In my first post I discussed the how purpose plays various roles within the book/story of The Familiar, especially in regard to the Narcons and the world they have created. Now I want to focus on purpose from outside the book, and to do that I have taken a giant step back from it.
So, my question is: what is the purpose of this piece of work? The most immediate and obvious answer is that it remediates television the same way House of Leaves remediated film. However, I am still unsatisfied with that answer. To get a better answer, I feel I must ask another question: what is the purpose of this remediation?
I recently ran across a quote by Audre Lorde. She said, “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” The Familiar definitely does present the story (and itself) in a new way to most readers. However, there is nothing “new” about the story itself. I am not going to take the time to indentify all the mythemes in the book or compare the narratives to other works, but I do want to discuss how MZD made his story feel and the purpose behind his choices (I am also not going to rehash all the clever ways this book does make us feel or see things differently).
So, is the purpose of this work to make us see and feel the novel in a different light? If so, it seems to me that the newness, cleverness, and oddity of The Familiar will lose its charm well before the twenty-some-odd volumes are finished. Or, is the purpose of this work to add feeling to the narratives within the story? Very early in the story, I was drawn in by the visual aspect of the scene in which Xanther stresses about the idea of counting all the raindrops in the storm. However, more often I was taken OUT of the story when trying to make connections, interpret the visual aspects of the text, or having to look up things to make the text “make sense.” If the purpose is to add something to the story, I think MZD took everything a bit too far. I enjoy losing myself in a well written story, but in The Familiar I was often just plain lost, sidetracked, or frustrated. Perhaps I am just too lazy to fully enjoy ergodic literature.
First of all, the Narrative Construct idea fascinates me. While I don’t necessarily think it was the best name for them (for some reason they sound too explanatory for their actions, like naming a character who’s evil “bad guy.”) But, at the same time, I do not have a better name for them myself, so I cannot judge (maybe Architects? Wait…that’s been done before.) Regardless, it is interesting that in a fiction book we are constantly pointed to being reminded we are experiencing a fictional world, which is the exact thing professors tell you not to do in your own writing. I mean, it’s writing 101, “the suspension of disbelief,” was relayed to me over and over again in all of my writing classes. Yet here, MZD has drawn our attention to it time and again, the most powerful of which being set in the Narcon section. The Narcon is something that I think we can all conceptualize with decent aptitude. Their section has no page numbers, so they do not exist within the same realm as the story. They are written weirdly, like a play, taking them out of this genre (whatever this genre is.) They are formatted nothing like any other character, so they (if I’m reading the book correctly) don’t even share a similar universe or don’t occupy the same dimension as the other characters. They define their own rules, however, they date them back before their existence (whatever that means,) point being, regular fiction characters do not ever define their rules in a story. The author defines the rules for fictional characters to follow. It is interesting to keep in mind that, at least for me, the Narcons felt like they had more agency than the characters in the story. They felt like that because of the reasons I just mentioned.
But it’s not true! They have equitable if not less free will than the regular characters in the story. The Narcons must follow rules set by MZD and MZD has to make them follow the rules that they (Mark) has set for them, so their free will is really constricted to a few sentences (by comparison) to other characters. Narcons must be controlled, and if there is anything I know about characters being controlled, they tend to rebel.
I’ll flat out say it, I think the Narcons will turn out to be villains or something similar as the 27 volume series plays out. I would like to be proven wrong about this almost as much as I would like to be proven right. To me, it just seems like the natural order of things. In our class, it was mentioned by a classmate that Xanther is the only character that can hear the Narcons or at least the only character that we know can hear the Narcons. It was also mentioned that when Xanther hears the cat outside, it may be something more than just right-place-at-the-right-time action movie garbage. It could mean a little bit more.
