A majority of the books I’ve been reading in English class this semester have to do with the human/animal relationship. While they all deal with said relationship in varied and unique ways with complex sets of characters there have been at least 3 books I recall that have used cats as the animal of focus in these interactions. The two books in which this interaction stuck out the most to me were The Familiar and Wild Seed. Despite the fact that both novels feature interaction with more than just cats, felines appeared to me to be the most prominent animals employed in the plots of these novels.
In Danielewski’s The Familiar a majority of the plot, characters, and even motifs within the novel focus on cats. The term “familiar” has traditionally been used to refer to cats that serve as pets/partners to their human masters, and cats are referred to many times within the text to the point that two of the credit pages at the end of the novel show two definitive, slit feline eyes. Regardless of the types of animals employed in individual character stories, such as Luther and his dogs and even the dog that was originally meant to be bought as an aid for Xanther and her seizures, cats make their way into every character’s life and even into the format of the novel and the title. The sound of a yowling cat can be heard at least once in every major character’s story, and the novel ends with a cat’s presence allegedly bringing peace and order into Xanther’s life after the wild and confusing ride we go through alongside her. This cat also happens to bring death to another character, Tian Li, when it appears to leave the woman to saunter into Xanther’s story. So my question is…why cats?
Cats are also involved quite centrally in Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed when considering the nature of Anyanwu and her animal forms. From the get go one of the first animals we see Anyanwu shift into is a leopard. Anyanwu turns to her leopard form in trying times, times when she feels that her life is in danger as well as at times when she wants to take revenge. She makes it clear that her leopard form is one that she has started to feel natural in over time, a form that she now has little to no trouble shifting into considering the amount of times she has done so as well as her deep understanding of the feline’s body after having consumed a part of it. Although Anyanwu does shift into other animals throughout the course of the novel, her leopard form is a central one that she returns to in climatic moments of threat to her life and the lives of those she cares for again and again. Again I pose the question…why cats?
Both individual cats in these stories play considerably different roles in their respective stories. Danielewski’s cat serves as a bringer of both the literal and figurative life and death of the characters it directly interacts with while Anyanwu and her leopard form play a mostly protective and fierce role within the events of Wild Seed. Do you think that these separate interpretations of cats and the utilizations of their different yet similar roles in these novels say anything about our interpretations and views of domestic versus wild cats today? Is it significant that the wild cat is used to portray defense and protection while the assumedly domestic cat serves as a harbinger of life and death? Also, why do you think cats in various forms are such popular animals to use both physically and symbolically in literature? What is it about cats that make them both appealing to write about and flexible enough to write in a number of various genres and plotlines, although their basic forms remain quite the same?
Within Danielewski’s The Familiar and Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed the interactions between animals and humans lead to animals serving as possible aids for or to humans in a variety of ways. While there are plenty of instances in The Familiar where animals are mistreated, misused, or abused, the silver lining of the novel comes out in the collaboration between a couple of the characters and their animal companions. Likewise, while Wild Seed doesn’t capitalize on such a wide range of characters or designated situations of animal cruelty as ostentatiously, it certainly capitalizes on the positive and even helpful relationship that Anyanwu has with not only the animals she encounters, but the animal essences that she embodies and becomes.
A couple of the storylines and characters in The Familiar deal with poor or subpar treatment of animals as well as relationships with them, such as Luther and his dogs and Isandórno and the animals he sees in crates. Quite opposite to this, the relationship between Tian Li, Xanther, and the cat that seems to pass between them is definitely one based on an animal providing them with some kind of aid. Tian Li is a healing woman of some sort and while she takes the credit and is the one known for having such powers, Jingjing makes it clear through his narrative that he suspects that the cat actually might be the source of her power. This is even more reinforced through the instance of Tian Li losing her life when the cat “leaves,” allegedly to pass on to Xanther. The nature of this cat as both a source of healing power for Tian Li and also a life force in some capacity shows the irrefutable aid that this cat brought Tian Li throughout the course of their relationship.
This helpful nature continues in the case of Xanther, whose main plot point involves the attempt to provide her with an animal that will specifically give her aid with her seizures. While the plan to procure such a dog never fully comes through in this a respect, the cat that Xanther saves does provide an aid to her, and she to them. In the process of finding and taking in such an animal, Xanther actually saves the cat’s life before imploring for the animal to be kept. While this is an obvious display of aid, one of the last quotes in the novel involves Xanther admitting that in the presence of such an animal “even if nothing has changed everything suddenly feels manageable” (Danielewski, 837). Xanther and the cat in question both save each other in different respects; Xanther ensures the survival of the cat, and in turn the cat aids Xanther in managing the weight that she’s been dealing with for a majority of the novel.
Similar to these instances of helpful human/animal relationships in The Familiar, Anyanwu’s relationship with animals in Wild Seed is also one whose nature stems directly from the position of one providing aid to the other and vice versa. Any time that Anyanwu feels threatened, endangered, or wants to escape from the one person that she feels is dominating her in a suffocating and abusive way, she relies on her animal forms to get her out of the situation. Animals are the only beings within the novel that do not fall under the all-encompassing and offensive power that Doro yields. Anyanwu makes a kind of unspoken pact with the animals that she ingests and becomes in order to utilize both the strengths of their individual forms and their collective immunity to Doro overall. She then in turn requests on some occasions that a sort of protection be given back to them, considering the way she asked for dolphins to be spared while on the ship traveling to America. While she does ask this because they seem more human than other animals, this does present a clear example of a way that she reciprocates the aid she gains from these animals who she also receives help from.
