Stardew Valley

Ironic isn’t it? Farming, a notoriously backbreaking, labor-intensive, and uncertain activity translates so perfectly into relaxation, serenity, escapism.

The game begins with our protagonist slaving away in some kind of corporate IT dungeon before learning he has inherited a broken-down farm from a dying relative. The Head and the Heart might as well be singing as our cubicle-worker-turned-farmer instantly departs to take up their new life in the tiny agricultural region of Stardew Valley. Surely the soul-crushing consumerist monotony of city-life can so easily purified by a return to small-town living and trade. 

It’s idyllic and cliched and wildly oversimplified, but in many ways, that’s the point.

Stardew Valley consists of a repetitive gameplay loop: Clear terrain (chop trees, slash weeds, break up rocks), dig some holes, plant seeds, water them. Repeat every day as you watch your crops grow. Finally, harvest them and sell them for money, so that you can buy more seeds to hoe and plant and water and grow once more. There’s farm animals you can foster, a mine to explore, and of course a local village to visit and mingle at. Seasons will change, altering both the crops you can grow and the events and routines occurring in town. With only slight alterations, the core gameplay loop remains the same for however many hours you choose to put in to it. This all nakedly apes Harvest Moon, the Super Nintendo genre-starter.

In many other games, a simple repetitive activity would be a turn-off, or get boring long before Stardew Valley does. I posit there is an inherent human industrialness, a desire to work and see the fruits of that labor that taps into the psyche in a way narrative, puzzle, or action games may not. It is why the game chooses farming, one of man’s oldest and most widespread professions, specifically. There’s a sense of ownership endemic to growing your own food that cannot be accessed by most office work.

Sure, I have some issues with Stardew Valley. Some people find the townsfolk charming, but I find them bland, the game going so far out of its way to present rural tranquility that it feels a tad featureless. The happy-peaceful nature of the game also means my cows are for milk only, and while I can raise pigs, this is simply so they can dig up truffles. Winter is pretty boring — you cannot plant any crops and spend most of your time wandering around or fishing. Adding some winter-only tasks like say, shoveling snow or preserving food or something would be welcome. You can see I’m not listing structural flaws here; I’m looking for more chores to perform in my little farmworld.

Generally for game reviews, I spend a few seconds cruising Google images for a screenshot, but for this post, I took a screenshot of my farm in particular. It’s not even a good shot since I’m stuck in the winter doldrums and have no crops. But those are my dead apple trees and my bearded and ponytailed farmer. That’s my house and my deluxe chicken coup and my farm! I named it Citywoke Farm and it was only 80% in jest.

Lexicon by Max Barry

My co-worker and former boss recommended Lexicon to me. Recommend is too soft a word. She told me it was good and then plopped it onto my desk the following day with barely a word.

There is a constantly shifting reading-list wedged between the folds of my brain. It is unpleasant and physical when altered by obligations, sort of like getting jabbed in the funny-bone. Luckily, this book was a good ride, though its seams begin to hiss and tear if you think about it too much. 

Two plot threads weave and intertwine through Lexicon. Emily Ruff is taken off the streets of San Francisco to enroll in a mysterious elite school, which initially shares more similarities with Survivor than Harvard. Here, she will learn to be a poet. Meanwhile, Wil Parke is scooped up by shady characters when exiting an airport and is hurled from one car chase or gunfight to the next.

The interplay between the threads is Lexicon’s greatest strength. Both characters are likable, especially Emily. As the onion layers are peeled back, another plot point or mystery becomes obvious to the reader, but rather than delay the denouement, Barry quickly reveals that same truth and dangles new plot points and mysteries ahead. Tension is maintained. Characters don’t stay at one place very long, but are thrust onward, go, go, go.

The book suggests that power comes from mastery over language. There’s interludes containing news articles and forum posts detailing how the public can be manipulated by (fake) news and personally catered newsfeeds delivering precisely what an individual wants to hear. In narrative, there’s references to old-timey wizards and sorcerers who seemed to be practicing magic, but actually they were just good with words. This is too-clever misdirection. Both the modern day characters of Lexicon and the abra-cadabra wizards of yore are using magic. Most of the wordplay invoked throughout the book is one character using magic words to compel another to do something they would not otherwise do. Literally prefaced by gobbledygook magic words. Don’t be mistaken, the plot of book revolves around mind control, not words.

There’s another book, perhaps a better one, where the poets and word-soldiers of Lexicon are highly persuasive to the point of seeming magical. There’s a great chapter early on where Emily is taken out on the street by an instructor and tasked with coaxing people to cross the street, using a new method each time, with failure to reach some unknown number leading to expulsion. It’s tense. I wish that was the direction Lexicon took rather than fake-sciency word bombs. 