After I heard the classmate (I believe it was you, Chelsea) my mind started to reel into analytic, speculation mode where I wanted to make connection upon connection (so, bear with me.) I think Narcon characters (overly oppressed characters, as mentioned above) want to enter to the fictional world like a reverse The Matrix situation. I think that cat may be Narcon incarnate as mentioned above. There’s also a little something something that cat does to Xanther that feels a little wacky and out of the realm of possibility for any other character in the story (soul stuff.) And, and! We don’t know (unless I missed it) what the cat’s name is. But what we do know is that TF-Narcon 3 has the font “Manticore.” Stay with me, I’m telling you, it’s worth it. Manticore is another name for “Man-Eater.” Trust me, I wish in my research that I had found there was some myth written thousands of years ago where the Manticore ate the kings ugly daughter named “Xanther,” but it didn’t exist, so I needed to speculate a bit more. In figurative terms, the cat may have eaten part of Xanther, it’s hard to say exactly but I’m going with it for the sake of my theory. The last thing we know is that no two characters share the same font in the story…except TF-Narcon 3 and some other thing called “G.C.” which is not, to my knowledge, defined or mentioned in Volume 1 at all. But it’s mentioned in the font? Pourquoi, monsieur?! To me, G.C. could be “good cat,” or “General Cathington,” or maybe it’s another one of Xanther’s misunderstood words.
Sometimes, when reading this book, I feel like I’m wearing a tinfoil hat. Anyway, thanks for following me down my rabbit hole. I really hope to see why that font is shared and, who knows? Maybe I am right.
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?
In The Familiar, I found that one of the most prominent themes is religion. Several characters share their personal beliefs regarding the idea of faith, god, and religion. Xanther mentioned several times that the Ibrahims don’t believe in heaven or God. Astair, who has a background in the Catholic Church, wrote her thesis on the necessity of God but was given a poor grade. I don’t think this is a coincidence.
Another example is Luther. In class we discussed the significance of this name—it is possibly derived from Martin Luther, an important figure in the Protestant Reformation. Additionally, there was a scene where Luther walked on water which (I believe) drew comparisons between Luther and a Christ-like figure.
Along the same lines, I find it interesting that Anwar designs videogames. Game designers and programmers have the ability to fully render an alternate reality. They can create an entire world and people to inhabit them. And they can make them look, act, or be anything they want. To me, this is something only a figure with supreme authority can accomplish.
With that said, I’d like to offer my take on why Danielewsky features this motif so heavily. I believe Danielewsky is presenting his perspective on the digital age. He is criticizing the fact that with today’s advanced technology, faith is not as important as it used to be. And in the future, the institution of religion or faith-based groups will be an artifact of today’s society.
Now, my main question is what his reason for doing this? Are politics a central conflict in The Familiar? I’d like to hear others’ opinions.
Blade Runner (and by extension, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
*Possible Spoilers for those works below. You’ve been warned.
All of these works are heavily referenced in Xanther’s narrative. But to what end? The clearest solution is the common theme between them- the dubiousness of agency. In Battlestar, it’s the non-self aware Cylons that become critical of both themselves and of each other. In The Matrix, it is Neo and all the others who want to be awakened. In Blade runner, both Rachel and Deckard, the first of whom finds out that she is not human, and the latter of whom (in some film versions) begins to doubt his own humanity, experience this.
Religion also plays widely into these works, including TF. With Battlestar, we have the Lords of Kobol, and the call names of many of the characters themselves, references to our own Greek deities. With Blade Runner, we have to look a little further, into the original literature. In Androids, the characters participate in a type of transcendent, collective experience called “Mercerism.” I’ll spare you the details, but it becomes an analogue for Deckard’s whole story. In The Matrix, the idea of religion is much less prominent, but just as important. Savior complexes and resurrection imagery and all that. In TF, especially Xanther’s story, we almost simultaneously have a healing of the sick and a resurrection (Xanther’s wounds from collecting the cat, and the cat itself.)
This primes us to readily think of the Narcons as gods, or at least the players in some unknown chess game.
But we can’t really assume this from TF-Narcon∧9, by its own words. On pg 572 (unmarked,) it tells the reader “I have neither form nor control.” and “I have no agency.” First, if it has no agency, how can it pause? Second, what, does it do?
The discussions I have seen are discussing the Narcons as god-like beings or as AI’s. TF-Narcon∧9 even tells us that the “con” is for Construct. But we can also see, from the comments of the other Narcons, that 9 is not a reliable narrator. We know it lied to the reader about how many parameters there are, and that there likely are MetaNarcons, so how can we know the truth of any one of those parameters?
