Warlock by Oakley Hall

warlock“Moral Ambiguity” often gets thrown around as a plus in great novels, especially in the modern climate (or reflecting on the height of the McCarthy era when Oakley Hall wrote this book). The “good guys” have dark secrets, the “bad guys” love their moms, and probably have some good reasons for being bad besides. Maybe there’s no good or bad guys at all. Warlock does not go this route. It does not take the heroic gunman of western lore and make him a pedophile or smugly make the puerile point that he is just as bad as the villains. Instead, its thesis is that the task of the hero is basically impossible, that justified violence is impossible. The book serves as both an indictment of vigilantism as well as the death penalty. Maybe some people deserve to die, but in the absence of some heavenly father, no one can ever be sure. There is no earthly or final judgement. And maybe you have no choice but to kill someone set on killing you, but the case may be this just leads to more people you have to kill or more people being killed.

This is not just a novel of ideas. It’s a great story too. The rapidly developing frontier-mining town of Warlock, sick of its deputies being run out of town and with the delay in receiving a town patent to legitimize itself, hires renowned gunman Clay Blaisedell to establish order and run out the murderous cowboys who threaten town. Blaisdell is a stand-in for Wyatt Earp and the inciting event plays out like the story of Tombstone Arizona and the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, before rapidly diverging from the myth. It examines the ideas of Hero and Villain and the American myth/creation story of the west. It simultaneously asks why Americans need heroes while pointing out how cynically they discard those very same. The setup takes slightly too long to get going and the writing overall is a bit wooden, but

The cast of the novel is not oblivious to the greater, existential themes playing out around them. They’re utterly aware and stagger towards the book’s inevitable conclusion and play out their designated roles, because they have no other options or because they are forced to by the hero-worshipping society surrounding them. Thomas Pynchon calls this book a “novel of abysses” and this a perfect description. The cast is staring into each of their own personal abysses. The town itself seems almost like a literal abyss, eternally dusty and partially surrounded by mountains. The reader is considering his or her own abyss in such an effective way as I have never seen before. I feel like typically you can empathize with a character’s mistakes but wish they had done differently, feel bad for the decisions that doom them, wishing they had done otherwise. Basically the tragic flaw exerting itself. This is not so with Warlock. There really were no outs. No good decisions. Just pointless violence and no way to stop it. And this isn’t just the town of Warlock, it’s life, all violence, all towns.

This feeling is summed up by the sometimes-narrator and general store owner Henry Holmes Goodpasture:

“I feel drained by an over-violent purge to my emotions, that has taken from me part of my manhood, or my humanity. I feel scraped raw in some inner and most precious part. The earth is an ugly place, senseless, brutal, cruel, and ruthlessly bent only upon the destruction of men’s souls. The God of the Old Testament rules a world not worth His trouble, and He is more violent, more jealous, more terrible with the years. We are only those poor, bare, forked animals Lear saw upon his dismal heath, in pursuit of death, pursued by death.”

Goodpasture appeals to a violent God, but strange for both a Western and a novel written in the 50’s, most of the characters, and especially the primary POV character (John Gannon), are atheists. With no God to appeal to, some try to play up The Law as a solution worthy of worship. Or unions, democracy, civilization. But none of them really believe it for long. In fact, the book overall has an incredibly detached and reflective feel to it. It seems as if all the characters are philosophers. It works though.

Warlock does not offer a solution, or an answer. It flirts with the idea of love as the answer, and ends with a bewildering and ill-advised X-years later epilogue. Towards the end, on of the more memorable side characters, one-legged, alcoholic Judge Holloway, offers us this opinion:

“Yes, learn your lessons as they come your way,” the judge said. “And when you have learned them all they can stick red-hot pokers in your wife and babies and you will only laugh to see it. Because you will know by then that people don’t matter a damn. Men are like corn growing. The sun burns them up and the rain washes them out and the winter freezes them, and the cavalry tramps them down, but somehow they keep growing. And none of it matters a damn so long as the whisky holds out.”

Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić

200px-Dictionary_of_the_KhazarsThis is the first book since Infinite Jest which led me to using two bookmarks, and I could have used three. Many books claim to challenge traditional narrative, or traditional methods of reading — pages turned in chronological order, beginning-middle-end, etc. Some are more successful than others and most are gimmicks. On this front Dictionary of the Khazars is a legitimate success. It’s one of those rare books where form trumps story or craft. As the title implies, it is a dictionary (sort of). Three dictionaries.

The Khazars were an (actual) people living in the Caucasus, bridging the Christian and Islamic worlds in the first millennium AD, who later disappeared. The book is three color-coded dictionaries to match the three Abrahamic religions. They attempt to piece together the events that occurred at the Khazar court, shortly before the entire nation’s dissolution; all are writing with the assurance that the Khazars converted to their respective religion based on a scholar/philosopher of their faith presenting the most compelling philosophy and dream interpretation to the Khazar leader (khagan). Some passages repeat across two or three of the dictionaries and others appear in just one. Certain words have symbols — the Christian cross, the Islamic crescent, or the Star of David — to denote which dictionaries a definition appears in. Calling these books a “dictionary” is a bit misleading. There are not many entries. The shortest ones are a page or two long and some of them are 10-20 pages in length. It’s more like a collection of alphabetically arranged short stories than a traditional dictionary.

You can read the book in any order you choose. Front to back, jumping around, 5 pages in one dictionary, 5 pages in the next two and back. I jumped around and I think the book was better for it. The threads are designed to facilitate moving around, and in such a way that you are eased into it. There are three time periods the majority of entries take place in and one of the very first entries in the first (Christian) book is a story about a man who dreams he is another man every time he sleeps… and that man is an entry in the Jewish book (dreaming the life of the first man); by the time you’ve read both entries, you’ve been introduced to several different characters in the 17th century to look up across all three books. Once you get into the hang of this, it’s easy to follow the threads for the story arcs taking place in the 10th and 20th centuries. That said, the final entry in the final book is clearly best read last as it ties together much of what occurs in the rest of the book.

The stories/entries are uneven. The best ones are incredibly weird. Genuinely strange — this isn’t false praise like many so-called “weird” books receive. There’s demons who tie birds to their massive penises to keep them floating out of their way, Dracula impregnating women with killer plants, automatons whose authenticity is tested by whether or not zombies will confuse them for real humans and eat them. There’s not enough of these stories. The worst parts are those written in a faux-academic style, detailing the surviving records of the Khazar court. Fictional history can be done very well, just not by Pavić. Many of the history-book type stories in this book are just boring. And the conclusion, insofar as there is one, is not particularly poignant nor does it bring everything before it together in a satisfying way. This is hardly necessary for a book to succeed, but Dictionary of the Khazars does have a central mystery — what happened at the original Khazar court when the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars came to interpret their khagan’s dreams?

There’s a male and female version of this book where a single paragraph is changed. It’s a weird and ineffectual gimmick. I think the mystery of what’s different about the other version? is far more fascinating than the reality. I read the male version and Alison is reading the female version. I looked at her copy after I finished mine and rolled my eyes at the paragraph in question.

The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison

wormThis book is Bad. The characters and plot are stupid. The faux-Jacobean English writing is stupid*. The fact that this is considered a seminal fantasy classic is vaguely embarrassing (and also stupid). It’s not even that weird which it is supposed to be and could have been its saving grace.

There is an intro written by a “scholar”, Brian Attebery, who should be utterly ashamed of himself for praising this book. He quotes the author, Eddison, on why he loves (fetishizes) Iceland and the Nordic countries:

“first, on the political field — aristocratic individualism of an uncompromising kind; secondly, in its broad outlook on human life and destiny — paganism; and thirdly, in art — a peculiar and in itself highly perfect form of prose narrative.”

Listen to this jerk. “Scholar” Attebery goes on to comment:

“This emphasis on Nordic ancestry, combined with his disdain for commoners, cowards, foreigners, and other lesser breeds, occasionally sounds an ominous note in Eddison’s fantasies; some of his pronouncements verge on a British version of fascism.”

So, Eddison is not only a bad writer, he’s a classist, racist, backward-yearning fascist.

The cover art is pretty cool though.

