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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).

Effects of Style

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?

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?

How many…?

Saying I was mildly concerned about Xanther’s rummaging through the grime in that rain storm would be putting it, well, mildly. But that’s just the hypochondriac in me talking.

Yesterday, I commented on ktoney2015’s form and function post highlighting the several instances of pages with deliberately unreadable text: text so small it requires a magnifying glass, or blurry text etc. Immediately after this, I come upon a few pages with painted text that look like rainbows and raindrops. At this point it becomes obvious that the novel is doing something other than inviting reading–at least not in the demotic sense of the word “reading”–although maybe in our broader, critical sense.

At first glance at those pages (478-79; 494-5; 506-7; 514-15), I half expected the characters to be binary. We’re all probably familiar with the trope of constructing visual images out of a bunch of ones and zeros, which become apparent as the image is magnified beyond recognition. I actually almost couldn’t stop myself from viewing the raindrops on p. 514 as zeros–so I guess from that perspective the rain would represent ones? Except, there really is no difference between the zeros and the ones, since the ones (raindrops-in-flight) become the zeros as soon as they hit the ground in a puddle. Then, of course, the circularity of the raindrops and the puddles they carve into the ground is reminiscent of that clock ticking out its seconds up to 5:32

5:33. (Bones Nest chapter)

I guess I never really spend too much time wondering what cryptic things mean. There’s a certain freedom in accepting the solipsism of the text, and I revel in that. An earlier post mentioned how much this novel is meant to be viewed, and not merely read, and I agree with that. It requires that you allow its import to bypass your intellect and mean (signify?), even when you don’t know just what it means. (MacLeish, anyone?) “How many raindrops” is the chapter’s (even the novel‘s) refrain, and to me that “means” how many pages, how many lines, sentences, words, letters, pixels… A lot, and the experience is actually kind of in the deluge of the text, the overwhelming power of it that cannot be contained, counted, arranged in any particular way. Understood.

Stream of Consciousness in Narration

It seems to me that Xanther’s family’s narration focuses more on the inner workings of the mind compared to Luther, Özgür, and Isándorno.

Astair’s portions are (Although I can’t speak for the jingjing chapters, because I don’t know what on earth is going on there) the most ‘ stream of consciousness’. Her words flow more like people actually think- with parentheses representing stray thoughts and add-ons.

Anwar, too, often follows his ‘chain of thought’ more than plot points. The brackets [{}] perform a similar function to Astair’s parentheses. They illustrate his extraneous thoughts,  but they often bracket actions that wouldn’t seem like they should be bracketed. For example:

‘Shall we brave this storm?’ Anawar asks [opening their big orange umbrellas]. (Pg.99)

This may reflect his programming background.

Xanther’s story often follows her chain of thought to an extreme degree-For example, this passage pretty clearly shows how Xanther’s narration goes off on tangents:

(Not like Xanther can read it though. Is that an E or a 3? Xanther’s a pretty crappy reader. And that’s for normal stuff. Nothing like this crazy mess. CRAZIES! Kle once said something about them and 13. M too? Or was it W? 13? 31?… (pg.53)

In comparison, Ozgur’s story seems fairly narratively straightforward. When I read it, I was struck by how much like a typical detective’s novel it sounded like. Likewise, Isadorno’s story seemed like it could have been an excerpt from a more ‘mainstream’ novel.

We certainly get to see into Luther’s mind, probably moreso than Isádorno or Özgür,  but Luther’s chapters seem to have more focus on the other characters, like Hipo. His narration does not reflect the ‘realistic’ free association of the mind like Xanther’s family.

Realms of Existence

I’m calling this post ‘Realms of Existence’ and have tagged a lot of things because I really find that the way this book works–the more you read and think about every decision that went into what Danielewski has created–you will find that it’s all  truly somehow related. That being said, I’m specifically wanting to talk about narrative presentation [i.e. syntax format] and how that relates to the larger idea of mediation and social existence.