What this brings me to is this question:
What if we’re looking at the story inside-out? What if the Narcons don’t exist outside of the characters, but inside? What if all of the Narcons are inside Xanther’s head, with all of their subsets and supersets, just as a coping mechanism for her? Every other scene that plays out in other chapters is just her, fitting together the answers from the Question Game into narratives of her own construction. She is the MetaNarcon.
While reading The Familiar, several factors contributed to my general perception of the characters. With several voices that change frequently I was concerned that the characters would begin to blend and I wouldn’t be able to distinguish Ozgur from Shnork, for example. Fortunately, Danielewsky side-steps this problem by giving each character a unique set of traits along with visual cues (including formatting, font, and images).
Each narrative voice is unique, owing in part to the fact that several characters are non-White-Americans. With that comes distinctive grammar and speech patterns. Jingjing, who speaks Singlish, is a perfect example. I was deeply immersed in Jingjing’s world with the use of Asian-influenced speech patterns. This section would definitely have a different feel if it were written in standard American English.
In a class discussion, we questioned the reasoning behind Danielewsky’s decision to include non-American characters. To name a few, Anwar is Egyptian; Jingjing is Singaporean; and Schnork is Armenian. I am interested to hear what everyone else thinks about this. Also, I’m interested to see how the use of meticulous characterization through dialogue will lead to further character growth and development throughout the novel.
Character growth is essential to all stories. And Danielewsky is skillful at that. But right now, the story is slow moving. I hope to learn where he is going with this! I am excited to learn how the individual narratives connect or if they connect. Even though this is contemporary, experimental fiction, character development is still just as important in traditional novels. Now that he’s established most characters, I’m excited to see what will happen to them in the story as well as the upcoming volumes of The Familiar.
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.
I’m aware that the Narcons have possibly been discussed to death here, and for good reason too, they’re really fascinating as a far as the entirety of The Familiar goes. They seem to exist outside of the story itself but still nestled into the material, if only in a very literal way by means of physically residing within the book. Long after I read the TF-Narcon 9 section, it still resonates with me for reasons I can’t really explain. Perhaps I find enjoyment in Meta commentary.
The biggest questions I have about the Narcons is whether they just exist outside the narrative or do they reside outside of the novel altogether, because these are two different things even if they are related. By existing outside of the narrative, they still reside within the novel itself, there to comment and translate and shed light on certain parts of the narrative but never changing the story itself. Though I guess that can be argued that they do this simply by inserting themselves in the middle of the emotional climax of the story. Or do they exist outside of the novel altogether and have the knowledge that they exist in a book. They are programs and seem to be aware that they are programs but how far does their self-awareness extend?
Another thing that caught my attention about the Narcons is that they have their own myth system. They have an idea of ‘older’ Narcons as well as a pre existing rumor that they can communicate with each other even though that shouldn’t be possible, “(Though rumor has it we can sometimes hear each other.) (I can’t.)” (571). A sort of preprogrammed superstition that doesn’t seem like it should exist because how can there be a rumor that involves only one entity? It seems to suggest a sort of culture that the Narcons live within (or perhaps only Narcon 9 does, since the other two Narcons lack the large narrative inclusion that Narcon 9 does). This leads me to believe they exist in a narrative of their own, just one that runs parallel to The Familiar. I’m not sure about this, however, so any additional thoughts on the matter of Narcons having their own myths and legends would be appreciated.
My last thought has something to do with Xanther’s kitten, and one of the first questions I wanted to ask is: is the cat a Narcon? In a very literal sense, it obviously is a narrative construction that Danielewski has come up with, so in that sense it absolutely is a Narcon. But I’m talking more about Narcons as Danielewski has defined them, as meta-like beings the reside over The Familiar. What leads me to believe that the kitten might be some sort of Narcon is that at some point in the novel TF-Narcon 9 mentions that,
“Narcons may even appear as animals. Say a killer whale, boar, hyena, even a markhor, or an owl. This is often the case when personality factors determined to be significant are compressed in order to preserve future rendering of character.” (576)
The cat also nearly sucks the life out of Xanther (though whether this can be taken literally is up for debate) and seems much more powerful in that sense than something that small has any right to be. Xanther is also the only character in the novel that both heard and responded to its call when it was so far away (not to mention a call that echoes through the entire story) and we already know that she is close to actually hearing the Narcons themselves, “Um, like there are these voices that know everything *so close* Like voices that don’t really live and can’t die and have been around forever…” (193). So my thinking is that the cat is definitely a Narcon, I’d like to hear the rest of your thoughts on the matter.
