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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.


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.

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.

The Familiar and Maus – Cats

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.

Different Relationships with Animals

In The Familiar, we see Xanther experience a very mutualistic relationship with the kitten she saves. In other words, Xanther and the kitten both benefit from the relationship that forms between them. The kitten’s benefits from the relationship are quite obvious. The kitten is saved by her and nursed back to health in a very loving home. Xanther also experiences a complete transformation from how we see her at the beginning of the book. Danielewski writes that “ Xanther feels fine, feels better than fine: the kitten is here at her side and even if nothing seems to have changed everything suddenly feels manageable. Or better: answerable” (839). She no longer feels anxious and does not have a million pestering questions running through her head. The animal relationship we see in Wild Seed is quite the opposite. Anyanwu has a very parasitic relationship with the animals she deals with. In order to transform into the animal shapes, she must first eat the animal. The best example is when she becomes the most beautiful dolphin and feels at complete peace escaping Doro while swimming in the ocean. The only reason she was able to do this was because she actually ate the dolphin… In other words, while Anyanwu is benefiting from the relationship with the dolphin, the dolphin is suffering tremendously by dying. These relationships between the two novels is as different as night and day and are very clear examples of mutualistic and parasitic relationships.

The Familiar and We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

I think these novels are very interestingly comparable. In The Familiar, the relationship between Xanther and the kitten she saves is crucial. Xanther finally feels calm and at peace once she is around this kitten and saves it from doom. The millions of questions in her head are ending now and she can finally act like a normal child. Readers can feel the calming sensation wash over her. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves poses a very different view. Rose started off her life with Fern, the chimpanzee, and everything makes sense to her. She feels normal and complete with her “twin sister”. However, she feels very opposite once Fern is taken away from her. She literally feels like a piece of her is actually missing and the bond they had is now broken since Fern is gone. It is almost like her and Xanther traded places. We can put both characters side by side and see the difference the animals made. The message one can get when comparing these two characters and novels is that humans need animals. The bond is actually curing, and the results of stripping the animal away from the human are devastating. In fact, Rose’s entire family is torn apart once Fern leaves them.

The Familiar and Disgrace

One thing that The Familiar and Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee have in common is their use of animals as complex symbols. In Disgrace David Lurie identifies with a dog that is pretty much on its last leg, just as he has essentially lost everything he’s worked toward. This dog serves as a mirror for Lurie. He feels compassion (and eventually love) for this dog because he knows exactly what she’s going through because the exact same thing has happened to him.

Similarly, I believe that Xanther’s endeavor to rescue the kitten shares an analogous effect. It reminded me of the raindrop pages early in the novel. Xanther feels all of these raindrops all at once at all times. In a similar way, the cat is left in the rain, damaged and wounded. Perhaps this was Danielewski’s intended effect. Xanther is in the rain and so is the cat. Could it be that she saves the cat because she see herself in it?