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.
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.
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.
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.
Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a graphic novel outlining his father’s experience as a Jew during the terror of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. One of the major functioning tools is the use of animals instead of nationalities. The Jews are represented by mice, but the Germans are represented as cats. On an obvious layer, Spiegelman uses the classic cat vs. mouse chase. Vladek, Art’s father, describes his fear of the Germans and their hatred of Jews saying, “International laws protected us a little as Polish war prisoners. But a Jew of the Reich, anyone could kill in the streets” (Spiegelman 63). Valued considered himself safer as a war prisoner than as being a free Jew because of the German’s hatred of the Jews. Their representation goes beyond a cutesy Tom and Jerry cartoon and attacks the core of human nature and compassion. What the Germans were doing was killing like wild animals do, randomly and without thought. Perhaps, on the deeper level, Spiegelman chose cats because cats are the only domesticated animals that frequently kill their prey for fun and toy with them, emphasizing the meaninglessness of the German’s killings as well.
Antithetically, the cat in The Familiar is actual what brings peace to Xanther’s life. It is what makes everything “answerable” for the girl who gets stuck in her questions (Danielewski 839). The cat is a source of empowerment for Jingling’s aunt, and when she is passed on, she empowers Xanther, too (though, not in the same mystic way). Unlike Spiegelman’s Maus, the emphasis of the cat in this novel seems to be its mysterious nature instead of its violent nature. It is also mysterious as it is able to attract Xanther, half blind, running through a downpour, towards itself. This ability paired with the healing that occurs once back in the car gives even more complexity to the mysterious nature of the cat. Danielewski is playing on his theme of the number 9 with the cat, which, according to legend, has nine lives. He does an interesting thing by bringing in a creature with so much legend surrounding it, thus engaging readers instead of repulsing them.
The contrast between the mysterious, peace-bringing cat in The Familiar and the violent, malicious cats in Maus highlights how two wildly different uses of the same commonly used character. In literature and pop culture, there are often evil cats, but almost as often cats function as warm comforters. Perhaps these two novels simple present a well-balanced contrast between the most common depictions of the animal.
A majority of the books I’ve been reading in English class this semester have to do with the human/animal relationship. While they all deal with said relationship in varied and unique ways with complex sets of characters there have been at least 3 books I recall that have used cats as the animal of focus in these interactions. The two books in which this interaction stuck out the most to me were The Familiar and Wild Seed. Despite the fact that both novels feature interaction with more than just cats, felines appeared to me to be the most prominent animals employed in the plots of these novels.
In Danielewski’s The Familiar a majority of the plot, characters, and even motifs within the novel focus on cats. The term “familiar” has traditionally been used to refer to cats that serve as pets/partners to their human masters, and cats are referred to many times within the text to the point that two of the credit pages at the end of the novel show two definitive, slit feline eyes. Regardless of the types of animals employed in individual character stories, such as Luther and his dogs and even the dog that was originally meant to be bought as an aid for Xanther and her seizures, cats make their way into every character’s life and even into the format of the novel and the title. The sound of a yowling cat can be heard at least once in every major character’s story, and the novel ends with a cat’s presence allegedly bringing peace and order into Xanther’s life after the wild and confusing ride we go through alongside her. This cat also happens to bring death to another character, Tian Li, when it appears to leave the woman to saunter into Xanther’s story. So my question is…why cats?
Cats are also involved quite centrally in Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed when considering the nature of Anyanwu and her animal forms. From the get go one of the first animals we see Anyanwu shift into is a leopard. Anyanwu turns to her leopard form in trying times, times when she feels that her life is in danger as well as at times when she wants to take revenge. She makes it clear that her leopard form is one that she has started to feel natural in over time, a form that she now has little to no trouble shifting into considering the amount of times she has done so as well as her deep understanding of the feline’s body after having consumed a part of it. Although Anyanwu does shift into other animals throughout the course of the novel, her leopard form is a central one that she returns to in climatic moments of threat to her life and the lives of those she cares for again and again. Again I pose the question…why cats?
Both individual cats in these stories play considerably different roles in their respective stories. Danielewski’s cat serves as a bringer of both the literal and figurative life and death of the characters it directly interacts with while Anyanwu and her leopard form play a mostly protective and fierce role within the events of Wild Seed. Do you think that these separate interpretations of cats and the utilizations of their different yet similar roles in these novels say anything about our interpretations and views of domestic versus wild cats today? Is it significant that the wild cat is used to portray defense and protection while the assumedly domestic cat serves as a harbinger of life and death? Also, why do you think cats in various forms are such popular animals to use both physically and symbolically in literature? What is it about cats that make them both appealing to write about and flexible enough to write in a number of various genres and plotlines, although their basic forms remain quite the same?
Within Danielewski’s The Familiar and Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed the interactions between animals and humans lead to animals serving as possible aids for or to humans in a variety of ways. While there are plenty of instances in The Familiar where animals are mistreated, misused, or abused, the silver lining of the novel comes out in the collaboration between a couple of the characters and their animal companions. Likewise, while Wild Seed doesn’t capitalize on such a wide range of characters or designated situations of animal cruelty as ostentatiously, it certainly capitalizes on the positive and even helpful relationship that Anyanwu has with not only the animals she encounters, but the animal essences that she embodies and becomes.
