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?
This post may contain spoilers up through the end of the book.
Now that I’ve finished the book, I wanted to talk a little bit about my interpretation of the text. Specifically when I got to narcon section, the term theatre of the absurd popped into my mind (flashback to high school) and I haven’t been able to shake it. Disclaimer: I’m not a philosopher, nor am I particularly versed in absurdism, but I thought that there was at least an interesting relationship between Danielewski’s The Familiar and absurdism that needed to be examined.
For the basis of this post, I’m defining the absurd as the confrontation between the world and one’s self, the conflict that arises from humanity’s desire for rationality and meaning and the world’s inherent irrationality. This definition is extrapolated from the quotes from Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, “The mind’s deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man’s unconscious feeling in the face of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity,” and “But with its first move this world cracks and tumbles : an infinite number of shimmering fragments is offered to the understanding. We must despair of ever reconstructing the familiar, calm surface which would give us peace of heart,” which describe the conflict between man’s deepest desire, and the reality of the universe being only partially rational.
In The Familiar, this question of the absurd pops up in several places. One of the most immediately noticeable throughlines regarding this is the prevalence of numbers. Specifically in Anwar’s chapters, focus on the irrational parts of the universe in the indeterminate forms surrounding zero and infinity (see page 771). Setting aside binary interpretations, which I don’t know enough about to figure into my analysis, I’d like to examine this numerical paradox. Numbers and math are things we see as indisputable or hard logic and fact, yet the narrative, very early on (page 59), sets these up as being logically fallible. Not only does this cause the reader to begin questioning their interpretation of the narrative’s world, but it also sets up the universe as being inherently irrational.
Whether intentionally or not, the title brings to mind Camus’ definition of the absurd. Each for their own reason, the characters are at drift in the narrative. Focusing on the Ibrahims, each of them are recovering from the loss of Dov (be he friend, lover, or father) and the sudden omnipresence of death in their lives, especially in regards to Xanther’s epilepsy. Through this they seek the “familiar,” a concept which proves illusive. Even at the point of mathematical logic, there is inconsistency and irrationality when we are led to the conclusion that 1=2.
At a structural level, the novel also displays a certain absurdity. In class someone pointed out that everything seems to go wrong in the narrative, or at least be at a disadvantage to normative society (Xanther being epileptic, the dead father, racial inequality, gangs, etc.). This, I believed was an interesting statement considering novels are always about everything going wrong, but I do think that perhaps in The Familiar, we are more prone to noticing these patterns. Like the famous coin flipping scene in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the sheer improbability of some of the narrative makes us very conscious of the fact that this narrative does not follow the typical structure of a story.
The other aspect of absurdity that appears in The Familiar, is that of the existential idea that life, events, and the world, are meaningless. This particularly hit home with me when, during the vet’s office scene, TF Narcon^27 says, “Neither Tessera nor Dr. Brady will remember this occasion, and what they hear about on the news later will remind them only of their own good fortune and only because they have yet to know the fortunes of their future,” (826). A typical novel is thought to be (primarily) self-contained. That the universe of the novel does not end with the characters we see is not only a jarring revelation, but makes possible the concept of not only the characters’ lives, but the story itself being meaningless and insignificant.
I haven’t decided yet whether or not I think that the fact that The Familiar seems to be self-aware of its status as a novel (evidenced by the narcons and the concept of constructed awareness/AI in the computer game as well as the orb) strengthens the idea of absurdism in the text or nullifies it.
Has anyone else noticed themes of absurdism in The Familiar? Does the fact that this book seems to be “aware” of its status as a narrative influence what is absurd about it?