Archive | April 2015

The Ball and the Narcons

The ball from “Through the Arc of the Rain Forest” crash lands on Earth in an alienated manner. The ball is the narrator of the story but he does not go into much detail about what he was doing before the trip to Earth. The ball is one of the supernatural entities of the story that does not need much explanation. The narcons in “The Familiar” have some of the same entities in that they are the narrators of the story. The operator of the narcons is unknown and remains so to the end of the story. However, only speculation suggests that Danielewski is hidden behind the narcons. Much like this theory it is understood that Art Spiegelman is the narrator of the story. The narrator plays an intricate role in story telling and these stories take a different approach to telling the story.

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Maus

rats

The average mouse is a stereotypical lab animal. The lab rat is used to assist the experimenter and placed into harsh conditions. The rats are subjected to disease, stitches, staples, poison, and all just to find cures for human kind. It seems to be a selfish act. The rats are kept in cages and given food that is not the typical diet. Why do lab rats deserve to go through such harsh conditions?

In the story Maus, Spiegelman uses the mouse and much like a the lab rat the mice in the story are put through harsh conditions. The mice are treated like lab rats because they are imprisoned due to conditions that are unfair and unavoidable, their religious beliefs. It can be argued that Spiegelman used the mouse to relate the lab rat to the mouse. Even though the story is based on Art Spiegelman’s real family there is a comparison of the mouse to show the harsh conditions. Spiegelman used an exaggeration to show the extremity of conditions.

Similar to lab rats there were many deaths during the holocaust and in the story of Maus. The deaths were unforeseen and for personal gain of power. There are some lab rats that survive and there were many holocaust survivors.

Familiars in Other Forms

For the most part, The Familiar does not actually discuss familiars in Volume I. We do know, though, that the cat is a familiar, but we don’t know yet what that means to MZD. Since we have more questions than answers, I’d like to discuss—as others have—Pullman’s His Dark Materials and the dæmons that appear therein, especially in relation to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Fowler. For those unfamiliar with the book, the main character (Rosemary) had a “sister” (Fern) who was actually a chimpanzee. They were raised together as part of an experiment and, in many ways, Fern is a familiar to Rosemary.

In Pullman’s works, according to Wikipedia, “dæmons are the external physical manifestation of a person’s ‘inner-self’ that takes the form of an animal. Dæmons have human intelligence, are capable of human speech—regardless of the form they take—and usually behave as though they are independent of their humans. Pre-pubescent children’s dæmons can change form voluntarily, almost instantaneously, to become any creature, real or imaginary. During their adolescence a person’s dæmon undergoes “settling”, an event in which that person’s dæmon permanently and involuntarily assumes the form of the animal which the person most resembles in character.” For purposes of clarity, I will use “dæmons” to refer to my interpretation of familiars.

Rosemary, in addition to having a chimpanzee for a sister, also had an imaginary friend (Mary) who was also a chimp. Both the real and imaginary chimps echo Pullman’s ideas of dæmons in the following ways:

  1. Fern knew ASL and could communicate through human speech.
  2. Fern operated independently of Rosemary, as does Mary.
  3. The form of Mary as a chimpanzee, “the form of the animal which the person most resembles in character,” also reiterates the trauma Rosemary experienced by being raised with a chimpanzee. (In addition to Fern learning human behaviors like ASL, Rosemary presents animalistic behaviors like defensive posturing, a misunderstanding of how humans physically interact [specifically with how much touching is acceptable], and explosive reactions to unpleasant events.
  4. Fern disappears before Rosemary’s adolescence, as does Mary. Mary taking the form of a chimp (a real animal) echo the ability of a dæmon to take any shape. Since both the real and imaginary familiars disappear before the “settling” period, it causes a lot of psychological issues for Rosemary in addition to those mentioned above.
  5. Once the human dies, the dæmon disappears. Rosemary doesn’t die once her familiar goes away, but she is unalterably changed. The girl who had a chimpanzee sister is not same person once she is the girl who used to have a chimpanzee for a sister.

