Underworld by Don DeLillo

It starts with a baseball game and spans a half century.

Here’s an interesting book in that it’s 850 pages and almost entirely plotless. Not so much a narrative as a collection of vignettes, usually following a collection of interrelated characters but not always. Indeed, these self contained stories about say, the Texas Highway Killer or the neurosis of lonely Sister Edgar are typically more interesting than the story of protagonist Nick Shay himself.

Early in the book, we learn that Nick, now in his fifties, had an affair when he was seventeen with a woman who is now seventy. At this point, I wondered what happened. This teenager and late twenties woman. 750 pages later, when this part of the backstory is actually revealed, I was nonplussed. I wanted to ask DeLillo why he suddenly thought this was a book that necessitated reveals, or backstory.  

It’s not. It’s little pieces of history, orphaned but inextricably linked, beautifully written. This is key. You can’t write this many words lacking the traditional hooks of a long novel without being a pretty amazing writer. DeLillo is surely that. His dialog is snappy and entertaining. His grasp on location and specific eras of time allow him to skip across the country and 20th century, immersing the reader in specific periods without bogging them down in detail. Even when he’s exploring an honestly lazy metaphor, he does so with such skill, you admire it anyway.

Consider the opening chapter, which is the most lovingly crafted description of a baseball game I’ve ever read. In 1951, the Giants shocked the Dodgers to win the pennant with Bobby Thompson’s walk-off homerun. DeLillo records this in keen, nostalgic detail: the player’s emotions, the crowd, the flu-stricken voice of the announcer, the kid sneaking into the stadium to catch a glance of history. I’m not much of a baseball fan anymore, but I cannot forget the communal and familial excitement of the game evokes. Red Sox games humming through the static of my grandfather’s radio is the background noise of my childhood. DeLillo channels that kind of nostalgia throughout his 60+ page description of the game, executing it perfectly. 

It’s very interesting to me what parts of literature persist is some timeless space, eternally relevant, and what ages and feels old. The baseball game, The Shot Heard Round the World, is the former. So long as baseball exists, it will resonate. But a major portion of the novel is dedicated to Cold War paranoia and The Bomb. It’s a pre-9/11 world, the cover eerily picturing a smoky black-and-white World Trade Center. Our paranoias are different now. Sneakier, less bombastic. I found it hard to truly dive into the constant paranoia and nuclear waste metaphors. Felt a bit like a relic. Academic somehow. Not that Cold War media can’t remain relevant — it’s hard to think that Dr. Strangelove, stylistic and shocking as it is, won’t ever not be striking — but DeLillo’s version surely lost something with time.

Underworld is a book wherein the individual parts are less than their sum. Or maybe they just outshine their sum. The sum or whole is irrelevant! Not the ideal situation for a massive novel, but still, I greatly enjoyed my time with it.

The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing

golden-notebookTedious but interesting.

Anna, a writer of a one-time bestseller, keeps several notebooks — a journal, a novel, reflections on youth, etc — to maintain her sanity in a world in active opposition to her ideals. The book blurb and title would have you believe she combines all these into a golden notebook, however that only occurs in the final fifty or so pages of this seven hundred page book, which gives you a good idea as to how it’s paced.

Some classics resonate with time. Others are diminished by it. You can guess which I think The Golden Notebook is. In one of the prefaces, Doris Lessing notes that when the novel was first published, protagonist Anna was viewed as extremely “macho”. It’s just about impossible to get that impression nowadays so the effect is lost. Indeed, while heralded as a staple of literary feminism, and touching on misogynist elements of society that persist today, that portion of the novel feels out of touch with modernity. Largely because of how extremely passive Anna is. We recognize her situation sucks, but it’s hard to say exactly why she continues to sleep with these awful married men.

And feminism isn’t really the focus anyhow. The bulk of the book is a growing disillusionment of the English communist party in the 50s, as the Soviet dream fell apart and peoples across Europe came to know how terrible Stalin was. While it’s an interesting counterpoint to cold war America, since it was actually possible to openly be a communist without being blacklisted or imprisoned,  the text here is  highly specific and lengthy for a utopian mentality that barely exists* anymore. It didn’t feel necessary to read I guess I’m saying.

I finished it. Despite TEDIOUS being my prime descriptor. The characterization of Anna and the content did keep me going. I doubt I ever need to return to it.

