In reading the novel Through the Arc of the Rainforest By Karen Tei Yamashita, I was struck by the similarities between the omniscient alien narrator known as “The Ball” all powerful “Orb” of The Familiar. Besides both being spherical objects, both serve as key functions of the narrative. In Yamshita’s novel, The Ball is an alien object attached to the head of the protagonist, Japanese rail worker Kazumasa. The orb narrates the entire novel from inside Kazumasa’s head, often providing commentary on the events that unfold in the plot. The Orb, on the other hand, seems to serve a similar function but works from the background of the narrative, threading through all the stories and seemingly providing the viewer with images from the past, present and future.
It is interesting to consider how both of these “characters” function in the narrative and what they mean in context of themes of assimilation of new technology into society. Yamashita’s novel criticizes industrial expansion and global exploitation of natural resources, and the ball functions somewhat as an intermediary between the natural and artificial worlds. The ball’s semi-omniscience serves to tie the narratives together into one coherent story. In the same way, The Orb functions somewhat as a bridge between the separate narratives of the novel. By allowing the viewer to virtually travel through time and space, it becomes the physical manifestation of omniscience. In both novels, these spherical omniscient objects function as magical-realist elements that elevate the narrative beyond the conventional human consciousness.
I don’t know much about computers, programming, or coding, but I had a little bit of fun with this binary to text translator: http://www.roubaixinteractive.com/PlayGround/Binary_Conversion/Binary_To_Text.asp
In particular, I used it with the picture of the orb that’s completely made out of binary code on page 640. I know the broader idea that the orb is composed of binary is much more important than analyzing what the specific binary says, but I thought it would be interesting to plug in some of the streams of alternating zeros and ones to see if there’s any meaning to them. It looks like most of the lines are simply a long string of ‘U’s follow by a ‘P,’ so ultimately it’s the word ‘up’ repeating many times. I’m not sure if there’s any significance to that, though–I just found it interesting…
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?
Biblical imagery and allusions are abundant in The Familiar, and I’ve been struggling to integrate this into a more holistic vision of the text (and might get a little speculative and convoluted in the process, but bear with me). We have Luther as a fallen Christ figure, evidenced by the bullet hole through his palm and when he “show[s] off a whole different kind of cross, then steps forward and walks on water” (608). On the other side of the coin, we have Mefisto whose name alone sets off red flags. Mefisto, significantly, seems to be the (only?) link connecting Anwar’s narrative to Cas’s if we can make the leap that he is, in fact, Sorcerer. I anticipate (and I believe I saw a post from someone else on here exploring similar ideas) that Mefisto will likely somehow integrate Anwar’s AI code with the orb, giving birth to what are displayed to us as narcons. This could explain their ability to perceive almost all attributes of their subjects in much the same way Cas is able to observe the past through her Orb, as well as their distinctive personalities thanks to the AI.
Were this to be the case, I feel we would also be presented with a very poignant image of the devil (Mefisto[feles]) with an apple in hand (the Orb as the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil), perhaps setting up a sort of parallel to the Genesis tale. I also picked up on a few other potentially Biblical hints surrounding the Orb; when Cas receives news of her conspirators via Parcel Thoughts, nine names are listed with strong mythological and religious connotations (646). Yet as we also know, nine never really equals nine. If we add Cas (Wizard), Deakin (Merlin), and Mefisto (Sorcerer?) to the list, we get 12 names; the twelve apostles of the Orb? Perhaps even Mefisto as a Judas character?
I’m not so quick to write Mefisto off as a villain though. Rather, I think Danielewski is more likely crafting an inversion of the Biblical tale, which could also help account for Luther as a malicious Jesus figure and the failure of Astair’s thesis, “Hope’s Nest: On the Necessity of God.” Moreover, in a lecture given by Danielewski called Parable No. 9 which seems to be largely interwoven with The Familiar (and which I’ve linked and written more on here), he makes the bold assertion that cats are “Christianity’s mortal enemy.” This would place Xanther particularly in opposition to the notion of Biblical morality, but we all know that Xanther is the furthest character from any sort of evil or sin. Instead, I foresee MZD inverting this Derridean dichotomy born of Christian ethics as a means to challenge the assumption of the supremacy of man— to reveal the strife engendered by granting to man the “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” in Genesis 1:26. Xanther’s relationship with all life suggests that she has already transcended this hierarchy of man over animal and is poised to challenge some very foundational aspects of the Western world.
I’d love some more thoughts on how the other narratives could be better integrated into this theory, particularly Luther and Jingjing.
I completely agree with you here. I think our generation gets so much flack for being so consumed with “the media” but people have always been consumed with media, it’s just that the media has changed. I wouldn’t say the relationship is completely void of bimodal distribution — I do think the access we have to each other affects our emotions. It’s not just about how the media has changed but how it has changed and how much more of it there is. I also agree that Xanther’s anxiety directly comes from these apps. It’s not borne new for her specialty.
Really interesting point about how ultimately this novel can relate to the Millennials. Danielewski has something amazing here with this book and as far as I’m concerned, he’s changed the scene of reading. It’s about so much more now–the way something is mediated to you does in fact affect you. So, it’s interesting you brought this up. Great post!
