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The Familiar and Maus – Cats

Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a graphic novel outlining his father’s experience as a Jew during the terror of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. One of the major functioning tools is the use of animals instead of nationalities. The Jews are represented by mice, but the Germans are represented as cats. On an obvious layer, Spiegelman uses the classic cat vs. mouse chase. Vladek, Art’s father, describes his fear of the Germans and their hatred of Jews saying, “International laws protected us a little as Polish war prisoners. But a Jew of the Reich, anyone could kill in the streets” (Spiegelman 63). Valued considered himself safer as a war prisoner than as being a free Jew because of the German’s hatred of the Jews. Their representation goes beyond a cutesy Tom and Jerry cartoon and attacks the core of human nature and compassion. What the Germans were doing was killing like wild animals do, randomly and without thought. Perhaps, on the deeper level, Spiegelman chose cats because cats are the only domesticated animals that frequently kill their prey for fun and toy with them, emphasizing the meaninglessness of the German’s killings as well.

Antithetically, the cat in The Familiar is actual what brings peace to Xanther’s life. It is what makes everything “answerable” for the girl who gets stuck in her questions (Danielewski 839). The cat is a source of empowerment for Jingling’s aunt, and when she is passed on, she empowers Xanther, too (though, not in the same mystic way). Unlike Spiegelman’s Maus, the emphasis of the cat in this novel seems to be its mysterious nature instead of its violent nature. It is also mysterious as it is able to attract Xanther, half blind, running through a downpour, towards itself. This ability paired with the healing that occurs once back in the car gives even more complexity to the mysterious nature of the cat. Danielewski is playing on his theme of the number 9 with the cat, which, according to legend, has nine lives. He does an interesting thing by bringing in a creature with so much legend surrounding it, thus engaging readers instead of repulsing them.

The contrast between the mysterious, peace-bringing cat in The Familiar and the violent, malicious cats in Maus highlights how two wildly different uses of the same commonly used character. In literature and pop culture, there are often evil cats, but almost as often cats function as warm comforters. Perhaps these two novels simple present a well-balanced contrast between the most common depictions of the animal.

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The Familiar and Power – A New Perspective

The Familiar is effective in that it leads the reader to empathy by forcing complete engagement with the book, making its argument about mental illness something to be experienced rather than told. Danielewski does not just try to convince the reader that Xanther is ailed and anxious because of her questions; he actually creates the cycle of questions for the reader so that he or she can be in Xanther’s position of having more questions than can be answered and even questions about questions. The mentality created for the reader comes from the question of what the orb is and how the book functions as metafiction with the Narcon as a character who is not in the story. The convoluted nature of the book relates to the cloudiness of all things in Xanther’s mind. This tactic matches the rest of Danieleski’s style in the novel and keeps the reader from becoming numb to the idea of how harmful mental illness can be since in a way he or she experiences it too. The cat brings resolve to Xanther in a lot of ways, and even though her illness is not cured, she finds that “everything suddenly feels manageable. Or better: answerable” and the reader gets to join her in that place of comfort, knowing that the book is not all answered but that for now the character that the reader has so much invested in is going to be okay (Danielewski 837-839). The book as a fantastical journey of joining in with Xanther makes it an experience of learning the hardship and the relief of escape from mental illness.

Similarly, in Power by Linda Hogan, Hogan uses the technique of allowing the reader to actually experience a piece of Native American culture in order to garner the sympathy for Native American traditions that create the conflict in the book. The morality of Ama’s decision to kill the panther comes from her wanting the sacred animal to be set free so that all things could be restored for the broken world. This decision is considered moral because of the Taiga traditional beliefs, not because of the non-native standard of morality. In the same way, Hogan structures her novel in the traditional Native American fashion by making the story circular, ending up where it began. She rejects the tradition exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution structure of modern western literature just like Ama rejects the non-native standard of morality. As the reader experiences reading the book differently than he or she is used to, he or she also finds that the morality and sympathies garnered in the story don’t necessarily match those standard to western beliefs. Just as Danieleski does, Hogan invites the reader in to experience her novel and the experiences of her characters instead of observing it from the traditional outsider perspective.

