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Western Thoughts in Through the Arc of the Rainforest and The Familiar

In comparison with Through the Arc of the Rain Forest, by Karen Tei Yamashita, both The Familiar and Through the Arc pose challenges to common place, Western thoughts. Xanther suffers from epilepsy, a debillitating condition that has nearly killed her on one occassion. However, as we see with Tian Li who seemingly also suffers from epilepsy, there is a sort of power that comes with this ailment.

When Xanther has an episode in the car with Anwar, she hears something calling out amidst a booming storm. Out of nowhere she is able to hear a kitten drowning in a storm grate. I think it is key to note that the kitten Xanther saves is white, just like the one that Tian Li always has around her. This brings up the theme of familiars, an animal counterpart that a gifted individual can connect with psychically. Since we are only given two examples of individuals with familiars in this text, and both these characters seem to suffer from epilepsy, it can be inferred that there is a certain amount of magical ability that is being endowed on these characters as a product of their ailment. Thematically, the realtionship between epilepsy and extrasensory ability challenges western notions of mental disabilities and illness. Abnormalities are generally viewed as being negative, not granting any gifts, but this thought seems to be directly opposed in the text.

Similar in critical nature, Through the Arc critiques western ideology’s undervaluing of mysticism. The most salient example of this is Tweep’s manipulation of Mane Pena and Kazumasa. Both of these individuals represent an other-ness to western thought. Pena plays a holistic medicine guru and Kazumasa stands in as mystic gifted with extrasensory capabilities. Unlike The Familiar where Xanther uses her gift for good, Kazumasa is manipulated for economic gain by Tweed while Pena loses everything that he loves in quest of empire. The primacy given to economic prowess at all cost is starkly constrasted with the mysticism embodied by Kazumasa and Pena.In such a way, both these novels challenge Western Notions of extrasensory abilities and the values that are endowed upon them.

So, there’s this Narcon…

First of all, the Narrative Construct idea fascinates me. While I don’t necessarily think it was the best name for them (for some reason they sound too explanatory for their actions, like naming a character who’s evil “bad guy.”) But, at the same time, I do not have a better name for them myself, so I cannot judge (maybe Architects? Wait…that’s been done before.) Regardless, it is interesting that in a fiction book we are constantly pointed to being reminded we are experiencing a fictional world, which is the exact thing professors tell you not to do in your own writing. I mean, it’s writing 101, “the suspension of disbelief,” was relayed to me over and over again in all of my writing classes. Yet here, MZD has drawn our attention to it time and again, the most powerful of which being set in the Narcon section. The Narcon is something that I think we can all conceptualize with decent aptitude. Their section has no page numbers, so they do not exist within the same realm as the story. They are written weirdly, like a play, taking them out of this genre (whatever this genre is.) They are formatted nothing like any other character, so they (if I’m reading the book correctly) don’t even share a similar universe or don’t occupy the same dimension as the other characters. They define their own rules, however, they date them back before their existence (whatever that means,) point being, regular fiction characters do not ever define their rules in a story. The author defines the rules for fictional characters to follow. It is interesting to keep in mind that, at least for me, the Narcons felt like they had more agency than the characters in the story. They felt like that because of the reasons I just mentioned.

But it’s not true! They have equitable if not less free will than the regular characters in the story. The Narcons must follow rules set by MZD and MZD has to make them follow the rules that they (Mark) has set for them, so their free will is really constricted to a few sentences (by comparison) to other characters. Narcons must be controlled, and if there is anything I know about characters being controlled, they tend to rebel.

I’ll flat out say it, I think the Narcons will turn out to be villains or something similar as the 27 volume series plays out. I would like to be proven wrong about this almost as much as I would like to be proven right. To me, it just seems like the natural order of things. In our class, it was mentioned by a classmate that Xanther is the only character that can hear the Narcons or at least the only character that we know can hear the Narcons. It was also mentioned that when Xanther hears the cat outside, it may be something more than just right-place-at-the-right-time action movie garbage. It could mean a little bit more.

After I heard the classmate (I believe it was you, Chelsea) my mind started to reel into analytic, speculation mode where I wanted to make connection upon connection (so, bear with me.) I think Narcon characters (overly oppressed characters, as mentioned above) want to enter to the fictional world like a reverse The Matrix situation. I think that cat may be Narcon incarnate as mentioned above. There’s also a little something something that cat does to Xanther that feels a little wacky and out of the realm of possibility for any other character in the story (soul stuff.) And, and! We don’t know (unless I missed it) what the cat’s name is. But what we do know is that TF-Narcon 3 has the font “Manticore.” Stay with me, I’m telling you, it’s worth it. Manticore is another name for “Man-Eater.” Trust me, I wish in my research that I had found there was some myth written thousands of years ago where the Manticore ate the kings ugly daughter named “Xanther,” but it didn’t exist, so I needed to speculate a bit more. In figurative terms, the cat may have eaten part of Xanther, it’s hard to say exactly but I’m going with it for the sake of my theory. The last thing we know is that no two characters share the same font in the story…except TF-Narcon 3 and some other thing called “G.C.” which is not, to my knowledge, defined or mentioned in Volume 1 at all. But it’s mentioned in the font? Pourquoi, monsieur?! To me, G.C. could be “good cat,” or “General Cathington,” or maybe it’s another one of Xanther’s misunderstood words.

Sometimes, when reading this book, I feel like I’m wearing a tinfoil hat. Anyway, thanks for following me down my rabbit hole. I really hope to see why that font is shared and, who knows? Maybe I am right.