*If anyone wants to read an excellent novel written by a 20th century author attempting 17th century English-prose, read Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson

alifSince the vast majority of this review is going to be negative, I am going to start with the good parts. I did (sort of) enjoy this book. Alif is a page-turner. Conscientious hacker Alif gets the government on his ass, meets some jinn, comes into contact with a magic book, and other than an overlong, momentum-killing prison sequence, the story blasts forward right into The Revolution.  This is a skill. A necessary skill to widely-accessible pop-lit. And Wilson has a better grasp on economy of language than many of her page-turner contemporaries. Sure, the speed of the narrative kind of throws setting, character development, plot-coherence to the wind but it is still a fun book nonetheless. I read it quick, and yeah the margins were gigantic so it wasn’t really a 500 page book, but again, I sort of enjoyed it.

Okay, good part over.

This book is shelved and categorized as adult fantasy, but it has much more in common with young-adult (YA). I was shocked when late in the novel, it is revealed the titular protagonist is 23 and not like 17-19. It follows many of the familiar tropes. Outsider protagonist with secret knowledge. Shmoe turned hero. Inexplicably inept antagonists. Hot rich babe shuns main character and, as clearly telegraphed from the very beginning, his true love turns out to be the girl he’s known since he was a child that he has had a sisterly relationship with right up to the plot of the novel*. The books takes place in an unnamed Middle Eastern country and it’s written by an American-born-now-living-in-Cairo Muslim convert. I have absolutely no idea if the above tropes are fiction universalities or they are there because the author is American-born. This goes for any issue of cultural “authenticity” in the novel. I really have no idea. I do know the virgin/whore paradigm Alif’s love interests are stuffed into is even more insidious given the cultural/religious climate – the whore is a whore because she nailed Alif a few times and has slept with 2(!) men and the virgin is a literal virgin who won’t do the same until Alif nabs her hand in marriage. But only if he asks her daddy and he says OK, Alif, she’s all yours.

So Alif is supposedly a pretty good programmer. Thus the novel must talk about technology. Which Wilson either does not know enough about or is purposely dumbing down the text for ignorant readers. This leads to a lot of technical namedropping that doesn’t really gel. Botnet the firewall’s revolving IP addresses, my good sir. The way Alif think/talks about tech is not how tech people think/talk either. This isn’t too harrowing by itself. The problem is that coding is key to the plot. Alif discovers new methods of “quantum coding” that goes “beyond ones and zeros”. How does he do this? Shit, I don’t know. Because every paragraph describing the concept or describing Alif coding is so vague and full of metaphor as to make absolutely no sense. He’s “building towers” of code and the tower is falling because of “redundancy” and “lack of code integrity”. Seriously, a major part of the plot is nonsensical.

Technology failure would be less of a problem if the other genre elements – the magic! The fantasy! The MONSTERS! – worked.

(they don’t)

The jinn, who you would hope would be some combination of grandiose, spooky, otherworldly, etc are just boring and unremarkable. There’s this one scary one that asks you questions until you die (or something) and get this, the way you beat is to… ask it questions instead. The major maguffin – a book titled The Thousand and One Days – something that should be the clever counterpart to the Nights is totally wasted. A better writer would have aped the style of Nights when transcribing parts of the fictional book in the narrative. I love that story-in-story gimmick when an author can pull it off. Not here.

The characters are one dimensional and forgettable too, but I’m getting bored of harping on this book so let’s narrow it down to one of them: the convert. As I mentioned, G. Willow Wilson is an American convert to Islam. The convert is also an American convert to Islam. She is the source of all the eye-rolling passages you’d expect from your typical lazy and shameless author self-insert. The thing that really kills me though – she is never named. Yes, a main character that is around for most of the book and no one thinks to ask her name. Nor does she offer it. It is absurdly distracting. The convert did this. The convert did that. Alif asked the convert this. I can’t believe an editor or proofreader or someone please did not point this out. It is so stupid and third wall breaking. Like text-book writing-getting-in-the-way-of-the-story in a totally fixable way.

The cover blurbs repeatedly compare the book to Neil Gaiman, Neil Stephenson, and Phillip Pullman. I’m starting to wonder if have outgrown the first two, and while I have really fond memories of His Dark Materials, I’m afraid of re-reading it for what I may discover.

