The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Calasso

marriage.cadmus.harmonyLet us try to decipher this strange, dense book. Roberto Calasso takes on Greek mythology.

But what is Greek mythology? Capricious gods. Adulterous heroes. Many headed monsters. Irony. Hubris.

Calasso explains the difference between narrative and myth: A myth has several different versions, different retellings, but the thrust is often the same — there’s always a labyrinth and a monster and a hero and princess but how they got there, who they were, just how the plot played itself out must change. This is the essence of the myth. A narrative is a singular, crafted story. When a mythical tale is pared down to a single interpretation, specific plot-characters-theme, when its variants are lost, it is no longer a myth.

But what is Greek mythology? A panoply of sexual assault and women hanging from trees.

But what is Greek mythology? Duality. Phantoms. Twins.

“There are two strands to the story of the Pelopids: the tale of a king’s descendants, a succession of atrocities, each worse than the one before; and the tale of a series of talismans, each taking over from another in silence, each deciding the fate of men.”

Meanwhile, the Helen who launched the Trojan War, may have only been a phantom twin, swapped out when she was initially journeying to Troy (a point Calasso delights in returning to the whole book long). Athena finds her childhood playmate looked exactly like her and this is why Zeus tricked Athena into killing her. There should only be one Athena.

The heroes of ancient Greece all have godly-antecedents. Theseus, the Minotaur(bull) slayer, becomes a bull in the end, his stories all mirroring earlier feats of Dionysus, often depicted as a bull. The tale of Ariadne can be drawn back to multiple different goddesses. The warrior women of the time fall back to Artemis or Athena. Echoes.

But they all fall short. Achilles’ life is so brief because of how close he is to the gods.

But what is this book? Occasionally a straight retelling of many Greek myths, both popular and obscure and seemingly with an emphasis on rape and abduction. Laced with thematic analysis, historical conjecture, and anecdote, Calasso rewrites the ancient tales of gods and heroes, often multiple times with different results. He sounds kind of smug about it.

But what is this book? Fascinating symbolism extraction mixed with metaphysical nonsense. An unintended duality, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony vacillates between wholly engaging and hopelessly monotonous. One chapter, we are following Calasso down an engrossing tangent, as he introduces a king from Ancient Greece whose entire history and character has been lost to time, save for one repeated trait: hospitality. A very hospitable king. That’s all we know. Hospitable. Calasso then extrapolates this to mean that actually, this king was the king of the dead, the most hospitable king of all, as he welcomes all. Calasso fills in all this backstory and conjecture to make this somehow make sense.

Follow this into another chapter about the birth of ‘necessity’ and the goddesses who commanded such and how they can never be cowed and lord over gods and men alike except that one time when one of them got tricked and impregnated by Zeus as a goose (it rhymes!) and what this means is that man’s relationship with necessity displays its overarching conflict with beauty and Zzzzz.

But what is this book? Eh, it’s okay I guess.

“What conclusions can we draw? To invite the gods ruins our relationship with them but sets history in motion. A life in which the gods are not invited isn’t worth living. It will be quieter, but there won’t be any stories.”

Advertisements

The Wii U Experience — Part I (Ordering)

mk

It’s that time again. The previous console generation had sputtered on so long, it seemed as if we’d never have to experience our favorite developers slow and stop releasing games for our favorite consoles. And then perforce rumination on whether to drop a few hundred bucks on an unproven system that is barely supported as of yet and appears to offer very little in graphical upgrades. But here we are, the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii are all breathing their last, abdicating their modernity and destined to enter the realm of historians, hobbyists, and hipsters. It will be a while yet until their true death rattle, but focus has shifted. Let us look ahead.

