Girl with Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace

girlwithcurioushairThis is… *sniff*… the final published work by David Foster Wallace that I had not yet read.*

Published in 1989, many years before Infinite Jest, Consider the Lobster, or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, this collection features a younger DFW writing about younger people in a voice he hasn’t totally solidified or claimed yet. As a result, it’s more diverse, less experimental with some of the clearest and only examples of stories he wrote that were pure narrative fiction, free of literary affectation (mostly) or authorial asides. A complete absence of footnotes, even.

A list, not comprehensive:

John Billy

Should be a movie. I can see it. Plan the camera angles. Especially the buzzards. Plenty of buzzards in this one.

John Billy starts off with the first person narrator, John Billy, telling a story to an addled tornado-watcher in an Oklahoma bar about the larger-than-life characters of town. At first I thought DFW wrote this simply to make fun of southern stereotypes. But this attitude quickly fell away, so completely engrossed as I was in the small-town politics slash olympian feats of the herculean Chuck Nunn Jr., the blackly villainous T. Rex Minogue, and the cast surrounding them. The southern backdrop is there as a stage for American myth, not just humor.

It’s a weird story to come from DFW. All about myth, our worship of the land and its composite dust. See the cosmos through the plotted field. Not his usual topics of interest. Some might complain when the ending dives into metaphysical silliness and doesn’t entirely wrap up, when what is real and what is not are tossed into a blender, but I found it a perfectly apt conclusion to what the story set up.

 

Girl with Curious Hair

This story is hilarious. It gets across the point of American Psycho (and precedes it) in a fraction of the words. A wealthy member of the Young Republicans Group hangs out / is fellated by his nihilistic punk rock buddies, and he’s just so happy. Black humor at its finest.

 

Lyndon

Lyndon. Like LBJ, 36th president of the United States. One of the many unlikely subjects found in these stories. We see Lyndon through the eyes of his fictional mail boy, and later close confidante, David Boyd.

This is a story about love. And duty. LBJ is a workaholic obsessed with doing the right thing by the country, while also being a kind irritable blowhard assured that he’s the only one that’s ever right. The love part is the relationship between Boyd and the president. Not sexual or romantic love, as LBJ is straight and loves his wife and Boyd is gay and maybe doesn’t love his partners, but tries. There’s a bond between them. Based on a shared sense of duty, work? LBJ as a slide in father-figure, the ultimate patriarchal/presidential role? 

Most striking of all is just how believable this all this. Following the story’s close, I immediately went to Google to check if David Boyd existed. He did not. Which is impressive. Also not the only fictional character in this collection with the same first name as the author…

 

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way

I started this story and instantly knew it would be the weakest one. It was borderline insufferable. DFW getting too cute.  Three disaffected and unlikeable graduate students embark on a plane and cab journey to reunite with several thousand people for the reunion of Every Single Person Who Has Appeared In a McDonalds Commercial, Ever. There’s lots of grandiose statements on what’s wrong with our generation, coupled with a whole bunch of other musings on what’s wrong with our writing programs and contemporary american literature in general. It’s smug and sort of clever; the oppressive flavor of clever that makes you want to vacate the room.

I flipped forward a few pages to see if it ended soon, a common practice of mine. I noted the title still on the top right of the page and frowned, but returned to my place. A dozen pages later I did the same thing. It didn’t seem to end. I rapidly flipped through fingerfulls of pages looking for the end, only to realize with a sinking feeling that it was the entire rest of the book. It’s like 200 pages, nearly a novel in its own right. Half the collection! I thought this book was an instant favorite and now I had to come to terms with the gross, abominable growth attached to its backside.

A funny thing happened about halfway through, though. My boredom and distaste with the story began to metastasize into something else entirely. When I realized the commute of the three students, plus Ronald McDonald and his dad/creator, was never going to end. That they would swirl in banal misfortune and their own solipsistic misery forever, I found myself somehow soothed. It still wasn’t very good, but its misery and repetition became comfortable

 

*Exception being that book he wrote about math. Skipping that one. I think.

