The Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen

best-american-essays-2016Jonathan Franzen, much like Cheryl Strayed, has a vision of the essay as an expulsion of the ‘I’.

I am telling a story about my family.
I am telling a story about my job.
I am telling a story about my sexuality or race.

Franzen further specifies he is looking for ‘intensity’ and ‘risk’, and indeed some of these essays are gripping in their intensity. But, like 2013, it gets repetitive. I like to see essays that explore little-known topics or examine some social phenomena or world events. There’s only so many essays you can read On My Shitty Parents before they all run together. The latter essays suffer this fate. There’s one in the last third where a woman is writing both about the mating habits of salamanders and her attempt to adopt a child. At that point, I was basically like “I don’t care about your familial drama, tell me about the salamanders!”

Anyway, here’s my favorites:

Girl by Alexander Chee: Chee details his application of makeup, wig, gown in preparation for the Castro Halloween parade. It’s the best description on the appeal of dressing in drag I’ve ever read. It’s beautiful. Also another reminder of how wondrous the Halloween Parade apparently was, making me further bitter about moving to San Francisco after it was canned.

My Heart Lies between “The Fleet” and “All the Ships” by Ella Harrison: Harrison is translating ancient Greek, a language no one speaks, into English, a massive undertaking that only a very few select specialists will even be able to interpret. Mostly, it’s a dazzling reflection on language. The disparate connotations and metaphors and etymological poetry that make one word very similar or different to another, each in a separate language and spoken thousands of years apart. While still centered around Harrison’s personal experience, this is one of the least “All about me” essays in the collection. The euphoria Harrison embraces while translating is merely dipping her toes into the greater human lingual ocean.

Sexual Paranoia by Laura Kipnis: This essay is the best example of Franzen’s point on writerly risk. Kipnis is a college professor protesting the overly harsh restrictions and punishments placed on college professors having affairs with students. Not exactly a popular opinion, especially when one is part of the establishment itself. My initial reaction to this was baffled skepticism — why defend behavior that is largely old married white men abusing their social status? Kipnis’ point is two fold. One: Adult relationships are messy and you’ll learn this sooner or later (this one isn’t entirely convincing). And two: by casting professors as potentially dangerous predators, you engineer a situation of infantilized, defenseless students and tyrannical, imposing professors. The narrative established behind the restrictions becomes real in a way that it wouldn’t without them. In other words: students are taught to fear their teachers.

Bastards by Lee Martin: Of the family drama essays, this one is the best. Martin’s father lost his hands in a farming accident and his inability to work dragged the family around Illinois. A father’s anger. A mother’s kindness. Sounds trite, but this is very well written. It took me right inside this shadowy, anger-ridden house. Oppressive.

Firewatch

firewatch

You’re Henry.

A burly, bearded man from Boulder, fond of skiing and beer and a blend of all the attributes of your affable Colorado bro. In your late 30s and happily married, until life takes a serious nose-dive for the worse when your wife, Julia, develops early onset dementia. A couple years of this misery and, unable to cope, you fuck off to the wilderness to become a scout.

In recent years, we’ve been inundated by ’interactive novels’, wherein we guide characters down a narrative path and most of our ‘playing’ is comprised of:

1) walking from point A to point B and

2) making key dialogue choices that will change the story going forward, or at least give the illusion the story is being changed.

It’s the Choose Your Own Adventure paperbooks of yore, spruced up for the digital age. Telltale Games have been particularly prolific here, turning TV shows and comics from The Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to Fables to Batman into interactive novels. A sort of sub-genre labeled ‘walking simulators’ is also occasionally referenced here.  A beautiful environment is built, but all you can really do is walk around and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and not engage in your typical gaming actions — shooting, jumping, etc.

Firewatch is a walking simulator in its most pejorative sense, and interactive novel at its most limited and milquetoast, skewing very far towards the ‘novel’ or ‘short film’ path and very little on the side of game.