*The frequency this trope appears is staggering and creepy. It’s one thing when the sister-not-sister character knew the protag when he was a child and then disappeared for puberty+X years, but Dina (the character in question here) was Alif’s neighbor for his entire childhood through adolescence through young adulthood through modern time. Unsurprisingly, the turnaround from sister-friend to wife-please is unconvincing. This is supposed to be a sign of maturity. It’s like a triumph for the author to point out Dina is less attractive than rich-babe. Our boy Alif becomes man when he stops lusting and begins to appreciate the sexless traditional wifely qualities — perseverance and subservience, total (and undeserved) loyalty to Man, strict adherence to (patriarchal) sanctioned cultural norms — as key.

Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion

PlayItAsItLays.JPG

This book describes a particular kind of unhappiness very well. In excellent, biting prose. It’s clear from reading Joan Didion’s nonfiction that this tale of a semi-famous Californian woman staggering through an empty emotional/physical landscape, crying much of the time, is at least somewhat autobiographical.

I like when books use their physicality to convey meaning. Play it as it Lays greatly varies chapter and paragraph length, using the white space to augment the text’s description of the protagonist’s state of mind.

The atmosphere is oppressive; the desert heat and the freeway figure prominently. There’s a scene in a hot spring destination in the desert and a description of its patrons as old people who had reached the point in life where they sought restoration in desolation. The image immediately burned itself into my mind and sticks with me more than anything else in the book.

It’s a short, tense book that has a stretched feeling to it. Not in a bad way. More like, how can our train-wreck of a heroine even make it to the next page?

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

whiteteethThis book is all over the place. I finished it a few weeks ago and have been thinking of it off-and-on since. I’ve heard Smith compared to David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushie, and Don Delillo — some of my favorite authors. White Teeth shares some similarities with first two; dysfunctional families, generational conflict, multiculturalism, etc. At it’s best, it is nearly as good as the former writers and in its own style, not aping theirs. It is also a debut novel; I’ve never read DFW’s first novel and don’t really intend too. I don’t know what Rushdie’s and Delillo’s debut novels are even called.

The problem is that it is rarely that good. Actually, I lied. That’s not the problem. The problem is that it is occasionally just bad. Droll. Boring. The first one hundred pages for instance, are banal and painfully unfunny. The book opens with the patriarchs of the two leading families (the working class English/Jamaican Jones’ and the working class Bengali immigrant Iqballs’) and it’s only when the story begins to abandon their wretched storylines and open up to their children that the book becomes legitimately good. Archie Jones might as well be Homer Simpson, he’s such a caricature of the working class family man. An unfunny Homer Simpson. Samad Iqball is an asshole. And not in a compelling or empathetic or interesting or pitiful way. Smith, who is pretty funny at times in the novel, cannot even make these guys amusing.

Even later on in the book, where the novel tries to empathize with these goons, when they sit in a bar they’ve been frequenting for twenty plus years and sort of embrace their love of things they can understand and put out of mind the things they can’t: read, the modern world, their children. No. Screw these guys. They didn’t even try.

But

Once the Jones and Iqball children are born, the quality of the novel skyrockets, even though we have to suffer through Archie and Samad at times. The Iqball twins (rebel Millat and genius Magid) and the Jones’ daughter, Irie, actually feel like characters and people rather than caricatures. Most of the time. And Smith actually makes them funny.

She even makes me sort of understand, via Millat, protesters burning a book they never read, as the novel, which begins in the early 70s, catches up with the publication of The Satanic Verses and the Rushdie affair. It also lead to the following quote, which is probably going to be lame an utterly contextless if you never read the book, but gave me chills when I read it:

“‘Everyone has to be taught a lesson,’ Alsana had said, lighting the match with heavy heart some hours earlier. ‘Either everything is sacred or nothing is. And if he starts burning other people’s things, then he loses something sacred also. Everyone gets what’s coming sooner or later.’”

The great scenes made the book compelling and worth reading. I will read more Zadie Smith even if parts of White Teeth were dreadful.

Also it just has some awesome quotes:

“It’s a funny thing about the modern world. You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, “Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He didn’t love me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.” Now, how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll—then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.”

The Infinite Resource by Ramez Naam

1681460-inline-infinite-resource-cover-1I won this book on Goodreads first-reads.

