Narcon27 intrudes in the Narcons section, including the very large redaction on page 570, TF-Narcon9 begins to feel a kind of “frantic breathlessness.”) Since these redactions seem to be made to potentially overarching mysteries of The Familiar, like details of VEM™ and the Orb, it is almost as if TF-Narcon27 is censoring the secrets or ‘spoilers’ that are to be revealed in the later volumes of the series. The claim that Narcons have no purpose, then, is looking more and more like a canard, especially for TF-Narcon27, which seems to be in charge of overseeing the entire 27-volume series. The last indication that Narcons have a purpose is perhaps the most interesting. Many readers believe, since “Narcons may even appear as animals,” that the panther kitten every character hears at one point in the story is actually a Narcon itself in animal form. What would it say about a Narcon’s purpose if this turns out to be true? By having a physical form, Narcons would be able to interfere in the world with far more agency than as abstract computer code or a software program. In summation, the idea that Narcons have no purpose is getting harder and harder to accept. Regardless of what they are programmed to believe, Narcons do have some greater purpose, perhaps altruistic, perhaps villainous, but real nonetheless.
“What has found her?” The initial mystery of Narcons was almost as unique an experience as unraveling their hidden meanings. Their nature as a coded program, their ties to Anwar’s Paradise Open, and the question of who programmed Narcons makes the design of a Narcon a crucial aspect to understanding them. Equally crucial is their limitations—their parameters, their non-omniscient knowledge of the world, their lack of awareness in terms of MetaNarcons. And finally, looking to a Narcon’s greater purpose was the most revealing of all: if Narcons are truly programmed with no purpose, then why does TF-Narcon27 act in several ways as the series’ editor, redacting major clues and adding clarifications? And if form is not a Narcon limit, and the magic kitten is indeed a Narcon in disguise, what might that say about the future role of Narcons in The Familiar? Readers will have to wait for later volumes to begin to answer these, but just as Xanther put it on page 58, these types of questions “give an answer that doesn’t just create one or two more questions but, like, forests of them.”
- Odds & ends