It’s a frustrating, eye-rolling trend for the previous industry-leader to immediately make poor decisions on their follow-up. Perhaps, like timeworn accounts of mad kings, they feel their digital fortress unassailable. There’s a reason the ancient Greeks were obsessed with tales of hubris. Anyway. The PS2 blew everything else away, had possibly the best library of any system ever then followed it up with a prohibitively expensive PS4 launch, with nary a great game in sight for much too long. Now, my last-gen favorite, the Xbox 360, has a too-expensive successor that originally laser focused itself as a ‘media center’, whatever the hell that is, and not on what matters — the game library. It has gone through multiple embarrassing marketing shifts, reneging on earlier goals, replacing public figures, acquiring a humbling albeit catchy nickname (Xbone!). Its 2013 E3 game-conference presentation was marked by a horrific show of misogyny, showcasing a major issue in gaming writ large. And it still barely has any games, either released or in the pipeline, that I would like to own.

The PS4. Well, at least it has avoided the baggage and marketing shitshow Microsoft has garnered. But otherwise, it has similar problems with price and gameplay. The… prestige of being an early adopter seems to be the biggest perk to dropping $400 right now, instead of waiting another year or two for a library to develop and the price to drop. The days of amazing launch titles like Mario 64 or Halo are long past, unlikely to return. It’s a peculiar turnaround when the excitement of new console releases is backloaded to some arbitrary point in the future when just the right amount of decent games are released to make it worth buying. Peculiar is fine, but much worse, it’s boring. Major launches, especially the kind that require substantial financial investment, should be an occasion for joy, not patience.

Which brings us to the Wii U. Released first and with marketing so anemic that many of the people that made the first Wii so incredibly successful either don’t know it exists or don’t care. Maybe there’s a certain ultra-casual audience that would never care. Even my parents, who ostensibly understand console lifecycles due to grudgingly buying me a few in my youth, would be hard pressed to be convinced they need another Wii. Further perplexing is this incarnation’s controller gimmick: a controller-as-tablet that actually seems pretty cool, or at least potentially cool (it does require game devs to think in new, maybe risky ways), but is a total departure from the immediate, obvious simplicity of the Wii-mote. You can’t get results just waving it about.

Yet, and possibly because it was first, the library is now starting to come together. Super Mario Bros U, Pikmin 3, Super Mario World U, Wind Waker HD are respectable. But now, yes, now, the tipping point has been reached.

mario kart

Mario Kart!

And Smash Bros hovers on the horizon. Yes, the cynics among us ought to point out this is an entire slate of sequels, some with bare updates on the past and including a mere HD remake. Others may peg this is a purchase rooted in nostalgia. They’d be right. But as someone who skipped most of the Wii’s lifespan, it’s been a while since I hurled turtle shells at a gorilla on a go-cart.

Part II: Pickup and setup

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

life of piI began this book in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and finished it on the 38L bus in San Francisco. Kind of like Pi’s journey, sans malnutrition and 450 lb. Bengal tiger.

This book, while entertaining, suffers from a not uncommon phenomenon. It’s been out for 13 years, just had a major movie release, and is part of our societal consciousness. As a result, I knew it was about boy in a boat with a tiger. So when the novel itself spends the first hundred pages in southern India, detailing Pi Patel’s life and entering into both a theological treatise on the multivalence of religion as well as a stalwart defense of zoo ethics, and it’s even further, a full 150 pages (about halfway) before the premise — boy + boat + tiger — is realized, I could not help but be figuratively tapping my foot in impatience.

The religion bits made me want to debate the authorial voice purporting them. Conflating atheism with faith drives me up a wall and the novel paints atheists and theists as similar belief-based stances. It also has a hilarious and unnecessarily antagonistic take on agnosticism, condemning doubt as wishy-washy and cowardly; this, instead of the essential element of theology and science alike that doubt actually is. The zoo defense squad sections follow along similar lines. Martel omits crucial elements of anti-zoo activist’s arguments. His exhortation that the difference between wild habitat and zoo enclosure is arbitrary, and that the animals appreciate the safety and reliability of food does not reconcile with my own childhood memories of Major the polar bear ceaselessly pacing back and forth in his room temperature pen in the Stone Zoo.

I was also under the impression that this was going to be a fantastical story. Maybe it was the tiger. In actually, the tale is played almost* entirely straight. While a Bengal tiger on a lifeboat is extraordinary, the story is otherwise how a person stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean might try and survive. There’s interminable descriptions of knot tying, the structure of the boat, the current status of the tiger, the position of the tarpaulin, the direction of the winds, the ferocity or calmness of the waves. All the sort of repetitive practical details that make castaway stories a bit of a bore and all of which make me suspect this story may work better in a visual medium (I have yet to see the movie).