The premise of this book is that every single problem we face, from climate change to world hunger to disease to resource scarcity to overpopulation, can be solved through human ingenuity and innovation. He makes a fairly good case that the free market repeatedly rewards innovators that solve or greatly diminish serious Earth-spanning problems. World hunger has been drastically reduced in the past 30-40 years despite farm area and energy consumption barely rising at all, and in many cases decreasing. Technology has vastly increased the yield per acre of land and Naam identifies the root of this as profit motive rather than any moral goodness in the people designing said technology.

The market has holes of course — specifically pollution and destroying the commons. If there is not incentive to not pollute, then people will pollute if it improves the bottom line even while killing the planet / their future. Intelligent government programs and mandates can create incentive to stop pollution without any doomsday economic scenarios that many conservative groups declare when they are proposed. Naam repeatedly returns to the example of the ozone layer — the ozone hole is repairing itself now and CFC usage have basically been reduced to zero in the past 20-30 years. This was largely because of legislation signed by Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr. Another one of Naam’s points is that environmentalism and our response to climate change need not be a political (left) concern and he hammers this home by pointing out that one of the greatest planet-wide threats we’ve ever faced (ozone depletion) was solved in a timely and effective fashion by republican presidents. Partisan polarization is such a negative force that An Inconvenient Truth may have done more harm than good, simply because it was attached to Al Gore.

The ozone topic was startling to think about. I remember being in elementary and middle school and hearing how awful ozone depletion was — how it will take years and years to eliminate CFCs in our appliances/cooling systems and how we’d have to make great sacrifices in using inferior technologies. It would be decades until the ozone hole could begin repair. CFCs have actually been eliminated way before schedule, the ozone hole is repairing itself, and no one even noticed the change. Naam argues the same can be done for climate change, which is actually a lesser threat than ozone destruction, and on a much cheaper and faster scale than many experts predict. So long as we act soon, anyway.

Naam’s optimism is infectious, but he occasionally makes me dubious when he glosses over important topics. When he’s being a cheerleader for capitalism he does address some its sleazy elements. And he is not always convincing. He blames growing income disparity entirely on education. People with degrees do better and even post-economic repression, they are doing better than they did in the past. I think the implication is that higher paying jobs have become more specialized and require more education, though I can’t remember Naam going right out and saying that. His solution is privatized education — essentially using the competition of the open market to improve schools and force them to be better. Yet, is that honestly going to help people living in poorer areas of the country? It seems to me that it’s a no-brainer that the better privatized schools would end up in wealthier, middle class areas by default. And blaming income disparity entirely on education in the first place is much too simple and hard to believe.

He also suggests greatly increasing the incentives for high school students to go into science and technology fields and disincentivizing liberal arts fields. They’d end up with higher paying jobs and maybe be able to pay back their mountainous debt. This is sort of laughable, given the book begins by quoting A Tale of Two Cities and the implication that science/tech is more important is stupid. How about actually treating the root of the problem — horrendous debt accumulation and forcing 17 year olds to make gigantic life-altering and financial decisions —  instead of sticking disingenuous band-aids on top?

He also urges us to look beyond Monsanto and giant corporations when we look at the ultimate good of genetically modified organisms. I think he’s right. There is nothing wrong with genetically modifying seeds (and humans have been doing it for thousands of years anyway…) and it can help people in developing countries immensely . And yes, Monsanto’s patents are running out. But you can’t hand-wave the enormous amount of negative factors thrown into the mix by giant malevolent corporations. Putting Vitamin A in rice? Great! Putting this in the hands of corporate entities and patenting life? Ehhh, need to actually discuss the downsides of the market here too.

All in all it was a pretty good book and I am glad I read it. It’s definitely a mode of thought I have not been introduced to in such detail and it also reminds me I need to read more non-fiction books written in the current year. I am 28 — possibly around a third of my lifetime — and thinking how drastically different the world was in 1985 is sort of shocking. Were there even cellphones yet? How did a supercomputer compare to a modern iPhone? No internet, of course. Like Naam, I’m optimistic and also sort of anxious for what the future holds.

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

https://scryingorb.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/owls1.png(I won this book from goodreads first-reads giveaway.)

