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The Design, Limitations, and Purpose of Narcons

“Hi.” This congenial, seemingly innocent greeting is what opens Pandora’s Box (and indeed opens paradise) in Volume 1 of Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar. Like some metafictional game of peek-a-boo, the novel’s Narrative Construct pauses the story completely and introduces itself to the reader. TF-Narcon9, as is its designation, exists someplace above and beyond the […]

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

Building on the latest post about Jakob von Uexküll, I wonder if anyone wants to venture a reading of the epigraphs on page 374 and page 518. Someone has already posted the (as yet unanswered) question about the Deadmau5 quote, and I’d like to situate it alongside the xkcd comic and invite discussion of the two as possible framing statements for The Familiar. The full xkcd comic is here. What conceptual work are the two epigraphs doing? In what sense do they offer a lens through which to re-consider the issue of the Narcons and the programming of Paradise Open?


What is a familiar? The simple answer is that it is an animal used and controlled by a person using magic. As I read The Familiar I made a connection between the similarities between a familiar and a video game avatar. The fact that Anwar is a video game engine designer made this connection stand out in the text. Magic is a key element of this description. With greater familiarity with the familiar the stronger the magic binds the person to the animal. But there is one aspect of the person/familiar relationship that I haven’t mentioned: familiars were meant to be sacrificed.

The familiar/avatar connection also connects to sacrifice. How many lives do you get in a video game? And as a writer I know that the reason for creating many characters is so that you can kill them off. I’m really curious if Daneilewski created the character of Anwar as an analog for himself.

Paradise Open

Readers are first introduced to this gaming system on page 379. Xanther describes Paradise as being a “perfect, peaceful place without death”. The description of Paradise goes on to be described as an “enclosed garden” and “surrounding wall”, but Glasgow makes the comment that it sounds like a “prison”. With these two different meanings, I began to think of what each character’s Paradise/Prison would be. For Xanther, her prison would be her epilepsy. She is constantly having to see therapists (and almost all of those therapists have failed). Knowing when her seizures are about to start requires her to have to breathe slowly and keep her mind distracted with calming thoughts. The Horrosphere could also be a kind of prison because it is filled with unpleasant images. I think the Narcons could represent a little bit of both Paradise and Prison because they control the happenings of the stories. They could take the role of prison guards or even, as some posts have suggested, the role of a God.
My purpose of this post is to see if anyone else can come up with their own theory for the Paradise Open game or even contribute to the Paradise/Prison descriptions.

Syntax and Semantic Errors

Since I am only on page 384, this will be a short(ish) post, but I wanted to put this idea out there and see if it connected with anyone else. In my non-school life, I work for a software company and spend a lot of time programming, so I glance over the Anwar stuff with an eye for bugs, but not too critically (I am trying to get through the book after all). But I did catch a syntax error in the code presented on page 89:

//          int main()
//          {
//        std::cout << ‘My thoughts unaloud look like this!\n’
return 0;
//          }

This is c++ code and the “//”s mean that what follows on the line is a comment (until the next carriage return, which is why I included the output as one line), but the return line is not commented out. If you were to try to run this through a compiler, you would get a syntax error. When I first saw this, I didn’t think it was intentional, but I didn’t have enough of the book read to feel like I could associate it with something. But while flipping through the book today after having read about the bug in the scene loading code on page 382 something clicked. “Bugs” in code are semantic errors, problems in meaning, where the error above is a syntax error, an error in the grammar of the language (grammar in the linguistic sense, the rules of language; possible sentences versus impossible sentences). You know who makes a lot of semantic errors in their speech? Xanther. But jingjing’s narrations make a lot of syntax errors, which makes the sections harder to read, your brain can’t compile correctly, and you have to debug the sentences.

I got to thinking, couldn’t the syntax and semantic errors run through all different layers of the book? That seems to me to be sort of the idea of the signiconic. It’s sort of a syntax error in the language of books, so we have to stop and debug it, figure it out.

It could also be that I am just very sleep deprived.

Metafiction and ‘The Familiar’

Knowing full well that Danielewski is a novelist writing in the age of ‘post-postmodernism’ (cf. metamodernism) and realizing immediately that elements of metafiction would bleed heavily throughout the novel, I set out reading The Familiar actively searching for such elements.