I know that the Orb has been addressed a number of times already, and I went back and examined some of the threads that were already made not only concerning the patterns of orbs throughout the text but what the meaning of the central Orbs in this story might be. Coming to the close of the book I felt like a separate post concerning the ending section of the book would be beneficial, and I felt that some of the information was just significant and different enough that it warranted a separate post rather than just a comment.
Looking back for a moment, the most striking thing to me about the sections concerning the Orbs was the fact that whatever is happening with the Orbs in Texas is happening at the same time as the rest of the narrative. Some of the introductory descriptions we get during the first Orb section include: “Eons slip by. The canyon rises. Her mesa falls then rises then falls again until eventually it flattens into a storm-polished plain. The temple, though, remains unchanged” (pg. 137). This kind of description originally led me to believe that I was reading about a civilization far in the past or the future, considering I wasn’t initially used to the formatting of the novel or paying attention to the dog eared pages.
Upon re-reading such a section, I realized that the Orb was giving the viewer, assumedly Cas, the ability to see into both the past and the future. I also noticed the time stamp on the dog ear indicating that this narrative was going on at the same time as everything else. This observation really put the events that were occurring in those sections a bit more in perspective, as well as increased my speculation that the technology that the Orb has is both very advanced and very experimental.
The section involving the revelation of the Narcon (pg. 563-578), short for “narrative construct” (pg. 565), put even more in perspective for me in terms of the main point of view from which all these stories are branching and how all of these stories might actually start to thread together and form a coherent and complex picture. One of the threads already mentioned running through all the stories is the presence of the striking wail which shows up at least once in all of the running narratives in this novel. Another thread involves the direct awareness of the other narratives by each other by the end of the novel.
This recognition occurs on the last page of the final Orb section, when on page 655 The Sorcerer states that he was a good friend of Xanther’s father, and knows both of him and his daughter, whose name he blatantly states. This is, as far as I can recall, the first instance of someone in a separate place and story within the narrative stating that they are aware of another story that’s occurring simultaneously along these many jumbled narratives. Unfortunately not much more of this direct connection is made since it isn’t brought up again in any following sections for the rest of the novel.
A number of questions arise in the face of this revelation. Are the Orbs connected to the Narcons in some way? Why were they developed and why are Bobby, Cas, and the others in their narrative the only ones aware of them or able to use them? Will this lead to a greater convergence of the narratives in the later volumes, a very distinctive thread that connects the narratives from a direct point rather than just someone in each of the narratives hearing a random noise? This evidence really only makes it clear that there is a definitive tie between the Ibrahim’s narrative and Bobby and Cas narrative—I can honestly say I am very much looking forward to see where the connection is taken and possibly expanded in later novels.
Side Note: One other possible instance of the narratives merging occurs on pages 434-435 when it appears Hopi’s name occurs in one of Xanther’s social networking chats, although I don’t consider this direct evidence considering I’ve read some other threads that discuss the possibility that this isn’t Xanther and Hopi’s narratives actually merging.
*Edit* — In class today it was brought to my attention that the one who says he knows Xanther and Anwar is actually The Sorcerer, and not Bobby. We theorized that perhaps Mefisto is actually the unnamed Sorcerer, and that this could be a very interesting and solid link between these two stories. If the Sorcerer really is Mefisto, how does that impact the plot of these two separate story lines? Why do you think Danielewski chose to merge them specifically? The more I think about it the more complex and intriguing it gets.
Sometimes a title can simply serve as a heading for a novel. Other times it serves as some sort of foreshadowing, or a revelation that can only be understood after the whole of the novel has been read and digested. In the case of Danielewski’s The Familiar, I can’t say that I have any idea as to where he plans to go with the significance of this title in reference to his work. Something that stuck out to me in the first 200 pages was the hint that some animals may be play a part as partners to humans, a similar role to the typical familiars seen in popular myths of witches where they act as their loyal helpers and protectors.
After a class discussion it was made clear to me that Danielewski is one to decorate his books in a fanciful way, weaving a number of significant and colorful design choices into his novels that help to both illuminate and enhance his reader’s experience. While the novel as we are reading it is still in its developmental stages and the design changes that Danielewski is bound to employ in his finished version of the novel are still unknown, it is important to note the subtle nods to these design elements that can be seen in this incomplete version. The one that stands out most prominently to me at this time involves the presence and peculiarity surrounding the word “familiar”.
On separate occasions in the text, this word is used in a variety of different stories and contexts. Despite the variability of its use, the slightly faded coloring of it from the makeshift cover of the novel to its place in the text seems to consistently remain the same. This occurrence of the word is sporadic, most notably in a considerably close cluster on pages 124, 135, and 175, though as far as I know every use of said word has been presented in a slightly faded hue. Another interesting feature includes word not only being faded, but the only part that retains such discoloration is the strict root of just “familiar” (i.e. in the word familiars, the s is not included in this color deviation).
I first interpreted this trend as a nod to the kind of shadowy presence that an animal familiar typically is thought to have considering it is a creature that protects and aids its master/partner silently from the sidelines. Despite this being a possible basis for the word’s faded nature I think that the traditional animal definition for the word “familiar” will probably play out in a bigger way in the text considering the evolving use of animals in these early stories. As to what kind of connection this might actually have to the word or title, though, I am still quite unsure and very curious to find out.
Apart from my assumptions, I think that more questions can be asked concerning this trend. What significance might this discoloration lend to within the scope of the novel? Does it serve as a nod to the title, or will it hold some deeper meaning that can only be discovered upon further reading and analysis of the novel? I’m very interested to see how the word and the stories continue to evolve throughout the rest of the novel.