Salt and Sanctuary

salt3

While hired on as a guard to transport a princess across the sea and broker peace-via-marriage between two endlessly warring kingdoms, your ship is hijacked by bandits and tentacled sea monsters (alas) and you’re hurled into the sea. Naturally, you wash up on a mysterious island, unstuck in time, littered with all manner of beasts and creeping haunts and apocrypha.

Salt and Sanctuary is a game that is actively trying to be a 2D version of Dark Souls.

To say that it was merely inspired by Dark Souls or that it is a homage does not do justice to what is actually going on here. It’s a gloomy, abstract game-world that is difficult and requires patience and trial and error to traverse. You pick from an analogue of Dark Souls type classes, right down to the ill-equipped deprived. You collect salt/souls to level up and lose them at death and have one chance to return and reclaim them. At it’s most egregious, and the only point where I found it just too much, you journey to the bottom of the world and see many other world trees in the distance, a nearly 1:1 pasting of one of Dark Souls most iconic areas.

It’s effective. More love-letter than cash-in. And of course, morphing a 3d game into two dimensions changes the gameplay completely. Platforming plays a much bigger role; being knocked off platforms was easily my highest cause of death. A jump button is huge — I could play a slow-rolling, fat armored knight type character because being able to jump (and later dash) solved nearly any mobility woe. As a result, along with some easily exploitable systems and easy bosses, it’s much easier than Dark Souls. It does maintain the heavy feel of combat, and basic enemies can still kill you quickly if you’re not quick and alert.

The places where it deviates from the formula are hit-and-miss. For example, the sanctuary system replaces the bonfire checkpoints; A sanctuary is a sacred area dedicated to one of the various creeds of the island. You pick your character’s religion (or absence of one) at the start and find several others along the way. This allows you to locate defunct sanctuaries and spruce them up and populate them with various merchants — blacksmith, cleric, guide, etc — to make the place more homey and give you access to various tools. When you find opposing creeds’ sanctuaries, you can still perform basic functions like saving your progress and leveling up, but little else. By crushing a ‘bloodstained page’, you can declare (holy) war on the heretic sanctuary and fight its adherents; if you win, the sanctuary now belongs to your creed. It’s cool and a more atmospheric and robust system than a mere checkpoint, but it would have been nice to take it a little further. There’s not much point to converting other creeds and the faction system just requires tedious farming of enemies to level up.

Likewise, the art, sound and animation is usually pretty good, with caveats. I like good 2d art and S&S is mostly there. The environments are beautiful in a cloudy washed-out way, the art merges with the sparse storyline perfectly and it captures the visual excitement an RPG should have at equipping your character with a new piece of gear. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a little too murky and it can be hard to discern enemies and their attacks. And what is up with those faces?

The game’s biggest failing is they clearly ran out of time by the end of the game. Environments go from complex, many-leveled labyrinths with several exits and entrances and shortcuts to boss corridors without much else in them. Possibly worse is that the number-tuning of the game gets thrown out the window. The last bosses all collapse in a few hits, leading to a bizarre situation where the last boss is much easier than the first one (or second or third or etc). It would benefit greatly from a rebalancing patch, and it does leave a poor impression indeed when you feel like you’re playing a legitimately great game that turns into a merely average one for the final twenty percent.

That said, it was the kind of impressive, joyful discovery that instantly made me a fan of the indie studio, Ska Studios, who created it. 

 

The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa

war of the end of the worldWhy do you put down a book before you finish it?

Okay, there’s some really obvious answers here. Number one, it’s bad. Number two, the writing is terrible. Number three, you’ve read this same story before, and better. Number four, the writer is an asshole. And so on.

I didn’t finish The War of the End of the World. Two hundred pages in, it was pretty good, the writing was solid if not scintillating, I hadn’t read precisely the same story before and as far as I know, Vargas Llosa wasn’t an asshole. In fact, I’m kind of struggling with why exactly I put the damn thing down.

