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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.


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).

Playing With Narrative Structure

As I continue to read – especially now after having encounter Danielewski for the first time – I am always intrigued by an author’s to ability create some kind of new narrative dynamic which elevates the work above the traditional and direct paragraph/page by page form to something innovative and experimental while at the same time working completely within the limits of that same “page by page,” normal book form. Reading (or rather exploring) Danielewski’s work, it is easy to see that he enjoys playing with the narrative structure of his work a great deal. There is the plain story (or story lines) that live within the text, but to enhance these familiar plot structures there is the narrative style of the novel. Such a style I can honestly admit I have never encountered before, especially considering the entire middle section of the book when we finally learn that the book is being narrated by not one but three separate “Narcon” entities. This realization certainly adds to the complexity of the work, most notably in the fact that the reader becomes somewhat skeptical of these voices knowing that they are in some ways similar (and thus unreliable) as a character within the novel narrating the text his or herself.

With this in mind, I scoured the internet in search of some discussion on narrative form. Instead of landing on any number of high level, literarily critical essays, I landed on a reddit discussion page in which a broad range of readers have shared their most favorite narrative styles. I know that this may not help the confused reader of Danielewski in solving the complexity of his separate but invariably linked Narcons. However, it does provide a list of great, experimental literature and its always varying narrative styles.

Speculation about the Nature of Reality in The Familiar

This post may contain spoilers up through the end of the book.

In class yesterday we briefly touched on the idea that the “reality” we experience in The Familiar is not “real” because it’s synthesized by the narcons. I thought that this was an interesting concept to explore. Does the fact that the story is constructed twice-over (at least)—by Danielewski and then by the narrative constructs (and possibly a third time by the creator of the narcons)—lessen the stakes of the narrative or the emotional connection that the reader feels?

We go into a story knowing that it is not “real” but we still allow ourselves to suspend our disbelief, becoming emotionally involved with the characters. Reading The Familiar, however, several people have mentioned the feeling of being manipulated by the book. This made me wonder whether or not it was a deliberate move on the part of the author, or an unintended side effect of the complicated form of the story. As much as it seems like a strange thing to do (potentially alienating readers during the first of 27 volumes), I thought that the sense of manipulation added something to my perception of the story.

The Familiar is a very non-traditional novel while also being very conscious of its status as a book (such as the rain pages, its status as a codex, and the formatting of the text on the page). This immediately throws the reader for a loop, as the text can be read and interpreted in different ways. There are also references to things the reader may be unfamiliar with and a variety of languages that are not always translated. This is not the way readers expect to consume a book and by asking the reader to search for outside information in order to inform their interpretation of the text, the reader becomes involved in the text in a way that is almost like being another level of the narrative.

After establishing this, The Familiar goes even further, bringing in the idea that the characters we’ve become invested in are all faux-humans created by these “narrative constructs” (565) and aren’t actually real, even within the universe of the story. This makes the reader feel cheated, perhaps like they have wasted their time on these characters that now have no emotional value. This is an interesting feeling considering the reader started the story knowing that the characters weren’t real.

I speculate that this effect is because the reader emotionally inserts themselves at the narrative level of the characters (Xanther, Astair, Anwar, etc.) and by revealing that the characters are unreal twice-over, the author puts the reader in the position of feeling like their experience is unreal. Instead of being a detriment, I feel that this actually improved my own experience with the book. Not only did it add an unexpected twist and futility to their plights, but it helped me to empathize with the characters.

What are your thoughts on the manipulative properties of the text? Do you feel that this cheapened the experience of the book, or added something to it?

Could we read this novel in different ways?

I was sort of thinking that we could read this novel in the 9 separate ways for the 9 separate narratives. Mostly because when I was reading it, I was mostly focused on Xanther’s narrative so I had to skim back through everyone else’s narratives. Basically, most of my thinking went into the sections where Xanther, Anwar, and Astair are the speakers. I sort of lumped them together but maybe we could even read their narratives separately. It seems like another challenge of how we’re supposed to read the novel. Of course, I read it chronologically like I’m assuming we all have, so I can’t speak of how exactly it would affect a reading of the novel. But I do think it may have helped with some of the confusion we’ve had if only slightly. Any thoughts?