Dylan Davis

Names in Relation to the Orb

Within this novel there are many interesting names for the various characters.  With the exception of Bobby, there was not a name that I had come across in my personal life before.  However, while I was interested in why Danielewski may have chosen certain names for the principal characters, I was much more intrigued in the list of characters that occurred on page 646.  In this passage which deals with Cas and the Orb, the names of other people involved in their projects who had either been found dead or been arrested in various places around the world.  I thought the names of these characters and I wondered that if the significance of these names could inform the reader about the nature of the Orb and what it involves since throughout the novel it is very shrouded in mystery.

Thanatos: In Greek mythology Thanatos is considered the Lieutenant to Hades and the personification of Death.

Thaumaturge: A Greek word meaning a worker of wonders or miracles, or a magician

Artemis: In Greek mythology Artemis is the goddess of the Hunt.

Pythia: Also a character of Greek mythology, Pythia is the name given to any priestess who took on the role of the Oracle of Delphi, who had the gift of prophecy from the god Apollo (twin brother of Artemis)

Endoria: In the computer game “Kings Bounty” Endoria is the planet where most of the action takes place.  It is described as being “a largely unexplored planet full of wonders and astonishing discoveries”

Circe: In Greek mythology, Circe is the goddess of magic and is also seen as an enchantress or sorceress

Lilith: A character in Jewish mythology, Lilith is believed to be a descendant of ancient female demons

Treebeard: The name of a character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s middle earth stories, he closely resembles a talking tree

Sibyll: Again, a character in Greek mythology who is thought to have prophetic powers

Overall I think that the names of these characters give the reader a glimpse of what the Orb deals with: prophecy, the future, death, and the supernatural.

What “Familiar” Means

I completely agree that Danielewski wants to make this connection between his characters and these animals. It reminds me of the His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass), in which each of the characters has a dæmon that stays with their human counterpart. The dæmons represent the inner-selves of all the characters and while the characters are children they can change shape at will. Eventually, they settle into a permanent state of being and is supposed to be a reflection of a person’s personality.

This being said, I think that’s what is closer to what is going on with Danielewski’s familiars. They are demons, yes, but that doesn’t mean they have to be Satanic in nature (that’s only a Christian belief). In fact, by not calling them demons and by calling them familiars, he is deliberately displacing them from that connotation. The ‘abiding a witch’ part can also be void of Christian negative connotation–witches or witch doctors were perceived gloriously as shamans (communicators with the spirit world) before being condemned in burnings like at Salem or during the Middle Ages.

Also, at mention of ‘witch’ specifically in this definition, it reminds of Luther at one point calling Lupita a “bruja mágica” (trans. “magic witch”) – pg. 595. I’m not sure if this correlates, but something tells me it has to with Danielewski.

Discussion board for Mark Z. Danielewski's THE FAMILIAR, Volume 1

So with this book being called The Familiar and every time the word is mentioned it is written in a different color, we can suspect by now that it is a word we need to pay attention to, but why? What does Danielewski want the reader to know by doing this? Of course I can’t simply call him up on the phone and ask, so I did the next best thing: googled the definition of “Familiar.”

1. Adjective- meaning well known from long or close association


2. Noun- meaning a demon supposedly attending and obeying a witch, often said to assume the form of an animal

After doing my research, I came up with the hypothesis that at some points of the book (Pg 135) Danielewski uses “familiar” in the sense of the first definition, but for the most part uses it in the sense of the second definition…

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Is Xanther the one who needs saving?

Xanther’s connection to the natural world is so amazingly strong, especially when compared to the other characters in her chapters. Even Anwar asserts that “Xanther’s natural alliances to the natural world are no mystery” (735). She feels a particular connection to small, minuscule creatures that most people would not notice or give much care to.

On an occasion that Anwar remembers, Xanther names a spider Adelaide and attempts to pet this tiny black insect. Most people would either kill the spider or somehow get it outside and away from themselves but Xanther affectionately names it and touches it. She is invested in a well-being of a spider which, most likely, would not return the affection.

In a memory of Xanther’s, she finds an injured hummingbird and cups it in her hand moments before it has a seizure and dies. The connection of this small object having a seizure to Xanther is uncanny. Although she could not save this hummingbird as she would have liked, the fact that she was even able to find it, she somehow hears this creature, and give it some care before it died highlights her extraordinary connection with nature.

The most significant moment of nature and Xanther is her connection with the kitten. She is not only able to find the kitten from a great distance away, with an incomprehensible and almost superhuman ability, but she is able to revive the kitten from [near] death as well. While she searches for the kitten in the storm she gets cut up to the point where she is bleeding and her clothes are ripped. However, when she is checked out, all of her injuries are minor if even there at all. Has nature protected her during this mission to find the kitten?

Perhaps these vulnerable animals make Xanther feel strong and able to carry on because she has the possible power of saving these animals or, at least, the power to make things better for them. Normally she is the small creature who everyone thinks needs saving so her feelings toward these animals may be because she projects herself onto these creatures.

Xanther sees the significance of a life no matter how small or different. She claims that the kitten makes her feel as if the world is answerable, which is something amazing since the Xanther the reader has seen is always overwhelmed by a flood of questions. Her sense of connected tranquility with animals, a relationship which we do not see between her and the rest of society, portrays Xanther almost like a greater being with otherwordly, almost magical, powers and understandings. No one else seems to have this amazing capacity to comprehend the natural world.