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The Emotional Visuality of The Familiar and Maus

Both Spiegelman’s Maus and Danielewski’s The Familiar incorporate many more visual elements into the storytelling process than do most novels. Maus, as a graphic novel, naturally relies more on the image as a plot device, yet both novels make use of their visual aspects as a more visceral and ineluctable means of portraying the emotions and thought processes of central characters. In Maus, for instance, the manner in which dialogue is delivered is often revealed through the construction of the speech bubble; Spiegelman typically shows distress or fear through more jagged bubbles and enlarged or bold text, while narration from Vladek is printed outside of the frames to contextualize it for the reader. We also see Vladek’s body separated into several different panels in another scene in which he explains that almost his entire family was killed during the war, showing the physical embodiment of his shattered mental state (276). The most inflated examples of this sort of emotional expression through the image can be found in the “Prisoner on the Hell Planet” section, which takes on an almost surrealistic form; Spiegelman here embodies the turmoil and guilt he felt after his mother’s suicide in monstrous depictions of his father and his mother’s doctor (102-5). Moreover, his depression seems to affect even his more mundane perceptions as streets and figures are transformed into harsh and deformed geometrical contours, defamiliarizing them to make the world appear strange and frightening.

The functions of the visual aspects in The Familiar often work similarly in giving insights into characters’ psyches, yet on a more structural level. One of the most common examples in the novel is the abundant use of negative (white) space on the page to give a sense of the character’s excitement or fear; we see this, for example, when Anwar and Xanther return home with the cat (657). Not only does this technique mirror the rushed or confused thoughts of the character, but it also forces the reader to flip through the pages faster and faster, creating a real physical embodiment of the narratives racing speed. In the chapter’s following Cas and Bobby, the form of the orb dominates the page in much the way it dominates these characters’ thoughts, and as the reader learns more about the orb it shifts from a hollow outline to actually containing text itself, becoming more of an integrated part of the text than an obstruction. Even the fonts and syntax used in The Familiar seem to embody the personalities of the characters that they are associated with in many ways, like Özgur’s stocky bold or Astair’s heavy use of bracketing and parentheses.

How many…?

Saying I was mildly concerned about Xanther’s rummaging through the grime in that rain storm would be putting it, well, mildly. But that’s just the hypochondriac in me talking.

Yesterday, I commented on ktoney2015’s form and function post highlighting the several instances of pages with deliberately unreadable text: text so small it requires a magnifying glass, or blurry text etc. Immediately after this, I come upon a few pages with painted text that look like rainbows and raindrops. At this point it becomes obvious that the novel is doing something other than inviting reading–at least not in the demotic sense of the word “reading”–although maybe in our broader, critical sense.

At first glance at those pages (478-79; 494-5; 506-7; 514-15), I half expected the characters to be binary. We’re all probably familiar with the trope of constructing visual images out of a bunch of ones and zeros, which become apparent as the image is magnified beyond recognition. I actually almost couldn’t stop myself from viewing the raindrops on p. 514 as zeros–so I guess from that perspective the rain would represent ones? Except, there really is no difference between the zeros and the ones, since the ones (raindrops-in-flight) become the zeros as soon as they hit the ground in a puddle. Then, of course, the circularity of the raindrops and the puddles they carve into the ground is reminiscent of that clock ticking out its seconds up to 5:32

5:33. (Bones Nest chapter)

I guess I never really spend too much time wondering what cryptic things mean. There’s a certain freedom in accepting the solipsism of the text, and I revel in that. An earlier post mentioned how much this novel is meant to be viewed, and not merely read, and I agree with that. It requires that you allow its import to bypass your intellect and mean (signify?), even when you don’t know just what it means. (MacLeish, anyone?) “How many raindrops” is the chapter’s (even the novel‘s) refrain, and to me that “means” how many pages, how many lines, sentences, words, letters, pixels… A lot, and the experience is actually kind of in the deluge of the text, the overwhelming power of it that cannot be contained, counted, arranged in any particular way. Understood.

The Importance of Characterization

While reading The Familiar, several factors contributed to my general perception of the characters. With several voices that change frequently I was concerned that the characters would begin to blend and I wouldn’t be able to distinguish Ozgur from Shnork, for example. Fortunately, Danielewsky side-steps this problem by giving each character a unique set of traits along with visual cues (including formatting, font, and images).

