The ball from “Through the Arc of the Rain Forest” crash lands on Earth in an alienated manner. The ball is the narrator of the story but he does not go into much detail about what he was doing before the trip to Earth. The ball is one of the supernatural entities of the story that does not need much explanation. The narcons in “The Familiar” have some of the same entities in that they are the narrators of the story. The operator of the narcons is unknown and remains so to the end of the story. However, only speculation suggests that Danielewski is hidden behind the narcons. Much like this theory it is understood that Art Spiegelman is the narrator of the story. The narrator plays an intricate role in story telling and these stories take a different approach to telling the story.
Perhaps the most troublesome element of The Familiar is the presence of the Narcons. On one hand, we get a first person description of one of them, but while it describes itself, the other Narcons chime in as if they are commenting on what this particular one is saying, but the one that has a section devoted to it doesn’t seem to have any awareness of the other ones.
What does this mean? Why are there different Narcons? A few of us have suggested that they represent different elements of storytelling, one of the narcon states facts while another mentions more artistic things. So, if we’re meant to understand these as narrative construct, whose story are we actually reading?
The last question is most puzzling to me. We have different stories that distinctly echo different character’s voices. We had discussed in class that even details of font type and size correlate with how we construct these characters. (Luther for example is a large, imposing person whose chapters are filled thematically with power. As a result, his text is the most bold and the largest per character. In such a way, it mirrors how we characterize him.) Why is font necessary though? Why is how the character interacts with others a defining characteristic? Well, I would posit the potential that though these stories are being told in the first person, we might actually be viewing them from the perspectives of the Narcons.
Let me present why I might think this. When Xanther mispronounces a word, Narcons, in the absence of Anwar, chime in to correct her. If we conceive the Narcons as narrative constructs, ie. a piece of technology or a program, then it might seem that they trying to codify the information they are gathering by viewing these characters.
Reconsider how the text and font changes with each character. Now this is just a shot in the dark, but perhaps this Narcons make sense of characters through codifying them–assigning them a set font style so that they can differentiate the information. TF-Narcon 9 says that it knows a great deal about Xanther. How does it know these things about Xanther? I believe that there might be two possible answers.
For the first, it might be that the Narcons are programmed in such a way that they can offer an immensely detailed account of characters. Their depth of character knowledge is so deep that they assume what they can do in any given situation. As a result, they put together stories for these individuals. This would result in the Narcons actually telling us a story and the characters being figments of a machine’s imagination. I don’t believe this answer to be satisfying and it also problematic because of jing-jing’s chapters.
jing-jing’s chapters have several languages in them that make it difficult for the reader to follow. However, jing jing later starts speaking in languages that the other characters in his chapter didn’t realize he could. Once this shift in the narrative happens, we see a greater amount of commentary from the Narcons. They chime in and translate more and more for us. From this anecdote I will posit what I believe to be the true nature of Narcons, sentient and constantly compounding, non-halting computational devices.
Disclaimer, I am no expert in coding and only have very limited knowledge of this topic from studying formal logic. With that being said, codes function in algorithms that have a finite number of steps that produce a given answer. Once an answer is satisfied, the code halts, that is to say it reaches a logical conclusion. For this limitation, computers do not have the capacity to learn. All their pathways must be pre-ordained and written in the way of codes.
Now let’s consider these Narcons that have the ability to amass great amounts of knowledge. How did they learn these things? With the concept of a compounding computer in mind, perhaps, just maybe, these Narcons are computer entities that have somehow solved the halting problem. If this is the case, they would be able to codify information that would be otherwise unintelligible to them–in other words they could catalog and learn from information that they have not had previous exposure to. Maybe these Narcons are, in fact, thinking machines.
Narcons are the editing characters in The Familiar. Art Speigleman is the author and illustrator of Maus and therefore the editor. While Art Speigleman is a real character in the real world, he is also the main character in the graphic novel. So the Narcons edit the narrative as it is happening but Speigleman edits his narrative to influences his readers as well.
The levels of narration:
Speigleman is the writer/illistraor of the novel.
Speigleman is the main character of the book.
Speigleman the character mentions Speigleman the author, breaking the forth wall and revealing inner thoughts of the author.
Therefor the main character is unreliable because he is influenced and edited to influence the reader.
The same applies to the Narcons in a way:
Mark Z. Danielewski is the author of the novel.
The Narcons edit the narration and characters as the narration happens.
Narcons edit other Narcons.
The same applies. The Narcons, and therefore the characters, are unreliable due to the influence of the Narcons to influence the reader.
In both of these books, the readers must read with caution. The author of the texts uses narrative techniques to hide information and convey certain emotions, pushing readers in the narrative direction the author wants. This can be confusing to the readers if they do not do close readings. If reading too fast, the reader can miss key things, such as: The Familiar‘s link of the loss of Tai Li’s cat but the gain of Xanther’s cat. In Maus, when Art is on the porch with his wife and his father, an Auschwitz survivor, is moaning in his sleep, his wife comments how awful that must have been and Art sprays pesticide. The more appalling parallel is that they had just been speaking about the gas chambers of Auschwitz. If the reader simply reads through the text without doing close readings, they will be influenced by the editing characters and miss a few key facts and images. Readers beware and read with caution.