Today in class, we discussed different levels of power and authority associated with different pieces of literature. We referenced Johanna Drucker in” target=”_blank”>The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art where she discusses the difference between marked and unmarked texts. In unmarked texts, the format is simple, and the words mean exactly what they say, leaving no room for interpretation. An unmarked text is transparent. Danielewski interrupts this transparency with The Familiar—a marked text. Danielewski makes the pages visually stimulating by skewing the format and providing pictures. He draws the reader in and holds the reader accountable for interpretation of the novel as a whole.

The difference in these two pieces is the presence of power. When reading an unmarked text, the reader does not feel a sense of authority. A marked text, however, is written by the author to provoke thought, create conversations, and formulate answers to the unknown. To put this in simpler terms, let’s compare these types of text to types of sentences. When thinking about unmarked vs. marked texts, I imagine an unmarked text as an imperative sentence—a sentence that tells us exactly what to do and does not leave any room for questions. On the other hand, I imagine a marked text as an interrogative sentence—a sentence ending in a question mark that elicits a response from the reader.

Danielewski gives his readers a great deal of power in this book, leaving questions unanswered and room for interpretation. He also includes a hierarchy of power within the story. We can view these layers of authority like Xanther’s digital social media spheres on page 335—The Solosphere, The Amicasphere, the Noosphere, and the Horrosphere.

First, we can use the Solosphere (“contained, known, safe”) to represent the first level of power in the story—the characters. The characters’ stories are created by a higher power, and it is questionable whether the characters are aware of any other level of power. Secondly, the Amicasphere represents the Narcons. These computer-like programs help tell the stories, and on page 571 of the Narcon section, the Narcon says, “I know every reality Xanther has encountered whether pebble, pot holder, or tangerine seed…I know that which is beyond Xanther too.” The next layer is the Noosphere (“Definitely the least safe.”). This represents VEM. This is an acronym that is mentioned numerous times throughout the novel (see pages 569, 571, 639, 642, 647). Although we are unsure what it stands for, we get the sense that it is a higher power of creation in the novel. Finally, the last layer is the Horrosphere. The author, Danielewski, would be categorized into this most-outward layer. He is the creator of the story and has the greatest amount of power. He created this work of fiction, and he controls VEM, the Narcons, and the characters.

Where within these layers do the readers fall? I think we may even fall outside the limits of these spheres. We are free to create out own interpretations. What do you think?

Response to “Raindrop Interpretations” by delklor

Danielewski’s novel The Familiar One Rainy Day in May uses rain to create and depict ideas crucial to its plot line and character development. While rain may be taking place in the physical world around these characters, it is abstractly represented in other ways as well. Xanther’s epilepsy can be seen rather clearly in some ways, and vaguely in others. My first reaction to seeing Danielewski’s choice of design of these “raindrop words” was one of awe. I have never been able to imagine what the mind of someone with epilepsy could be like until I saw this image. In the “Is Everything Okay?” section, the raindrop images begin to develop from one “drop” of words to hundreds over the span of pages 68 and 69. I would interpret these raindrop-heavy pages to be a clear image of Xanther as she is overwhelmed, on the verge of seizing, or experiencing a seizure.

I would definitely agree with delklor’s post as he/she describes the overwhelming nature of this choice in design. Reading the sections with this raindrop design is frustrating, straining, and time consuming. This assessment of emotions can also be reflected onto Xanther’s character. On pages 66 and 67, there are several sections of writing that almost interrupt the pattern of the raindrops. It seems as she has a flood of rain-like thoughts consuming her mind, she is able to respond to them. She is still in some control of her mind as the other writing says “Stop!” several times. Danielewski’s design choice offers a unique way to see in the overwhelming and intricate mind of Xanther.

Narcons: Subitizing Death?

Upon re-reading the part about the hummingbird’s death on page 794, I paid much more attention to the interjections of the Narcons. What they imply about the nature of mediation, death, and the self is really compelling in connection with the “signiconic,” and what I have to say is largely to do with Danielewski’s definition of signiconic that Professor Raley sent out, so here it is:

Signiconic = sign + icon. Rather than engage those textual faculties of the mind remediating the pictorial or those visual faculties remediating language, the signiconic simultaneously engages both in order to lessen the significance of both, and therefore achieve a third perception no longer dependent on sign and image for remediating a world in which the mind plays no part.

