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.
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?
Disclaimer: This is not my post. This post was created by Danielle Levy.
Hey guys! Thought id put this up..we are writing essays for class and i tried to map out the way in which the novel is constructed (how it remains convoluted yet maintains its organization..something along those lines 🙂 ) any comments would be great and criticisms about the writing or ideas! always trying to get better 🙂
Perhaps before we are able to realize it, the Astral Omega passage in the beginning of The Familiar summarizes the entire context of the novel. The passage seems to occur in the earliest period of time of the universe, the Planck Epoch, a time between 0 and 10^-43 seconds. While it appears that the narrator comes from this early time, he seems to come from the future, claiming that the past and the future have grown into one. He reveals that the ‘dissolution’ of the future is what has drawn the present into the future, a dissolution that has perhaps made it possible for him to futuristically report from the past. The narrator darkly mentions that despite prolonged ‘postponements,’ questions of war and death have turned out to be ‘broken promises.’ War and death are just as unanswered as they were in the past, and it seems that the ‘postponement’ of these problems did not lead to the solving of them. Danielewski, with this convergence in mind, thereby establishes the ‘familiar.’ The familiar is a marker of reoccurring significance that represents the convergence of the past and future as narrated in the novel. It appears throughout the novel as, literally, the highlighted word ‘familiar.’ Danielewski materializes the familiar, aside from just the word, in a more specific convergence between mysticism and the technological. The cat is predominantly the mystic familiar while the orb is the technological, and the owl is yet another convergence between the mystic and the technological that adopts characteristics of both worlds. These familiar’s have characters that operate them, and the characters through these mystic means come into contact with technological ends, or vice versa. The cat leads Xanther to the narcons through direct association, while the orb leads Cas and Bobby to the question of the mystic through its invention. The convoluted series of convergences between mystic and technological presuppose the ultimate convergence occurring between the past, present, and the future of everything in existence.
The transfer of the cat from Tian Li to Xanther through the rescue points towards Xanther’s ability to recognize the paranormal and operate in levels above that of her simple humanity. Through her ability, Danielewski converges the technological and the mystic by giving the mystic technological characteristics. The mystic is transformed into something technological when readers discover that the ultimate ‘higher beings’ seem to be narrative construct machines. In this way, God seems to be eliminated as the higher being and replaced by the ‘narcons’ that code the everyday lives of each character. Therefore, Xanther’s ability is indeed mystic, but is ultimately of a technological nature. Xanther’s epilepsy is also rendered simultaneously mystic and technological when it is both related to Tian li and attributed to overloads of information. In one sense, readers can tell that Xanther is some sort of paranormal, if not a witch, because Tian Li also has epileptic fits during spells. Yet, in the other sense, these fits are also said to be due to the aforementioned overloads of information. If one considers the definition of the familiar as a ‘spirit, often taking the form of an animal, which obeys and assists a witch or other person,’ its means is purely mystic. Yet, the ends of Xanther’s connection with the mystic cat lead her to the technological beings that are embodied within that cat. In the immediate sense, Xanther is a witch because she possesses paranormal capabilities of recognition. However, this recognition ultimately connects her to the world of the narcons, the technological beings that are the ends of her mystic abilities.
Cas and Bobby seem to represent the other side of the convergence in which the technological is rendered into the mystic. They have a seemingly governmental objective in which they may want to reveal very sensitive information that is shown on the orbs. These orbs capture ‘narcon’ narrations and show them, in various clips, to those watching. Readers could guess that because the narcons are omnipresent in nature, they show clips that reveal information that is too sensitive for the public, thus making the orbs objects of controversy. By starting with the technological, Cas and Bobby’s stories create different ends than that of Xanthers. The convergence in Xanther lies in the mystic means that lead to the technological ends. To put it simply, the mystic cat leads to the suspicion of the existence of the technological. Cas and Bobby’s orbs begin with technological means that capture mystic ends. The clips, which are the ends, are mystic because they rely on pure coincidence to show specific images or stories. Readers see an example of this reliance on coincidence when Bobby recalls that his friend, Sorcerer, saw Xanther in the orb, and knew her through Anwar. There is no mention of a pattern, nor of a deliberate search for Xanther, but instead a random clip that happened to connect Sorcerer with Xanther. Readers wonder where this coincidence came from, if it is coincidence, and if there is an even higher operational system above the narcons that is somehow controlling who sees what clip. The differentiation arises out of the ends that rely on coincidence, a mystic characterstic.
