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Familiars in Other Forms

For the most part, The Familiar does not actually discuss familiars in Volume I. We do know, though, that the cat is a familiar, but we don’t know yet what that means to MZD. Since we have more questions than answers, I’d like to discuss—as others have—Pullman’s His Dark Materials and the dæmons that appear therein, especially in relation to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Fowler. For those unfamiliar with the book, the main character (Rosemary) had a “sister” (Fern) who was actually a chimpanzee. They were raised together as part of an experiment and, in many ways, Fern is a familiar to Rosemary.

In Pullman’s works, according to Wikipedia, “dæmons are the external physical manifestation of a person’s ‘inner-self’ that takes the form of an animal. Dæmons have human intelligence, are capable of human speech—regardless of the form they take—and usually behave as though they are independent of their humans. Pre-pubescent children’s dæmons can change form voluntarily, almost instantaneously, to become any creature, real or imaginary. During their adolescence a person’s dæmon undergoes “settling”, an event in which that person’s dæmon permanently and involuntarily assumes the form of the animal which the person most resembles in character.” For purposes of clarity, I will use “dæmons” to refer to my interpretation of familiars.

Rosemary, in addition to having a chimpanzee for a sister, also had an imaginary friend (Mary) who was also a chimp. Both the real and imaginary chimps echo Pullman’s ideas of dæmons in the following ways:

  1. Fern knew ASL and could communicate through human speech.
  2. Fern operated independently of Rosemary, as does Mary.
  3. The form of Mary as a chimpanzee, “the form of the animal which the person most resembles in character,” also reiterates the trauma Rosemary experienced by being raised with a chimpanzee. (In addition to Fern learning human behaviors like ASL, Rosemary presents animalistic behaviors like defensive posturing, a misunderstanding of how humans physically interact [specifically with how much touching is acceptable], and explosive reactions to unpleasant events.
  4. Fern disappears before Rosemary’s adolescence, as does Mary. Mary taking the form of a chimp (a real animal) echo the ability of a dæmon to take any shape. Since both the real and imaginary familiars disappear before the “settling” period, it causes a lot of psychological issues for Rosemary in addition to those mentioned above.
  5. Once the human dies, the dæmon disappears. Rosemary doesn’t die once her familiar goes away, but she is unalterably changed. The girl who had a chimpanzee sister is not same person once she is the girl who used to have a chimpanzee for a sister.

It’s doubtful that Fowler intended these similarities (though, as a sci-fi and fantasy writer, she was surely familiar with his works), but I think this view of the character relationship adds an interesting interpretation to an already complex relationship. I’m interested to see how the cat in The Familiar will be presented. Already, I think it’s form represents Xanther well. Judging by its teleportation into her bed, it also has her caring nature, which is fitting.

Animal Companions in The Familiar and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

The Familiar by Mark Z Danielewski and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler both have a protagonist who understands animals differently from the other characters. Rosemary and Xanther are able to form close relationships with animals and find comfort in these relationships. On page 375 of The Familiar, Xanther is seen by her father petting a spider which she has named Adelaide. Here we see her caring even for those animals which other people would not hesitate to avoid or even kill if it was near them. At the end of Fowler’s novel, Rosemary questions whether Fern will remember her after all the years they have been separated. Her mother says that Fern wouldn’t, but when she goes to visit Fern the novel describes how Rosemary cannot know what Fern is thinking or feeling but she knows that she still shares a bond with Fern. Even after all of these years, she still shares a connection with Fern which none of the other characters can fully understand. In addition, the cat which Xanther gets at the end is a familiar – an animal that works alongside human beings on its own accord. It is important that the cat chose to go to Xanther because it demonstrates that animals are not creatures that humans can control. Similarly, We Are Completely Beside Ourselves shows how, when young monkeys away from their mothers to raise with humans or use them for studies, the monkeys suffered mentally and physically and died premature deaths. As a result of these bonds, the novels demonstrate that animals should not be treated as inferior to humans.

The Subversion of the Human-Animal Hierarchy in The Familiar and Disgrace

In Danielewski’s The Familiar and Coetze’s Disgrace, we see the subversion of the animal-human relationship play out through the experiences of central characters. Both David Lurie and Astair, whether they openly admit it or not, can be seen as perpetuating this sort of rigid order through their assumptions of what an animal is and is not. Lurie, soon after he arrives at Lucy’s farm, tells his daughter that “as for animals, by all means let us be kind to them. But let us not lose perspective. We are of a different order of creation from the animals” (74). While he claims that this order of humans is not necessarily higher, “just different,” it feels rather clear from the pandering condescension of his tone in this passage that he truly feels otherwise. He continues, saying that “if we are going to be kind, let it be out of simple generosity, not because we feel guilty or fear retribution,” more or less refuting his own statement on the relative equality of the two orders; would we not feel guilty for rearing humans in the deplorable conditions of modern corporate farms? By rejecting the notion of human guilt in regards to the way we treat animals, he is either taking an extremely callous position towards suffering or acknowledging that animals are not, in fact, on the same level as humans in his eyes. Yet, his position seems to change as the novel continues, perhaps first evidenced in the scene in which Lurie moves the goats waiting to be slaughtered to a grassier patch of land so that they can eat, and again later when he builds a relationship with the injured dog at the animal clinic. While the extent of his transformation is somewhat ambiguous by the novel’s conclusion, the fact that “he no longer has difficulty in calling [what he gives the dogs] by its proper name: love,” suggests a new sympathy for animals in Lurie and an acknowledgement of their ability to experience complex ‘human’ emotions (219).