This is a very basic human problem: our perceptions of the world are inherently remediated through our minds and therefore biased. Thus it makes sense that we’d search out an unbiased mode of perception, something beyond  image subitizing language (346) or the reverse (the Narcons’ jobs, signing the iconic (572)). Danielewski partially answers this dilemma with his own writing style, but he makes it pretty clear that it’s impossible to escape remediation in the real world (I think he does, at least; correct me if I’m wrong).

Returning to the dying hummingbird–when its eyes change, Xanther wonders what it sees:

the error of windows?, of reflection? :N3: refracting the one self into another self beyond what every reflection still fails to consider… :N3:, Xanther knowing this in the way she also knows how mirrors invert her into a her that’s not really her :N9: which is so wrong as a reflection of Xanther, right? :N9:, can animals know so?, especially a tiny hummingbird?, probably not, right?, like really, it’d just see its own reflection as another competitor?, :N27: as an understanding of its own end :N27: (794)

Considering that Narcon^9 said earlier that every person has a Narcon, could Narcon^3 be implying that living things merge with their Narcons in death (beyond) as they escape the remediation brought about by being confined to a single “self”? If so, Narcon^27‘s addition would certainly have grand philosophical implications.

The fact that Narcon^9 thinks that Xanther being unable to accurately see herself is “wrong” makes me even more inclined to think so, since Narcon^9 also says in the Narcon chapter that “sometimes I swear she can see–without mediation, without processing, without artifice, definitely without me–other people’s Narcons!” (574). Narcon^9 can’t even see itself at all, but in its opinion Xanther can (or should be able to) see herself incredibly clearly. That plus her ability to find and revive the cat probably puts Xanther in a different category altogether. Xanther aside, though, just imagine: what if a humble dying hummingbird could refract into another self and see its reflection as an understanding of its own end? Well, wow.

All that having been said, I have some questions about the “signiconic.” How can we say that image and language are the two most important perceptual faculties? Of what does a truly accurate “third perception” consist? Does language + image = film? And is that why the VEM Corporation is doing all its insane “Imaging & Cultural Resonance Tracking” that the Orbs are somehow picking up?

Making Rules to Break Rules

It seems like almost any world-building narrative has a sequence of setting up the rules, followed by the breaking of the rules. The Matrix–a perfect system, except for The One who will break the system. Inception–inception is impossible, so let’s go do it. Harry Potter–there’s a spell that kills you, except this one kid who survived it. Here’s the system; here’s the flaw in the system. This is arguably necessary to the genre, so that we have…you know…a story. This might be why spec fiction and meta/experimental fiction seem to go hand in hand, at least in terms of their rise in popularity. Metafiction does the same thing, but to the entire medium of fiction. Here are the rules we created over time, and here’s how I’m going to break them.

The intrusion of a supposedly extradiegetic narrative presence into the story is a pretty frequent metafictional device, (for ex. Alasdair Gray’s Lanark). It could often be criticized as a gimmick, but I think good authors work this from a “gimmick” to a valuable element of the story/theme, taking it beyond, “Hello, I’m the author, nice to meet ya” to something that challenges our ideas of storytelling or knowledge. Mainly, I think this complication is accomplished by a process parallel to the one I describe in the first paragraph. It’s not just that the narrator enters to give some deep answer to the text; rather, the narrator gives supposed answers that are then immediately troubled in their own way. When Narcon9 enters the story, we get a clear set of rigid parameters about Narcon behavior, which are unsettled a page later when we observe that 9 might be hearing 3 and 27, and that Xanther might see Narcons. This narrative intrusion, then, isn’t for its own sake, but rather parallels the question of knowing a creation. Can a Narcon “know” the personalities it portrays? Can it really be following a set of rules/parameters if the combinations it creates are infinite? Can we “program” an AI if true AI is that which makes its own choices? Can an author know his/her characters? On a human (and perhaps tritely expressed here) level, can we know ourselves, or do we all have an animalistic “familiar,” something part of us but ultimately unknowable?

Just like the Question Song, this moment that acts as if it gives us answers is more important for the new questions it creates.