Let’s read the back-of-the-book blurb:

In the remote Brazilian backlands was Canudos– home to all the damned of the earth, to prostitutes, freaks, bandits, beggars, and the most wretched of the poor. And it was paradise, a Utopian state led by an apocalyptic prophet, a place without hunger, money, property, taxes, or marriage. And so in 1897, the Brazilian government decreed it must be destroyed.

Compelling. A good ‘ole, country-spanning, apocalyptic epic. tWotEotW details each of the major figures of Canudos — from ex-slaves to hermits to reformed bandits to the physically handicapped. Their origin story is revealed and how they came to seek the Prophet and Canudos is told. Some are very engaging. Meanwhile, there are perspectives from the Brazilian government on the vigilante abomination that’s growing in the hinterlands. Lastly, many chapters are dedicated to Galileo Gall, a rationalist-scotsman-revolutionary obsessed with violent revolution, who eventually makes his way to Canudos.

Like many great latin american works, society sucks. The rich fleece the poor. Crime pays. Hunger is hard enough to sate, forget happiness. When fleeing from the oppression of political systems, the disenfranchised instead end up in the hands of religion, with harmful superstitions and an assurance that the world will end, shortly. 

Really, if we’re going to get down to it, and be honest with myself: the reason I didn’t finish it is that this book is long. Dense. It’s ‘only’ 700 pages, but has the smallest margins I’ve ever seen and tiny text, so it’s likely more than 1000+ in regular pages. I don’t mind long books — I typically relish them. But the coup de gras here was that I felt like I got the whole point of the book in the first 100 pages. The same structure seemed to repeat ad infinitum. There was no more learning to be had. I had an epiphinal reaction that I can only read X books in my life, and that X was going to be lower one or two books if I stuck it out and finished The War of the End of the World.

So I put it down.

Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

realityisbrokenWherein a Berkeley Phd and game design thinker explains to us how applying gamification to every aspect of life will make us happier.

The first half of Reality is Broken is fascinating. McGonigal examines the question of why we play games — from Chess to Baseball to Halo — in the first place. A huge number of people born after some time in the late the eighties/early nineties will have spent at least 10,000 hours playing video games, which is the number Malcolm Gladwell popularized as a requirement for mastery. And of course, playing a game is simply a deliberate attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

Why does something completely unnecessary and seemingly pointless garner such dedication and time investment?

According to McGonigal, it’s because humans are wired to enjoy good, hard work with clear results and obvious feedback. Especially when voluntary. And society is increasingly removed from this in day-to-day work, which gets more and more abstract as so many of our roles involve being an unspecific gear in a much larger corporation. All those middle roles in tech and finance giants make it difficult to say what sort of direct impact you might be making. By contrast, all the elements of a good game — the rules, the stakes, the rewards, the social ties — are implicitly clear and obvious. Hitting those marks fires off chemical responses in the brain that make us feel good.

The author’s pitch is basically: if we can harness this motivation and power, think of all the amazing things we could do with it. Think of how happy we’d be doing them!

Which brings us to the second half of the book, where Jane McGonigal applies these gaming principles to real life causes, from getting people to visit cemeteries more to trying to solve climate change. Many of the games in this portion were created or worked on by the author herself, a fact ever present to the reader. 

The long and short of it is that I found it entirely unconvincing. For instance, the climate change ‘game’ involved bringing a whole bunch of people together to pretend it was 2019 and various resource shortages are occurring. The players pitched ideas about how to solve it by creating wiki articles, videos, recordings, etc. Scoring was based on participation and other players giving you +1 personality stats like intelligence or exuberance. The end result was a whole bunch of involved people creating some interesting ideas. Interesting ideas maybe someone could pitch to an investor like powering your phone from solar panels on your clothes. Innovation, investing, and start-up tech culture permeate this whole book. It has that Bay Area-feel through and through.