In narrative form, whether first-person or third-person omniscient, an author usually leaves out some things and instead places subtleties or nuances that the learnèd reader would then pick up on and interpret accordingly. What I love/hate about this novel [specifically in the Ibrahim family chapters {though it can be seen everywhere in one way or another}] is that he leaves nothing out. Every thought that passes this character’s mind is on the page there. Take this passage from pp. 393-394:

Xanther [at once] punches the spacebar [another laugh from everyone {Xanther more eager than ever <which wouldn’t disturb Anwar <<it’s good that she’s excited and enthusiastic>> were it not for one of her wildly pumping legs <<her right>> sometimes <<though certainly not always ((and certainly not even often))>> signalling the onset of an event> is that what’s on the immediate horizon?} Anwar’s breath always coming up short at just the thought].

This stream-of-consciousness inner dialogue and over-explanation of every little thing is somewhat taxing for the reader. [It adds to what we know {what Danielewski wants us to know} about what’s happening, though, and it does encourage us to {if even subconsciously <though as the learnèd readers we can/have all decided to read into everything mediated to us>} read much more quickly]. Even in this very post, I’ve attempted to do something similar. I just find it worth noting and something that’s both interesting/intriguing and taxing. It’s nothing like I’ve ever read before, this book.

But what that makes me think about is things are communicated to us and how we exist in society, constructed inevitably through communication. The realms of existence for all of us could also be annotated in a similar way.

I am human [that is, homo sapien {North American <American <<South Carolinian ((Florentine))>>>}].

That’s a more taxonomic look at my existence but socially, it’s the same [and with social media and the Internet, we have the introduction of something that complicates everything {not necessarily in a bad way}].

Timehop allows me to see what I posted on twitter last year [which I then can share on instagram {which I can also tell to post on both twitter again <and facebook<<which ultimately means my mother will see it ((which I wouldn’t mind [[if I hadn’t called her a cow in the post]]))>>>}].

This all being said, I love how this books make us analyze how we specifically present our existence in narrative form–certainly a type of media [a medium]. It’s almost a sort of code [but that’s another blogpost altogether..].

The Revealing of Character Through Formatting

One of the most interesting things for me about The Familiar is the fact that Mark Z. Danielewski takes the time to pick out how the different chapters for each character will be formatted. I’m not sure if this topic has been covered before (it is my understanding that my class is a little bit behind some of the others) but regardless it is one that has caught my interest and I was hoping to get some ideas and feedback on the matter from others in this forum.

When it comes to the formatting of the different points of view, I’m not talking so much about the font size or the line spacing but more about the punctuation. Each character has a distinct format that makes it a little difficult on the first run through to distinguish who is who and how they think, and what new sort of weird format am I going to have to deal with this time but it gets easier as the book continues.

Though each chapter follows a sort of ‘stream of consciousness’ with each character, which is definitely not unheard of, I don’t think I’ve seen it vary quite this much from character to character before reading The Familiar. Seeing as Danielewski doesn’t seem to do anything without reason, I would mark these differences as important. In fact, I would argue that the distinct formatting of each character’s chapter reveals a little bit more about them without having to come right out and say it to the readers. It’s actually a really clever way of getting to know them.

For example, Xanther takes us into her mind and it is with her that we get to experience her Question Song firsthand before we see it through her parent’s point of view. Readers get to experience Xanther jumping around from thought to thought and some of the ongoing anxiety that comes with this type of thinking. Almost immediately readers deduce that something is not quite right with her due to how her chapters are set up. Her thoughts about ‘how many raindrops’ make this most explicit when she runs herself into a state that she can’t control, “Exhausting herself. Like running-of-of-breath exhausting herself” (64). Long before it’s revealed explicitly that Xanther has epilepsy, it’s made clear by her thoughts that not all is mentally sound within her.