Shoshone National Forest is quite pretty, especially when burnished by the setting sun. You’d like to walk around there. Camp. But it’s difficult to acknowledge as an actual place. You’re largely walking down very defined paths with little room for deviation. There’s not much you can do unless the game has a very specific purpose in mind for you (find a backpack, see a raccoon). Your freedom is basically quashed. Exploration is pointless because there’s nothing to find. I’ve played plenty of games that are engaging while requiring you to do mundane tasks — farming virtual crops, climbing buildings to collect flags. But the tasks you’re set to in Firewatch feel pointless and rote, more like busywork to get you to the next dialogue segment instead of goals unto themselves.

Moreover, it’s hard to feel like you really are Henry, a person taking up physical space. The point of view is first person and all you ever see is his stubby legs when he’s climbing up and down things, in a perspective that holds little in common with how your legs actually look when you observe them. Instead, you’re more like a floating camera observing the story. 

In fact, that sort of spatial disconnect can link us to the real failing of Firewatch: for such a deeply personal story, I never felt like I could really own Henry. The game is spent communicating via radio with Henry’s  sarcastic boss, Delilah, a woman with a sordid past of her own. The whole draw of the game is Henry and Deliah’s relationship, and supposedly the impact the player can have on it. The dialogue is fairly snappy and engaging, but my agency within it was slight. Many times I was not given a choice in how to respond. I had to select a single line reporting something I had seen or a pre-decided sentence to respond to Deliliah. Even when I had choices, it never felt like they mattered. The choice was typically one of tone, not of content (angry / sarcastic / timid). What made things supremely annoying was that if you don’t respond quick enough, Delilah thinks you’re being purposely silent and responds as such. This response window is shockingly short. You have to read 3-4 different sentences and decide how you want to respond. Even as a real-life gap in conversation it was too short. Baffling.

What I’m getting at here is: Why did this need to be a game at all? It’s appeal is a human relationship and its composite back-and-forth dialogue. You barely have an effect on it. Were it a short film, we’d have some features enhanced: We could see the emotions on Henry’s face, and if he were a good actor, it would improve the narrative. Other negative features  would be removed: Actor Henry would not get stuck on a short hill he should be able to cross but can’t for whatever gameplay reasons. I mean, it’s not like some sort of cardinal sin to make a video game that would have been better as a movie, but it feels pretty wasteful to not actually use the elements of video games that film does not have to improve the experience.

My last complaint is going to be about the conclusion of the narrative itself, which wouldn’t really matter whether it was game or film or book or whatever. Some very general spoilers follow. When you have a plot based on ‘weird shit happening’, there’s a few different effective reveals we typically see.

  1. Character suspects something weird is happening. Turns out some really weird shit is happening. Aliens recently landed in his backyard and replaced his family with drones. It doesn’t have to be supernatural, but it often is. 
  2. Something bad happens to a character and it’s a completely plausible (albeit troubling) mystery. A child goes missing, but it’s never suggested to be anything more than the real-life, day-to-day misery of a child going missing.
  3. Basically a combination of 2 followed by 1. Audience is lead to believe it’s a “real-life” tragedy and then finds out it is something more. Character A spends 75% of the movie looking for a lost child and then stumbles upon the gateway to hell.

Those are all fine, workable plots. It’s #4 that I have a problem with.

4. The reverse of 3. Something really damn weird is happening, same start as #1. The plot wants us to believe in the supernatural. But, oops, turns out it was really just banal human ignorance and cruelty all along. Gotcha! You might call this the ‘Scooby Doo’ plot. It wasn’t a ghost, it was your dad wearing a sheet. You have to be a clever creator indeed to pull this off without leaving the viewer dissatisfied.

Needless to say, Firewatch hit me with #4. Worse, the ending is completely set in stone. Your choices, insofar as they exist, cannot affect the outcome. That’s anathema to the whole notion of choose your own adventure and yet another reason the game failed for me.