I had fun reading. It’s a thrilling thriller. Keep turning those pages. But it’s also a book where the more I think about it, the more problems I find.  More plot holes, more opportunities missed.

The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai

The sensation of discovering a favorite author is not gradual. It is a thunderbolt, a swift jab to the heart. I do not read two, three books and have a lightbulb go off. I read a single chapter, even a single paragraph and know. Franz Kafka, David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Raymond Carver. It did not take long. Literary love at first read.

You can see where this is going. László Krasznahorkai. Add ‘em to the list.

He’s the type of writer who makes waiting in line at the post office gripping, even dreadful. Literally. There is a story about waiting in line at the post office and it is fantastic. Or in my second favorite story, which takes place largely in the back of a car while our timid protagonist is stuck listening to the driver’s vain and voluble friend blather on about his banking career, even the inane babble about middle-management corporate drama is engrossing, and you feel let down when the bored protagonist finally tunes him out.

Krasznahorkai has been a sensation for a while now — his first big success was published the same year as my birth. He won the international Man Booker in 2015. Yet, being a writer allergic to both paragraph breaks and commas, I’m not certain if he is all that widely read. I’ll avoid literary posturing entirely and tell you how I found him: I really liked the cover. And the title.

Thematically, these short stories can broken down to: Mundane life is terrifying. Humanity is a tiny piece of the universe and we may not exist, surely we do not truly understand causality in any meaningful way. Nor history. Most of the main characters are dissociating, locked up in asylums or wasting away their late middle-age in self-inflicted limbo.

“You shrink back slightly from the TV screen. You are incapable of reconciling all that you feel with all that you know.”

What elevates this beyond a (well-written) gallivant through misanthropy is that clearly Krasznahorkai, via his heroes, is desperately seeking some beauty in all this. Whether this be an early story about a guy trying to run faster than the earth, or my favorite piece: Gagarin. As in, Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin, the first human in space. Like many pieces, the story is filtered through another character. In this case, a once-renowned lecturer, now living in an asylum, obsessively details his theories on the life of Gagarin: How could the first man in space die year later in a routine training incident? He invents clever solutions, backed up mostly by his own imagination.

I finished this book two weeks ago and I’m thinking about it still. Along with what Krasznahorkai novel I will read next. 

The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota #3)

I love this series.

Regardless of what I’ll write next about the good or the bad and what worked or what didn’t, I’ll start by stating how pleasing it is to open these books and be surprised. This is part of why I read in the first place. Not for comfort or for safety, but to experience new ideas, to be taken to new places, to encounter characters whose journey I find dear while also illuminating human experience out in the real world. I’ll read a few books a year that deliver this pleasure. They’re rarely sci-fi or fantasy, which is too bad, because if I’m honest with myself, then I know that’s where my heart lies.

Following the events of the first two books, the global conspiracy enacted by the Humanists to prevent world war by systemically assassinatinating persons that will increase global unrest has become public knowledge. Most of the planet is in an uproar over what to do with the perpetrators and their trial is a significant plot point, finally revealing the meaning of ‘Terra Ignota’, the series title. Ironically, this serves as yet another trigger point for that very same theoretical, now actual, War. War that puts all of humanity at risk since technology has so rapidly increased in the two hundred years since the last big one, wherein we barely scraped by.

While the previous books were already heavy on conversation (& The Conversation), The Will to Battle is nearly entirely dialogue or summary of dialogue, at times going so far as to abandon narrative conventions (“he said”) entirely and become transcript:

I: “Lied to you? How?”
Kosala: “They said they’d help me work for peace, while all that time the two of you were training your private army.”
I: “That was no lie, Chair Kosala. Achilles wants peace, more than anything.”
Kosala: “You both believe the peace movement is doomed.”
I: “All mortal things are doomed: you, me, this peace, the Empire, this planet. Achilles doesn’t choose sides based on how likely things are to succeed, only whether they’re worth dying for.”

The straightforwardness of this is warped by our narrator’s madness, wherein characters who couldn’t be present in the scene are included. This includes recently dead fictional characters, metafictional characters (The Reader), and long-dead real world characters (Hello again, Thomas Hobbes). There’s a brilliant sequence early on where Mycroft takes the newly resurrected Achilles to meet all the world leaders and the setting shifts from one capital to the next and one Emperor or President to the next mid-conversation and without warning. This allows us to be many places at once without transition and cement clear contrasts between the great leader’s opinions and motivations in this almost-war period.

The structure of these novels requires our slate of main characters be an incestuous bunch of world leaders, who at times leave me praying for the series to end with a Hamlet-esque purge of the entire cast (especially Cornel fuckin’ MASON). This means it’s difficult to see regular people, with their riots, looting, or food hoarding as real actors. Given that a major plot point involves running census numbers to determine how likely unrest and outright war are, this is far from a world of individuals. It is a world of data and Great Thinkers instead. This is necessary to focus on the big questions Palmer wants to ask, or at least necessary for the means she wishes to ask them: People arguing about grand questions of philosophy, what lengths are worth going to for peace, and what means are justified, and being able to act on the conclusions they reach. Would you destroy this word to save a better one? How much is one life worth versus the future of humanity? And who gets to choose?