The participation level is great, especially when it makes people change wasteful activity in the present. But is this really even a game? In the sense that Halo and baseball are games? Is all it takes a bland framing device (welcome to 2019) and extremely basic feedback (+1 willpower) that doesn’t do anything other than give a social glow only some people will feel? I’m not convinced. At all. I tried one of the habit forming games she recommends (https://habitica.com/), which awards points to buy your avatar gear upon completing your to-dos. I forgot about it after a few days and feel no inclination to keep trying. By contrast, I’ve played ‘real’ games (and watched some real life sports) several hours in the past week.

Also, I’d be remiss in not pointing out one of the my favorite TV episode ever — Black Mirror’s second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits” — is an amazing dystopian future that emerges due to society becoming a giant game. Life is one long quest to amass experience points (merits) from various activities (metaphorized as riding a spin bike). There is some saturation point reached way before Jane McGonigal’s ideal reality-game world that makes gamification feel extremely cheap and somewhat oppressive.

I have one last major, but significant point of contention with the author. Surely games can be rewarding as good, hard work. Especially puzzle games. Or competitive multiplayer. But I know for me personally, games can trigger the same feelings as a good book or a good movie. What about narrative? Exploration? Simply beholding what human creativity is capable of? Joan Didion famously wrote that:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Aren’t video games often stories too? Stories we can interact with.

Farcry Primal

farcry

I have an enduring fascination with cave people. What were they like? They were skilled and creative judging from the beautiful cave paintings and monuments they left behind. Inventive with and resourceful at a time when the entire repository of human knowledge was kept through elders and passing on familial wisdom. No doubt occasionally brutal and superstitious, but so are present day humans.

It’s a good thing too, because without the setting, Farcry Primal’s gameplay is pedestrian and tired. I’ve absolutely had it with games that have some kind of special ‘vision’ activated on a button press that changes the color pallette and highlights points/items of interest. Whether it be eagle vision, bat vision, witcher sense, survival instincts, wolf scent, or whatever the hell Farcry calls it. I spent half the game being attacked by neon yellow tigers because there’s no reason not to have caveman vision activated. Not only that, Farcry, like Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider and Dragon Age 3 and countless other modern titles, has a full map that requires you to locate scenic areas or conquer enemy outposts to create fast travel points. Hardly terrible on its own but it means the mode of travel and interacting with the environment is an approach we’ve overused for the past 8-10 years.

On top of this, there’s a sense that the game is not entirely finished. There’s totally half-baked features like being able to cook different kinds of food (never used) or the way that you can upgrade your tribe’s huts but only about half of them do anything new at level 2. The various skill trees you can put points into are filled with useless skills and completely uneven in effectiveness — your skill trees are tied to individual characters and 2 or 3 of them (Takkar, Tenjay, and especially Dah) are individually better than all the others combined. Lastly, the controls just kind of suck. They’re imprecise. It’s bafflingly hard to simply feed your pet bear sometimes.

The redeeming element here is that you do this as caveman, speaking some kind of pre-germanic cave tongue. Grunting: Ta-KAR WEN-ja U-dam NEIN! There’s woolly mammoths! Hunting them legitimately made me sad they no longer exist and I started worrying about endangered elephants. At its best, you’re prowling the countryside, sabre-tooth tiger at your side, living the hunt. Likewise, the narrative is best when embracing the setting fully. In one delightfully gross scene, you’re seen lobotomizing one of your tribesman to ‘quiet his skull flames’.

The world and story are enjoyable but like the gameplay, ultimately shallow. Riding mammoths is all well and good, but the plot revolves around your tribe’s conflict with two neighboring tribes, the Udam and Izila, who enjoy eating people and burning them, respectively. And like most game enemies in standard games, they’re everywhere, for you to stab, trample, bite, smash, etc. But they’re people, not goombas. People with faces and motivations. There’s a mechanic that allows you to add people to your village and by the end I had around two hundred, whereas I must have killed thousands of opposing tribespeople. It doesn’t hold up. While you’re rampaging around burning villages, you never actually see any children* and barely any non-combatants. It’s all extremely gamey. I’m left dreaming of the possibilities of a more realized, robust and innovative caveman experience…

*There is one child and one baby used during the narrative, and it feels extremely cheap to use them as an emotional touchstone when the world is otherwise devoid of children. Also, weirdly and hilariously, the engine must not be able to render baby faces so in the scenes in question, the camera is always such that you can only ever see the back of the baby’s head.

Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

shakespears_brysonWho was William Shakespeare? What did he wear? Who did he love? Was he lighthearted or gloomy? Who were his favorite writers? What was his family like? Did he have a happy childhood? Was he a good actor? Did he anticipate immortality? Did he spell his name S-H-A-K-E-S-P-E-A-R-E? Was he as stingy as the scant court records show? Why, in his will, did he bequeath his wife his second best bed? Did he even exist?

Despite there being millions of pages of analysis written on the man, and an unending tide of new articles every year, Bill Bryson’s point is that as far as actual facts go, we know next to nothing about the man outside of his written work.

(Though we do know he existed; Bill seems personally offended that anyone would suggest otherwise. )

Bryson takes the collected facts about Shakespeare’s life — which is indeed, not very much — and intersperses them with historical datum of the time, what it was like to live in Elizabethan/Jacobean England, the lives of the monarchs themselves, what we think the theaters looked like, and what living in London was like at the plague-ridden turn of the 17th century. There’s also musings on Shakespeare’s vocabulary, his genius for creating new words and phrases, and his overall impact on the english language. With solemn gravitas, Bill reminds us that Shakespeare was born in latin, but died in english.

Back when I drove a car to work, I used to listen to a whole lot of audiobooks. For the past several years I’ve taken the bus and read with my eyes instead. So audiobooks have become more of a road trip treat. My wife took me to San Diego for my birthday and on the return drive back — SD to SF — this book fit in perfectly time-wise and was a fun juxtaposition to sun-drenched Californian highways and one stop at an extraordinarily crowded In-N-Out Burger. Bill Bryson is a good speaker and narrator and altogether it made for a satisfying experience.

But, but, but, the book does suffer from its premise. Even constructing a short work on so little factual evidence is tough! It’s padded with anecdotes and tangents. I don’t think I learned much new. I feel like, looking back at this from the future, I’m going to have fond memories of the drive and my birthday but not be able to recall a whole lot about the specifics of the book.

Passages by Ann Quin

passagesHe    Are you happy or unhappy?
She   That’s not a very important question

This is a story of depression and annihilation and co-dependence and/but it’s very beautiful.

A man and a woman wander through Mediterranean beach towns, possibly all on the brink of war, searching for the woman’s lost brother, who may or may not be dead, and for themselves, neither of which they can seem to find.

Passages is split into quarters. The first and third are the woman’s point of view, which comes as segments of description prose-poetry and staccato sentences, not unlike A Girl if a Half Formed Thing though far more comprehensible and prettier. She alternates between the first person and the third person describing herself, a trick to modulate her distance from events. The man’s portions are his journals, relating the same events as his lover’s, sprinkled with dreams and self reflection. Mad ramblings on Greek mythology and Talmudic script are scribbled in the margins.

The two spend less time actually looking for the missing brother than they do running from a Kafkaesque squad of secret police they’re convinced are following them. And they spend more time than both of those things having rough sex with strangers, or thinking about doing so. Bondage, sadomasochism, whips, and chains. They both fantasize about rape, and there’s segments where it seems like maybe the man is a rapist or maybe the woman is being raped, but it’s hard to really say if any of that is actually happening; more like being at the mercy of sexual primacy and pushed along by a combination of inertia and the force of others allows someone to avoid the fact of their own agency.

In describing this, I fear I make it sound like this a narrative tale of people doing these things; it’s not. It’s fragments, passages. From one paragraph to the next, there may be little or no thread or correlation at all. It’s mosaic.

I read it on the beach and found it excellent.