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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?

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“The Orb” vs. Yamashita’s “The Ball”

In reading the novel Through the Arc of the Rainforest By Karen Tei Yamashita, I was struck by the similarities between the omniscient alien narrator known as “The Ball” all powerful “Orb” of The Familiar. Besides both being spherical objects, both serve as key functions of the narrative. In Yamshita’s novel, The Ball is an alien object attached to the head of the protagonist, Japanese rail worker Kazumasa. The orb narrates the entire novel from inside Kazumasa’s head, often providing commentary on the events that unfold in the plot. The Orb, on the other hand, seems to serve a similar function but works from the background of the narrative, threading through all the stories and seemingly providing the viewer with images from the past, present and future.

It is interesting to consider how both of these “characters” function in the narrative and what they mean in context of themes of assimilation of new technology into society. Yamashita’s novel criticizes industrial expansion and global exploitation of natural resources, and the ball functions somewhat as an intermediary between the natural and artificial worlds. The ball’s semi-omniscience serves to tie the narratives together into one coherent story. In the same way, The Orb functions somewhat as a bridge between the separate narratives of the novel. By allowing the viewer to virtually travel through time and space, it becomes the physical manifestation of omniscience. In both novels, these spherical omniscient objects function as magical-realist elements that elevate the narrative beyond the conventional human consciousness.

The Familiar & Through the Arc

The Familiar is marked by a number of connections between stories: the number nine, the strange sound, rain, and a cat. At the same time, Through the Arc of the Rainforest by Karen Tei Yamashita is centered around birds. Focusing on animals, the cat in The Familiar is much like birds in Through the Arc; they are very important to the overall theme of the particular book.

Both The Familiar and Through the Arc of the Rainforest begin explaining the lives and personalities of extremely different characters. Sometimes these characters are closer to each other, such as Xanther and her family or Kazumasa and his ball, Hiroshi, and Lourdes. However, sometimes the characters are across oceans from one another. Either way, in both books the characters end up being tied together in some way or another. In The Familiar, the cat that Xanther found was the runaway cat that belonged to jingjing’s aunt (if I am remembering correctly). In Through the Arc, Baptista’s pigeons eventually ended up bringing Kazumasa and J.B. Tweep together. Animals in both books bring together characters who would have otherwise never come in contact with one another.

In addition, though the main plots of each book do not have much to do with the cat or the birds, they are most definitely seen in the climaxes of both. The climax of Xanther’s story is when she is running through the rain in a panic, finally stopping when she comes across a cat falling into a gutter. She saves the cat and brings it home, and her uneasiness about life seems to disappear. The climax of Through the Arc occurs when a plague kills a large number of people– this plague stems from lice found on the feathers of birds. To stop the plague, planes flew around spraying the pesticide DDT, killing all of the birds in the areas that were treated.

Without the presence of these animals, the books would have completely different endings and meanings. How do you think The Familiar would have been different had Xanther not saved the cat that had originally belonged to jingjing’s aunt?  How would Through the Arc of the Rainforest be different if, say, Baptista had fallen in love with an animal aside from birds?

The Power of Epilepsy (and resource on seizures)

A number of posts have already mentioned the theme of seizures and epilepsy that runs throughout the novel, with the most obvious examples being Astair’s memory of Xanther’s seizure on pages 242-253 and Tien Li’s seizure on page 522. I find it interesting that these two characters also seem to have been gifted with some kind of special sight or ability. They are set apart in the novel as being remarkable in some way other than simply being epileptic. Tien Li, for example, seems to be renowned as a healer in her community and she is treated with respect and believed to have special powers. Xanther is also set apart as special- even the Narcon-TF9 believes that she is remarkable and says that she can nearly seem to hear the Narcon. I find this interesting, especially because other popular media often gives individuals with certain disabilities a “savant status” (Rain Man and its depiction of autism is a great example) in which they are depicted to have special abilities because of their disability. While highlighting an individual’s abilities and focusing on what they can do instead of what they can’t is definitely a good thing, sometimes media can overdo it and downplay the impact of the disability or even romanticize it. I don’t think that The Familiar has fallen into this trap yet, but I’m interested to see how Danielewski continues with the theme of epilepsy in later novels.