The owl is representative of yet another inter-convergence between the mystic and the technological that does not have a clear end or means. There are multiple examples of the owl as a predominantly mystic figure that thereby ends with the technological, while there are counter examples that end in the mystic. The Blade Runner allusion in the epigraph of ‘The Orb’ demonstrates the owl as a mechanical ‘replicant’ from the movie; replicants being engineered robots that are almost ‘more than human.’ One could say that the physically mechanical nature of the owl begs the question of its mystic properties, in which the boundaries of technology are challenged by a presence of artificial intelligence or emotion. In other examples, however, the owl is purely mystic when it inspires Tian Li’s epileptic fit from her experience in the owl room or when it appears as Pontianak. It becomes difficult to consider the owl either predominantly mechanical or mystic when it appears as ambiguously both. Furthermore, in the Familiar 2 passage on Oria, readers wonder if Oria is a part of Anwar’s game Paradise Open. If she is the enemy that was described as chasing the prey, she is mechanical in her physical sense, yet mystic in her potential self-awareness. This self-awareness can be seen when she decides to kill the baby jaguar. The lines are blurred, however, when it can be said that she exists in the same mode as every other character in the novel. Technically, every character is coded by a narcon, just as Oria is coded by Anwar. The owl is ambiguously difficult to pinpoint, and marks a perfect example of the convergence between technology and mysticism that does not begin with a specific means.
The convergences between mysticism and technology ultimately presuppose the convergence of the past, present, and the future. The opposite ways in which the mystic or the technological approach the other creates a sense of convolutedness that simultaneously has order. The use of the owl, cat, and orb as objects of interest could appear random superficially, but the way in which they are developed as objects of interest make them significantly more coherent. I specifically focused on the means in which these convergences are carried out, and in a sense tried to determine the means in which these convoluted convergences are formed. The construct that starts with the mystical and ends with the technological can be justified by searching for a technological representation of the cat. There doesn’t seem to be any instance in which the cat presents itself from a predominantly technological existence, and it instead remains in the mainly mystical. On the other hand, the orb better embodies the technological due to its physical existence as a machine. Therefore, its unexplained reliance on random, if not coincidental clips points towards a mystic ends that is not yet attributed to any one character. The owl, as the in between of the schema, is representative of the ever-converging nature of the convergences themselves. It is the explicit way in which these cacophonies and convergences form that creates the extremely convoluted yet meaningful feel in the novel, something that constantly renders us in search yet perpetually premature of the answer.
I really don’t quite understand the full significance of the raindrops but it is abundantly clear that they tie so many different aspects of this novel together. Raindrops are the strangest phenomena in this novel, Xanther seems to connect with this force of nature that certainly has a deeper meaning to its constant appearances. What do the raindrops have to do with the Xanther’s panic attacks and the narcons that each character is defined by? It’s possible that Xanther’s epilepsy ties into her ability to sift through other characters feelings and emotions in narcons and their computer code, but she is haunted by this influx of data causing her to have massive panic attacks. Her connection to the cat and her hunger for the number of raindrops displays her undeniable ability while that ability is still unable to be explained. Danielewski alludes to Xanther’s lonely battles with the rain on pg 66, “Like a ghost. A ghost in the raindrops.” Xanther has always been bullied and hasn’t been able to fit in due to her epileptic tendencies but the ability to read others thoughts and emotions could really have caused all these discrepancies with her peers. Borrowing from Kirschenbaum’s “Bookscapes,” the raindrops appear to be Xanther’s affordance between the narcons, other characters emotions and feelings, and her struggle to understand these frantic events while raining. Xanther unknowingly uses the rain to float between the layers of knowledge and power among the VEM, narcons, and other characters.
The unique ability to get a transparent representation of a family dynamic is awarded by the multiple sections in the Familar by Xanther, Anwar, and Astair and the ways that they interact and see each other. It is arguable that this family is the most relevant and central to TF, but it is also the most reliable due to the accountability and multiple presentations of each character. Details, patterns, and the random nature of The Familiar are already almost impossible to decipher, and the incomplete and by consequence unreliable perspectives of the other characters make it even more difficult to construct an accurate view to attempt to understand what Danielewski is trying to say. Because this family is most evident throughout the novel and the story line the most fully explained, it is safe to conclude that it has the most to reveal about the plot. Anwar is seen in Xanther’s eyes as a superhero who codes and answers her questions, but to Astair she is critical of him and to himself, perhaps even more critical. Whether colored favorably or not, a first person depiction of one’s self is never reliable and the validation or invalidation given by the other characters gives different aspects of the story credibility. Astair is seen as a strong mother and intelligent character by both her husband and children, but only upon her own perspective it is revealed to the audience the true desperate nature of her thoughts. Upon the kitten’s arrival, some form of a mental breakdown occurs within her sections but without their inclusion would go completely unnoticed. Without this perspective, the worry over Xanther and her constant feeling like she’s placing buckets everywhere to catch the leaks would not show how hard she’s working to try to keep things together and be successful rather than her claim that she is just allergic to cats. Xanther’s epilepsy is consuming to all members of the family, but if only viewed from her parent’s perspectives you would miss the strength, curiosity, and compassionate nature of Xanther that comes from her own perspectives.