I think we all discovered upon reading the first chapter that Danielewski’s playful style meant the freedom on his part to interject various comments into the narrative; actually, these ‘comments’ are if anything clarifications: dates, facts, allusions, corrections, etc., offset by a strange form of dotted punctuation. We learn much later in the novel that these intertextual remarks come from a more sophisticated metafictional device, none other than TF-Narcon⁹ and its infinite offspring. The novel literally “pauses” after page 562—the page numbers vanish, the ‘Narrative Construct’ introduces itself, and then a dozen or so pages are spent outlining its nature and parameters. For the reader, this is both a bizarre and rather enlightening moment. We learn the identity of this narrative ‘intruder’ and make the proper links to Xanther’s Question Song, Anwar’s Paradise Open, Cas’ Orb, and a number of other previously unrelated inclusions.

Meta-commentary also comes, albeit somewhat cryptically, in the form of font names at the very back of the text. TF-Narcon⁹, for instance, is typed in “MetaPlus-,” yet another meta-wink from Mr. Danielewski. (More discussion on fonts can be found here.)

The final metafictional element I wish to discuss is the title of the novel and its presence within the text. I’ve counted nineteen instances of the word “familiar” in The Familiar, and with each use the word is highlighted in pink. I have yet to explore precisely how and at what moments Danielewski chooses to use the title word, but my literary instincts tell me that route might be a dead end. The only exception that jumped out at me was when the word is used three times in the same sentence on page 705, when Anwar is remarking how oddly easy it is to slip into a rapport with his two biological daughters (this, perhaps, in stark contrast to his relationship with Xanther, whom he loves but finds quite challenging).

Nonetheless, I invite everyone to contribute any findings! At every moment, it seems, Danielewski is hitting the reader over the head with the fact that the physical object in hand is artifice, a constructed text that is very aware of its own construction. I’ve only scratched the surface, though, especially with Narcons—there’s a lot more there.

Danielewski’s World

Danielewski seems to do an excellent job constructing his own self-contained world in The Familiar, a world outside of our own, a world which belongs only to The Familiar. Admittedly, the characters we, as readers, encounter are made “familiar” and relatable through both their experiences (money issues, health concerns, death and fear of death) and our admittance into their crowded, often confusing, inner thoughts or streams of consciousness. However, despite the relatability of these characters–it seems that Danielewski has crafted his very own world disconnected from the one in which his readers live.

One way in which Danielewski is capable of creating this world is through the lines of connectivity which flow through the storylines–through the chapters. One obvious way this is done is through the ever present–ever down pouring–rain. I am still perplexed why Danielewski would choose rain as his most obvious and omnipresent connecting factor throughout the Volume. Also I would love to discuss why this rain has to be so violent ? What is the relevance of a down pour versus a light shower? I would love to know what the rest of you think about this choice.

Another “line of connectivity” drawn by Danielewski, which I have just started to pick up on (400 pages in), is the sound which significantly troubles, almost haunts, Anwar, Luther, and Isandoro. The sound cannot be located by any of them. All three of them hear this sound, despite the assumed substantial distance which separates them from one another. The mysteriousness of the sound proves, almost disproportionately, frustrating and irksome. This seemingly impossible omnipresent sound seems to paint a picture of self-contained world in a similar way that the rain does.

A third “line of connectivity” is the literal line of geometric shapes which runs through the inside of the book, extremely close to the binding. I don’t have too much to say about this line other than it is a form of connectivity through page set up and outside of the plot or dialogue itself and in that way I find it intriguing.

I am sure that others have found their own lines of connectivity in the text and I would love to discuss them !

In addition to his lines of connectivity, Danielewski also makes us aware that we have entered into another world when–ironically enough–he seems to “break the fourth wall”. What better way to make readers aware of that walls exist–that this world is self-contained–than by breaking down those very walls? There are moments when Danielewski undoubtedly elbows the reader, gives them a nudge, and holds a mirror up to this world.

One such moment is when Xanther asks Dr. Potts the following question:

“Do you ever think, like, there’s a conversation going on, you know, like somewhere out there, somehow parallel to the one you’re having with yourself, like in your head, or even with someone else” (193).

We laugh at this moment. We are definitely aware that these conversations do exist–we have already read 193 pages of them. However, with this laughter and with this breaking of the fourth wall, we are made ultra-aware we are laughing at a different self-sustaining world–that if a wall has broken, it was indeed there to begin with.

The most INTERESTING example of the fourth wall breaking comes when Xanther and Anwar are discussing the etymology of Paradise and the meaning behind Paradise Open. Paradise is conceptualized in the discussion as a “surrounding wall”, “enclosed garden”, or “protected place”. Yet the title of Anwar’s project hints that he opens up the enclosed area or removes some of the protection to allow others inside — hence Paradise OPEN.

We laugh at this moment as we realize Anwar and Danielewski seem to be doing the same thing. Anwar’s title could work perfectly for Danielewskis work. Danielewski has created a self-contained, outside world–yet he opens the doors and lets us see what is inside.