Each narrative voice is unique, owing in part to the fact that several characters are non-White-Americans. With that comes distinctive grammar and speech patterns. Jingjing, who speaks Singlish, is a perfect example. I was deeply immersed in Jingjing’s world with the use of Asian-influenced speech patterns. This section would definitely have a different feel if it were written in standard American English.

In a class discussion, we questioned the reasoning behind Danielewsky’s decision to include non-American characters. To name a few, Anwar is Egyptian; Jingjing is Singaporean; and Schnork is Armenian. I am interested to hear what everyone else thinks about this. Also, I’m interested to see how the use of meticulous characterization through dialogue will lead to further character growth and development throughout the novel.

Character growth is essential to all stories. And Danielewsky is skillful at that. But right now, the story is slow moving. I hope to learn where he is going with this! I am excited to learn how the individual narratives connect or if they connect. Even though this is contemporary, experimental fiction, character development is still just as important in traditional novels. Now that he’s established most characters, I’m excited to see what will happen to them in the story as well as the upcoming volumes of The Familiar.

Unmarked and Marked Literature–A Clemson Class Discussion

In today’s class, we discussed the ideas of “marked writing” and “unmarked writing” from Johanna Drucker’s book The Visible Word. The passage we read highlights the value of typography and image-like features within literature and refers to them as marked writing. Unmarked writing refers to a work of literature that does not contain a unique or creative style of design on its pages. Naturally, Danielewski’s work falls into the category of marked writing.

Drucker’s work details the reasons why unmarked writing demands a type of authority from its readers. In light of discussing power structures and how literature may or may not demand it from the reader, I think it is important to take Danielewski’s creativity into consideration. While we discussed that power is linked to transparency within literature (and Danielewski’s novel disrupts this transparency), I would argue that his work is very powerful. It does not demand the reader’s attention through clarity and monotony, but through its stark uniqueness.

While reading this work, I have felt trapped and engulfed in the multiple story lines. I think these feelings have stemmed from confusion and anticipation. If Danielewski’s novel was unmarked, it would not be as powerful in the sense that it could not completely captivate the readers like it currently does. In the section of the novel called “Bones Nest,” the power of Danielewski’s work can be clearly seen. As Xanther has a seizure, the plot is heightened by the designs on pages 242-251. The numbers in circular formats create a tension that builds up as her seizure continues. It seems as though they are supposed to represent a countdown, but do not necessarily follow any pattern. The simultaneous reading and interpretation of this design demanded from the reader during this section of the novel is moving. Even if you are (as the reader) not consciously looking at the details of the designs on these pages while reading, I believe Danielewski placed these images to create a subconscious countdown in our minds. The power in his creativity cannot be ignored and plays a large role in the novel as a whole.

Response to “Raindrop Interpretations” by delklor

Danielewski’s novel The Familiar One Rainy Day in May uses rain to create and depict ideas crucial to its plot line and character development. While rain may be taking place in the physical world around these characters, it is abstractly represented in other ways as well. Xanther’s epilepsy can be seen rather clearly in some ways, and vaguely in others. My first reaction to seeing Danielewski’s choice of design of these “raindrop words” was one of awe. I have never been able to imagine what the mind of someone with epilepsy could be like until I saw this image. In the “Is Everything Okay?” section, the raindrop images begin to develop from one “drop” of words to hundreds over the span of pages 68 and 69. I would interpret these raindrop-heavy pages to be a clear image of Xanther as she is overwhelmed, on the verge of seizing, or experiencing a seizure.

I would definitely agree with delklor’s post as he/she describes the overwhelming nature of this choice in design. Reading the sections with this raindrop design is frustrating, straining, and time consuming. This assessment of emotions can also be reflected onto Xanther’s character. On pages 66 and 67, there are several sections of writing that almost interrupt the pattern of the raindrops. It seems as she has a flood of rain-like thoughts consuming her mind, she is able to respond to them. She is still in some control of her mind as the other writing says “Stop!” several times. Danielewski’s design choice offers a unique way to see in the overwhelming and intricate mind of Xanther.

The Visualization of the Orb

I see the illustration of the Orb found on page 640 as being a series of IOIOIO repeating rather than 101010. To clarify, I mean that I recognize the characters as both the Greek letters I (iota) and O (omicron) and and their corresponding relatives in the modern alphabet.

