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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.


Response to “Unmarked and Marked Literature–A Clemson Class Discussion” by tlbenne


I actually took a picture of the whiteboard after class. I found our discussion very interesting. We started off by discussing unmarked and marked text. Unmarked text is traditional. There is a uniform font and text size. Unmarked text is less likely to be taken out of context. Marked text, however, leaves room for much interpretation. When an author plays around with typographic styles, the reader is given an opportunity to think out of the box. Danielewski gives us, as readers, a role in the novel. However, what is our role?

In class, Professor Thomas drew a circle with all of the characters names inside. Since the Narcons seem to have control over the characters, we put them outside the circle. We put VEM outside both the Narcons and the characters because we agreed that VEM has control over the Narcons and the characters. We are left wondering where we fit in the circle. Do we have any power at all? Are we being controlled by the Narcons? by VEM? or by Danielewski? We are left with so many “what ifs.”

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.

“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!

A Very Rainy 839 Pages

There are many things that make a recurring appearance in The Familiar. People have posted about the ideas of non-English jargon, animals, colors, narcons, religion, the number 9, hearing a strange sound, and other things that come up more than once. We discussed many of these in class as well, but I have been wondering about the presence of rain. Obviously, the story is about “One Rainy Day in May” but I think there is actual meaning in it, a sort of deeper theme (and I would love some ideas on what that meaning is, what Danielewski’s point was).

Rain is extremely important in Xanther’s story. In the beginning, Xanther feared she would have another seizure while trying to count all of the raindrops. At the climax of her story, Xanther runs out in the rain to save the cat. Shasti and Freya go out into the rain with the expensive dog bed which Astair is forced to buy. Later, they were playing outside in the rain with no clothes and a water hose and Astair even reminisces on a time in which she played outside in the rain in much the same way. Additionally, rain is visually represented in a big way. For example, there are pages and pages of lines of words across those pages in the shape of rain. Sometimes the story is told with falling words, like rain drops, as well.

Even though Xanther’s story is the main story of The Familiar, the “One Rainy Day in May” applies to all of the other stories as well. If rain isn’t apparent in a story, I’ve noticed that some form of water is present. Luther walks across water, pushes Hopi into a pool of water, etc. Why didn’t he make it “One Hot Day in June” or “One Snowy Day in December” or even just “One Sunny Day in May”? Would the stories have been different in some ways if it wasn’t raining (apparently all over the world) that day?

Effective Narration?

I’m not sure if someone has already posted something similar, but forgive me if someone has…

We’ve all noticed how Danielewski changes his writing styles with every narration and chapter. Even characters who are in the same part of the books seem different. For example, he somehow dips into the minds of Xanther, Astair, and Anwar and gives them distinctive thought processes. Xanther’s thoughts are all frazzled while her mother’s are much more put together. Then he switches writing styles completely by using broken English to narrate Jingjing. Then he changes again to use a different tone when discussing the serious Ozgur, making it sound like a detective story. And so on…

It makes it seem like every section could have been written by a completely different author and then somehow pieced together. Every part of the book could be altered to create a completely different story. He has a very impressive writing style. But, do you guys find this effective? Or does it cause a distraction for you? Does it make it difficult to go from chapter to chapter? For me, it does. I found myself getting really into a character, and then their segment would end and I would have to start a new one and try and switch my mind set and the way I was reading the story in order to understand it. It is kind of exhausting, but I am still enjoying the read.

Aesthetic Sensibilities, Advertising and The Familiar

Disclaimer: As of this afternoon, I am only on page 358 of the novel. I also recognize that the version I have received to read is not a final version of the book, and that the published version will be in color and on higher quality paper. That being said, I want to discuss some thoughts I’ve been having about the book’s design.


As a graphic designer, I’ve grown accustomed to a linear process when I’m working on a new project. I receive the information and I translate that information into something that an audience will (hopefully) look at. Not only does the information need to be presented clearly, but it has to be done in an engaging and organized way to entice people to view it.

That being said, The Familiar does not obey the same graphic design philosophies that I do. There are wild variations of kerning, leading, and tracking (the “rainstorm” section from pages 62-69 is a good example of this). The font changes as the narrative changes. There are graphics and text mingled on numerous pages. There is a liberal use of justified alignment (Isandorno’s sections, for example).

As I read at sections that contain copious amounts of text, graphics, and text-as-graphics, I find myself stifling the tiny designer in my brain that’s shouting, “Wait, what?

I think that The Familiar is a novel that’s meant to be viewed as much as it’s meant to be read. Early in the novel, the reader is exposed, in full force, to the ever changing format. For example, “Tom’s Crossing” is set in a serif font with thin boxes surrounding the text. There are graphics of a heart monitor included as well. The layout is angular and throws traditional composition sensibilities out the window. In contrast, however, “Tom’s Crossing” also utilizes one of the most traditional type tropes: the drop cap. I don’t think that was a coincidence.