The narcons who produce the stories produce them one character at a time, so it is up to the reader and not the writer to figure out the family dynamic and to deduce the truth from the multiple perspectives. A character alone is biased and incomplete, but the whole family unit allows for a sense of completion, and with that sense of completion, the task of starting to understand can begin.
As I was reading through “The Horrosphere” section, a piece of Danielewski’s writing caught my attention. On page 327, Xanther is narrating/speaking about her life. Danielewski writes, “…because resisting takes up so much more energy. That’s one of the things about the questions, maybe the biggest thing?, they take up a lot of energy. Like they exhaust her.” As I thought about this idea of energy and what it means to “take up energy,” I decided to look up the definition of the word. Through my Google search, I found this definition: “the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity.” Even though this novel is so large, I don’t think it would be crazy to focus in on every word Danielewski has written. His work is clearly meant to be analyzed with extreme detail. As Xanther states that questions exhaust her, I cannot help but remember several sections in the novel where she asks many questions to those around her. On page 95, Xanther asks and answers a plethora of questions, but does not seem to grow tired. This conversation centers around Dov, though.
Dov’s death affects the character of Xanther significantly and is directly tied to the idea of energy within Danielewski’s work. This section of questions seems to give Xanther energy because it is centered around Dov. In other sections of the novel, though, the thought of Dov or his death overwhelms Xanther to the point of experiencing a seizure. It seems as though Dov is a point of energy for Xanther–one that can have positive or negative outcomes. The title of the novel The Familiar highlights the idea of something being well-known or recognizable. Maybe the idea of Dov’s life gives Xanther the positive energy she needs to survive, and the all too well-known idea of Dov’s death is what breaks her down. This familiarity of Dov sparks something deep inside of Xanther.
From the start of the novel, it is evident that Xanther is quite a unique character. Although only 12 years old, she faces the unfortunate reality of having to endure epileptic episodes. As many have expressed on the forum, I find myself mainly concerned and attached to the Xanther sections. Her narrative allows the reader an entrance into the mind of not only a brilliant and yet still inherently naïve young girl, but also into the mind of someone prone to epilepsy. When Xanther is speaking, her rambling is extremely sporatic, causing me to pause and speed up at abnormal areas. Her frantic and spastic nature personifies her illness, and leaves me on edge every time I read through her sections. One particular scene in which I felt Xanther’s epilepsy was extremely personified was when she was testing Anwar’s game. The predator chasing her had not yet been defined, and Xanther was running through the game trying to escape its grasp. While reading this part, I kept thinking of her illness as this dark cloud that hovers, threatening her, causing her to try and out run and evade another epileptic episode.
The parenthetical information provided gives a direct window into Xanther’s subconscious, and grants her a unique voice that helps us to understand her character. Just like the jingjing and shnork sections carry diverse dialects, the Xanther sections, also have their own “language”. The way Danieleswki provides misspellings and pronunciations written phonetically instead of correctly, connects us to Xanther and the way her mind works (once again inspiring a sense of child-like innocence that connects to the reader). For example, whenever Anwar refers back to the time he read Xanther Homer’s “The Illiad”, Xanther remembers it as “I –lion”.
Anwar and Astair’s constant concern for the well being of Xanther, and their (understandable) paranoia as to when the next seizure might occur, gains the reader’s sympathy, which I also believe makes the Xanther sections more appealing and relatable. Xanther’s disease not only dominates over her life, but the lives of every member in her family. Her twin sisters seem to cling to one another out of a sense of neglect; Anwar and Astair burden themselves financially in order to attend to their daughter’s needs. Furthermore, when Anwar and Xanther return from Venice the first time, Astair sees Xanther all bloody and bruised, and immediately is frozen with fear. The shape of the text all blurring together, and her delirious state appeared to me as if she herself was having a seizure. She wasn’t able speak, and the way the words were blending together made it seem like she her vision was fading from this extreme and nightmareish situation. The same could be said for Anwar, when Xanther runs out of the car, he has a break down that is described similar to one of Xanther’s epileptic seizures.
To what degree is epilepsy Xanther’s “familiar” in this novel, and what would that mean? Considering the gulf between the twins and Xanther, Anwar notes (p. 127), “Perhaps on some level the girls consider Xanther’s condition a kind of companion…. It’s, after all, always with her. About her.” And Astair agrees, thinking that for a year she had been trying actually “to locate and secure for her child a better companion” (128). How might this “companion” link Xanther to Tian Li, who also is mired in language and set apart? In what way does it connect her to Dr. Cas, who is physically disabled and is the only one who can communicate with the Orb? How will the status of this companion change when Xanther receives a new “familiar”?