While Astair’s transformation may be less apparent, her views towards animals are illuminated by her desire for a dog and the juxtaposition of this desire with Xanther’s pure love for the kitten. Astair “just envied (envies?) how easy dogs made saying hello to a stranger (seem(!)). A dog would get her out of the house… [and] out of her head” (442). Here we see that Astair’s desire for a dog is not motivated by altruism or a legitimate want of companionship. Rather, she seems to view the dog simply as another accessory with which she could make her own life easier, seeing the animal as a being itself only to the extent to which it could improve her own life with no regard for how she could improve its life. Interestingly, both Astair and Lurie are academics and seem to view animals only in terms of abstractions rather than as real creatures; for both of them, any given animal seems to function more as an archetype of its species than an individual, perhaps reflecting the rather humanistic persuasion of academia which values intelligence most of all and thus relegates creatures seen as unintelligent to the sidelines of society. At first, Lurie even distances himself from the bleakness of his euthanasia work at the clinic through the German abstraction of “Lösung,” allowing him to shield himself from the reality of the situation to some extent behind a cold and emotionless concept (142). Only through hands-on experiences with the animals is he able to overcome the distance engendered by his abstractions as he learns that animals are not representative of the entirety of their species, but rather are individuals themselves in many ways. To some extent, then, both authors seem to be commenting on how abstractions can function as a sort of self-deception or cognitive dissonance which allows for the perpetuation of cruel practices towards animals; when animals are conceptualized as non-individualistic and unemotional, it is much easier to justify their suffering than if we legitimately choose to view them as distinct individuals with desires and even with the ability to love.

Dogs vs. Dogs

In both The Disgrace and The Familiar, we see dogs being viewed as being “lesser” than human beings. What I found interesting was that in both of these books dogs are used to highlight different parts of different characters’ character or morals. Both authors utilized dogs as a way to show perspective into David Lurie and Luther’s mind- and how they view themselves in regards to other living creatures. Both Coetzee and Danielewski paint a picture that Luther and David feel entitled to more respect and regard than dogs do. While David doesn’t mistreat the dogs, he views them as lesser beings than himself. Luther spent a while using dogs for fighting, which reveals that he has a great need for control and dominance over other living things. I think that it was just interesting that both authors used dogs in particular as foils for these characters. I think they might have been chosen based on the fact that they are such loyal and loving creatures and that allows for a lot of contrast against Luther or Lurie.

Disgraceful Dogs

In both The Familiar and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, dogs become primary elements of the novels that deeply affect the characters. In both novels, dogs function to provide a kind of reconciliation within the psyches of certain characters. In Disgrace, defrocked English professor David Lurie ends up working at an animal euthanasia clinic and is able to view his mistakes from a different perspective by identifying with the dogs he helps put down. In particular, he seems to take a liking to one partially crippled dog at the end of the novel that enjoys his banjo music. In the end, Lurie decides to end the dog’s suffering and prevent him from experiencing the same kind of disgrace and loss that Lurie has dealt with. In this way, Lurie is able to come to some kind of compromise within himself and accept the mistakes and drastic changes to his life that have occurred.

Similarly, in The Familiar, dogs provoke changes and empathy within people that is contrary to their inherent nature. Luther is a violent man deeply involved with the crime world, but cares for ex-fighting dogs as pets. Luther used to use the dogs for his own fights, but at some point felt the need to end the dog fighting and become a more benevolent figure in the dogs’ lives. Astair is also changed by the concept of meeting Xanther’s epilepsy dog. She tries to deny her excitement at owning a dog but is unable to do so, embarking (no pun intended) on a doggy shopping spree. Astair in this scene also seems very hopeful that the dog will help Xanther in ways she cannot herself.

“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.

POV in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and The Familiar

Their narration styles are mirror images of each other- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves follows three main characters, but the work only has a single narrator and limited point-of-view. The Familiar has multiple points-of-view and narrators, but no connected plot.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves tells the story of three siblings. Rosemary is the only narrator. “…still everything I’ve said is all about them, a chalk outline around the space where they should have been.” This book could have easily been told in multiple points of view, if not from Fern’s POV, then at least Lowell’s. But instead, Fowler decides to keep it only in Rosemary’s POV, which keeps the reader in the unreliability of her mind.

The Familiar has nine narrators whose lives do not intersect in any obvious way other than the fact that they all hear an inhuman howl. Because of this, we do not get new perspectives on the same events. This is purposeful, certainly, and if I had to guess, I would say that all these narrators will come together throughout the rest of the series, and that this volume serves as the introduction to them, showing these people at their separate starting points.

Despite the fact that the author made radically different choices regarding narration, the reader does not get differing perspectives in either book.

