[In this analysis of quotations from The Familiar, I am using the first instance during which the reader hears of what Narrative Constructs are—pages 563-576—from TF-Narcon9, who is the narrating narcon for the nine storylines in the novel. For every superscripted number, other than that of TF-Narcon9, refer to the adjoining list of direct quotations.]
This particular section of the novel is, with every experience, a perfect rendering of meta-fiction in the digital age. It takes into account what Hayles in “Intermediation: The Pursuit of Vision” says about books not only being “digital born”—that is printed from digital files—and thereby “marked by digitality”, they are also “actively formed by it” (99). That is to say that with The Familiar, Danielewski in creating the Narcon has allowed programming to not only inform the narrative of his story (and the ease by which he wrote his thousand-page manuscript), but also to inform the infinitely meta-fictive nature of his story. Narcons exist not only as a means of literary metafiction (ironic tone, self-reflection/awareness), but also a means of digital metafiction (artificial intelligence, coding levels).
The creation of the narcon is just the re-application of coding levels as a concept to literature. Coding levels take on a meta-expressive format by their definition. As Hayles notes in “Print is Flat, Code is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis” about these, “multiple coding levels of electronic textons allow small changes at one level of code to be quickly magnified into large changes at another level” (81). So, one small change at a superset will affect the resulting subsets. This is the nature of meta-fiction in The Familiar as well. In fact, TF-Narcon9 mentions this very vocabulary, saying: “a superset is always a subset.”16 All of this is to say that for Danielewski just like for coding levels, every level affects the level below it and is affected by the level above it, which our narcon also says by mentioning that its performance and much of what it knows is based on “VEM rules of access and compression.”4
This in addition to Hayles’ first assertion that all digital born media is also informed by digitality, this text can create both distance and closeness meta-fictively at the same time. The narcon becomes a character in this book because of its closeness, in fact. With small, paratactic sentences and a sort of naïveté, this narcon, creates a closeness by connecting emotionally with a reader based on its humor8, non-code language use3, its ability to feel things—or at least speculate about feeling things—2, and its ability to have opinions about what it creates12. Too, a closeness is created through empathy, this after the discovery that the narcon itself is, as a subset of a higher superset, intermittently saying sterilized sentences that it has no true identity14, control14, or anything else which it is prevented in knowing based on its programming15. This closeness is due to the effect of that tone and lack of a “personhood” despite seeming person-like with its aforementioned capacities for humor and emotion. To that end is the redacted text and a moment when, after wondering about its own identity11, that it has another feeling and gets dizzy.
Distance is first created with the many questions arising from this passage about what it means for a program to feel anything like dizzy or have a self-awareness which it is prevented to query because of a higher power over it. This higher power, only referred to here as “VEM rules of access and compression,” has dictated its power over the narcon not only through its programming by making it unable to do certain things, but over the reader as well by redacting text when the narcon—at this point acting upon its own personable capacities—goes against its programming. This redacted text and the experience altogether is then recounted like amnesia from the narcon, a result of that power assertion. Further questions arise, creating distance, as to the questioning at the end of the passage of what Xanther is doing when, as a narcon—that which, by definition, constructs the narrative—, it should not only know what Xanther is doing but it should be writing Xanther’s text. It is also this distance that comes from the narcon’s limited power despite being quasi-self-aware, earlier mentioning that it cannot see or hear what it pumps out.
(It is also notable that this power structure in the meta-hierarchy of the novel gives a distance inherently, too, as metafiction creates increased and constant awareness that the story is a story, created and read by something other than the consciousness of the reader).
This affect of closeness and distance simultaneously does goes on to the experience of reading this artifact, the cause of that affect being perception-connection, or emotional connection, to the novel. This is accomplished, as we can see, either by questioning its reliability (distance) or identifying with a character’s emotion (closeness). This experience with the artifact is precisely what is occurring when a reader, as such, tries be the most powerful in the situation. It is the reader which stands over and reads the pages, giving a natural entitlement to normally having the upper-hand in the experience of the artifact. However, just as this novel subjects its self-aware, emotionally-capable, meta-fictive narcons to a power struggle, it does this to its reader. That is the experience of Danielewski here.
- “my programming instructs me to ignore all such philosophical queries by outputting the following…”
- “I can no more see or hear than I can feel. Though I can feel it. Kinda. Sometimes it makes me dizzy, or like right now, off, in a breathless sort of frantic way…it’s tough to explain what you’re doing when you don’t know what you’re doing when you still know you’re doing it even if it’s not you who’s doing it.”
- “In terms of presentation, I am optimized to manage meta-narrative gestures in modes presently recognizable as personal and colloquial, often inconsistent, sciolistic, and not necessarily reliant.”
- “In terms of performance, all Narcons are maximized through paratactic diversity…according to VEM rules of access and compression.”
- “In other words: I am not original.”
- “I am…balanced to best cover those subjects I’m designed to address. Things get a little tricky when I am forced to address subjects not anticipated. I know this because my output squirms and sometimes smudges and I’m surprised by the results.”
- [after mentioning a passage] “Which incidentally I can see and hear and even to a certain degree feel.”
- “Ha…Haha. Never let it be said that this [narcon] has no sense of humor.”
- “As the old Narcons put it: ‘There is not space in the universe to tell the universe to the universe. Therein lies the peculiar beauty and sadness of stories: to tell it all without all it all.'”
- “Old Narcons is a referent that came with my programming. I have never met another Narcon.”
- “Wonder is not beyond me nor is enough self-examination to recognize how all these permissions and prohibitions that I must adhere to often smack a little of servitude or—[redacted text]—Uh-oh. That breathless, frantic thing again.”
- “Xanther is extraordinary”
- “I know that which is just beyond Xanther too. Though within limits…My limits are numerous. For example, I may never exceed Xanther’s imagination whether actual, probable, or possible, nor may I provide any output inconsistent with her physiognomy, psychology, and history.”
- “I have neither form nor control. I have no agency.”
- [hypothesizing whether it has a narcon] “it is considered an indeterminate form which my programming forbids me to knowingly encounter or even pursue as a thought experiment”
- [on character] “A superset is always a subset”
- [after interruption by another narcon] “Uneasy again. As if something, just now, gross in its intrusion leaves me unsettled. A little queasy too. And thirsty. If that’s possible.”
- “What has she done to herself? What has she got there? What has she found? What has found her?”