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.
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.
As I continue to read – especially now after having encounter Danielewski for the first time – I am always intrigued by an author’s to ability create some kind of new narrative dynamic which elevates the work above the traditional and direct paragraph/page by page form to something innovative and experimental while at the same time working completely within the limits of that same “page by page,” normal book form. Reading (or rather exploring) Danielewski’s work, it is easy to see that he enjoys playing with the narrative structure of his work a great deal. There is the plain story (or story lines) that live within the text, but to enhance these familiar plot structures there is the narrative style of the novel. Such a style I can honestly admit I have never encountered before, especially considering the entire middle section of the book when we finally learn that the book is being narrated by not one but three separate “Narcon” entities. This realization certainly adds to the complexity of the work, most notably in the fact that the reader becomes somewhat skeptical of these voices knowing that they are in some ways similar (and thus unreliable) as a character within the novel narrating the text his or herself.
With this in mind, I scoured the internet in search of some discussion on narrative form. Instead of landing on any number of high level, literarily critical essays, I landed on a reddit discussion page in which a broad range of readers have shared their most favorite narrative styles. I know that this may not help the confused reader of Danielewski in solving the complexity of his separate but invariably linked Narcons. However, it does provide a list of great, experimental literature and its always varying narrative styles.
This post was originally a response to jcornejo33’s post about the kitten possibly being evil incarnate. However, the word count of the final product makes me hesitate to classify it as a “comment.” So here we are.
I have a rather wild theory about the cat and whether or not it is evil. I wouldn’t say it is evil incarnate, but it’s certainly not winning this year’s Miss Congeniality award. In fact, the cat (assuming that Tian Li’s white cat is the same cat that Xanther finds) is regarded with fear and mistrust by a number of people. In his first section, Jingjing tells us that the cat scares him. He talks about how the cat’s shadow creeps around at night, moving while the cat itself stays still (102-103).
Astair also dislikes the cat. Granted, Astair dislikes all cats, but comments by the Narcons lead one to believe that perhaps this isn’t personal bias talking. Astair calls it gruesome and disgusting. She wants to immediately throw it out of the house. Her lack of pity for the creature is odd even to Astair: “But where is her pity?” (684-685). Narcon 3 chimes in with “Because you weren’t wrong, were you, Astair?” (686) And Narcon 27 tells us that “she sensed what only one other could know”(687).
I think that this “one other” was either Jingjing or Tian Li. Jingjing feared it and Tian Li (in my opinion) was glad to be rid of it. When Tian Li tells Jingjing that the cat is gone, she says that it is “…gone at last. Gone for good “(702). Now, I’ve lost a few cats in my time and have never said that they were “gone at last.” That sounds like she has been waiting for it to leave. She can sleep now. Jing jing says that he had never seen her sleep before (694).
Even Xanther has a moment when the cat seems to be a little sinister. She hints that she experienced the cat has a “figure of terror, a predator, death personified” (804).
Alright. So now that we’ve got our bags all packed, let’s move into Crazy Town, USA. The burning question: What is the cat?
Some people are saying that the cat is a Narcon in physical form. Not a bad theory. The fact that the cat is weightless – maybe not really there – could support this idea (825). My theory also fits with the masslessness (is that a word?) of the creature. I think that the cat is Danielewski’s take on a Pontianak. Jingjing gets that Pontianak monster card with the owl on it. A Pontianak is a vampiric ghost in Malay lore. They have some connection to women who died in childbirth and /or the death of a child. The Pontianak usually takes the form of a woman. However, the Kuntilanak (the Indonesian version), can take the shape of an animal, especially birds. The cat seems to draw on Xanther’s life force like a vampire. It “took more than one tiny breath” and “kept taking it too” (815). If Xanther hadn’t somehow stopped it, it would have killed her. The death of a child.
There is one more aspect of the Pontianak that makes me think that there could be some connection. Lore says that the cry of the Pontianak sounds like the cry of a baby. When the creature is far away, the cry is loud. When it is nearby, the cry is soft. The cries heard by the characters were not described exclusively as meows. Some sounded like people or children. It could be the same cry but interpreted differently. Ok, so if we assume that the (…) represents the cry of the cat/whatever-the-heck-this-thing-is, the size of the (…) would indicate volume. The ellipses start off big and get progressively smaller. As each character hears the cry, they get smaller and smaller. The creature gets closer. Finally, when Xanther finds the cat, the ellipsis is the smallest one in the whole text (470). The cat is right there. Dun Dun Dun!
Ok. On to the wrap up! I hope I haven’t repeated something someone already said. This theory could be completely wrong. It’s entirely possible I’m making connections where there are none. It could be that the Pontianak is what Tian Li is afraid of and what the cat is protecting Xanther from. There is just something about the cat that keeps me from seeing it as a protector. Artemis this cat is not.
That’s a Sailor Moon reference in case you were wondering.
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.
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.