*Yeah, yeah, there’s plenty of Marxists still around, but the specific ideal English communists treasured and its razor sharp focus on the Soviet Union is not the same thing.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

msgv

Beleaguered, weary, wounded and battleworn, I ride my chopper to one final deployment. Not another sortie to South Africa or Afghanistan, to sneak into a soviet installation or assassinate an arms dealer, but to write this blog post. A task I am finding difficult. Usually before writing I already have a lead or structure, an idea to elaborate on. I already have the post about the book I’m reading half-written in my head. Yet, I don’t seem to have much to say about Metal Gear Solid V, a game I enjoyed immensely.

Just why is this game so good?

Take this episode for example: Early in the game, I was tasked with rescuing a hostage. I snuck into a Soviet-occupied Afghan village, slithered up on a soldier to interrogate him and retrieve the prisoner’s location, and was nearly there, without being seen, when a guard spotted me at the door. Alarms sounded as I rushed into the hostage’s room. The prisoner is screaming, bullets are plinking glass bottles above the bar I’m hiding behind. I’m surrounded.

I radio my chopper for air support. I hold out behind the bar while I wait for it to fly in. The Soviet guards freak out and start screaming and returning fire as my chopper strafes them. The pure chaos allows me to sneak out, prisoner thrown over my shoulders. A few hundred meters from the village, I radio my chopper to come pick me up. I watch as it flies away from the battle, slightly smoking, to touch down in front me. I toss the hostage inside and hop in myself, taking potshots at the enemy soldiers, not really expecting to hit anything. Mission complete.

Everything feels so organic. There’s a thrill in non-scripted happenstance. A point is reached where gameplay is so well-designed, well-thought out, and polished that it becomes narrative. MGSV has a plot of its own, and it’s pretty interesting, delving into the imperialism of language and western tyranny in the Middle-East and Africa, as well as exploring some video gamey themes like player agency.

But this is secondary to the story that is built simply by playing the game. Like that time I blocked a road with a truck, and while the tank rolling down that route honked its horn and yelled at the truck to move,  I snuck up behind it and planted C4 on its bumper, only to creep away and detonate it from a safe distance. Or when I sicced my pet wolf, D-Dog, equipped with a taser, on a full squad of armed men and how he somehow stunned them all. Or the simple thrill and follow up relief of being spotted by a guard and reflexively shooting him precisely in the face with a tranquilizer dart, in the brief window between him noticing me and alerting his buddies of my presence.

You know that feeling you have, watching a good thriller, when the protagonist is hiding from some villain or creepy monster and your heart is racing because the scene is tense and well-shot? That is the feeling MGSV evokes, except you’re the protagonist and you are the one who got yourself in this situation, not the screenwriter or cameraman or director.

It is excellent.

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker HD

peace walker

I am an A rank Metal Gear Solid player. I’m generally unseen, armed with a tranquilizer and some kung fu moves. But sometimes I do get spotted. Or I run out of tranquilizer darts and, regretfully, I have to bust out my machine gun. Sorry bud, out of ammo. Hence why I am not an S rank player, who would never be seen, even while dismantling a helicopter, who’d rather die or restart than lethally end some unsuspecting grunt.

Anyway, I was almost not a Metal Gear Solid player anymore at all, as I completely forgot about the series for years. You see, there are two major plotlines in the MGS universe, which is especially convoluted and dense. The first, which includes games 1, 2, and 4 are about Solid Snake, who is a clone of a man born some time in the first half of the 20th century. They’re thematically anti-war stealth games with an emphasis on sci-fi near future tech, mercenaries and private military organizations, and endless monologues/cutscene sequences. These ones are OK —  I mean, there’s psychic boss who knew your every move in the first one, who could only be defeated by plugging your control in the second player port. That’s creative. And they were freakin’ weird… partially due to the singular vision of their director — Hideo Kojima. Video games rarely are subject to a single all-encompassing mind like films or novels often are.

It’s the second major plot line that really grabbed me. MGS3, Peace Walker, and now 5 are about that man Snake was cloned from, Big Boss, who also happens to be the villain of the old 8 bit NES Metal Gear games. Indeed the story of Big Boss is that of US soldier who is betrayed by his own government and later turns to terrorism for various ideological reasons (sound familiar?). The plot of 3 specifically: Weird shit is happening in the Cold War Russian jungle, including a mad astronaut with a flamethrower and a man who throws grenades made of bees. I loved it. Many years later, it still remains vivid in memory. The sucker punch ending succeeded in its goal of making me hopeless and ineffectually angry at the US government.