Jakob von Uexküll epigraph

Jakob von Uexküll’s epigraph at the beginning of Xanther’s second chapter “Dr. Potts” (pg 178) is: “We must first blow, in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions which it alone knows. When we ourselves then step into one of these bubbles…” This quote is from Von Uexkull’s article “A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men”. The excerpt is relating to his theory of Umwelt, which is the idea that every human and animal exists in its own environment and even though those environments are often shared each creature experiences its own individualistically; the term translates to something like “self-centered world”. The rest of the quote (which is not included in the epigraph in the book) continues “…the familiar meadow is transformed. Many of its colorful features disappear, others no longer belong together but appear in new relationships. A new world comes into being. Through the bubble we see the world of the burrowing worm, of the butterfly, or of the field mouse; the world as it appears to the animals themselves, not as it appears to us. This we may call the phenomenal world or the self-world of the animal.” First off, Danielewski cuts the quote off right before the words “The Familiar” which is just his own playfulness. More than that though, the concept that von Uexkull is talking about applies in a really interesting way to this chapter and to Xanther as a whole. This is the chapter that Xanther is talking to her psychologist and we get to see the larger impact that her disability has on her life. We get to see how Xanther experiences the world. In other words, we experience Xanther’s Umwelt. We step into her bubble (orb?) and see the world through it (like the worm/butterfly/mouse in von Uexkull’s quote). This is our foundation for empathy for her and her family’s life, which is the reason the Xanther/Anwar/Astair chapters were so captivating; this is the story we’re invested in. Again, Danielewski is challenging how we read novels. Despite the very little plot or action, we become totally engaged in Xanther’s life because he allowed us into her bubble (orb) and we can see the struggle for this precious little 12 year old girl who gets trapped in her own mind. The book doesn’t allow you just to read it as an observer – it forces you to become a participant, and that’s the literary genius of it.

Chapter Images

The beginning of each chapter has the title chapter, an epigraph, and an image. The images have trends so I marked them by which character the chapter “belongs to”…

Xanther – Orbs filled with something relating to the chapter

Anwar – Images that fade/break apart into triangles

Astair – Birds (nest, feather, abstract painting that seems to have a bird eye or something in it, and eggs)

Luther – This one has the least clear trend in images… Three of his chapters have vehicles (van, bus, car), but the first and third of his chapters are some kind of padlocked bars (maybe?) and barbed wire fences, respectively.

Jingjing – A snowflake that across chapters materializes into ice

Cas/Bobby (Wizard?) – Orb (larger than Xanther’s) with something cloudy in it

Ozgur – Several snapshots that look to me like surveillence camera screens with the same image repeated (police car, hallway)

Shnorhk – Several photographs of people but instead of faces, there’s a bright light

Isandorno – Almost completely blank except two halves of the same picture

How Language Interacts With The Reader

I’ve been intrigued by the use of language. Cantonese and Russian in jingjing’s chapters are clearly used to provide context for the characters background and the setting. What’s more interesting, though, are the seemingly arbitrary translations. In jingjing’s first chapter (pg 101-113) the translations are sparse and unclear when it is a translation or just the next thought. For example, the Cantonese/Russian/[some other language?] combination in the middle of page 105 is left without any translation; in fact, the sentence is treated as if it never changed languages at all from English (if that’s what you can call the language in this chapter). On the other hand, the Russian in jingjing’s second chapter is clearly translated (pg 274), but it is done by the text within brail (which has become more active throughout the novel and seems to be omniscient). This character’s (?) willing explanations have seemed helpful, especially with something as frustrating as trying to read something in a language you don’t understand. But I can’t help but feel a little manipulated by it, like this is a part of it’s attempt to earn my trust by helping me see the book through it’s eyes (metafiction, right?) while it doesn’t have it’s own chapters and has never identified itself. On the other hand, the etymology of vocabulary (like on pg 380) is given by Anwar, a character I instinctively trust since I see how he relates to (and is loved by) his family and coworkers and who has his own chapters to give me deeper insight into his mind. Furthermore, he uses his own language with Xanther (albeit not foreign); this use of language shows a depth of relationship that none of the other characters seem to share. Their own language includes Xanther calling Anwar by his first name and him calling her “daughter” (opposed to what would usually be the other way around “dad” and “Xanther”), which reveals a bit of playful intimacy the two have, which Xanther describes as “their little code” (pg 54). So the distinction between the explanations/translations provided by Xanther and Anwar and the distant braille speaking character is a level of trust that the reader has with the character.

Also, just a side-note with language: French has kind of shown up in two places. Firstly, how Xanther refers to Astair and Anwar collectively as Les Parents (instead of the parents or my parents). She attributes this to one of her friends, Josh (pg 182) and then it’s consistent. I’m not really sure if that has any significance at all, but I’m going to keep watching for it. Secondly (and this might be a stretch) the French use << and >> instead of quotation marks, so every time these are used in place of parenthesis, I automatically read them as if someone is speaking. It has made those side thoughts seem more significant or as if the book is speaking directly to the reader. For some reason, I can’t help but think this is attached to the braille commentary, but again, I’m not really sure if this is of any significance.