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Purpose – Part One

When I finally “met” the Narcons (564-576), it changed my view of the book drastically, and I focused on line very early in the Narcon section that said, “As equally vague as origin is the question of purpose,” but I’ll get to that later.

I was reluctant at first to make the following connection simply because it seems to have been overly discussed in popular culture and media, but the world that has apparently been constructed by the Narcons is not unlike that of “The Matrix.” However , in media, the idea that our world isn’t real or is a construct of some kind is not unique to “The Matrix” (“The 13th Floor,” “Dark City,” or even “Tron” come to mind), but it is the best example to explore.

Xanther seems to question reality, and she does, in fact, question everything  about the world that she assumes is real. At times, she seems to almost be able to sense things outside of her world. Her Narcon comments on her perception (574) when it says, “Xanther demonstrates not only self -awareness but selves-awareness bordering on transparency… Sometimes I swear she can see… other people’s Narcons! Sometimes she even seems close to seeing me…” Just like Neo in “The Matrix,” Xanther seems to know that something else is going on in her world, and she questions the world and her reality.

The Narcon also mentions how much data or computation it would take to know everything about Xanther and her possible actions (represented by TF-Narcon^9X (Total)) even for a few moments. Xanther is disturbed by the idea of counting (or computing) the number of raindrops during a rainstorm,  and during that scene, the author chose to print more and more numerous lines of the question “How many raindrops” on the page. These lines were running vertically down the page not unlike (among other things) how the “code” in “The Matrix” was presented visually. The Matrix’s code seems to be interactive and reactionary, and is only possible through input from the people plugged in to it. I don’t think the machines could process all the possible actions of the Matrix’s inhabitants, otherwise they would have been able to create a perfect system without any “glitches.”

Now, back to the idea of purpose. The Narcon(s) say that purpose is vague. I think that can mean a few things. First, to a Narcon, it’s purpose seems vague insofar as it is just meant to construct or compute the world and the people in it – but to what end? Second, what is purpose to a person? It can be argued that it is simply to survive and reproduce for the purpose of our species’ survival. However, I think our purpose is fluid. With as many people as there are, the survival of our species isn’t threatened if someone chooses or fails to breed. Therefore, our purpose is whatever we chose it to be, and it is also subject to change, whimsical or otherwise.

In “The Matrix,” purpose is an important concept. Agent Smith says, “There is no escaping reason; no denying purpose. Because as we both know, without purpose, we would not exist.” In this, I think he is talking about himself. As a program, he was created to perform a task, and without a task there would be no reason for him to exist. Similarly, the Narcons were created to perform the task of creating their world an it’s people. Agent Smith also says to Neo, “…it was your life that taught me the purpose of all life. The purpose of life is to end.” If, for example, TF-Narcon X was created to generate Xanther’s story, then it must have been programmed to do so. I assume the it was programmed to generate a story that is as close to real (whatever that might mean) as possible. Therefore, any possible “real” story must come to an end, and even if the Narcons generated every possible story, I would think the number of stories is finite. So, to TF-Narcon X, Xanther’s ultimate purpose is to end.

(Shawn Atkinson)

“The Familiar” Podcast!

This post more resembles a discussion “audio blog,” than a podcast. It was recorded by four students from Weber State University. Dylan Davis, Ben Bigelow, Chelsea Maki, and Trevor Byington each bring a topic to discuss with the group. The discussion covers the re-mediation of television, hetero-normatives in “The Familiar,” the “Signiconic,” and the “aesthetic conundrum” the novel has created.

It was recorded on 1/24/2015.

Keep in mind, this was not done in a studio so the audio can be a little spotty. Regardless, we hope you enjoy it!

The Physical Experience of The Familiar

I have heard that Danielewski will not publish this as an ebook, making sure that all readers have the same experience with page turning, etc.  I assume we all have the same pink publisher copy – I am wondering if anyone has any insight into what the physical copy of the book will look like (cover design, hard cover, same size pages?)?  I wonder if that will change significantly or if it will have any effect on the reader.

I ask this because there is a defined physical experience when reading this book.  I can think of several instances where the layout makes the reader interact with the book itself.  For example, between pages 461-513, I found the cadence with which I was turning pages seemed very intentional.  Additionally, the orb chapters always have a unique experience when the orb appears within the text, never letting you forget its presence.

What other sections have others found that turns reading into a more physical experience?

The Parameters

The Narcon section of the book (pages 563-579) has already been discussed by a few other posters, but I wanted to address it in a somewhat basic and systematic way by looking at the parameters that define it. The way that I understand the Narcon is that it is the book’s narrator, or one of them. In the Narcon section, the book itself begins to explain how it’s been written and what its limits are, breaking the “fourth wall” between the narrator and the reader. Given this understanding, some of the parameters presented by the Narcon raised specific questions for me.

