Their narration styles are mirror images of each other- We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves follows three main characters, but the work only has a single narrator and limited point-of-view. The Familiar has multiple points-of-view and narrators, but no connected plot.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves tells the story of three siblings. Rosemary is the only narrator. “…still everything I’ve said is all about them, a chalk outline around the space where they should have been.” This book could have easily been told in multiple points of view, if not from Fern’s POV, then at least Lowell’s. But instead, Fowler decides to keep it only in Rosemary’s POV, which keeps the reader in the unreliability of her mind.
The Familiar has nine narrators whose lives do not intersect in any obvious way other than the fact that they all hear an inhuman howl. Because of this, we do not get new perspectives on the same events. This is purposeful, certainly, and if I had to guess, I would say that all these narrators will come together throughout the rest of the series, and that this volume serves as the introduction to them, showing these people at their separate starting points.
Despite the fact that the author made radically different choices regarding narration, the reader does not get differing perspectives in either book.
With the debut of The Familiar, and a seven-figure advance, Mark Z. Danielewski has embarked on one of the most ambitious serial novel sequences of the decade. Due to the unique dialogue among Danielewski’s readership, it’s no surprise that others have already begun to find nods to previously published works, or responses to fan input on paper. Easter eggs for Danielewski’s fan base are evident throughout the novel, such as the coloration of the word familiar, which Danielewski also did with the word house in House of Leaves.
Therefore, it isn’t a stretch to say that Danielewski’s form proceeds, in part, from his public self. As his notoriety grows, and discussions about his works expand, these things can become absorbed into Danielewski’s all-encompassing narrative style.
In a similar fashion, Art Spiegelman’s narrative becomes influences by his public self. The success of the first instalment of Maus garnered such critical and popular acclaim, that Spiegelman felt it was necessary to address the shift that this had caused in his creative process. On page 217, Speigelman addresses what is now a readership, commenting on his struggle to accept the notoriety of his success, while still remaining true to the character of his story.
The Familiar is effective in that it leads the reader to empathy by forcing complete engagement with the book, making its argument about mental illness something to be experienced rather than told. Danielewski does not just try to convince the reader that Xanther is ailed and anxious because of her questions; he actually creates the cycle of questions for the reader so that he or she can be in Xanther’s position of having more questions than can be answered and even questions about questions. The mentality created for the reader comes from the question of what the orb is and how the book functions as metafiction with the Narcon as a character who is not in the story. The convoluted nature of the book relates to the cloudiness of all things in Xanther’s mind. This tactic matches the rest of Danieleski’s style in the novel and keeps the reader from becoming numb to the idea of how harmful mental illness can be since in a way he or she experiences it too. The cat brings resolve to Xanther in a lot of ways, and even though her illness is not cured, she finds that “everything suddenly feels manageable. Or better: answerable” and the reader gets to join her in that place of comfort, knowing that the book is not all answered but that for now the character that the reader has so much invested in is going to be okay (Danielewski 837-839). The book as a fantastical journey of joining in with Xanther makes it an experience of learning the hardship and the relief of escape from mental illness.
Similarly, in Power by Linda Hogan, Hogan uses the technique of allowing the reader to actually experience a piece of Native American culture in order to garner the sympathy for Native American traditions that create the conflict in the book. The morality of Ama’s decision to kill the panther comes from her wanting the sacred animal to be set free so that all things could be restored for the broken world. This decision is considered moral because of the Taiga traditional beliefs, not because of the non-native standard of morality. In the same way, Hogan structures her novel in the traditional Native American fashion by making the story circular, ending up where it began. She rejects the tradition exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution structure of modern western literature just like Ama rejects the non-native standard of morality. As the reader experiences reading the book differently than he or she is used to, he or she also finds that the morality and sympathies garnered in the story don’t necessarily match those standard to western beliefs. Just as Danieleski does, Hogan invites the reader in to experience her novel and the experiences of her characters instead of observing it from the traditional outsider perspective.
