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The key to all mythologies; or, a look at two epigraphs

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?

Özgür’s Posturing

Özgür struck me emphatically as the most stereotypical of The Familiar’s nine narrators. He portrays himself as a noir style detective, complete with “the overcoat, [and] the trilby” (174). Moreover, he constantly references his heroes- crime novelists and jazz musicians- whom he emulates in practically every way “until eventually he no longer resembled a caricature of Marlowe, but if anything Marlowe looked like a caricature of him” (174). Yet it is this strange sense of self-awareness that saves him from becoming a cliché. In his first section in the novel, he ruminates explicitly on whether or not he is simply a posture, never reaching a real conclusion but claiming that he is not thinking of these cultural icons even though they have populated his thoughts for the last couple of pages and reemerge not five lines later after a brief interlude focusing on a mysterious woman, another noir trope. He seems to realize his own unoriginality but is unwilling to create a distinctive identity for himself or fully admit his banality. Given the meta-fictional context of the novel, Danielewski seems to be commenting here on media’s potential to shape our conceptions of the self insofar as people purposefully craft themselves after cultural archetypes. Özgür epitomizes this aspect of mass media and production.

Has anyone else noticed any instances of purposeful identity construction in the other narratives?

Magical Realism?

Reading this book has really gotten odd, honestly. There are so many different elements that are weird in the book that what appears to be going on is something straight from a G.G. Márquez novel.

For example, with Isandorno, we have a character who is a “practitioner of superstition without being superstitious.” This paradoxical statement along with the telling of his story in Veinte Pesos is really reminiscent of a dream sequence in a magical realist genre-ed book. Why the random animals (donkey and goat)? Why climb a pyramid? What does he mean by “What hunts you now you already own”? One critic said of magical realism, “If you can explain it, it isn’t magical realism.” So, I’m not really positing that this is magical realism, but it very well could be. Magical realism, too, is a practice in much of Latin American literature. (It is derived from the folklore of the region from which it comes–almost like the epic tradition from Homer to Virgil to Milton and then Eliot).

Magical realism acknowledges animals with spiritual significance, contains lots of metafiction, real world setting with unworldly events treated normally, and a mysterious tone — all things possibly present here.

I’m just posing questions here, honestly. I’m curious as to what exactly is pulling these characters out into the rain–what the rain represents–why the creation of a metafictitious device like a Narcon, and ultimately why write a 37-volume series about a girl who finds a kitten? I’m not confident we’ll get any answers too quickly — Danielewski doesn’t seem to function like that.

The Thing Itself

Anwar’s chapters are particularly enlightening throughout. More than Xanther, he is my guide for navigating the terrain of this novel. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is that he perceives the world in a way that is most relative to me. The way he processes the world around him, and then at the end of the book they way that he internalizes this process to sort through his own thoughts, made me more confident than ever that he was the best tour guide through what I think of as Xanther’s world.

One of his thoughts, I believe, sums up the main question of the text, “What happens to a metaphor when it ceases to become a metaphor, but the thing itself…” (720)?

This leads me to a lot of other questions:

What does it mean for Anwar to make these connections? What does it mean that he witnessed the resurrection of the kitten? What does it mean that he is the only one awake for the kitten’s escape from its reinforced box into Xanther’s bed? What does this mean for the narcons? What does this mean for the Orb?

In the other narratives, we see that certain characters have an affinity for certain animals: Astair and Luther love dogs, Tian Li, Isandorno, and Xanther have a fondness for cats, we hear at some point that Xanther’s old psychologist had an affinity for horses…and so on. We can think of the animals associated with these characters as familiars of a sort, but that brings me to my next question.

What animal is linked with Anwar? It’s probably in the text somewhere, but I must have missed it.

(Containment) and Its Failure

While the relationship between the narrative arcs remains uncertain to this point (395) of the novel, a tension between containment and excess ties many (or all) of them together thematically already; perhaps more significantly, it offers as one primary link between the content level and the experimental design. Because this is occurring on multiple levels in big and small ways, I’m going to break it into a few different (arbitrary and permeable) sections for now.

On the content level, Xanther of course evokes this explicitly, from the start. Her concern with counting the raindrops isn’t just the difficulty of finding a way to track them all; rather it’s a concern for the impossibility, the ways that the number would exceed our sense of measurement. She wonders, “What kind of counting equals this sort of overwhelmingness? . . .  It has to exist, but if no one will ever name it, is it ever real?” (61). This concern persists so that she later asks Talbot and team if it would be possible with their program (348). The question resonates with her seizures, as she notes that “sometimes people describe seizures as an overwhelming amount of information in the brain,” fearing that makes her an “A-hole” (350). Furthermore, she relates it to her parents and the deluge of calls and emails, which starts to open up the fact that even though Glasgow dismisses her rain question, the other characters often share the concern. The idea of programming an AI evokes this, as it’s an attempt to create “rules,” a form of containment, for something that will exceed those rules and be able to make its own decisions. Bobby describes how “the distribution went everywhere. Self-replicating” (144). The human/animal relationship similarly evokes this; Astair thinks of the seizures as a “wild beast,” “shapeless except for claws and teeth” (254), and Luther’s crew tries to control the dogs for pit-fighting. The animal is suggested as specifically at odds with containment, by Astair who questions, “Was repression at work in Xanther? or had the vital threat of such events drawn forth animal reactions” and by Isandorno, who calls the human chest a “fragile cage” and sees in the totems “everything he cannot tame” (319, 323).