We are inundated by the strong opinions of older generations on how the extent to which technology in engrained in our lives. It’s difficult for those not raised on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/Snapchat to understand how we consume media to the point where if we are unable to get in touch with people it can feel like there is something physically wrong with us. Millennials get a lot of crap for behaving a way that they do, but part of that frustration might be misplaced. Is it fair to judge a whole generation based on the fact that more is available to for young people than there has ever been before? I challenge older generations to consider how they would have acted had all this been available because I think that would open up a lot of questions about the way people relate to each other. Maybe some of the social problems stem…
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After our class’s last discussion of the novel, a classmate and I had a discussion of our own about Danielewski’s intent for writing this amazingly confusing novel that’s seems purposely chocked-full of innuendo and infinite loops. Is Danielewski really that eccentric? Has he actually left a shattered vase for us to tediously reassemble piece-by-piece, that if we worked hard enough and had enough patience, could actually put back together? Are there actually patterns with deeper meanings throughout this novel and future series (at least, as many as we think there are)? Or, is Danielewski cruelly taking advantage of his most compulsive readers; leading them to a hay stack to search for a needle that isn’t there; and charging them for the thrill of an endless hunt? If you’ve ever seen the joy some people get from watching their dog hopelessly search for a ball that they never actually released at the end of their throw, this act of deception might seem more plausible. If you’re thirst for clarification and completion wasn’t quenched by the first volume in this series, would you buy the second? What about the twenty-seventh? Would you feel cheated if there were no solid conclusions that could be drawn from the series no matter how many volumes you read. Or, is that the point? The redacted text sure felt reminiscent of Mad-Libs to me; just waiting to be filled in. Maybe we are NarCons; everyone of us a different NarCon, putting the pieces together in our own way, but each still coming up with an equally valid theory. I know that sounds a lot like what an English class or book club is supposed to be, but usually you can locate clear supporting evidence for claims and be at least partially certain of some things in the story. In “The Familiar”, I’m not one-hundred percent certain of what dimension I’m in, much less who or what the narrators are, or if there are actually even any characters in the novel at all(our class made reference to The Matrix trilogy). This post isn’t meant to try and diminish Danielewski’s work, or to try and deprive his fans of the thrill of the search, but to question the novel’s meaning in a way that’s not just about the story inside, but about the medium itself. Is this just a sophisticated version of a Mad-Libs, a cruel prank, or will Danielewski eventually let us in the know?
In the end of the book, Anwar is left with a question of how to make a program that predicts the movements of his game’s prey while the prey is making the decision. Basically how to predict the near future/present. He then mentions how Mefisto would know how to code for that in his sleep.
We also see in the Orb section the mention of a Sorcerer that knows Anwar and Xanther. In class some of us hypothesized that the reason the Sorcerer knew Anwar and Xanther was because he was Mefisto. I took that hypothesis one step further in my head.
I think that Mefisto knows so much about coding because he built the Orb and the Orb is some kind of device that can allow someone to see the past, present, and future. Anwar needs a code that can predict the present and/or the near future in his game for the predator to be able to catch his prey. Mefisto has the ability to do this because of the Orb.
The reason we have to met Mefisto is because he is on the run from VEM. Which in itself is a predator and prey sort of game. Just like the “answer” is escaping Anwar, Mefisto is escaping VEM. They cannot predict where he is going or when he will appear, much like Anwar’s gaming problem.
I think someone posted on here about how the entire novel is a cat and mouse game so to speak. That there is an overall theme of predator and prey. I started thinking more on this and began to realize that it was. That post helped me come up with the hypothesis on what the Orb is and the power it could hold. VEM does not want anyone to know everything but them, so that is why they are hunting the Orb holders. The Orb’s coding is the answer to Anwar’s dilemma, but as of now he does not know about the Orb or at least we do not know if he does. The Orb is the only power over VEM that the characters of this story have. VEM controls them but with the Orb they would have the same power that VEM does.
It all comes back to the Orb. It is the key to power, and my theory is that Xanther has some special connection to it all because she is special and as the series unfolds we will figure out just how special she really is.
Today in class, we discussed different levels of power and authority associated with different pieces of literature. We referenced Johanna Drucker in https://bb.clemson.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-2323335-dt-content-rid-21663912_2/courses/lct-engl-3490/Course%20Readings/Drucker%20-%20Experimental%20Typography%20as%20Modern%20Art%20Practice.pdf” 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?
As I was reading through “The Horrosphere” section, a piece of Danielewski’s writing caught my attention. On page 327, Xanther is narrating/speaking about her life. Danielewski writes, “…because resisting takes up so much more energy. That’s one of the things about the questions, maybe the biggest thing?, they take up a lot of energy. Like they exhaust her.” As I thought about this idea of energy and what it means to “take up energy,” I decided to look up the definition of the word. Through my Google search, I found this definition: “the strength and vitality required for sustained physical or mental activity.” Even though this novel is so large, I don’t think it would be crazy to focus in on every word Danielewski has written. His work is clearly meant to be analyzed with extreme detail. As Xanther states that questions exhaust her, I cannot help but remember several sections in the novel where she asks many questions to those around her. On page 95, Xanther asks and answers a plethora of questions, but does not seem to grow tired. This conversation centers around Dov, though.
Dov’s death affects the character of Xanther significantly and is directly tied to the idea of energy within Danielewski’s work. This section of questions seems to give Xanther energy because it is centered around Dov. In other sections of the novel, though, the thought of Dov or his death overwhelms Xanther to the point of experiencing a seizure. It seems as though Dov is a point of energy for Xanther–one that can have positive or negative outcomes. The title of the novel The Familiar highlights the idea of something being well-known or recognizable. Maybe the idea of Dov’s life gives Xanther the positive energy she needs to survive, and the all too well-known idea of Dov’s death is what breaks her down. This familiarity of Dov sparks something deep inside of Xanther.