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Levels of Awareness: Narcons & The Halting Problem

Perhaps the most troublesome element of The Familiar is the presence of the Narcons. On one hand, we get a first person description of one of them, but while it describes itself, the other Narcons chime in as if they are commenting on what this particular one is saying, but the one that has a section devoted to it doesn’t seem to have any awareness of the other ones.

What does this mean? Why are there different Narcons? A few of us have suggested that they represent different elements of storytelling, one of the narcon states facts while another mentions more artistic things. So, if we’re meant to understand these as narrative construct, whose story are we actually reading?

The last question is most puzzling to me. We have different stories that distinctly echo different character’s voices. We had discussed in class that even details of font type and size correlate with how we construct these characters. (Luther for example is a large, imposing person whose chapters are filled thematically with power. As a result, his text is the most bold and the largest per character. In such a way, it mirrors how we characterize him.) Why is font necessary though? Why is how the character interacts with others a defining characteristic? Well, I would posit the potential that though these stories are being told in the first person, we might actually be viewing them from the perspectives of the Narcons.

Let me present why I might think this. When Xanther mispronounces a word, Narcons, in the absence of Anwar, chime in to correct her. If we conceive the Narcons as narrative constructs, ie. a piece of technology or a program, then it might seem that they trying to codify the information they are gathering by viewing these characters.

Reconsider how the text and font changes with each character. Now this is just a shot in the dark, but perhaps this Narcons make sense of characters through codifying them–assigning them a set font style so that they can differentiate the information. TF-Narcon 9 says that it knows a great deal about Xanther. How does it know these things about Xanther? I believe that there might be two possible answers.

 

For the first, it might be that the Narcons are programmed in such a way that they can offer an immensely detailed account of characters. Their depth of character knowledge is so deep that they assume what they can do in any given situation. As a result, they put together stories for these individuals. This would result in the Narcons actually telling us a story and the characters being figments of a machine’s imagination. I don’t believe this answer to be satisfying and it also problematic because of jing-jing’s chapters.

 

jing-jing’s chapters have several languages in them that make it difficult for the reader to follow. However, jing jing later starts speaking in languages that the other characters in his chapter didn’t realize he could. Once this shift in the narrative happens, we see a greater amount of commentary from the Narcons. They chime in and translate more and more for us. From this anecdote I will posit what I believe to be the true nature of Narcons, sentient and constantly compounding, non-halting computational devices.

Disclaimer, I am no expert in coding and only have very limited knowledge of this topic from studying formal logic. With that being said, codes function in algorithms that have a finite number of steps that produce a given answer. Once an answer is satisfied, the code halts, that is to say it reaches a logical conclusion. For this limitation, computers do not have the capacity to learn. All their pathways must be pre-ordained and written in the way of codes.

Now let’s consider these Narcons that have the ability to amass great amounts of knowledge. How did they learn these things? With the concept of a compounding computer in mind, perhaps, just maybe, these Narcons are computer entities that have somehow solved the halting problem. If this is the case, they would be able to codify information that would be otherwise unintelligible to them–in other words they could catalog and learn from information that they have not had previous exposure to. Maybe these Narcons are, in fact, thinking machines.

Publication and Sequel

Now that we are several months out from when we first read The Familiar, more information is available about its sequel and the final design of the book. We spent a lot of time interpreting the black and white design elements of the pre-release copy, and it will soon be available in full color with even more interpretations. To the left is the book’s cover, and I think it does a fantastic job of introducing the reader to what they will experience while reading it. Not only does it include a pattern of the margin symbols (which, I believe, we now know are some sort of timeline), but the images within the 1 become less clear the more you look at them. I see what appears to be a dinner plate and centerpiece overlaid by two different kinds of orbs. The one on the left looks especially sic-fi, while the one on the bottom seems to show the functions of the Orb with its warped presentation of human silhouettes in front of the sun or some other source of light.

The Amazon page also provides more information about Volume IIInto the Forest, which is set for release on October 27, 2015.

The Familiar, Volume 1  Wherein the cat is found . . .
The Familiar, Volume 2  Wherein the cat is hungry . . .

From the universally acclaimed, genre-busting author of House of Leaves comes the second volume of The Familiar, a “novel [which] goes beyond the experimental into the visionary, creating a language and style that expands the horizon of meaning . . . hint[ing] at an evolved form of literature.”*

This seems like good news for cat lovers, as the cat is presented as the main focus of the series. It is also ominous about what it means that the cat is hungry. The way Xanther found the cat was odd enough, and now I am really curious about what exactly it is hungry for—perhaps the birds we saw in the preview for this book?

I’ll be preordering the sequel, and I think the pace at which the books are being released bodes well for those of us who don’t want to be in our 40s (or older) when the final volume is released.

Thoughts on the cover design and the hints about Volume Ii?