This is the first David Sedaris book I have ever read. Due to this, it took some time for me to get into and enjoy these essays. They are stories of the author’s life and your enjoyment of them is tied to the notion that you like David Sedaris. The first few essays were frankly boring and I was afraid this was going to be a slog, but as I got to know the author, his style and persona, it vastly improved.

While I did like some of these stories, I rarely felt they were as laugh-out-loud funny as many of his fans purport. The writing is best when he is being insightful, touching, or reflective rather than funny. And the humor works much better when it is secondary then when it is the focus. Some of the best essays were one about missed romantic opportunities on trains and another about capturing wild sea turtles and trying to feed them hamburger. Insightful and melancholy but when they’re funny, the humor is far better than a lot of the “funny man” pieces. And the less said about the book’s fictional monologue pieces, the better.

There’s also cases where I am not even certain if a story is supposed to be funny or not — for instance the antics of his parents, especially his father are not really wacky or funny, usually they are just straight-up awful. I found myself bewildered and wondering does his father read his books? How are they even still talking? If his dad isn’t blaming his sister for being assaulted on her walk home from the grocery store, he’s going on and on about how much better at swimming/school/life another boy in his son’s class is than David himself. In the latter example, I kept expecting the punchline to be how David was mistaken or his dad suddenly realizes he praises some random kid more than his son, and does something about it. But no! There is no punchline. His dad really did just like the other kid more.

I shouldn’t harp on the humor too hard. There are some legitimately funny pieces. The essay on taxidermy and owls (that does not reference diabetes at all, I have no idea why the book is titled as such) and the one about book tours are both funny, just not side-splittingly so. I think more than anything else, I’m ambivalent about the book. I didn’t hate. In fact, I think I enjoyed it. I just don’t feel much about it. Forgettable you might say. Eh.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

This book is awesome.

File it under the surprising books that suddenly remind you why you read, or at least what you are looking for in the best books. It came out of nowhere. Prior to this book I had near zero interest in the Tudors — I only picked up it because I was intrigued that Mantel was the first woman to ever win the Booker Prize twice and that both prizes were for two books in the same series. Now I’m hooked. I wanted to run out and grab the next book about my man Tom Cromwell, but had to force myself to go to my to-read pile instead.

The story follows the rise of Thomas Cromwell, son of a blacksmith/brewer whom eventually becomes a close confidant and advisor to Henry VIII. My lack of knowledge on English history, especially of this time period does do me a disservice. I understand that Cromwell is often cast as a villain or at least not much of a hero, so the contrast of making him the sympathetic lead does not strike me as important. Though now I feel if I ever read/watch any adaptations of this story by other authors, I will be firmly on Cromwell’s side and annoyed at any negative portrayals.

It’s a slow story. Despite much happening during the decade or so the story encompasses, the narration is usually a slow, detached view of events to mirror the measured and calm demeanor of its protagonist. But this all works because the writing is excellent. It’s written in third person present tense, however, Mantel uses this weird POV quirk where most of the time she writes “He”, she means Cromwell. It’s sort of like first person with “I” replaced with “he”. It gives it the intimacy of a first person story while also giving her the freedom to narrate events that Cromwell himself is not present for.

It’s also occasionally incredibly confusing and at odds with how we normally read books in the English language. Consider the following sentence:

“Bob crossed the street. He thought about his meeting with Jane this morning.”

In Wolf Hall, the “He” could mean either Bob or Cromwell. Even when you get the hang of it, it can be confusing. I see some other reviewers have hated this, but I think it is absolutely worth the price of a new and effective take on writing point of view.

The story is largely about Cromwell becoming Dad to all England. After losing his family to the plague, he builds an amalgam of relatives, orphans, wards, and friends into a family at his ever-expanding estate. He also seems to be the father figure of all the nobility of the English court, calmly navigating their petty whims and doling out advice. Yet somehow, this is a pageturner. I read its very dense 600 pages quickly.

I’m in awe here. I need to read a lot more Mantel. Soon.