Here are some thoughts about this interpretation (with information pulled directly from Wikipedia):

  • I/O as input/output – “the communication between an information processing system (such as a computer) and the outside world, possibly a human or another information processing system.”
  • The letter iota represents:
    • “the index generator function in APL (in the form ⍳)”
      • APL “is a programming language developed in the 1960s by Kenneth E. Iverson. Its central datatype is the multidimensional array. It uses a large range of special graphic symbols to represent most operators, giving very concise code. It has been an important influence on the development of concept modeling, spreadsheets, functional programming, and computer math packages.”
    • “the orbital inclination with respect to the line of sight, used when describing gravitational wave sources.”
  • The letter omicron is not used in math/science/engineering because it too closely resembles the letter O.
  • “In mathematics, big O notation describes the limiting behavior of a function when the argument tends towards a particular value or infinity, usually in terms of simpler functions.”
  • You could also look at Io one of Zeus’ lovers, Zeus as the nephew of Oceanus, Oceanus as the father of Xanthe, and make up some crazy theory about Xanther being “related” to the orb, but I don’t see that going very far.

We know that the Orb is a man-made computer(-like device), so I think all of this information could be helpful in interpreting the Orb (at least as much as is possible at this point).

Personally, I think it’s helpful to view the orb as an input/output device, as it allows the user (Catherine, in the narrative) to communicate with the world/universe in a unique way. Similarly, I like the potential correlation with APL, as it uses special characters to represent things, as the author does throughout the text.

Because the pages of the book are not very high quality, I include below an enhanced version of illustration alongside a more artistic interpretation in which I overlaid the image of the Orb over the moon Io. (I don’t think it has anything to do with the moon besides the name, but it looks nice.)



“The Familiar” Podcast!

This post more resembles a discussion “audio blog,” than a podcast. It was recorded by four students from Weber State University. Dylan Davis, Ben Bigelow, Chelsea Maki, and Trevor Byington each bring a topic to discuss with the group. The discussion covers the re-mediation of television, hetero-normatives in “The Familiar,” the “Signiconic,” and the “aesthetic conundrum” the novel has created.

It was recorded on 1/24/2015.

Keep in mind, this was not done in a studio so the audio can be a little spotty. Regardless, we hope you enjoy it!

Fractal Imagery

One of the first things I noticed when I started reading The Familiar was the unique pattern that seem to persist in the crease of the book’s binding. As I read on, I believe it was about 200 pages in, I began to notice that not only had this (what I had assumed was merely cosmetic) design persisted but it changed through the text. So, what’s the significance of this seemingly random pattern that shifts, grows, and moves throughout the text? I literally woke up a few times thinking about this question. After 800 or so pages, and hours of theorizing the importance of seemingly miniscule detail, I believe that this design is one instance of the the motif of fractal imagery.

I would like to place a disclaimer that the computer sciences are far from my area of expertise, but I do have basic knowledge of how fractals function. In nature, fractals can be observed in crystals, in the repetition of the crystalline structure that creates the sharp edges and smooth planes of the minerals. In regard to coding, which I believe everyone would agree is a common theme with characters such as Anwar, fractal coding is utilized to render images. The process through which images are created (if my limited understanding is correct) is tangentially similar to how crystals are formed. Given an algorithm, a set of rules that are finitely specifiable and operable, a computer can repeatedly perform a given piece of code to render an image made of hundreds-of-thousands if not millions of digital polygons on a computer screen. To my understanding, this is how fractal coding functions—by aiding in the production of images.

The motif of fractals first became a topic of interest through the design in the middle of the book that looks like a crystalline structure being formed. However, on page 327, Xanther begins to recount the sensation that goes through her miraculous mind, a process which draws many parallels to fractals and crystalline structures:

“[B]ehind her eyes like this gray ice, only sprouting all these crystal formations….the spiky icy stuff…this prickly stuff everywhere, freezing up into her, like that flaky ice that forms on meat after it’s been in the freezer for a long time, dead meat, right?…Anywho, that’s how Xanther’s head feels most of the time, like frost on dead muscle after it’s been left in the freezer too long.”

Drawing a similarity to Xanther, TF Narcon^9 characterizes itself as being “fractally locatable” a code in which “there is no last integer” (565). Though I’m not entirely certain how these characterizations relate to the characters themselves, this understanding of fractal coding and fractal imagery as a motif definitely seems to suggest some importance, and though I am unaware of how these motifs affect character relations, it could provide insight into some common occurrences in the text, namely the repetition of other images.