Quoth Fyodor Dostoevsky:

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me:  imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, [one child], and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?. . . And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?

This passage is also imagined as an SF story written by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, which is also quite good. It’s a topic always sure to cause great debate at the bar.  The Will to Battle isn’t quite the same, since the decision is calculated killing of innocents vs. bowing under the yoke of an alien god, but it raises many similar questions.

The series is not without flaws. Since the cast is so large and the scope so wide, Palmer must resort to quick characterization schemes. I think we have several people now whose shorthand characterization is a metaphorical familial relationship (i.e. the Mother of the World, the Grandpa/ma of the Senate, etc). Perhaps because of the immense labor of introducing all these characters, Palmer is loathe to let them go and introduce too many new ones, but there is no good reason for Merion Kraye to potentially be around nor for Head Sensayer Julia to not be imprisoned (or for another jail-bound character to escape). Conversely, I wondered what the point of spending so much time with Carlyle Foster in the earlier books was if they were barely going to be featured here at all.

A blurb on the back of the book from Jo Walton gushes:

This is the kind of science fiction that makes me excited all over again about what science fiction can do. Lots of books can knock you over and leave you reeling and dazzled when you’re fifteen, but it takes something special to do the same thing to you at fifty.

I’m not fifty but the same still applies. I wish it happened more but I treasure it when it occurs at all.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

More of a collection of poetry fragments, parables, and clever wordplay than a regular novel, Grief is the Thing with Feathers immerses us in the home of a father and his two boys, recently bereft of their wife and mother, and attended by a grief-eating, grief-healing crow. It’s funny and sad. At one hundred pages and less than an hour to read, it seems excessive to spend many words on a review, so instead I will paste this delightful chapter elucidating the psychology of a crow:

Head down, tot-along, looking
Head down, hop-down, totter.
Look up. ‘LOUD, HARD AND INDIGNANT KRAHH NOTES’ (Collins Guide to Birds, p-45).
Head down, bottle-top, potter.
Head down, mop-a-lot, hopper.
He could a learn a lot from me.
That’s why I’m here.

Short books are strange. I’ve read many good ones and forgotten most of them. It seems like like there is some minimum time investment, something reached only by the repeated labor of turning pages, that is personally required for a book to feel like a book, to be shelved mentally between the memories of thousands of others. 

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

There’s two different kinds of prequels.

The first is most interested in the world of the story it is prequalizing. It will feel familiar in setting and tone, but the plot and events will only be distantly related. The story is self-contained, regardless of what occurs in the chronological future and literary past. I prefer this type.

The second is concerned with the characters and the events that led them to the place they start the original story. It elaborates on missing details of their personality or backstory and in general fills in the gaps. Unlike the first kind, this prequel relies on the reader having first read the original work. 

The Book of Dust, whose plot revolves around the fate of baby Lyra, the child protagonist of the His Dark Materials series, is the second type. While Lyra is not the main character here (she’s an infant), the story is all about answering questions of her past and putting her in the place she’ll eventually start the main series. The reason I like this structure less than the first is that the big important stuff has already happened. Actually, it has yet to happen but I’ve already read it. It makes everything feel like small potatoes as the the plot, regardless of how well written or interesting it might be, is all set-up for the big stuff.

I read the big stuff 20 years ago. His Dark Materials stuck with me as a young teen, as very few young adult books did then or since, which is why I picked this book up as soon as I saw it front-and-center at the book store. Pullman does not insult his reader’s intelligence and his splendid prose was (and is) far better than most authors writing for young people. The language is largely indistinguishable from an adult book and occasionally when he uses an unfamiliar word, Pullman will turn it into a learning experience. For instance, on page 3, you read:

More than once Malcolm had ferried Sister Benedicta to the Royal Mail zeppelin station with a precious parcel of stoles or copes or chasubles for the bishop of London, who seemed to wear his vestments very hard, for he got through them unusually quickly.

Then a page or two later, Malcolm asks Sister Benedicta what a chasuble is. It’s a clever device. It bonds the reader to Malcolm by acknowledging you were both thinking the same thing and it establishes the narrator as a warm presence who is thoughtful in regards to how the reader is absorbing each individual word.