The book improves for the final fourth. The end of the journey is the best and the last bit where Pi makes landfall is somewhat clever. There’s meta discussion on what fiction actually means — if a ship sinks and everyone dies and there is only a sole survivor, does it honestly matter what happened to him afterward? It’s total philosophy 101: What is truth? Is it relative? It’s not especially profound but it’s contextually sound and makes an otherwise dull book shine. Briefly.

*The scene that makes me say almost instead of entirely — a mysterious living island — is my favorite in the novel. Back

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

cover-the-luminariesNew Zealand 1865. A gold rush is underway and many an entrepreneurial spirit has arrived to seek his fortune. Thirteen men gather in a backroom tavern. A plot is afoot. A missing prospector, a found fortune, a dead hermit, an opium-addled whore. Each man has a secret, a piece of the puzzle. Like a ball of yarn unraveling, each thread is parceled out piecemeal, over hundreds and hundreds of pages. The Luminaries is honestly nothing but a ponderously slow reveal. And It’s actually pretty good for it.

The cast are like chess pieces. Not checker pieces, mind you — they are easily distinguishable. But like the old westerns the book occasionally evokes (even having one character go so far as to reference such), they can be summed up as the banker, the lawyer, the preacher, the miner, the dandy. They have a handful of defining traits that are meticulously described in their introductory chapters. There is little mystery to each, and you know them more by their descriptors than their actions. Indeed, it’s a rare case of tell over show succeeding. And even with 800+ pages, there’s still not time for each. The hotelier and chemist especially draw the short straws for narrative space.

Imagine a man juggling. Balls, fruit, pots, and pans, whatever. In your minds eye, keep on adding things for him to juggle. Torches, toy trains, gerbils. And so on. Add a chair. A spare tire. An impressive array all in the air at once, but still just a man juggling. It’s not going to change your life. But it is entertaining. This is The Luminaries. It is amazing that Eleanor Catton manages to keep the ball rolling without losing steam[1]. While the plot is sort of wrapped off, there is no real payoff. There is no grand theme waiting to be revealed. Or much depth to be ferreted out of the text in its entirety.

It has the veneer of a Victorian novel, but this is slight and mostly a framing device. It doesn’t truly dive into the form like say, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel does. The book follows a rigid astrological structure that all but the most star-obsessed enthusiasts (or wikipedia divers) will be able to comprehend. There’s astrology charts. It’s sort of Georges Perec-lite. I didn’t understand any of it. Apparently the charts predict the characters’ actions?

I know I am giving off a lukewarm impression of this book. This is not my intention. I enjoyed it a great deal. It’s a big, fun story — the sort very dear to the heart of someone once immersed in doorstopper fantasy novels. There is just not anything terribly groundbreaking or memorable beyond that.

1. It’s not entirely true the novel never loses steam, and the telling will involve a slight spoiler. Somewhere in the 6-700 page range, the main story wraps up and the final bits are a laborious piece of backstory filling the last few remaining holes in the story. I dislike this as a device. If flashbacks are going to enter the story late, I’d prefer them either short or with a plot of their own worth following rather than a second-fiddle-reveal to the present. The chapters drastically shorten at this point, however, likely due to the astrological structure’s trickery, and the last 100-200 pages speed by much quicker than the previous 600 do. Back

Diablo III: Reaper of Souls

Diablo_3_reaper_of_souls_box_art_0I vowed never to become a certain kind of person — out of touch, curmudgeonly, refusing to engage with the tech and art of a younger generation. Thus, I am always hesitant to declare something of the past superior to its current incarnation of the present.

Even something as utterly ridiculous as Diablo 3’s dumb story.

Video games are steadily losing their categorization as a nascent medium. They are at least 50 years old by now and in-game narratives in the realm of 40. It is about time more than a tiny handful of classic, medium-specific stories ought to arise. Video games do face unique challenges. Unlike film, where incredible works can be created inexpensively — their basic elements being merely people and writing — the building blocks of games are all technical and typically expensive to make[1]. Thus minimizing risk and ensuring return is paramount.