And then Konami greenlit a sequel! …on the PSP, Sony’s handheld system that I never had a reason to own. I completely forgot about it. For years. It wasn’t until the prologue of part 5 became free on Xbox live last month that I remembered, and also found out that the PSP game, Peace Walker had been released on last gen consoles at some point. Which brings us to this review!

Peace Walker is a smaller scale game compared to its predecessors, to match its initial smaller medium. Basically: In the 70’s, Costa Rica’s commitment to peace led them to abolish their military. This was amidst America and Russia being kingmaker assholes all around Latin America. Following the events of MGS3 (complete disillusionment with the US government) Big Boss split and created his own for-hire military group: Militeries Sans Frontieres. MSF agrees to hire themselves out to some shadowy Costa Rican fellas to investigate the sudden CIA presence in Costa Rica. Boss rapidly discovers that not only is the US stashing nukes nearby, but actually giant robots carrying nukes. Yikes.

The CIA villain, a man by the dubious name of ‘Hot Coldman’ has determined that the Cold War strategy of nuclear deterrence simply will not work. The reason? Humans are weak and no single human would have the will to destroy the entire planet, even if a nuke was heading in their direction*. His solution? Build a giant robot that will launch the retaliatory nukes instead. This is the eponymous Peace Walker and most of the narrative of the game involves chasing it down and eventually blowing it up.

It’s fine. The fact of the matter is that giant robots! nukes! just does not have much thematic weight. Moreover, Kojima continuously draws our attention to great anti-war, anti-deterrence films and novels, going so far as to name a character ‘Strangelove’, but his narrative not only cannot compare, it’s also like 40 years too late. MGS used the Cold War to illustrate problems that still persist to this day. Peace Walker is more like: Man, the CIA/KGB really did suck in the 70s, didn’t they? Good thing they they didn’t have giant robots, huh?

The gameplay itself is bite size. Each level is a few small areas tied together and generally completed in 2-8 minutes. The AI is really terrible — you have to be standing on their toes to be seen, but it works out since the levels are so short it’s more like trying to do things as quickly and efficiently as possible and not so much a ‘true’ stealth experience, which the demo of MGS5 showcases instead. It’s the perfect pacing for a handheld game, like it was designed to be. It’s still fun enough as a console game. In between levels, you can actually build up MSF — assign people to R&D to create new weapons, put them in the mess hall to feed everyone else, gather intel, send squads out on missions. It’s a little simplistic since in the intervening years so many RPGs have embraced this concept, but it’s a good setup for the more robust version promised in MGS5.

The biggest gameplay complaints I have are thus: The series is known for its creative and exhilarating boss fights but the ones here are pretty lame. There’s three different vehicles that show up repeatedly — a tank, a helicopter, an APC — that play out exactly the same. Kill/tranq a group soldiers and shoot up the vehicle until its captain pops out. There’s fights with giant robots too, but other than maybe the fortress on treads that you literally have to ascend to defeat, they’re not very good and sitting there holding down the machine gun trigger doesn’t really mesh with the rest of the game. Indeed, repetitiveness is major issue. The game boasts a ton of extra missions (ExOps) that go beyond the main story but they’re like constant variations of 3-4 core concepts.

I was rereading this review, ready to post, and oh my gosh, how could I forget one of the most stand out features of this game? The Fulton Recovery System. So, to recruit soldiers for MSF, Boss and co. have an inventive idea: Knock them out and tie a balloon to their ass. Literally. You recruit soldiers by knocking them unconscious and then tying a mini-hot air balloon to them; They’re whisked into the sky for an unseen helicopter to take them back to base, to either initiate them in Boss’s private army or stick them in the brig until they capitulate and do the same. Yeah. Weird game.

*I found this idea pretty nonsensical. OK, most humans would not press the button for mutually assured destruction, but all of them? No way. Someone would. It was gratifying towards the end of the game when it turns out Coldman is wrong, and men will press the damn button. But it also kind of undermined the whole plot, so ehh.