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.
Obviously, as we have all seen by now, this book is tough to fit into any type of “box” or label. Although I know it is experimental fiction, I have been trying to at least connect it to one type of genre in order to comprehend its meaning, but so far I have not been able to narrow it down to just one. I originally thought each sub-story could at least be labeled as a certain genre: i.e., Xanther’s as a fairly classic narrative, The Orb as some sort of science fiction, Narcon as something similarly scientific/computer-based…but now I am doubting myself once again. Xanther’s section seems to have taken a turn for the supernatural, fantastical genre. Are we supposed to believe that the big rainstorm, involving Xanther getting lost in the flood and returning to the car, actually happened that way? Or was it more a dream-like state, made of the imagination? Then, the next chapter to follow is the infamous Narcon chapter…something I have honestly never seen anything like in any other type of novel. Presumably the book itself is talking – Danielewski? Some far-off, alien creature? A computer? – this section struck me more as sci-fi, with its computer language and coding. What frustrates me the most right now is that I have come this far along in this captivating novel (if it can even be called a novel) and have yet to come up with a way to organize it within the context of other texts. It is frustrating how much of a range there is in its content. Maybe once the connections between story lines start becoming more clarified this will change…in the meantime, I guess I should just keep reading to find out!
I know there’s already been a lot of discussion of Narcons on here, but I’m going to add on to that in relation to some of the later events of the book, particularly in the last few sections of the book, so if you haven’t read that far yet, fair warning…
The chapter about narcons completely caught me by surprise–I had been so engrossed in the Xanther/Astair/Anwar narrative and the insertion of this sterile,cold, theoretical concept was chilling to me. It invoked in me an existential sense of awe at the mechanics of the world (or rather Danielewski’s world), almost like seeing the proverbial man behind the curtain. The fact that Astair’s thesis is wrapped up in the idea of God and proving the necessity of God, as well as Anwar’s role as a game-maker, both seemed to connect particularly well to the concept of narcons that is presented in this chapter. The narcons seem to be associated with a god-like omniscience; they “know” everything the characters know. At the same time, though, narcons have very specific limits, one of which is that narcons can’t communicate with other narcons or even any non-narcons (which obviously is confusing in that the narcon seems to be communicating with us, the non-narcon readers). These limits suggest that the narcon is not all-knowing or omnipotent. So if the narcons are not traditional gods, what are they then, simply other characters?
However, the narcons do seem to have some sense of ownership or greater responsibility than the other characters–they are constantly interrupting sections to include cryptic little phrases that begin with braille symbols. One such phrase, that appears on page 712 struck me as particularly god-like: The sentence begins: “Anwar sounding sterner than ever before (as if those words were never his own,” but is interrupted with the braille symbols signalling that the next words (“only at the end of forever owned”) are those of the narcon. This phrase seems to imply that the narcon lives on past forever in a way that Anwar or any other character can’t.
What the debate about the narcons as either characters or gods or something else entirely seem to hinge upon is how we interpret meaning in the text. Are we to understand that everything is connected in a teological way, or is the opposite true: are the various stories that seem to be connected in some unique ways only superficially related? In other words, is The Familiar a nihilistic novel or is it teleological?
I, like so many, am fascinated by the time stamps in the novel and wonder about their purpose(s). Certainly, they allow us to understand the chronological relationship of the varying narratives that we are introduced to. However, I wonder to what degree these time stamps are part of Danielewski’s attempt to control/guide our reading experience in the way he does in say House of Leaves (the only other novel of his I’ve read). In that novel, we have to explore its various features in somewhat the same way the house is explored. In fact, the worst possible way to read that novel, it seems to me, would be just to open on page 1 and then keep turning pages. The letters at the the end of the novel, the various artifacts and evidence, etc. are really necessary to help understand the main narratives as you read. So in that novel, Danielweski basically tells us, “Snoop around in whatever manner you see fit just like my characters are doing.” The Familiar, in contrast, pushes us more linearly. We are always conscious of the clock, if you will, and it seems as if, instead of asking us to roam around, he is asking us to experience the novel in real time, in the way that his characters do. I would be curious to know what people think of the degree to which Danielewski is trying to get us to read/experience this novel a certain way temporally, and to what end (based on the limited information we have thus far)? To what degree does our knowing that we are only getting one day change/influence our reading experience, especially when we know that are so many more volumes coming and thus we won’t be getting resolutions? I can’t help but think back to that opening narrator who seems to announce the end of one time and the beginning of another coupled with the seeming countdown of one person’s life. So much time. What does it all mean?
Something that interested me when starting to read The Familiar was its narrative style. Throughout Danielewski’s oeuvre, readers have seen him match styles of narrative voice with his characters. This has included choices of font as well as linguistic idiolect.
In The Familiar, chapters are aligned with different narratives and different characters and once again we can see Danielewski alternating font and style. To what extent can we interpret his stylistic choices as attempts to render the cognitive processes and styles of his characters?
As an example, through pages 1-199 there are 3 chapters that we might think of as relating to Xanther’s story and all are presented as third-person narration. However, the focalisation differs: ‘Is Everything Okay?’ is written from Xanther’s point of view, ‘Square One’ from Anwar’s, and ‘Big Surprise’ from Astair’s. As a result, there are some interesting differences in thought presentation. Parenthesis is used throughout Anwar’s and Astair’s narration, for instance, to represent digressions of thought, though the punctuation symbols differ between the two.
I therefore wanted to pose a question: To what extent can we consider style, punctuation, and visual-multimodal elements in Danielewski’s writing as being used to represent character cognition and mind style? Can an argument be made about contemporary fiction and innovations in stream of consciousness?