Bioshock Infinite by Irrational Games

bioshock picBioshock Infinite has received outstanding critical acclaim. Some excerpts from Metacritic (where it has a 94%):

“Whether or not you enjoy first-person shooters is irrelevant. It is whether or not you want an experience like no other; one that will be left in the back of your mind for years to come. “ – Hardcore Gamer Magazine

“This is the sort experience you don’t get every day: an easy-to-like spectacle for the masses with enormous production values, but a story right out of the art-house cinema.” Eurogamer Germany

“BioShock Infinite is a hell of a lot of fun to play. That really should be the only quality it needs to exhibit. The fact that it holds much more feels like an advancement of an art form. Just remember that nothing in BioShock Infinite is an attempt to be cute. Just let it tell you its story. “ – Guardian

These are some of the most hyperbolic, but they still represent a general trend for a game that did not receive a score lower than 8/10 across 67 critical reviews.

Anyway, here’s my blurb: Bioshock Infinite is a disappointing sequel to a great game, filled with sloppy, repetitive gameplay, a narrative that’s not particularly engaging and has terrible politics, that happens to be bookended by some pretty set pieces. Worse, its reception by “video game journalism” is embarrassing; it gives credence to the late Roger Ebert’s much maligned commentary on video games being incapable of high art.

The original Bioshock is excellent. It follows the story of an intruder to the fallen city of Rapture — an underwater objectivist dream conceived by a man whose name is a sort of Ayn Rand anagram. Okay, sure, “Objectivism is bad and wrong” is not a profound or novel theme, but in an industry that holds up storytelling like, well, Infinite’s, it is something. Libertarianism’s greatest constituent (privileged white men) is the greater part of the first person shooter audience as well.

It had interesting things to say about videogames and their audiences, even if the narrative falls apart after the big twist. Speaking of which, the twist is smart and fun unlike Infinite’s telegraphed and uninspired one (Listen guy, we’ve all seen Oldboy…). It was also weirdly and hilariously prophetic given the existence of real life plans for a libertarian ocean paradise.

Infinite’s narrative is doubly weak (general spoilers follow). It’s not thematically sound though it seems to want to be. It has been praised by actually tackling race but apparently “tackling race” just means acknowledging racism exists. Or at least did in 1912. And any points it receives for this minor feat, it immediately throws away. Then shits all over itself. The oppressed, mostly black underclass at one point in the game, arms themselves as the freedom fighting group “Vox Populi” and begins to rapidly and violently overthrow the privileged white elite led by Zachary Comstock. The narrative quickly decides that “The Vox are just as bad as Comstock”. This is formally shown by the black woman leader of the Vox attempting to execute a white child.The final climactic fight, indeed much of the second half of the game, has you fighting the newly armed underclass and murdering them by the bushel.

This is shit. No, the oppressed slave class does not become “just as bad” as their oppressors if they react just as violently. Knowing real life American history, they were victims of violence and worse for centuries. This does not excuse killing children (completely ignoring here for a moment that the first thing the black folk do when they get weapons is start murdering children…), and maybe there actually was something interesting to investigate here in regards to revolutions and oppression, but the game doesn’t try. Instead, the narrative immediately accepts their villainy and replaces the uniforms of the enemies you are fighting.

Even excusing all this, it’s not even a cool sci-fi story. The alternate world storyline is mostly squandered, especially in regards to the awkward gameplay mechanic called “tears”; you can open them during gunfights and they basically just give you more supplies or warp in AI robots to assist you. There’s vestiges of something that could have been a cool story at the very end, which feels like a different game, but the game does not deliver.

The gameplay itself is repetitive (admittedly, something the original suffered from at parts too). Endless swarms of the same enemies that only increase in how many bullets you need to shoot them. There is artificial limits — only two “tonics” (superpowers) or guns at a time — something that feels like it is there to adhere to the modern FPS model set by Halo and not for any real gameplay reason. The guns are forgettable and some of the later ones you pick up are just inferior versions of the guns you have been using and upgrading all game up to that point.

Did I mention the game is buggy as hell too? I had to restart at a previous point 3-4 times due to the game getting stuck in some fashion. Enemy stuck in terrain I could not kill to progress, storyline event just not happening, that sort of thing.

It’s not a terrible game. I did finish it. Some parts were fun. The ending was kind of cool, albeit silly. But, what a disappointment. Art-house cinema, indeed.