But indie games and their development are not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the studios that do have the money. Blizzard in particular.

The first Diablo featured a fallen Cathedral. The architecture was Gothic, the music subtle, the town creepy and subdued. Something terrible was amiss. The Satan of The Exorcist was invoked — horrific and beyond the scope of sane human mind and faith. A single brave soul ventured into the Cathedral, which went down and down, through winding catacombs to the depths of Hell itself. The narrative was generally relayed via scattered tomes within the dungeon or chatter from the townsfolk (not too dissimilar to Dark Souls actually). There was a demonic carver of human flesh known as The Butcher, who greeted the player, before you could even see him, with the voice-modulated grumble-shriek

Ahh, fresh meat.

Certainly scared the shit out of the thirteen year old version of me[2]

Things got bigger and blander in Diablo 2. The quest crossed the continent, Diablo’s biblical brothers leapt (creeped, slithered) into the fray. The story was largely forgettable but still vaguely sinister and served the gameplay — the actual triumph of Diablo 2. The gameplay was simply far better designed than the first. Most importantly, it rewarded continues play[3] and Blizzard updated it long, long after it originally released or when any new player adoption was likely to occur.

So by the time Diablo 3 rolled around, it faced two interesting challenges:

Problem 1 — Narrative: How to make the story even BIGGER and MORE EPIC — because by this point you see, video game stories were leaving behind their pulp novel roots and gazing, hungry-eyed, at blockbuster films — than going down to Hell and punching the devil in the face?

Solution!

Make the player some kind angel-demon hybrid badass (ahem, a ‘Nephalem’) capable of murdering anything on the planet. Oh, and take the fight through the literal pearly gates of Heaven. In addition, make the character unbelievably stupid and miss obvious plot cues right under his or her nose in a failing attempt to create tension.

Next, and more inexplicably, turn the demonic lieutenants of Hell into Saturday morning cartoon villains who show up to taunt you at any and every opportunity. See Azmodan, the commander of the legions of hell, who shows up to shout Arrogant Nephalem! whenever you foil each of his plots, to explain why the strategic blow you just dealt him was actually not much of a blow at all. And he’ll get you next time!!

You locate missives written by Azmodan to his troops, addressed as

‘Dear Minions…’

The expansion pack, Reaper of Souls, seemed to realize that it had jumped the shark and the player character suddenly becomes mighty sarcastic and tongue-in-cheek w/r/t to the plot. The narrative does not even attempt tension, merely accepting the player is the baddest motherfucker in all creation, and the villain, a rogue angel set on blowing up all humanity for obscure reasons, is actually running from you the whole game. Once you catch up with him and start crushing his skull too, he turns out to be a gigantic hypocrite whose whole ideology (see: the plot) was a sham since once his life is in danger, he absorbs the black soulstone which is —- DUMB. IT’S ALL DUMB. REALLY FREAKING DUMB. WAY DUMBER THAN IT NEEDED TO BE.

Problem 2 — Gameplay: How to make the gameplay addictive and fun, keep players interested, in an era where incredible grinds and time investment are no longer acceptable? When being able to permanently mess up a player character was tantamount to murder? And anything approaching true penalties upon player death are anathema? But the same children-now-adults expect to be captured just as hard as they were in Diablo 2?

Solution!

For the initial release — not much. It was similar to Diablo 2. Find loot based on low drop rates. With less imaginative loot. Predictably, players (myself included) did not stick around.

But for the expansion? They axed the story! Beat it once, on any character, and you can choose to play ‘adventure mode’ which randomizes kill and clear tasks across the game world. These are topped off by rifts, randomly generated dungeon floors filled with randomly chosen creeps. Thus you have bite-sized chunks of character progression, sans awful writing. And there’s even a built in counter to make sure you receive higher quality loot drops after a set period of playing. And the loot is more fun. Some of it. Instead of larger numbers, they also have unique affixes that change your character in interesting ways.