 

Parameter 1: MetaNarcons do not exist

If MetaNarcons don’t exist, what is the role of the author? Can the author be considered a MetaNarcon? According to the Narcon, a MetaNarcon would be some kind of narrative explanation of a Narcon. Since the Narcon is explained within the book, wouldn’t that mean that there is a MetaNarcon? Does that mean that the Narcon is its own MetaNarcon?

 

Parameter 2: Narcons cannot interact with other Narcons

If Narcons can’t interact with other Narcons, does that mean that there is only one Narcon for the entire book? The only issue with that is that on page 576, TF-Narcon9 says that it doesn’t know what happened to Xanther’s former therapist, Mrs. Goolsend, but the next page immediately explains what happens to her in another, bolded font. Is that another Narcon interjecting? Wouldn’t that indicate that they can interact?

 

Parameter 3: Narcons cannot interact with non-Narcons and vice-versa

The Narcon says that it can’t hear how the reader will respond or register “how or if my friendliness was received.” (564) However, I think that the reader (a non-Narcon) arguably can interact with the Narcon. Actually, I think that might be the point. Since there will be subsequent books that take reader input into account, the Narcon will, in a sense, be interacting with the reader. So does the relationship between the reader and the Narcon make Parameter 3 invalid? Does it mean that this Narcon has transcended the bounds of what it means to be a traditional narrator or a normal Narcon?

 

Parameter 4: All Narcons are bracketed

The braille brackets seem to have been established as an indication of the Narcon speaking. But if that’s the case, who is telling the rest of the story? TF-Narcon9 knows almost everything about what Xanther says and where she goes, and it seems to indicate that it is the one telling the stories about Xanther, Anwar, jingjing, Luther, etc. If it is telling the entire story, then it seems like the braille brackets are just its direct thoughts. If that’s not the case, does that mean that there is a “MetaNarcon” that is telling the entire story? Could the cover of the book be considered a “bracket” that contains the MetaNarcon?

 

Parameter 5: Form is not a Narcon limit

This might be the most confusing parameter. My understanding of the Narcon is that it is a type of narrator that is telling the stories of the characters. Does this parameter mean that the other volumes of The Familiar will come in different forms (it mentions musical, performative, etc.)? Or, does it mean that the Narcon will take other forms within the novel itself? This might be a stretch, but the Narcon mentions that it could take the form of an animal. Could the cat that Xanther rescues be an appearance of the Narcon?

Is Xanther the heroine?

In The Familiar, much has been made about how confusing and nontraditional the novel actually is. After the “Narcon” section indicates that the Narcons are a presence hanging over Xanther that catalogues everything she does, I started to wonder if the reader is seeing the world as Xanther would see it. Are we reading this book from the perspective of Xanther’s fragmented psyche?

In each individual section we get sections of narrative from each characters unique perspective that can (sometimes more than others) make reading comprehension difficult. Is this fragmented style with untranslated and crossed out text, along with no clear view of how the characters relate to each other in the world of the novel, indicative of Xanther’s disorder? The Narcon chapter seems to indicate that Xanther has an important purpose, and after Astair’s revelation of her thesis, is the purpose of the novel to posit the question “whether or not to imagine what could never exist at all might create behavior which never could have existed before”? (pg 450) Do the Narcons, which seem to exist in a state of nonexistence, aim to create such behavior as Xanther’s?

Narcons and Ethics

In class, we talked about how the Narcons are almost human like because they have emotions and can lie. We also talked about how Narcons seem to be like the subconscious. The characters in the book are not aware that they are there. Well almost no one is aware they are there, Xanther seems pretty aware that something is there.

My thought process going through the Narcon section in the middle of the book was that there are these seemingly computer programs that have human intelligence somehow controlling the actions of the characters in the book, or at least have a say in the actions of the characters in the book. We have not really talked about the ethical dilemma this brings up. How do people feel about having this computer program (technology) basically controlling the world we are getting to know within this book? What does this say about how society is progressing?

Another earlier post that I read talked about when we find out that the Narcons are really the best part of the characters we are learning to love that it was disappointing but at the same time was not. It seems like society is moving towards it being more believable and okay for something like this to happen. Are we moving towards that? Is society moving towards basically a person’s “being” living on a computer for all eternity?

As a Genetics major, I am required to take a Science and Values Philosophy class at Clemson to discuss the morality of science and technology in advancing society. I remember during this class that the topic of the conscious being uploaded to a computer to essentially make someone live on infinitely. In a room full of science majors the idea seemed cool but at the same time terrifying. It was terrifying because the thought of computers ruling the world came to mind but it was cool because the thought that it was even possible seemed intriguing.