Symbolic Animals in the Familiar and Linda Hogan’s Power

First I almost titled this “Religious Animals …” however, both of these text have different religious overtures, and I did not want to directly relate the two due to their separate complexity. For example: in Linda Hogan’s Power the main characters are of the Taiga tribe. The tribe values panthers at their deities that created humanity and the nature that inhabit the world. The Familiar, as we should all be familiar with, has the spheres and narcons as God characters who supposedly edit reality as it happens. But the character within the text also hold a few animals as religious figures. Another example from this text is Tai Li’s reverence for owls when she is asked to heal a rich man’s son. In a way, Astair’s obsession with the Akita is a form of reverence and could be construed as religious due to the nature of her obsession. Much like any religious person, she says the Akita will improve her life by helping her get fit, it will give her peace of mind, and she has devoted a large sum of money into it.

How are these related?

These narratives are trying to put animals beside humans in the imaginary hierarchy created by humans, where as in today’s society, animals are in a kind of lower being category. Power presents the panther as a religious animal that helps humans and sacrifices themselves so that the human race can continue to thrive. Tai Li in The Familiar holds high regard for owls and a white cat that give her power. She uses the power given to her by the cat, and therefore respects the cat. The owl is unclear as of yet but is evidently important as the next book will start with the story from the point of view of the owl. Astair wants the Akita dog to become a part of the family and in return the dog will help out her daughter who has epilepsy. The key is helping each other out. Animals at our side rather than behind or under us in a hierarchy.

Animals in Disgrace and the Familiar: Symbol or Character?

Both Danielewski’s The Familiar and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace deal with anthrozoogenesis as is more fully discussed by another post on this blog.  That is not to say, however, that these two texts are identical in their treatment of animals. In Disgrace, the animals – snakes and dogs in particular – function as both symbols and tools. They have no identity or real purpose outside of those functions. The snakes are seen throughout the text (often in conjunction with a garden) and are meant to make the reader think of Satan as the Serpent in the Garden of Eden, representing temptation and “falls from grace.” The dogs can also been seen as symbols. For the non-white Africans, the dogs were symbols of white oppression of violence. That is part of the reason why Lucy’s attackers killed almost all of her dogs in the kennel. Now we have the dogs in relation to Lurie. They are used to change Lurie; they foster empathy. Outside of that, they have little to no purpose or identity. They function more as plot elements than characters.

Animals in The Familiar are treated a little differently. The main animals are Luther’s dogs and the mysterious white cat. The dogs, in my opinion, are similar to the dogs in Disgrace. They don’t have an identity outside of being Luther’s dogs. The cat, however, is a different story. The cat is a character in and of itself; it has its identity, its own story, and – as far as I can tell – does not represent anything symbolically. Let’s start with identity. The cat isn’t tied to one of the human characters as far as narrative goes. It starts with Tian Li and then switches over to Xanther, assuming that the cats are the same. The cat jumps between narratives. It couldn’t do this if its identity was tied to Tian Li. This jump also shows how the cat has its own story. We don’t know why it jumped or what it wants with Xanther. The cat’s actions and motives – and it does have motives – are unknown to us. We don’t even know what the cat really is. Is it magical? Is it evil? Is it even a cat? Its story is still a mystery waiting to unfold in the coming books – hopefully. And because the cat is so mysterious, it doesn’t really act as a symbol for anything.

Anthrozoogenesis: Disgrace and The Familiar

We discussed the idea anthrozoogenesis in relation to J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and I couldn’t help but think off how the dogs seemed to change Lurie in this text. After obsessing greatly over this motif, I believe I understand why, it wasn’t the first time I saw it this semester. Astair and Anwar are trying to purchase a seizure dog for Xanther (which of course fails), but I’m less interested in the goal of attaining the dog. Instead, What fascinates me is the behavior of Astair that is changed even when the dog is not in direct presence of their lives. We see Astair purchasing dog toys, an absurd sheepskin bed, and various other accouterments, and the question to deserves to be asked, what is the goal? For Astair, the dog represents a cure of Xanther’s ailiing and locus of nurturing energy that she cannot provide to her child. This isn’t to say that Astair is a bad mother by any stretch, but it would seem that there is a type of human-animal relationship that she is betting on to heal her daughter.

In Disgrace, miserable, ex-prof David Lurie loses everything and ends up working in a euthanasia clinic after he has lost his job, is set on fire, and his daughter is raped (spoiler!). How on earth does this compare to The Familiar? Well, I’m glad you asked. About the only redeeming character trait for David is that he becomes empathetic of animals. His first encounters with the are the goat with the infested nether regions and the sheep bought for slaughter. In these first cases, though, Lurie is not changing his nature, per-say. Instead, these animals are acting as lenses through which to view his complete disgrace, a form of anthropomorphising the animals. When David encounters the euthanasia clinic and has to take the dogs to the incinerator, we see a change in David brought from the agencies of the dogs, completely separate of his own volition. It could be argued that David, a man who usurps whatever he likes, learns what love is from his interaction with these injured and an unwanted dogs, a fascinating insight in how animals can alter a human life.