On another note, seizures are of particular interest to me because I worked as a counselor at a camp for kids and adults with disabilities and I saw many, many seizures of many types. Most seizures are minor, very brief, and don’t require medical attention, something that I think the novel skims over. The seizure that Xanther experienced was a much more serious type, probably a tonic-clonic (or grand mal) seizure. The tonic-clonic is what people usually envision when they think of what a seizure looks like. It involves a loss of consciousness, jerking, stiffened muscles, and is considered a medical emergency if it lasts more than 5 minutes (they typically last 1-3 minutes). This resource explains a little bit more about the specific type of seizure that Xanther had and it also has a lot of other information about epilepsy:

http://www.epilepsy.com/learn/types-seizures/tonic-clonic-seizures

Hopefully other people find this interesting because I think that the disability theme throughout the novel is fascinating.

Giving Cats Everywhere A Bad Name

This post was originally a response to jcornejo33’s post about the kitten possibly being evil incarnate. However, the word count of the final product makes me hesitate to classify it as a “comment.” So here we are.

I have a rather wild theory about the cat and whether or not it is evil. I wouldn’t say it is evil incarnate, but it’s certainly not winning this year’s Miss Congeniality award. In fact, the cat (assuming that Tian Li’s white cat is the same cat that Xanther finds) is regarded with fear and mistrust by a number of people. In his first section, Jingjing tells us that the cat scares him. He talks about how the cat’s shadow creeps around at night, moving while the cat itself stays still (102-103).

Astair also dislikes the cat. Granted, Astair dislikes all cats, but comments by the Narcons lead one to believe that perhaps this isn’t personal bias talking. Astair calls it gruesome and disgusting. She wants to immediately throw it out of the house. Her lack of pity for the creature is odd even to Astair: “But where is her pity?” (684-685). Narcon 3 chimes in with “Because you weren’t wrong, were you, Astair?” (686) And Narcon 27 tells us that “she sensed what only one other could know”(687).

I think that this “one other” was either Jingjing or Tian Li. Jingjing feared it and Tian Li (in my opinion) was glad to be rid of it. When Tian Li tells Jingjing that the cat is gone, she says that it is “…gone at last. Gone for good “(702). Now, I’ve lost a few cats in my time and have never said that they were “gone at last.” That sounds like she has been waiting for it to leave. She can sleep now. Jing jing says that he had never seen her sleep before (694).

Even Xanther has a moment when the cat seems to be a little sinister. She hints that she experienced the cat has a “figure of terror, a predator, death personified” (804).

Alright. So now that we’ve got our bags all packed, let’s move into Crazy Town, USA. The burning question: What is the cat?

Some people are saying that the cat is a Narcon in physical form. Not a bad theory. The fact that the cat is weightless – maybe not really there – could support this idea (825). My theory also fits with the masslessness (is that a word?) of the creature. I think that the cat is Danielewski’s take on a Pontianak. Jingjing gets that Pontianak monster card with the owl on it. A Pontianak is a vampiric ghost in Malay lore. They have some connection to women who died in childbirth and /or the death of a child. The Pontianak usually takes the form of a woman. However, the Kuntilanak (the Indonesian version), can take the shape of an animal, especially birds.  The cat seems to draw on Xanther’s life force like a vampire. It “took more than one tiny breath” and “kept taking it too” (815). If Xanther hadn’t somehow stopped it, it would have killed her. The death of a child.