It’s doubtful that Fowler intended these similarities (though, as a sci-fi and fantasy writer, she was surely familiar with his works), but I think this view of the character relationship adds an interesting interpretation to an already complex relationship. I’m interested to see how the cat in The Familiar will be presented. Already, I think it’s form represents Xanther well. Judging by its teleportation into her bed, it also has her caring nature, which is fitting.

Levels of Awareness: Narcons & The Halting Problem

Perhaps the most troublesome element of The Familiar is the presence of the Narcons. On one hand, we get a first person description of one of them, but while it describes itself, the other Narcons chime in as if they are commenting on what this particular one is saying, but the one that has a section devoted to it doesn’t seem to have any awareness of the other ones.

What does this mean? Why are there different Narcons? A few of us have suggested that they represent different elements of storytelling, one of the narcon states facts while another mentions more artistic things. So, if we’re meant to understand these as narrative construct, whose story are we actually reading?

The last question is most puzzling to me. We have different stories that distinctly echo different character’s voices. We had discussed in class that even details of font type and size correlate with how we construct these characters. (Luther for example is a large, imposing person whose chapters are filled thematically with power. As a result, his text is the most bold and the largest per character. In such a way, it mirrors how we characterize him.) Why is font necessary though? Why is how the character interacts with others a defining characteristic? Well, I would posit the potential that though these stories are being told in the first person, we might actually be viewing them from the perspectives of the Narcons.

Let me present why I might think this. When Xanther mispronounces a word, Narcons, in the absence of Anwar, chime in to correct her. If we conceive the Narcons as narrative constructs, ie. a piece of technology or a program, then it might seem that they trying to codify the information they are gathering by viewing these characters.

Reconsider how the text and font changes with each character. Now this is just a shot in the dark, but perhaps this Narcons make sense of characters through codifying them–assigning them a set font style so that they can differentiate the information. TF-Narcon 9 says that it knows a great deal about Xanther. How does it know these things about Xanther? I believe that there might be two possible answers.

 

For the first, it might be that the Narcons are programmed in such a way that they can offer an immensely detailed account of characters. Their depth of character knowledge is so deep that they assume what they can do in any given situation. As a result, they put together stories for these individuals. This would result in the Narcons actually telling us a story and the characters being figments of a machine’s imagination. I don’t believe this answer to be satisfying and it also problematic because of jing-jing’s chapters.

 

jing-jing’s chapters have several languages in them that make it difficult for the reader to follow. However, jing jing later starts speaking in languages that the other characters in his chapter didn’t realize he could. Once this shift in the narrative happens, we see a greater amount of commentary from the Narcons. They chime in and translate more and more for us. From this anecdote I will posit what I believe to be the true nature of Narcons, sentient and constantly compounding, non-halting computational devices.

Disclaimer, I am no expert in coding and only have very limited knowledge of this topic from studying formal logic. With that being said, codes function in algorithms that have a finite number of steps that produce a given answer. Once an answer is satisfied, the code halts, that is to say it reaches a logical conclusion. For this limitation, computers do not have the capacity to learn. All their pathways must be pre-ordained and written in the way of codes.

Now let’s consider these Narcons that have the ability to amass great amounts of knowledge. How did they learn these things? With the concept of a compounding computer in mind, perhaps, just maybe, these Narcons are computer entities that have somehow solved the halting problem. If this is the case, they would be able to codify information that would be otherwise unintelligible to them–in other words they could catalog and learn from information that they have not had previous exposure to. Maybe these Narcons are, in fact, thinking machines.

Publication and Sequel

Now that we are several months out from when we first read The Familiar, more information is available about its sequel and the final design of the book. We spent a lot of time interpreting the black and white design elements of the pre-release copy, and it will soon be available in full color with even more interpretations. To the left is the book’s cover, and I think it does a fantastic job of introducing the reader to what they will experience while reading it. Not only does it include a pattern of the margin symbols (which, I believe, we now know are some sort of timeline), but the images within the 1 become less clear the more you look at them. I see what appears to be a dinner plate and centerpiece overlaid by two different kinds of orbs. The one on the left looks especially sic-fi, while the one on the bottom seems to show the functions of the Orb with its warped presentation of human silhouettes in front of the sun or some other source of light.