I feel that the extra “narratives” to be the thoughts/emotions of Xanther. She has learned how to express her inner voice. For her to be so young, a great deal of her thoughts are understandable. I think that she is dealing with a deep, deep inner hurt that she can not let go. Could the raindrops represent people, thoughts, or inner feelings?
For example, two of the “raindrops”: “first flipping the horizon over as if to reverse gravity, but that only makes the rain fall back into the clouds.” “If Xanther froze it all, suspended the whole storm with a wish, a wave of that impossibility with a long finger, which she tries to do now, if just in her head.”
Now, could we count the raindrops as tears? In these statements, since she has lost her father, could that be a reason for the thoughts and emotion. Not one of the “raindrops” represent happiness, they are all just… Sad.
The conclusion of The Familiar by Mark Z. Danielewski displays a powerful bond between humans and animals. The therapeutic relationship with animals is a theme shared with the novel Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler. Both Xanther and Anyanwu, who are controlled by something greater than themselves, find themselves comforted by the presence of animals. Xanther’s epilepsy keeps her on edge and anxious that she might have an attack at any moment. However, when she finds the cat which she can take care of, she experiences some serenity and is not overwhelmed with a cascade of questions. Instead, she finally feels that life is “answerable.” Similarly, Anyanwu finds herself controlled by Doro who forces her to adopt his lifestyle even if she does not agree with his practices, such as incest. Anyanwu is only able to evade his grasp by changing into an animal form. Also, when living with animals, she experiences a similar restoration as Xanther. This is demonstrated when she becomes despondent after the Margaret’s suicide and is told by Luisa to go back to the sea and live as a dolphin. After she does, she returns over a month later she feels and looks better. Both novels focus on the benefits of living harmoniously with animals.
It’s hardly strange that Xanther feels somewhat connected to this hummingbird after her epileptic bout. She certainly has a knack for injured animals, and I wonder if it is because she feels herself one. Hummingbirds, even in health, are all vibration and almost make a normality of epilepsy. So this injured one announces the pathology of its own state not in the shaking, but in its “eyes going blank”–though the blankness is more of a super-saturated knowledge and awareness. It does what Xanther appears to be able to do with the Narcon: invade other consciousnesses. It is able to refract itself “into another self beyond what every reflection still fails to consider” (794).
The seizure the bird was experiencing was the final stages of life. A threshold. A portal. The above analysis doesn’t change much. When the bird “departs,” Xanther is left in darkness, one that is strikingly like the blankness of the bird’s gaze, as nothing can hide there. The unequal darkness leads to her encounter (memory?) of that resuscitated kitten that sleeps next to her and transforms her inexorable sadness into a manageable one. It’s as though the darkness, the absence (or excess) of light (sense, sound, impulse…) were a proving ground, or some sort of cosmic (re)birth canal that grants the most mundane and unremarkable of second chances. Unless, of course, you’re Xanther, and then you do remark it because you recognise it for what it is.
A number of posts have already mentioned the theme of seizures and epilepsy that runs throughout the novel, with the most obvious examples being Astair’s memory of Xanther’s seizure on pages 242-253 and Tien Li’s seizure on page 522. I find it interesting that these two characters also seem to have been gifted with some kind of special sight or ability. They are set apart in the novel as being remarkable in some way other than simply being epileptic. Tien Li, for example, seems to be renowned as a healer in her community and she is treated with respect and believed to have special powers. Xanther is also set apart as special- even the Narcon-TF9 believes that she is remarkable and says that she can nearly seem to hear the Narcon. I find this interesting, especially because other popular media often gives individuals with certain disabilities a “savant status” (Rain Man and its depiction of autism is a great example) in which they are depicted to have special abilities because of their disability. While highlighting an individual’s abilities and focusing on what they can do instead of what they can’t is definitely a good thing, sometimes media can overdo it and downplay the impact of the disability or even romanticize it. I don’t think that The Familiar has fallen into this trap yet, but I’m interested to see how Danielewski continues with the theme of epilepsy in later novels.