I have spent a lot of time confused reading this book, but it was not necessarily about what was going on within the storylines of the book that confused me it was more of what is Danielewski trying to say behind the story. From his other books, we can tell that he is gifted and he thinks differently than most, but there is always reason to his madness. Now with this book I begin to wonder what types of questions lie beneath the already confusing universe he has created.

Can we perhaps even start talking about how the idea of Narcons is so familiar yet foreign? Is it even ethically okay for Narcons to exist? If Narcons are animals, could they be the kitten, and if kittens/cats are associated with evil things then is Danielewski saying that this type of technology could potentially be dangerous?

All of these questions and more keep popping up as I read the book and as I get closer and closer to the end the idea of all seeing technology doesn’t seem as farfetched to me because it seems that we as society is already making it that way with how much we post about ourselves and our lives on the internet.

JingJing’s Epigraph

While reading pages 396-608, I started to pay more attention to the epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter. Each of them appear to connect with the thoughts or plot that occurs in each chapter except for one- JingJing (page 518). Like others, I already have difficulty trying to figure out what he is saying, but the beginning of his chapter is a line from a Deadmau5 song, “Look what they made, they made it for me…”

I was wondering if anyone had any ideas as to what Danielewski meant by using this quote. JingJing does mention this musical group along with several others during the chapter, but I do not find any specific connection between the plot and those lyrics.

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.

What Lies in the Code

Finally, a solid form is presented that unifies all the collective stories of The Familiar. TF-Narcon^9 enters the story with a casual introduction. The reader can only take TF-Narcon^9’s word on what it is.

TF-Narcon^9 is a program designed to database the existence of all the main characters from the book into 9 subsets. This program also drops a few hints that it was built with human influence. First, all of the languages it uses, whether translated or not, are human and origin. TF-Narcon^9 states that the machine language used in its construction is Binary, or “Zeros and ones.” (565). It would be a lot to presume that an alien life form would use the same Arabic based numerals to control the signals in its computing devices. It also references “the spinning rainbow wheel of ________.”(566). The word missing is “death.” This references the loading icon that appears on Macintosh devices. However, even if the Narcon software is based on computer made by man, that does not mean it has to be from the current time frame. This program states that it uses the “VEM rules of access and compression.” (566). I assume the VEM that dictated those rules are the same as the beings from the “VEM5 Alpha System” that speak on pages 14-17. Those individuals that live at the edge of time. This program they designed has a peculiar quark that makes it a little different then our preconceptions of computers. This program lies.

TF-Narcon^9 makes a few lies about its Parameters by stating that there is a “Last one” before Parameter 4. Then it states that was wrong and there was an additional 5th parameter. This is a seemingly innocent lie, however it brings into question the validity of its statements. The Narcon’s reliability is put to the test with its own parameters. Parameter 2 and 3 explicitly state that Narcons are not allowed to interact with Narcons and Non-Narcons “And Vice-Versa. No Matter What.” This seems to be a logical fallacy when TF-Narcon^9s actions are taken into account. The program specifically states that it is outputting. Input and output are the 2 forms of interaction a program is capable of through whatever interface. It also states that it will take on animal forms. To what purpose would a program take on an animal form if not to have some form of interaction. This interaction may be minute, but it clearly does not agree with the “No Matter What” of Parameter 3.

This program is also struggling with other algorithms that dictate the amount of awareness it may achieve. When TF-Narcon^9 begins to equate its existence as a subset to “servitude”, the train of thought is removed. This is replaced with an emptiness in the program that leaves it “breathless”, if a program could feel such a way. The supersets, TF-Narcon^3 or TF-Narcon^27, have censored TF-Narcon^9 before it achieved a higher level of awareness. This further goes to show that 9 can not be trusted to stay within its parameters. Other protocols must be used to keep it in check.

TF-Narcon^9 does not elaborate a great deal on its purpose for compiling all this data on these 9 individuals. However, this untrustworthy database is the most revealing connection for all the characters.  Hopefully their purpose will be reveled before the end.

What is a Narcon?

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT

On page 563 there is a line. On the next page are these words “A good enough place to pause.”  Then the page numbers and the time stamps stop and we get to meet the narrator. He(I assume the narrator is a he and I will continue to refer to him that way to reduce confusion) is an AI called TF-Narcon9 and he has a sense of humor. He also seems to have emotions, though he fervently denies any individuality whatsoever. What completely rocked my world though was the subsets that include almost every major character. Are they Narcons or are they just being studied? If they are being studied, why? What is a Narcon? Who invented them? These are questions that need answers! What do y’all think?