Metafiction in Maus and The Familiar

Both Maus and The Familiar are examples of metafiction. However, the way in which these books use metafiction is entirely different. Maus, as an auto-biographical, or at least semi-autobiographical, graphic novel allows for Spiegelman to edit his prose through the eyes of a self-conscious narrator. The narcons, in The Familiar, could also be seen as editors using their own knowledge in order to edit the story, but not in the same way as Spiegelman. Spiegelman’s metafiction, on both the textual and visual level of narrative, shows how an author can become part of his/her own story.

Spiegelman, as both author and character, is capable of shifting from narrating the story to lamenting on the difficulty of actually producing the story itself. Spiegelman’s style of metafiction shows how an author can become a part of the story itself, whereas Danielewski uses characters within the story, but outside of the specific narrative, to influence the entire work.

“The Orb” vs. Yamashita’s “The Ball”

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.

POV in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and The Familiar

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.

Narcons and Art Speigleman: Readers Beware

Narcons are the editing characters in The Familiar. Art Speigleman is the author and illustrator of Maus and therefore the editor. While Art Speigleman is a real character in the real world, he is also the main character in the graphic novel. So the Narcons edit the narrative as it is happening but Speigleman edits his narrative to influences his readers as well.

The levels of narration:

Speigleman is the writer/illistraor of the novel.

Speigleman is the main character of the book.

Speigleman the character mentions Speigleman the author, breaking the forth wall and revealing inner thoughts of the author.

Therefor the main character is unreliable because he is influenced and edited to influence the reader.

The same applies to the Narcons in a way:

Mark Z. Danielewski is the author of the novel.

The Narcons  edit the narration and characters as the narration happens.

Narcons edit other Narcons.

The same applies. The Narcons, and therefore the characters, are unreliable due to the influence of the Narcons to influence the reader.

In both of these books, the readers must read with caution. The author of the texts uses narrative techniques to hide information and convey certain emotions, pushing readers in the narrative direction the author wants. This can be confusing to the readers if they do not do close readings. If reading too fast, the reader can miss key things, such as: The Familiar‘s link of the loss of Tai Li’s cat but the gain of Xanther’s cat. In Maus, when Art is on the porch with his wife and his father, an Auschwitz survivor, is moaning in his sleep, his wife comments how awful that must have been and Art sprays pesticide. The more appalling parallel is that they had just been speaking about the gas chambers of Auschwitz. If the reader simply reads through the text without doing close readings, they will be influenced by the editing characters and miss a few key facts and images. Readers beware and read with caution.

Omniscient Narrators as Characters

In both Danielewski’s The Familiar and Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rainforest readers are exposed to entities that act as (seemingly) omniscient narrators and characters at the same time. In The Familiar this narrator, or rather narrators (or possibly just one narrator? Hard to say without all the information), comes in the form of narcons 3, 9, and 27.

Now,I will admit, calling the narcons narrators is being a little generous. Usually they are simply correcting information mistakenly remembered by the characters, or adding a bit of poetic flair (narcon 3’s specialty, it seems). They are implied simply to be spectators to the plot like the readers. However, there are moments where the narcons provide information that is unavailable to either the characters in the book or the readers. For example, in the unmarked intermission on what should be page 576, Narcon 27 (the factual narcon) and Narcon 3 (the artistic narcon) both give us very detailed information about the death of Mrs. Goolsend. Not only do they tell us how and when she died, they are also able to tell us that her last thoughts were of a painting she had seen in 1988. By giving the readers this information, the narcons are acting both as omniscient narrators and characters.

We meet a similar entity in Yamashita’s Through the Arc of the Rainforest, called only The Ball. The Ball is a strange little orb-y guy (or gal?) attached to Kazumasa, who is the main character. The Ball, like the narcons, is unable to interact directly with any of the characters. Unlike the narcons though, it does have a physical manifestation that the other characters can see (which may actually be true of the narcons, but the narcons aren’t aware…? I don’t know, man. 26 more books). In fact, it is explicitly stated that Kazumasa takes great comfort in the constant presence of The Ball, calling it his constant companion and friend. He even grieves when [SPOILER!] The Ball disintegrates and ‘dies’ [END SPOILER]. Even though The Ball is narrating a large part of the story, even parts of the story that pertain to other characters outside its immediate sphere of interaction, it is also functioning as an essential character inside of the story it is narrating.

 

It’s certainly interesting to see omniscient narrators participate in the story they’re telling, if a little strange.