The Amazon page also provides more information about Volume IIInto the Forest, which is set for release on October 27, 2015.

The Familiar, Volume 1  Wherein the cat is found . . .
The Familiar, Volume 2  Wherein the cat is hungry . . .

From the universally acclaimed, genre-busting author of House of Leaves comes the second volume of The Familiar, a “novel [which] goes beyond the experimental into the visionary, creating a language and style that expands the horizon of meaning . . . hint[ing] at an evolved form of literature.”*

This seems like good news for cat lovers, as the cat is presented as the main focus of the series. It is also ominous about what it means that the cat is hungry. The way Xanther found the cat was odd enough, and now I am really curious about what exactly it is hungry for—perhaps the birds we saw in the preview for this book?

I’ll be preordering the sequel, and I think the pace at which the books are being released bodes well for those of us who don’t want to be in our 40s (or older) when the final volume is released.

Thoughts on the cover design and the hints about Volume Ii?

The Emotional Visuality of The Familiar and Maus

Both Spiegelman’s Maus and Danielewski’s The Familiar incorporate many more visual elements into the storytelling process than do most novels. Maus, as a graphic novel, naturally relies more on the image as a plot device, yet both novels make use of their visual aspects as a more visceral and ineluctable means of portraying the emotions and thought processes of central characters. In Maus, for instance, the manner in which dialogue is delivered is often revealed through the construction of the speech bubble; Spiegelman typically shows distress or fear through more jagged bubbles and enlarged or bold text, while narration from Vladek is printed outside of the frames to contextualize it for the reader. We also see Vladek’s body separated into several different panels in another scene in which he explains that almost his entire family was killed during the war, showing the physical embodiment of his shattered mental state (276). The most inflated examples of this sort of emotional expression through the image can be found in the “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” section, which takes on an almost surrealistic form; Spiegelman here embodies the turmoil and guilt he felt after his mother’s suicide in monstrous depictions of his father and his mother’s doctor (102-5). Moreover, his depression seems to affect even his more mundane perceptions as streets and figures are transformed into harsh and deformed geometrical contours, defamiliarizing them to make the world appear strange and frightening.

The functions of the visual aspects in The Familiar often work similarly in giving insights into characters’ psyches, yet on a more structural level. One of the most common examples in the novel is the abundant use of negative (white) space on the page to give a sense of the character’s excitement or fear; we see this, for example, when Anwar and Xanther return home with the cat (657). Not only does this technique mirror the rushed or confused thoughts of the character, but it also forces the reader to flip through the pages faster and faster, creating a real physical embodiment of the narratives racing speed. In the chapter’s following Cas and Bobby, the form of the orb dominates the page in much the way it dominates these characters’ thoughts, and as the reader learns more about the orb it shifts from a hollow outline to actually containing text itself, becoming more of an integrated part of the text than an obstruction. Even the fonts and syntax used in The Familiar seem to embody the personalities of the characters that they are associated with in many ways, like Özgur’s stocky bold or Astair’s heavy use of bracketing and parentheses.

Summary of my reading experience with this novel

I was blown away by the breadth of discussion that this novel created online. The sheer curio of knowledge that Danielewki’s Familiar inspires is enough to keep me mesmerized for hours, following Wikipedia rabbit holes after esoteric literary theory. I found the online community surrounding this novel incredibly compelling. However, I cannot say the same for Danielewski’s novel. When it comes to narrative style, I am a bit of a curmudgeonly traditionalist. I like the soporiphic haze that a gripping narrative can create. Sometimes it’s harrowing, like in Disgrace, but it keeps you reading. The complexity of Danielewski’s form was too distracting, and I was often confused by how much information I was being asked to decipher, having to strike hard bargains about what to stop and devote time to—time that would inevitably bring me out of the narrative. I cannot, however, say that I was not impressed by this byzantine complexity. I just think that the best part of Danielewski’s novel is the discussions and picking apart that you can do with other people over it. What’s interesting about this, in relation to the novel’s character, is that is closely mimics the goal of most modern television dramas, which rely heavily on creating viewer discussions.