Anwar’s narration, on the other hand, is set up to resemble programming. Rather than using normal punctuation, his sections of The Familiar use brackets (both curly and standard) as well was slashes to organize his thoughts. It’s very reminiscent of HTML or something similar. Through this narration choice, readers can conclude that Anwar is a problem solver, the biggest puzzle in his life being his daughter. Again, as with Xanther, it can be speculated that he is some sort of programmer before it’s stated plainly.

Astair’s thoughts read much like she is still writing and rewriting her thesis,‘Hope’s Nest: On the Necessity of God’ (121), with large (almost unnecessarily so) words scattered throughout and parentheses inside parentheses which are inside even more parentheses. She is constantly in the process of analyzing and editing, even within her own mind. Though it is stated rather early in her narration that she is a student, her thought process proves to reaffirm this showing how she approaches education (as well as being a mother) with diligence and maybe just a little bit of over thinking.

Since these are the three characters I feel like I’ve learned the most about, I haven’t gotten a good grasp on what the different formats would mean for the rest of the cast and was hoping to get some feedback about that. Any ideas?

Form Mirrors Function in The Familiar

No two pages in this novel are set up exactly the same way. On some pages there are but a few words, on others, the words form a picture. Some pages have no words at all. It is often said that form mirrors function, and I think that The Familiar does an excellent job of showcasing this idea. But what does this all mean? What could Danielewski wish to accomplish by arranging the text in this manner?

It is difficult to supply a concrete answer to this question. One aspect I find particularly interesting but ever-changing is the length of the passages on each page. Sometimes, the longer pages take the form of busy or excited conversation. When Xanther is playing Anwar’s game for example, the dialogue between the group in the room with her fills up the page, but the pace of reading it is extremely quick.

The pages with few to know words appear to perform the opposite function. They take place in moments of contemplation. They stand out amongst the rest.  The time on page 252 for example is an important detail important for the doctors to save Xanther’s life. (It should be noted that this page is not numbered. The focus of this page is not to orient the reader to a specific point in the progression of the novel; it is to emphasize a powerful memory in the mind of a parent.) It causes the reader to focus on that detail for an entire page, even if it only takes them a moment to read it.

The structure of the text blocks on these pages is also particularly fascinating. The blocks of text that make of Shnorhk’s chapters also showcase the idea of how the shape of the text accomplishes a specific task. Shnorhk feels isolated and misunderstood. The majority of the pages of his section in the narrative take the form of two distinct blocks of text. He is trying to piece together a moment in his life that has prompted great reflection. He is also attempting to understand the world in which he now lives. His altercation with the cop/legal system have left him disillusioned and confused.  He has, as of page 395 in the novel, yet to come to a solid resolution. Perhaps the shape of his narrative will change along with his state of mind?

The organization of the text on these pages does indeed reflect something about a character’s state of mind at a given moment. Xanther’s anxiety can be seen in the pages where the words take the form of a torrential downpour. It is a strain for readers to understand these words, to sort through their meanings. Sometimes, it is easiest to just turn the page, to tune it all out and wait for the next page, where the words are situated in a way that is more familiar to us, to come along. But these pages are important. They are visual representations of feelings. Something intangible is presented right before our very eyes.  A powerful moment in my mind is when Xanther is at the party in Anwar’s office and she begins to feel overwhelmed again. This sensation is conveyed to us in a page where certain parts of unrelated conversations stand out to her among a sea of unintelligible conversations. The parts she hears look like clouds in the rainstorm.We cannot see Xanther’s face as she undergoes her episodes of increased anxiety due to her existence as a character in the pages of a novel.  Still, we are not cut off from her completely. The way that the text forms these kinds of visuals allows us to “see” her face and enter her mind to feel something similar to what she feels. The visuals engulf us as readers, and we are just as overwhelmed as she is. We feel just as confused and misunderstood as Shnorhk does. We relieve the panic that Astair felt when she thought she might lose one of her daughters. Danielewski is remediating not only the way read, but the way we feel.