There is one more aspect of the Pontianak that makes me think that there could be some connection.  Lore says that the cry of the Pontianak sounds like the cry of a baby. When the creature is far away, the cry is loud. When it is nearby, the cry is soft. The cries heard by the characters were not described exclusively as meows. Some sounded like people or children. It could be the same cry but interpreted differently. Ok, so if we assume that the (…) represents the cry of the cat/whatever-the-heck-this-thing-is, the size of the (…) would indicate volume. The ellipses start off big and get progressively smaller. As each character hears the cry, they get smaller and smaller. The creature gets closer. Finally, when Xanther finds the cat, the ellipsis is the smallest one in the whole text (470). The cat is right there. Dun Dun Dun!

Ok. On to the wrap up! I hope I haven’t repeated something someone already said. This theory could be completely wrong. It’s entirely possible I’m making connections where there are none.  It could be that the Pontianak is what Tian Li is afraid of and what the cat is protecting Xanther from. There is just something about the cat that keeps me from seeing it as a protector. Artemis this cat is not.

That’s a Sailor Moon reference in case you were wondering.

Is the Kitten Evil Incarnate?

I kind of answered this in a response to another post but, what if the cat Xanther found was meant to be with her. I’ve been wondering if maybe the reason some characters can hear a meow or cry might be that the cat is trying to get attention from the character it needs to be with. Or maybe, since the theory is that Xanther can hear/see narcons, the cat “knows” that Xanther can do this and was deliberately trying to get her attention to be with her. Whether to protect or harm her remains to be unseen. However, since this book has been described as a story about a girl and her cat, I’m getting the feeling that the cat might have been sent to protect her. Here’s hoping for a Girl and Cat Space Adventure.

A New Way to Assemble a Team?

This may be way off, (or I’m just hoping), but could there be a possibility that all the characters will team up, whether responding to a call from Cas and the Orb, and fight what appears to be, an evil? It’s a crazy thought that’s probably not even close to the truth, but at this point, which is the end of the book, I just want answers. Not “is this what I think it is? What do you think it is?” I just want to be told what’s going on and I want it to be something epic.

So, there’s this Narcon…

First of all, the Narrative Construct idea fascinates me. While I don’t necessarily think it was the best name for them (for some reason they sound too explanatory for their actions, like naming a character who’s evil “bad guy.”) But, at the same time, I do not have a better name for them myself, so I cannot judge (maybe Architects? Wait…that’s been done before.) Regardless, it is interesting that in a fiction book we are constantly pointed to being reminded we are experiencing a fictional world, which is the exact thing professors tell you not to do in your own writing. I mean, it’s writing 101, “the suspension of disbelief,” was relayed to me over and over again in all of my writing classes. Yet here, MZD has drawn our attention to it time and again, the most powerful of which being set in the Narcon section. The Narcon is something that I think we can all conceptualize with decent aptitude. Their section has no page numbers, so they do not exist within the same realm as the story. They are written weirdly, like a play, taking them out of this genre (whatever this genre is.) They are formatted nothing like any other character, so they (if I’m reading the book correctly) don’t even share a similar universe or don’t occupy the same dimension as the other characters. They define their own rules, however, they date them back before their existence (whatever that means,) point being, regular fiction characters do not ever define their rules in a story. The author defines the rules for fictional characters to follow. It is interesting to keep in mind that, at least for me, the Narcons felt like they had more agency than the characters in the story. They felt like that because of the reasons I just mentioned.

But it’s not true! They have equitable if not less free will than the regular characters in the story. The Narcons must follow rules set by MZD and MZD has to make them follow the rules that they (Mark) has set for them, so their free will is really constricted to a few sentences (by comparison) to other characters. Narcons must be controlled, and if there is anything I know about characters being controlled, they tend to rebel.

I’ll flat out say it, I think the Narcons will turn out to be villains or something similar as the 27 volume series plays out. I would like to be proven wrong about this almost as much as I would like to be proven right. To me, it just seems like the natural order of things. In our class, it was mentioned by a classmate that Xanther is the only character that can hear the Narcons or at least the only character that we know can hear the Narcons. It was also mentioned that when Xanther hears the cat outside, it may be something more than just right-place-at-the-right-time action movie garbage. It could mean a little bit more.

