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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
While reading The Familiar I’ve been frequently reminded of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series. I know that at least one other person has made a connection between Xanther and Astair’s ‘animal game’ and the concept of dæmons as presented in Pullman’s books, but I wanted to dive a little bit deeper and look at how close this (intentional?) connection really is.
For anyone who isn’t aware, dæmons in Pullman’s books are the representation of a person’s soul / personality that walks beside them. The dæmons are initially able to shapeshift, but settle into a permanent form around the age of 12 (interestingly, the same age that Xanther is in The Familiar).
In The Golden Compass, the first book in the trilogy, it is frequently and clearly stated that all humans have dæmons, Narcon9 informs the readers that everyone has a narcon, including the readers themselves (us!). Also interesting to note is that Narcon9 explicitly states that narcons have the ability to appear in animal form based on their connections with a certain person in their subsets. In its explanation chapter, Narcon9 both states and proves that it has a certain affinity for Xanther. Furthermore, It states that “I cannot even tell what I am what I am.” which I took to mean that if it appears in a physical form during any of its simulations, it would not be able to recognize or communicate with itself, and it could not simply inform the readers or Xanther of its full nature. These bits of information taken together lead me to believe that the kitten that Xanther has found is the physical manifestation of Narcon9 and, since Narcon9 knows Xanther better than perhaps even Xanther knows Xanther, Kitten!Narcon9 is essentially functioning as Xanther’s dæmon.
Of course, there are still plenty of problems / question with this theory. Like, the connection between Narcon9, Xanther, and Tian Li – which is particularly puzzling since Tian Li was not listed as one of Narcon9’s subsets (if I remember correctly).
In Ancient Greece, the Greek God Apollo was the God of the Sun, healing, music and prophecy. In “The Familiar” Mark Z. Danielewski uses font in a purposeful way to display hidden character traits and character meanings. One character he does this with is Cas. Cas’s font is Apolline, a french name originating from the Greek masculine name Apollo, meaning the sun or God of the sun.
The fact that Cas’s font is referencing Apollo and the sun are siginificant for two reasons. One, the sun is a spherical, orb-like, planetary object that is the center of the our galaxy. It gives life and light to all living beings in our galaxy. Cas’s narrative references an orb that she can see into and gain information from. She and Bobby also get into many situations where there are fires involved because of the technology being used. This fire destroys rather than gives life, like the sun does. The sun could be a reference to both the spherical shape of the orb and the heat and light that these fires cause. Second, Cas is receiving information from the orb and therefore could have special, mythical medium powers. The God Apollo was the God of prophecy because he would gift certain human women with the gift of sight and they would become his oracles. In a sense, Cas has become one of Apollo’s oracles.
In Cas’s chapters there is also reference to other ancient Greek characters like Circe and Artemis, who happens to be Apollo’s sister. I wonder how Cas is connected to Circe, Artemis, Treebeard, Merlin and the other characters. Are they involved in this project as well? Cas’s name is also “The Wizard.” Why do you think it is significant that she be called “The Wizard” instead of something like “Apollo” or “The Oracle”?