On another note, seizures are of particular interest to me because I worked as a counselor at a camp for kids and adults with disabilities and I saw many, many seizures of many types. Most seizures are minor, very brief, and don’t require medical attention, something that I think the novel skims over. The seizure that Xanther experienced was a much more serious type, probably a tonic-clonic (or grand mal) seizure. The tonic-clonic is what people usually envision when they think of what a seizure looks like. It involves a loss of consciousness, jerking, stiffened muscles, and is considered a medical emergency if it lasts more than 5 minutes (they typically last 1-3 minutes). This resource explains a little bit more about the specific type of seizure that Xanther had and it also has a lot of other information about epilepsy:
Hopefully other people find this interesting because I think that the disability theme throughout the novel is fascinating.
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?
Jakob von Uexküll’s epigraph at the beginning of Xanther’s second chapter “Dr. Potts” (pg 178) is: “We must first blow, in fancy, a soap bubble around each creature to represent its own world, filled with the perceptions which it alone knows. When we ourselves then step into one of these bubbles…” This quote is from Von Uexkull’s article “A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men”. The excerpt is relating to his theory of Umwelt, which is the idea that every human and animal exists in its own environment and even though those environments are often shared each creature experiences its own individualistically; the term translates to something like “self-centered world”. The rest of the quote (which is not included in the epigraph in the book) continues “…the familiar meadow is transformed. Many of its colorful features disappear, others no longer belong together but appear in new relationships. A new world comes into being. Through the bubble we see the world of the burrowing worm, of the butterfly, or of the field mouse; the world as it appears to the animals themselves, not as it appears to us. This we may call the phenomenal world or the self-world of the animal.” First off, Danielewski cuts the quote off right before the words “The Familiar” which is just his own playfulness. More than that though, the concept that von Uexkull is talking about applies in a really interesting way to this chapter and to Xanther as a whole. This is the chapter that Xanther is talking to her psychologist and we get to see the larger impact that her disability has on her life. We get to see how Xanther experiences the world. In other words, we experience Xanther’s Umwelt. We step into her bubble (orb?) and see the world through it (like the worm/butterfly/mouse in von Uexkull’s quote). This is our foundation for empathy for her and her family’s life, which is the reason the Xanther/Anwar/Astair chapters were so captivating; this is the story we’re invested in. Again, Danielewski is challenging how we read novels. Despite the very little plot or action, we become totally engaged in Xanther’s life because he allowed us into her bubble (orb) and we can see the struggle for this precious little 12 year old girl who gets trapped in her own mind. The book doesn’t allow you just to read it as an observer – it forces you to become a participant, and that’s the literary genius of it.
I have dyslexia. And a collection of other learning disabilities but dyslexia itself has become a catchall term for “I have a learning disability”. I mention this because my disability impacts everything to do with my reading habits. So my reading of The Familiar is impacted by it as well.
I wasn’t really aware of exactly how much it was being affected until I was in another class explaining my disability to a fellow student. She made the comment that her color blindness made it so that she couldn’t understand anything in a book until a translucent red sheet was placed over the text.
The point I’m trying to make is that my disability creates a way for me to sympathize with Xanther in a way that most people might not have. Dyslexia is nothing like epilepsy but it can be just as isolating. The style in which Daneilewski write’s her character is very effective in communicating her disability.
In first meeting Xanther you can see the calming effect that Anwar’s mathematical logic in saying that 1=2 has on her. Before that point in the book, as he was building up to it an impending sense of panic started to come over me. And I could almost feel the rain pounding harder.
I’m curious if that same style had the same effect on readers without learning disabilities. How effective is Daneilewski’s choices in writing each character as effective to you as Xanther’s is to me?