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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.

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Giving Cats Everywhere A Bad Name

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.

The Symbolism of Prayer

On both pages 426 and 786, prayer is referenced in conjunction with death. Ozgur is being presented the bodies of murdered grad students and their bodies are described as “almost as if in prayer.” Similarly, on page 786 we see that Hopi has reached forth with his hands as clasped as if “never-ending prayer.” The victims on page 427 are devoid of visible signs of death as if “they’d been conked on the head” whereas Hopi is literally conked on the head, to his death. This may be a coincidence but I think there is something to be said for its presence.

What is MZD trying to convey here? In a book mired in varying styles and themes, I think these scenes convey perhaps the desperate and sometimes pitiful nature of death, particularly in the violent deaths they suffer here. Their final moments through the usage of the word prayer paint a picture of hoping for a chance to live which they clearly were not afforded.

Cas and Apollo

In Ancient Greece, the Greek God Apollo was the God of the Sun, healing, music and prophecy. In “The Familiar” Mark Z. Danielewski uses font in a purposeful way to display hidden character traits and character meanings. One character he does this with is Cas. Cas’s font is Apolline, a french name originating from the Greek masculine name Apollo, meaning the sun or God of the sun.

The fact that Cas’s font is referencing Apollo and the sun are siginificant for two reasons. One, the sun is a spherical, orb-like, planetary object that is the center of the our galaxy. It gives life and light to all living beings in our galaxy. Cas’s narrative references an orb that she can see into and gain information from. She and Bobby also get into many situations where there are fires involved because of the technology being used. This fire destroys rather than gives life, like the sun does. The sun could be a reference to both the spherical shape of the orb and the heat and light that these fires cause. Second, Cas is receiving information from the orb  and therefore could have special, mythical medium powers. The God Apollo was the God of prophecy because he would gift certain human women with the gift of sight and they would become his oracles. In a sense, Cas has become one of Apollo’s oracles.

In Cas’s chapters there is also reference to other ancient Greek characters like Circe and Artemis, who happens to be Apollo’s sister. I wonder how Cas is connected to Circe, Artemis, Treebeard, Merlin and the other characters. Are they involved in this project as well?  Cas’s name is also “The Wizard.” Why do you think it is significant that she be called “The Wizard” instead of something like “Apollo” or “The Oracle”?

Religion

I’m not really sure where this fits but has anyone else noticed the mentioning of religion in almost every section of the book? It is normally used in the sense of what one believes.

For example Danielewski specifically mentions that Anwar does not believe in a God, but that Dov did.

He describes things that are not church related as religion, too.

For example, on page 407 traffic is mentioned as a religion. He uses it as a adjective to describe how Shnorhk feels about traffic.

I might be making something out of nothing but I do not think that the use of religion both dealing with and without the church is purely accidental. If Danielewski is remediating television then this could be another theme of sorts to think about. Most television shows these days have the characters that have a strong belief in something. It gives their character another depth so that people can relate better.

I’ve taken fiction classes at school and one thing that my professors stress is developing the characters in a way that does not give everything away but still makes you relate to them.

I think that characters having strong beliefs in something or nothing is a way for us to relate back to the characters without necessarily giving too much away in what is to come.

There might even be a deeper meaning to the use of religion that I have yet to work out in my mind and I will not understand until I reach the end of the book but this is what I have for now.