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.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPThe disembodied, nearly always feminine voice of ‘Ship’ or ‘Computer’ providing a foil and guidance to the hero is a common sci-fi trope. She’s a talking prop that that rarely has a story of her own, though sometimes she has a hackneyed plot where it turns out she has real feelings after all. But there is almost always a motherly or sexbot bent to the exchange. Heinlein sort of spells this out literally (and earnestly) in Starship Troopers, where all the ship captains are women because it’s important for the male soldiers to hear a woman’s voice prior to battle. The adventure game Broken Age straight up makes the ship’s computer the hero’s mom. Ancillary Justice takes the woman-ship, gives her her own voice, blows up the ship part and strands her in a lone human body and sets her on a quest for revenge to take down the guy that blew her up*.

I liked the first eighty percent or so of this book. I was invested in the main character, Breq, and the thousand bodied nemesis she was hunting. The space operatic setting was slightly generic (there’s a threat of EMPIRE) but the book rarely devolved into world building porn. The problem is the pacing and character motivation goes to hell in the final chapter of the book. In part because prior to this point, there is a split narrative with every other chapter telling the story of the past (which is frankly more interesting). The point where the flaws of the novel, which my goodwill benignly passed over as minor shortcomings, became noticeable and annoying was when the past story caught up with the present one.

The superhuman hero and her antagonist, a divine emperor with an incalculable number of bodies that may be at war with itself, are fun and interesting. But nearly all the human characters are bland and unconvincing. This culminates when the terribly annoying and supremely arrogant sidekick that Breq inexplicably drags along suddenly and rapidly turns a redemptive corner into a caring and humble person. The rest of the humans are cardboard. They exist to move Breq along the plot or as window-setting-dressing to explain the politics of the world. The plot drags at the end because Breq’s laser-focus on her mission dulls and she just kind of… wanders around until events happen. This is not the type of a book for a passive protagonist.

Ancillary Justice is concerned with current events. Gender, class, colonialism. Much has been made of the novel’s lack of gendered pronouns. The society where Breq is from has no ‘him’ or ‘he’ or ‘son’ — everyone is a ‘her’ or ‘she’ or ‘daughter’. This makes for an interesting take on reading, since I generally ignored the pronoun and looked for tells to show if a character was a man or a woman. The idea that pronouns do not have to be gendered is convincing, as is rules of dress and makeup etc that mark people one way or another in most societies on Earth. Where the book fails is that Breq cannot distinguish between genders, same as the society she comes from. Even when seeing a naked person laying in the snow. There’s some handwaving about artificial wombs that tries to explain away any reproductive concerns, but it is unconvincing. It left me wondering — is everyone bisexual in the future? Has sexual dimorphism in humans gone away somehow? I wanted to know! But it seemed like Leckie was satisfied with challenging the reader via pronouns instead of, in my opinion, far more interesting questions. On top of this, she betrays her own conceit. Despite the removal of gender, there’s a clear tell early on that Breq is a woman; a jerk from a gender-conscious culture derides her as ‘little girl’. Any ambiguity is extinguished.

Regardless of its depth, the gender bits do fit the universe. At the very least, they make for good conversation. Conversely, the class-war plot is incredibly distracting. One cardboard character complains to another that poor people wouldn’t be poor if they worked harder. Breq’s dumb sidekick has a thing for purity of blood. People in the real world say and think dumb shit like that all the time. But it’s incredibly hard to pull off in a novel without a firm grasp on nuance, tone, etc. I am reading Toni Morrison’s Paradise currently which is transparently a book about violence against women. But where Leckie’s ‘poor people’ scene takes me out of the narrative, thinking oh I guess we’re talking about politics now, Morrison has me generally angry and terrified for the safety of the main characters. It may seem unfair to compare a debut sci-fi author to a Nobel prize winner (and one of the greatest American writers ever) but Ancillary Justice did win most of the big sci-fi awards and is nominated for the rest — if sci-fi is to be taken seriously, it does need serious consideration.

I’m absolutely going to read the next book in the series. The fall at the end did not dissuade me. I am still invested in Breq and want to see where this story is going. But I can’t help be disappointed that the book could not maintain the highs it occasionally rose to.

*Don’t get the wrong impression here. She’s still a caretaker of humans, a strange juxtaposition of mother-character with cold-killer that mostly works. But she has agency of her own.