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.
Building on the latest post about Jakob von Uexküll, I wonder if anyone wants to venture a reading of the epigraphs on page 374 and page 518. Someone has already posted the (as yet unanswered) question about the Deadmau5 quote, and I’d like to situate it alongside the xkcd comic and invite discussion of the two as possible framing statements for The Familiar. The full xkcd comic is here. What conceptual work are the two epigraphs doing? In what sense do they offer a lens through which to re-consider the issue of the Narcons and the programming of Paradise Open?
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.
Blade Runner (and by extension, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
*Possible Spoilers for those works below. You’ve been warned.
All of these works are heavily referenced in Xanther’s narrative. But to what end? The clearest solution is the common theme between them- the dubiousness of agency. In Battlestar, it’s the non-self aware Cylons that become critical of both themselves and of each other. In The Matrix, it is Neo and all the others who want to be awakened. In Blade runner, both Rachel and Deckard, the first of whom finds out that she is not human, and the latter of whom (in some film versions) begins to doubt his own humanity, experience this.
Religion also plays widely into these works, including TF. With Battlestar, we have the Lords of Kobol, and the call names of many of the characters themselves, references to our own Greek deities. With Blade Runner, we have to look a little further, into the original literature. In Androids, the characters participate in a type of transcendent, collective experience called “Mercerism.” I’ll spare you the details, but it becomes an analogue for Deckard’s whole story. In The Matrix, the idea of religion is much less prominent, but just as important. Savior complexes and resurrection imagery and all that. In TF, especially Xanther’s story, we almost simultaneously have a healing of the sick and a resurrection (Xanther’s wounds from collecting the cat, and the cat itself.)
This primes us to readily think of the Narcons as gods, or at least the players in some unknown chess game.
But we can’t really assume this from TF-Narcon∧9, by its own words. On pg 572 (unmarked,) it tells the reader “I have neither form nor control.” and “I have no agency.” First, if it has no agency, how can it pause? Second, what, does it do?
The discussions I have seen are discussing the Narcons as god-like beings or as AI’s. TF-Narcon∧9 even tells us that the “con” is for Construct. But we can also see, from the comments of the other Narcons, that 9 is not a reliable narrator. We know it lied to the reader about how many parameters there are, and that there likely are MetaNarcons, so how can we know the truth of any one of those parameters?
What this brings me to is this question:
What if we’re looking at the story inside-out? What if the Narcons don’t exist outside of the characters, but inside? What if all of the Narcons are inside Xanther’s head, with all of their subsets and supersets, just as a coping mechanism for her? Every other scene that plays out in other chapters is just her, fitting together the answers from the Question Game into narratives of her own construction. She is the MetaNarcon.
The Narcon section of the book (pages 563-579) has already been discussed by a few other posters, but I wanted to address it in a somewhat basic and systematic way by looking at the parameters that define it. The way that I understand the Narcon is that it is the book’s narrator, or one of them. In the Narcon section, the book itself begins to explain how it’s been written and what its limits are, breaking the “fourth wall” between the narrator and the reader. Given this understanding, some of the parameters presented by the Narcon raised specific questions for me.
Parameter 1: MetaNarcons do not exist
If MetaNarcons don’t exist, what is the role of the author? Can the author be considered a MetaNarcon? According to the Narcon, a MetaNarcon would be some kind of narrative explanation of a Narcon. Since the Narcon is explained within the book, wouldn’t that mean that there is a MetaNarcon? Does that mean that the Narcon is its own MetaNarcon?
Parameter 2: Narcons cannot interact with other Narcons
If Narcons can’t interact with other Narcons, does that mean that there is only one Narcon for the entire book? The only issue with that is that on page 576, TF-Narcon9 says that it doesn’t know what happened to Xanther’s former therapist, Mrs. Goolsend, but the next page immediately explains what happens to her in another, bolded font. Is that another Narcon interjecting? Wouldn’t that indicate that they can interact?
Parameter 3: Narcons cannot interact with non-Narcons and vice-versa
The Narcon says that it can’t hear how the reader will respond or register “how or if my friendliness was received.” (564) However, I think that the reader (a non-Narcon) arguably can interact with the Narcon. Actually, I think that might be the point. Since there will be subsequent books that take reader input into account, the Narcon will, in a sense, be interacting with the reader. So does the relationship between the reader and the Narcon make Parameter 3 invalid? Does it mean that this Narcon has transcended the bounds of what it means to be a traditional narrator or a normal Narcon?
Parameter 4: All Narcons are bracketed
The braille brackets seem to have been established as an indication of the Narcon speaking. But if that’s the case, who is telling the rest of the story? TF-Narcon9 knows almost everything about what Xanther says and where she goes, and it seems to indicate that it is the one telling the stories about Xanther, Anwar, jingjing, Luther, etc. If it is telling the entire story, then it seems like the braille brackets are just its direct thoughts. If that’s not the case, does that mean that there is a “MetaNarcon” that is telling the entire story? Could the cover of the book be considered a “bracket” that contains the MetaNarcon?
Parameter 5: Form is not a Narcon limit
This might be the most confusing parameter. My understanding of the Narcon is that it is a type of narrator that is telling the stories of the characters. Does this parameter mean that the other volumes of The Familiar will come in different forms (it mentions musical, performative, etc.)? Or, does it mean that the Narcon will take other forms within the novel itself? This might be a stretch, but the Narcon mentions that it could take the form of an animal. Could the cat that Xanther rescues be an appearance of the Narcon?
SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT
On page 563 there is a line. On the next page are these words “A good enough place to pause.” Then the page numbers and the time stamps stop and we get to meet the narrator. He(I assume the narrator is a he and I will continue to refer to him that way to reduce confusion) is an AI called TF-Narcon9 and he has a sense of humor. He also seems to have emotions, though he fervently denies any individuality whatsoever. What completely rocked my world though was the subsets that include almost every major character. Are they Narcons or are they just being studied? If they are being studied, why? What is a Narcon? Who invented them? These are questions that need answers! What do y’all think?