A couple of the storylines and characters in The Familiar deal with poor or subpar treatment of animals as well as relationships with them, such as Luther and his dogs and Isandórno and the animals he sees in crates. Quite opposite to this, the relationship between Tian Li, Xanther, and the cat that seems to pass between them is definitely one based on an animal providing them with some kind of aid. Tian Li is a healing woman of some sort and while she takes the credit and is the one known for having such powers, Jingjing makes it clear through his narrative that he suspects that the cat actually might be the source of her power. This is even more reinforced through the instance of Tian Li losing her life when the cat “leaves,” allegedly to pass on to Xanther. The nature of this cat as both a source of healing power for Tian Li and also a life force in some capacity shows the irrefutable aid that this cat brought Tian Li throughout the course of their relationship.
This helpful nature continues in the case of Xanther, whose main plot point involves the attempt to provide her with an animal that will specifically give her aid with her seizures. While the plan to procure such a dog never fully comes through in this a respect, the cat that Xanther saves does provide an aid to her, and she to them. In the process of finding and taking in such an animal, Xanther actually saves the cat’s life before imploring for the animal to be kept. While this is an obvious display of aid, one of the last quotes in the novel involves Xanther admitting that in the presence of such an animal “even if nothing has changed everything suddenly feels manageable” (Danielewski, 837). Xanther and the cat in question both save each other in different respects; Xanther ensures the survival of the cat, and in turn the cat aids Xanther in managing the weight that she’s been dealing with for a majority of the novel.
Similar to these instances of helpful human/animal relationships in The Familiar, Anyanwu’s relationship with animals in Wild Seed is also one whose nature stems directly from the position of one providing aid to the other and vice versa. Any time that Anyanwu feels threatened, endangered, or wants to escape from the one person that she feels is dominating her in a suffocating and abusive way, she relies on her animal forms to get her out of the situation. Animals are the only beings within the novel that do not fall under the all-encompassing and offensive power that Doro yields. Anyanwu makes a kind of unspoken pact with the animals that she ingests and becomes in order to utilize both the strengths of their individual forms and their collective immunity to Doro overall. She then in turn requests on some occasions that a sort of protection be given back to them, considering the way she asked for dolphins to be spared while on the ship traveling to America. While she does ask this because they seem more human than other animals, this does present a clear example of a way that she reciprocates the aid she gains from these animals who she also receives help from.
Les amoureux fervents et les savants austères
Aiment également, dans leur mûre saison,
Les chats puissants et doux, orgueil de la maison,
Qui comme eux sont frileux et comme eux sédentaires.
Amis de la science et de la volupté
Ils cherchent le silence et l’horreur des ténèbres;
L’Erèbe les eût pris pour ses coursiers funèbres,
S’ils pouvaient au servage incliner leur fierté.
Ils prennent en songeant les nobles attitudes
Des grands sphinx allongés au fond des solitudes,
Qui semblent s’endormir dans un rêve sans fin;
Leurs reins féconds sont pleins d’étincelles magiques,
Et des parcelles d’or, ainsi qu’un sable fin,
Etoilent vaguement leurs prunelles mystiques.
— Charles Baudelaire
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.
This might be out of context, or it might be brilliant. I have no clue. I’ve seen a couple of people elude to it but not seen someone come out and say it: I think the kitten is a Narcon physical construct.
And here’s why:
Let’s start with the Narcons and their rules.
Parameter 1: MetaNarcons Do Not Exist.
Parameter 3: Narcons cannot interact with non-narcons. and vice-versa. No matter what.
Parameter 5: Form is not a narcon limit.
The Narcon9 can lie. “last one… So okay, I was wrong. Not the last one. Sue me” (574-575).
Narcons can appear as animals. “Narcons can take on multiple shapes whether textual, musical…. Narcons may even appear as animals. Say a killer whale, boar, hyena, even a markhor, or an owl” (575) [By the way, the owl in the next book. hint hint. come on now. Tell me you saw that.] “This is often the case when personality factors determined to be significant are compressed in order to preserve future renderings of character.”
There is a form of meta Narcon that Narcon 9 is aware of but he lies to us in parameter one. “a superset [being Narcon 9] is always a subset [being the characters the Narcon 9 encompasses]. I’m the superset of my suvsets where I’m also an I. Just as I am a subset of a superset where I is also I.”
Trickster. Now let’s switch gears.
Remember Tian Li’s shadow cat that gave her magical healing powers? Anyone find it funny how is just up and disappears right before Xanther finds a kitten?
Okay so, here’s the theory a little bit more fleshed out. I’m supposing that Xanther is a special character. Obviously she needs a little healing. And maybe something in Xanther’s world needs preserving? So, I’m not suggesting Narcon9 but maybe a different Narcon that was helping Tian Li, took on a physical form of a kitten to preserve something in Xanther’s world and possibly healing Xanther?
It’s just a little connection I made. Hope you at least enjoyed reading it.