The Source of the Supernatural

After reading works such as Through the Arc of the Rain Forest by Yamashita and Wild Seed by Octavia Butler, I was reminded that it is important for readers to understand the source of supernatural events. In the former, these elements are explainable by the science of the fictional universe in which the novel is set; in the latter, though, no clear explanation is given for the source of Doro or Anyanwu’s special abilities. (It is implied that both beings are mutants, somewhat like X-Men, especially since their traits can, to some degree, be passed on genetically. The rest of The Patternist series may offer some explanation for these events in regard to Wild Seed, but I haven’t read them yet.)

While science fiction and fantasy require a certain suspension of disbelief, that does not mean that authors are excused from offering some explanation for the events they portray. A more common example of this would be the Harry Potter series, which offers no explanation for why magic exists or what its foundational rules may be. (There are a few mentions of some, like Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration and Golpalott’s Third Law, but these are specific to certain use cases and not to the existence of magic as a whole.) In Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky, the most prolific (and not super creepy) form Harry Potter fan fiction, the author creates these laws because, well, they’re rational. (In case you’re wondering, it involves Atlantis somehow, which is not remotely canonical but is still better than nothing.)

I mention all of this because, at this point, there aren’t any explanations for the events of The Familiar. It may take decades for MZD to explain the Orb, NarCons, the cat, the various pieces of front matter, etc. Judging from what others have said about his works thus far, there’s no guarantee that he WILL answer these questions satisfactorily. I think that detracts from the reading experience, especially if you are involved in a complicated narrative like that of The Familiar that requires more engagement than, say, Harry Potter.

Do you believe that the author has a responsibility to explain his/her worlds to the reader? Would it detract from the message of some books to have more answers?

Metafiction in Maus and The Familiar

Both Maus and The Familiar are examples of metafiction. However, the way in which these books use metafiction is entirely different. Maus, as an auto-biographical, or at least semi-autobiographical, graphic novel allows for Spiegelman to edit his prose through the eyes of a self-conscious narrator. The narcons, in The Familiar, could also be seen as editors using their own knowledge in order to edit the story, but not in the same way as Spiegelman. Spiegelman’s metafiction, on both the textual and visual level of narrative, shows how an author can become part of his/her own story.

Spiegelman, as both author and character, is capable of shifting from narrating the story to lamenting on the difficulty of actually producing the story itself. Spiegelman’s style of metafiction shows how an author can become a part of the story itself, whereas Danielewski uses characters within the story, but outside of the specific narrative, to influence the entire work.

Animal Companions in The Familiar and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

The Familiar by Mark Z Danielewski and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler both have a protagonist who understands animals differently from the other characters. Rosemary and Xanther are able to form close relationships with animals and find comfort in these relationships. On page 375 of The Familiar, Xanther is seen by her father petting a spider which she has named Adelaide. Here we see her caring even for those animals which other people would not hesitate to avoid or even kill if it was near them. At the end of Fowler’s novel, Rosemary questions whether Fern will remember her after all the years they have been separated. Her mother says that Fern wouldn’t, but when she goes to visit Fern the novel describes how Rosemary cannot know what Fern is thinking or feeling but she knows that she still shares a bond with Fern. Even after all of these years, she still shares a connection with Fern which none of the other characters can fully understand. In addition, the cat which Xanther gets at the end is a familiar – an animal that works alongside human beings on its own accord. It is important that the cat chose to go to Xanther because it demonstrates that animals are not creatures that humans can control. Similarly, We Are Completely Beside Ourselves shows how, when young monkeys away from their mothers to raise with humans or use them for studies, the monkeys suffered mentally and physically and died premature deaths. As a result of these bonds, the novels demonstrate that animals should not be treated as inferior to humans.