So those are my questions: Do the Narcons exist inside or outside of the material itself? What do we make of the Narcons having their own myth system? And is the cat possibly a Narcon? I apologize if this came out as a rambling mess, I’m still trying to gather my thoughts on the matter. It’s really interesting, though, and I’d like to see what you guys think.
This post may contain spoilers up through the end of the book.
Now that I’ve finished the book, I wanted to talk a little bit about my interpretation of the text. Specifically when I got to narcon section, the term theatre of the absurd popped into my mind (flashback to high school) and I haven’t been able to shake it. Disclaimer: I’m not a philosopher, nor am I particularly versed in absurdism, but I thought that there was at least an interesting relationship between Danielewski’s The Familiar and absurdism that needed to be examined.
For the basis of this post, I’m defining the absurd as the confrontation between the world and one’s self, the conflict that arises from humanity’s desire for rationality and meaning and the world’s inherent irrationality. This definition is extrapolated from the quotes from Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, “The mind’s deepest desire, even in its most elaborate operations, parallels man’s unconscious feeling in the face of his universe: it is an insistence upon familiarity, an appetite for clarity,” and “But with its first move this world cracks and tumbles : an infinite number of shimmering fragments is offered to the understanding. We must despair of ever reconstructing the familiar, calm surface which would give us peace of heart,” which describe the conflict between man’s deepest desire, and the reality of the universe being only partially rational.
In The Familiar, this question of the absurd pops up in several places. One of the most immediately noticeable throughlines regarding this is the prevalence of numbers. Specifically in Anwar’s chapters, focus on the irrational parts of the universe in the indeterminate forms surrounding zero and infinity (see page 771). Setting aside binary interpretations, which I don’t know enough about to figure into my analysis, I’d like to examine this numerical paradox. Numbers and math are things we see as indisputable or hard logic and fact, yet the narrative, very early on (page 59), sets these up as being logically fallible. Not only does this cause the reader to begin questioning their interpretation of the narrative’s world, but it also sets up the universe as being inherently irrational.
Whether intentionally or not, the title brings to mind Camus’ definition of the absurd. Each for their own reason, the characters are at drift in the narrative. Focusing on the Ibrahims, each of them are recovering from the loss of Dov (be he friend, lover, or father) and the sudden omnipresence of death in their lives, especially in regards to Xanther’s epilepsy. Through this they seek the “familiar,” a concept which proves illusive. Even at the point of mathematical logic, there is inconsistency and irrationality when we are led to the conclusion that 1=2.
At a structural level, the novel also displays a certain absurdity. In class someone pointed out that everything seems to go wrong in the narrative, or at least be at a disadvantage to normative society (Xanther being epileptic, the dead father, racial inequality, gangs, etc.). This, I believed was an interesting statement considering novels are always about everything going wrong, but I do think that perhaps in The Familiar, we are more prone to noticing these patterns. Like the famous coin flipping scene in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the sheer improbability of some of the narrative makes us very conscious of the fact that this narrative does not follow the typical structure of a story.
The other aspect of absurdity that appears in The Familiar, is that of the existential idea that life, events, and the world, are meaningless. This particularly hit home with me when, during the vet’s office scene, TF Narcon^27 says, “Neither Tessera nor Dr. Brady will remember this occasion, and what they hear about on the news later will remind them only of their own good fortune and only because they have yet to know the fortunes of their future,” (826). A typical novel is thought to be (primarily) self-contained. That the universe of the novel does not end with the characters we see is not only a jarring revelation, but makes possible the concept of not only the characters’ lives, but the story itself being meaningless and insignificant.
I haven’t decided yet whether or not I think that the fact that The Familiar seems to be self-aware of its status as a novel (evidenced by the narcons and the concept of constructed awareness/AI in the computer game as well as the orb) strengthens the idea of absurdism in the text or nullifies it.
Has anyone else noticed themes of absurdism in The Familiar? Does the fact that this book seems to be “aware” of its status as a narrative influence what is absurd about it?