The other two levels of this discussion are a little more general. The attempt and inability to contain is apparent on the level of language as well. Anwar’s and Astair’s narratives are notably filled with brackets that try to hold together their thoughts, which nevertheless scatter beyond control. We think of something like brackets as an aid in clarity, and the nesting should theoretically help that, making each part belong to a larger group; instead, the nesting shows more how their thoughts come to mirror Xanther’s Question Song, with digressions leading to further digressions. Exponentiation echoes this, with the repetition of 3/9/27. And the wordplay does so as well, as a resistance to language’s goal of precision and clarity. Lastly, the design aspects show the resistance of thought to the supposed containment of an artistic work. Books especially create a sense of containment in the bound pages and covers, but of course, historically that’s never been an effective constraint on where the audience’s imagination expands the pages. However, Danielewski has made exceeding the boundaries of the book a practice in the past, and immediately does so here. One of the first prefatory pages shows some of the acclaim stretching beyond the page limits, the “previews” allow content to exceed the title page, and the standard Danielewski-ism of experimental formatting breaks the conventional constraints of the page.

This post is getting rather long, but I think what this suggests, and what I imagine we’ll see developing more, is a thematic consistency centering on the idea that the “pre”-human animal and the post-human programming/AI are linked in their resistance to the human drive toward control (a drive suggested even in my making the animal “pre-human” just now), but also that human creations themselves (art, language) break free of their supposed boundaries.

beginnings and endings of chapters

Something that I found to be interesting in the novel are the beginnings and endings of chapters. As The Familiar is a novel that combines so many highly individualized stories and characters, the beginnings and endings of chapters (as the place where the disparate stories “meet,” or come into direct contact) are particularly emphasized. The fact that Danielewski does not often provide much context at the beginnings of the chapters, instead starting in media res reinforces the notion that the stories bleed into one another because they are stacked right next to one another without any fluff in between. In this sense the beginnings and ending of each chapter are like cinctures.

Many chapters thus far (up until page 398 at least) begin with a line of dialogue, and most begin with a saying or quote attributed to someone well-known. What significance do these “voices” that are featured at the beginning of chapters (whether in dialogue or simply in the invoked “voices” of those to whom the quotes are attributed) have? How does the primarily auditory nature of these “voices” influence the narrative style as a whole?

front matter, end matter

Starting the text, one encounters a bunch of material as “front matter.” How does this relate to the stories we will read in the text body, and the “back matter” at the end of the story? Why is the novel enframed in this way? How does the framing material introduce thematic ideas explored in the text body–for instance, the relation between time and expression, body and language, noumenal and phenomenal reality, “normative” vs. “non-normative” life?

  • Headquote: kids and time, not space. “They never know WHEN they are.” Will the book be about time as well?
  • Front matter stories segments (different times, from deep past through present to deep future):
  • NEW THIS SEASON–seems an actual promo for Pantheon’s new releases, parallel to Danielewski’s preview of the next volume in this series at the end of the book.
  • unfathomably sophisticated beings trillions of years into the future, who (like us today) cannot answer the questions of death and war
  • Tom’s Crossing: Story of a boy who died of cancer, rode horses with another boy
  • Caged Hunt: something like a Youtube video showing 3 guys at (San Antonio?) Texas on July 29, 2014; they are snorting cocaine and bragging about going to do drugs (“going bowling”)
  • a page with 5 categories: Rain, Signiconic, Violence, Planetarity, Custody
  • a picture of a rock (Twin Rivers Ochre Artifact) and then a narrative of the deep past, “243,243 years ago” in what is today Lusaka, Zambia, where Boy and Girl talk about a violence to their people by…a predatory cat?
  • Seemingly a chapter division page, “One Rainy Day in May”, which we find out from is actually the subtitle of Danielewski’s novel, and the page features shadow pictures of at least 4 of the scenes above.

There are no page numbers until page 34, and then page numbers are normal type, at bottom of page. Once the “novel proper” begins–after the front matter–the page numbers are slanted and underlined.

The recto and verso sides of leaves within the “story proper” have odd markings running along the fold; what are these?