After I heard the classmate (I believe it was you, Chelsea) my mind started to reel into analytic, speculation mode where I wanted to make connection upon connection (so, bear with me.) I think Narcon characters (overly oppressed characters, as mentioned above) want to enter to the fictional world like a reverse The Matrix situation. I think that cat may be Narcon incarnate as mentioned above. There’s also a little something something that cat does to Xanther that feels a little wacky and out of the realm of possibility for any other character in the story (soul stuff.) And, and! We don’t know (unless I missed it) what the cat’s name is. But what we do know is that TF-Narcon 3 has the font “Manticore.” Stay with me, I’m telling you, it’s worth it. Manticore is another name for “Man-Eater.” Trust me, I wish in my research that I had found there was some myth written thousands of years ago where the Manticore ate the kings ugly daughter named “Xanther,” but it didn’t exist, so I needed to speculate a bit more. In figurative terms, the cat may have eaten part of Xanther, it’s hard to say exactly but I’m going with it for the sake of my theory. The last thing we know is that no two characters share the same font in the story…except TF-Narcon 3 and some other thing called “G.C.” which is not, to my knowledge, defined or mentioned in Volume 1 at all. But it’s mentioned in the font? Pourquoi, monsieur?! To me, G.C. could be “good cat,” or “General Cathington,” or maybe it’s another one of Xanther’s misunderstood words.

Sometimes, when reading this book, I feel like I’m wearing a tinfoil hat. Anyway, thanks for following me down my rabbit hole. I really hope to see why that font is shared and, who knows? Maybe I am right.

Dylan Davis

Speculation about the Nature of Reality in The Familiar

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?

Does Xanther Dream of Electric Kittens? (or Do Narcons Dream of Their Own Supersets?)

Battlestar Galactica

The Matrix

Blade Runner (and by extension, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)

 

*Possible Spoilers for those works below. You’ve been warned.

All of these works are heavily referenced in Xanther’s narrative. But to what end? The clearest solution is the common theme between them- the dubiousness of agency. In Battlestar, it’s the non-self aware Cylons that become critical of both themselves and of each other. In The Matrix, it is Neo and all the others who want to be awakened. In Blade runner, both Rachel and Deckard, the first of whom finds out that she is not human, and the latter of whom (in some film versions) begins to doubt his own humanity, experience this.

Religion also plays widely into these works, including TF. With Battlestar, we have the Lords of Kobol, and the call names of many of the characters themselves, references to our own Greek deities. With Blade Runner, we have to look a little further, into the original literature. In Androids, the characters participate in a type of transcendent, collective experience called “Mercerism.” I’ll spare you the details, but it becomes an analogue for Deckard’s whole story. In The Matrix, the idea of religion is much less prominent, but just as important. Savior complexes and resurrection imagery and all that. In TF, especially Xanther’s story, we almost simultaneously have a healing of the sick and a resurrection (Xanther’s wounds from collecting the cat, and the cat itself.)

This primes us to readily think of the Narcons as gods, or at least the players in some unknown chess game.

But we can’t really assume this from TF-Narcon∧9, by its own words. On pg 572 (unmarked,) it tells the reader “I have neither form nor control.” and “I have no agency.” First, if it has no agency, how can it pause? Second, what, does it do?

The discussions I have seen are discussing the Narcons as god-like beings or as AI’s. TF-Narcon∧9 even tells us that the “con” is for Construct. But we can also see, from the comments of the other Narcons, that 9 is not a reliable narrator. We know it lied to the reader about how many parameters there are, and that there likely are MetaNarcons, so how can we know the truth of any one of those parameters?

What this brings me to is this question:

What if we’re looking at the story inside-out? What if the Narcons don’t exist outside of the characters, but inside? What if all of the Narcons are inside Xanther’s head, with all of their subsets and supersets, just as a coping mechanism for her? Every other scene that plays out in other chapters is just her, fitting together the answers from the Question Game into narratives of her own construction. She is the MetaNarcon.