They added a veritable truckload of difficulty levels. Prepare to be bamboozled by a chart full of percentages explaining monster health and damage, experience and loot gain, and special circumstances to each. They ran out of names after the fifth one, Torment. They then become Torment II, Torment III, etc.

But. I’m still 29 and not 18 or whatever and the truth is the loot grind in itself no longer does it for me. Not for long anyway. Especially when there is not an appropriate challenge aside from percentage-increase difficulty levels to go with it. And the axe the story solution, while correct, is also kind of lame. I want to be terrorized by Diablo! I think the vital takeaway here is not that something in the present is superior to the past but that satisfying rehashes of decades-past games are often impossible to realize for a host of cultural, technological, and simple life-space reasons. It’s new games for new times that push things forward.

1. And sometimes the influx of money and technology makes the narrative worse. When playing the very simple and charming Nintendo and Super Nintendo Final Fantasy games, one could only wonder what they could do with a better budget and fewer limitations. The actual result was/is a cacophony of visual, audio, and narrative incoherence. The limitations were keeping them in check. Back

2. Yeah, thirteen tops, probably younger. How can I possibly gauge how good the story was when I last saw it through a child’s eyes? See my promise in the first paragraph. Indeed, this whole article might be garbage based on a groundless premise… but hell if I am going to go find a way to play the original Diablo to confirm one way or another. Back

3. Okay, so I’m what at this point? Sixteen maybe? Seventeen? Yeah the gameplay was great! It involved absurd amounts of time investment, but I had plenty of that. You had to start over if you messed up your character. A slew of available loot was almost impossible to acquire outside of cheating. It took a long, long time to reach the maximum character level of 99. Few did. Back

The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

the kingThe best parts of this book are about the king– the King in Yellow!

The worst parts of this book are everything else. Which is, unfortunately, most of it.

The lead story is a solid piece of weird horror-sci fi*. In the near future of 1920 — the book was written in 1895 — New York City celebrates the inception of its first Lethal Chamber, a little piece of political futura legalizing and enabling suicide, in part because it is ‘believed that the community will be benefited by the removal of such people from their midst’. It is implied that suicides have greatly increased in the intervening years due to the promulgation of a mysterious book, the eponymous play — The King in Yellow. Banned in theocratic and secular states alike, reading the play generally leads to misery, self harm, insanity, and worse.

In fact, our protagonist, Hildred, has just been released from incarceration from an asylum following his reading of the The King in Yellow. His release is questionable as he is clearly quite mad and the story relates his ascension to the crown of King. The result is frightfully bizarre, though quaint in its antiquity. A collection full of stories such as these would have been welcome. The following three tales relate to the King at least in part and vary in quality. They offer epigraphs from the real-fictional play itself.

CAMILLA: You sir, should unmask.
STRANGER: Indeed?
CASSILDA: Indeed it’s time. We all have laid aside disguise but you.
STRANGER: I wear no mask.
CAMILLA: (Terrified, aside to Cassilda.) No mask? No Mask!
THE KING IN YELLOW: Act 1-Scene 2.d

See? Delightful and creepy in an old fashioned, gothic aspect.

But following the King stories are some middling supernatural tales followed by a nosedive into poor-grade literary fiction. I’m thrilled by the idea of a writer oscillating between pulpy genre fic and realist pieces, but this is dreck. The lengthy, penultimate story’s plot revolves around a troupe of free spirited Parisian artists being joined by a pure and innocent religious boy. A loose woman then finds she can go from impure to pure via our little man of God (and love — real chaste love, not that smoky pre-marital sex kind!!). You’d maybe think this could be fascinating as an artifact of the fiction of yesteryear. Moldy and archaic like an archeology dig.

It’s an interminable slog. I was two pages into the final story, which revealed itself to be much of the same, even so far as sharing some of the same cast, when I closed the book for good.

*I picked this book up because I knew that, in part, it inspired the plot of the HBO series True Detective. I wanted to read it before I watched the show. I would guess that it is merely the overarching idea of the The King (a book that drives people crazy) and bits of pieces of the first story that influence the show. While still very cool that an obscure, old cult favorite resurfaced over a hundred years post publication in a major television series, it’s still a bit disappointing. Maybe I’ll change my tune after I watch the show.