As I discussed earlier, fractal coding and naturally-occurring crystalline fractals function through repetition. Throughout the novel there is a repetition of the color pink in seemingly all storylines, animal imagery is related strongly with Luther, as well as animals playing a key role in the jingjing and Xanther storylines, but there are also even more peculiar similarities that seem to occur simultaneously to characters regardless of their spatial setting. The phenomenons which I’m speaking of are the strange sound that Xanther, Astair, Anwar, and  Ozgur all seem to hear. Luther also seems to hear some sound when they go to visit his dogs the first time, but the mysterious source of this sound is never discovered. Though these characters are separated by space, they all experience the same auditory phenomenon. Combined with the continued motif of the color pink and animals, it would seem that this repetition is not something to be overlooked. The repetition of these “auditory images,” as well as the color pink and animals, might be a revealing similarity to the repetition that is present in fractal coding.

The Familiar – post 1

This text is the first metafiction novel that I have ever read. Now that I’m almost done reading it, I can say that it is one of the most interesting and confusing books I’ve read. Honestly I really like how it was set up. I loved the different fonts and the time stamps. I thought that those two things both helped me to keep the story straight. As confusing as it was at first, the horizontal, slanted, weird words ended up being really extraordinary. I think I liked the challenge of reading this book and understanding it. I love mystery novels and investigation already, so getting to delve into this book and figure it out was pretty fun. I think the most challenging part was having to decipher and translate the different languages that came up. I know a lot of Spanish, but none of the other languages. Even though it was the most confusing part, I did learn more about those other languages. I just did not like having to stop to look up words and then go back to reading. However, I would not change anything about the book. It is unique the way it is written now. Mark Danielewski is an amazing writer, and I really hope to read more of his novels. As I was reading The Familiar, I wondered how on Earth one individual could come up with all those different stories and intertwine those different symbols into one novel at once. I would like to think of myself as a little creative, but I could not imagine writing something like this novel (although I wish I could – I would not know where to begin). In addition, the other fact that there are 27 volumes in this series just blows my mind. I wonder how similar or different they will be after reviewing The Familiar. There is so much creativity in The Familiar already. This is definitely one book that I could read over and over, and probably still learn something new each time.

Shattered Glass

There is an interesting visual throughout the pages of this book. On the very inside of the pages, extremely close to the spine, we can see a graphic that looks something like shattered glass. It is almost impossible to see.  The shards appear to cascade down the page, as if they have just been broken.  The size of this graphic varies on every page, but it makes an appearance on  most, if not all, of the pages I have examined in some way. I’m not really sure what to make of this, or if there is anything to be made of it, but I’ve been thinking a great deal about Danielewski’s act of remediation of certain media in this novel, so I’d like to think that there could be. When we pick up this book, or any book for that matter, before we begin reading it, it is quite literally closed to us. When they are published, novels’ covers act as a “screen” of sorts, presenting readers, or “viewers,” with a visual that grabs our attention and entertains us through its colorful design. Still this “screen” of a cover separates us from the content inside. It is a concrete entity that begs us to engage with it, to delve into the world it teases us with. If we could not open the book and turn its pages, delving deeper into the world as we progress, that world would be forever lost to us.  But with novels, it is not. Once we open the book, we break through the “screen” of the cover and enter that world. We shatter the glass which separates that world and the one in which we sit reading the novel. Thinking about The Familiar as a remediation of virtual media or television shows, it is almost as if we are transcending the physical paper of the pages and entering the virtual world, or a world that previously been closed to us due to these physical constraints. It is an unknown yet exciting world. There is an old adage that books transport us to new lands, new realities, so why not the virtual one?  In this vein, flipping the pages becomes akin to the act of surfing through the web or scrolling through television channels. This graphic is also another example of the immersive nature of this novel. When we open the novel and enter the world of The Familiar, we become a part of these characters’ lives, even if they are not aware of our presence. We step through the “screen” of the cover and the rain of glass and become a part of something greater with the turn of every page. The presence of this “shattered glass” graphic design on each page is a constant reminder of these ideas. This “shattering of the glass” graphic also demonstrates how it is impossible to passively read this book.  If The Familiar does indeed remediate other forms of media like television and online communication/computing (and I believe that it most certainly does) then this “shattering of the screen that separates us from the media that we use every day” visual could serve as a call to end this passive form of engagement with media technology in which many people take part in this day and age. It also calls back to the title. It makes us question what is “familiar” to us, those ordinary things in our daily lives that we may not ordinarily remark upon, but perhaps, that we should.