 

 

The Many Faces of Metafiction: Danielewski’s The Familiar and Spiegelman’s Maus

Danielewski’s The Familiar and Art Spiegelman’s  Maus are similar in the fact that they are both metafictional texts to some degree.  The Familiar, in my opinion, is more overt about its metafictional nature. The Narcons are somewhat jarring reminders that each of the character’s narratives are just stories that we are reading. Whether they are fictional stories created by the Narcons or some other entity is irrelevant. The Narcons are always interjecting their own thoughts right into the middle of the narratives. The complete change in voice and even change in font disrupts the flow of the text and reminds the readers (us) that they are reading. They even add a whole chapter in the middle of The Familiar (We can assume that it’s not supposed to be considered part of the book because the chapter doesn’t have page numbers). The awareness of the Narcons as “readers” then reminds us of ourselves as “readers.” So this story has at least three levels.

With Maus, we can see the same three-level structure. However, Maus is more subtle about being metafiction. To be honest, I didn’t even realize that it could be considered metafiction until we talked about it in class. This is because of who or what is in each of the three levels. The first level contains Artie and his father Vladek. Artie is interviewing his father, asking questions about his experiences doing the Holocaust. The third level is – like The Familiar – us as the readers. The second level contains Art Spiegelman, the author/artist of Maus. Art Spiegelman’s presence in the text is subtle because he is essentially the same person as Artie from level one. The difference is that Artie is Art’s representation of himself in the story. He is the literary version of Art Spiegelman – a character. This is why Art Spiegelman draws Artie as a mouse like he does all of the other Jews in the story. When we see Art Spiegelman the author, he is drawn as a man wearing a mouse mask. He is different than Artie. However, the two cannot be completely separated. Because of this, it is difficult to differentiate between Artie’s voice and Art Spiegelman’s voice.

I also wanted to mention the function of metafiction in both texts. I think we can all agree that The Familiar is a very confusing and complicated text. I still really have no idea what the heck is going on. However, it seems to me that The Familiar uses metafiction as a way of making a statement. I’m not sure what that statement is exactly, but I think it has something to do with the process of writing and the relationship between an author and whatever it is that they are writing. But that’s not the point. In Maus, metafiction is used as a therapeutic device. Art Spiegelman is using Maus and the process of writing Maus to come to terms with what his father went through in the Holocaust, his relationship with his father, and how those two things have affected him.  Art Spiegelman’s interaction with the story of Artie and Vladek shows that he is forcing himself to acknowledge those three things and then deal with them in some way.

Ok, I hope that made sense.

The Familiar and Maus: Metaficton

While most of the novels we’ve been reading in class this semester have dealt with a human/animal relationship, Maus by Art Spiegelman is the first novel after The Familiar to have strong ties in metafiction. The Familiar is overtly metafictional and it’s plain to see within seconds of opening the book. However, Maus is metafictional is a similar yet different way. The biggest example in Maus is that Art Spiegelman is writing the novel, that he is also a part of, about Artie Spiegelman who seems to still be working out some emotional conflicts. Spiegelman breaks the fourth wall in some sections and the novel refers to itself in some areas. For example, the characters in the novel can be seen discussing the success of the very book of which they are a part.

Spiegelman makes us aware that we are reading a graphic novel several times throughout the novel. For example, in one section, he is trying to decide how to illustrate a tin workshop and talks of how he doesn’t like to draw machinery. In fact, there is actually a comic within the graphic novel that Spiegelman illustrated and produced before Maus was published. And in that comic, is a picture of his mother— one of the three individuals in this novel that are presented in actual photographs instead of depicted as animals.

Similarly, the Narcons in The Familiar are a part of the story but also exist outside of the story space. The Narcons appear to be in complete control of the narrative, deleting information and commenting on things whenever necessary. Of course, TF-Narcon stands for The Familiar Narrative Construct. So similar to Maus, we get 3 characters that are telling the story that are also a part of the story (or I guess it’s more like they make themselves a part of the story).

Major Frustration

January 20

I am starting to not enjoy this book at all but I am only at the halfway point.  I like books that I can read deep into but this is a complete and total mystery.  I am really enjoying all the Xanther editions and pushing myself to keep reading further and hopefully finding her again.  This whole ordeal of piecing together stories and also keeping them apart from each other is very difficult.  I am hoping on every page that I am brought to, I can fully understand but it is not coming to me.  To jingjing and the Armenians… “feel like am reading movie” get it?

January 29

To my surprise I am taking back my statement on January 20th.  Now that I have completed this “journey” and have meditated with my class, I am understanding the author, the characters, and why this book is a complete mystery.  Yes, we have talked about why literary books are “deeply over read” but in this case (reading The Familiar or any of Danielewski’s books) your mind can wander and think about anything it wants time and time again.  

Let me clarify: When reading a “regular” literary novel that is written in unmarked text it is simple to understand the meaning of the story.  And again, when reading the book a second time, more information may surface.  Possibly, when reading a third time, the reader can again pick up on more information.  In The Familiar each time the book is read, I feel that new information is everlasting.  Every time the text is read, new information will surface time after time after time….

This book is definitely not for the typical reader.  It’s special.