Since it seems like everything in the book is necessary and oh-so-deliberately placed, I feel that Danielewski is not only attempting to remediate television but that he is also trying to remediate advertising. Perhaps by not including visual tropes of the day (I’m thinking of the “Keep Calm and ______ On” movement, mustaches, chevron print and others) he is remediating the visual world too.

But if that’s the case, why not make one of the character fonts Comic Sans or Papyrus? Would it be too heavy handed? Would people just drop the book and run if they saw that any of it was done in Comic Sans? Believe me, I would probably drop it and run. Comic Sans would be a bad move.

Has anyone else thought about this? Advertising seems so integral to viewership; I don’t think that this would be something that Danielewski would leave out of the conversation.

The Unfamiliar Familiar

When reading a book, there are a certain set of standards. It’s oriented a certain way, the formatting is a certain way, and the language works a certain way. The more times you read a certain book, the more familiar it becomes to you. The Familiar is really anything but. The first few pages are oriented like a movie or television screen. The page numbers don’t start until page 34. Even the language is strange. He writes each chapter (or set of chapters) in a different font. He crosses out his words, but he keeps them in the text. He puts untranslated words from Russian and Singlish and Spanish, among others, in the text and leaves us to figure it out. He puts unexplained characters all over. Even the word familiar is formatted in an unfamiliar matter. I find myself wondering more and more the further I dive into this book what goes through the author’s head. Why would he do this? Does he mean for the word familiar to take on an ironicness or not?  Why is The Familiar anything but?

Empty Space

I’m the kind of reader that always has a pencil in my hand. I’m not afraid to mark the pages of a book: with checkmarks, brackets, lines, comments, single words, definitions, and unconnected phrases. However, I’ve found myself interacting with Danielewski’s book in a slightly different and more intentional way. Each storyline in The Familiar has a different presentation style and some leave plenty of empty space in the margins. As my pencil pauses over those pages, my immediate reaction is that there is more space for marking. Sometimes, however, I’ve found that the extra empty space actually forbids my errant additions. In this book, the space on the page means something, and I hesitate to interfere with it. This has raised a question for me: does empty space on a page invite the reader in or block them out? 

The answer to this question might vary on a case-by-case basis within the text. One example of blank space is in Astair’s recollection of Xanther’s longest seizure, on the unnumbered pages between 241 and 254. The numbered depictions of the seconds ticking by and the large blank spaces made the reading time longer, inviting the reader to experience how long a 5:32 seizure might feel for someone watching it happen. This is most striking on pages 252 and 253 when the clock runs out and just the final time is printed on the page. In this case, blank space makes the reader empathetic.

There are other cases when the blank space is much less empathetic. For instance, Isandorno’s storyline has continual blank space around the text. The text in this case is much more concrete that some of the other stories. It is action-driven and direct, leaving out most of the emotions that might go along with the experiences. As a result, the blank space requires the reader to infer more from each line of text and put more of his or her own thoughts into the sparse words. For example, there’s only a single sentence on page 294. That single sentence suddenly becomes much more weighted and significant because of the blank space surrounding it. It becomes more like poetry than prose.

Blank space brings the reader into the text in various ways. It can create a certain emotion, encouraging empathy in the reader, or it can represent the hidden parts of the narration, encouraging the reader to project emotions onto the character.


The Narcons

In the text, we frequently see comments in the font designated for “The Narcons” (for more information on who uses which font, you can find this information in the back of your book approximately pg. 843). These comments are bracketed by the braille letters “N” and “Z”. It is my hypothesis that “The Narcons” are Mark Z. Danielewski playing the part of creator or God. These  Narcons (TF-Narcon3, 9 & 27) are giving us clues in the text, translations, and then states that they aren’t our “Google bitch[es],” as the Mandarin and Cantonese characters start showing up frequently in the character jingjing’s chapters,   I believe that these inserted comments are the author’s way of communicating signals and clues to his readers without leaving footnotes. As some mentioned in an earlier class this week, the braille letter may in fact be Danielewski’s way of signing his name.

The most important clue that “The Narcons” has left us (or me) so far is found on Page 110, where “The Narcons” point out that the spelling of “catstrophe” may not just be coincidental or the fault of mistranslation or an accent. He points this out with the use of an “!” which leads me to believe that cats will be significant later on in the story (this and the fact that others have many posts about cats).

What do you think? Could “The Narcons” be Mark Z. Danielewski? Or do you think that Mark Z. Danielewski is playing the role of creator by implementing the narcons into the story to create and manipulate the narrative for him?  Would Danielewski engage with his audience in such a personal way as to write himself as one of the characters? Or are “The Narcons” something else entirely? If so, who do you think it is?