The Book of Dust, despite being lettered all big on the cover is actually the series’ name. Book 1 is technically called La Belle Sauvage, which is the name of the sturdy canoe of our eleven year old hero, Malcolm Polstead. Far up the Thames from London lies a cozy inn named the Trout, across from an old stone bridge where a Priory full of nuns sells baked goods and provides sanctuary to weary travelers and political dissidents alike. This is Malcolm’s world, as the son of the innkeepers, frequent student of the nuns, and river adventurer atop La Belle Sauvage. The first half of the novel lies entirely within this setting. The nuns take in a particularly unusual guest. Shady figures roam the inn and priory at night. The ever-oppressive Church invades Malcolm’s school. While slow-paced and somewhat uneventful, it’s easy to become absorbed in the day to day drama of the locale. It’s the book’s better half.

The second half of the book is the inevitable adventure awaiting all boys with trusty boats. The Thames floods and Malcolm is whisked away towards London, bearing a precious cargo. The setting shifts here, uneasily from science-based-magic to pure fairy tale. Underwater giants and faerie queens. Magic mirrors and fruit. It’s not a good shift. Pullman dabbles in archetypal stories and is simply not as good at it as he is with other themes, and worse, not as good as good as other writers who have done the same. Everything from impossible waterfalls to phantom villages peopled by ghosts are crucially lacking the enchantment they require. On top of this, the final confrontation with the main antagonist is stupid in like six separate ways. Too bad; he was a good villain. 

The climatic scene wherein we arrive in London is rushed (strange for a book twenty years in the making) and as I closed the back cover, I was left with a general feeling of “huh.” I still enjoyed it. It’s hard to say how much of this was on La Belle Sauvage’s own merits versus the hoary roots of nostalgia sunk deeply in my childhood, but I’ll almost certainly continue on to book two.

Middle Earth: Shadow of War

The Lord of the Rings, a series easy to forget is named after its villain, holds up mercy as an essential virtue. The hobbits, first as Bilbo and later as Frodo and Sam, choose mercy when opting not to kill Gollum. This leads to the destruction of the ring. It’s clear from the get-go that you cannot defeat Sauron with Sauron’s methods. Boromir is not our hero, but our tragic lesson.

This brings us to Shadow of War, the second part of a series all about trying to defeat Sauron using Sauron’s methods. Armies of orcs. Brutal means. Forging your own rings of power. It can be delightful to take a beloved property and stamp your muddy narrative boots all over its pristine sheets. This game does not care one whit for mercy. There’s an air of futility about it all — we’ve known from the start that Talion and Celebrimbor do not succeed in killing Sauron. Yet the game asks us to partake in the killing and gleefully we accept, as you’re supposed to in video games, the majority of which involve mass slaying. Shortly before killing an orc captain, the game paused so he could tell Talion/Me “I’ve killed one hundred and sixty seven orcs and men. How many have you killed? You can’t remember, can you?”

Can you? It put me in mind of getting a “kill 1000 bandits” achievement in Dragon Age.

I don’t want to oversell the narrative here. It’s not all that great, and most of what’s good about it is generously assisted by my own imagination. It has some majorly weak parts, not least of all portraying Shelob the Spider as beautiful woman, and all of the supporting cast that are not blessed with being an orc are dour and forgettable. Still, there’s something about tie-in fiction that’s not aping the original — a futile endeavor at the best of times — that is compelling regardless of quality.

But enough about all that, let’s talk about the real reason to be playing this game: The orcs. Shadow of War has even greater volume of randomly generated orcs than the original. Oscillating from hilarious to frightening to just plain bizarre, you will be monologued, insulted, betrayed, taunted, philisophized at and more by the orcs of Mordor. Then you recruit them to your case. It’s a killer’s game of pokemon. If by catching pokemon, you seared their very soul with your hand-brand rather than capturing them in a ball. And If you somehow had any illusions that what you’re doing is just, the game has a quest line that concludes with Talion acquiring an upgrade to his branding skill termed “Worse than Death”.

The characterization of each orc is the charm that sells the whole game. Little snippets of dialogue well voice-acted, some clever writing, and the dynamism that makes every player encounter a different crew of orcs and events, come together to create something truly unique in gaming. On one occasion, I was stealthily shooting orcs from atop a parapet, only to have Talion thrown on his ass by an orc, who had stealthily snuck up on me. Said orc then chased me across the rooftops, hissing only TASTY, SO TASTY, over an over. At a different point, early in the game when I could still die, a random mook killed me and achieved the title “Tark-Slayer” (Tark being a made up word orcs have started calling humans). Later on, when I hunted down and killed him, he fell to his knees and said “I guess that makes you the tark-slayer… slayer”. Talion promptly chopped off his arms and legs, which led to the appearance of a new orc titled “The Dismemberer”, who claimed I showed promise and he’d be willing to show me a thing or two about dismemberment. I ran for my miserable life.

It’s a strange brew of brutality and humor. Wisest among the creatures of Middle-Earth, orcs learned that life (in video games) is cheap.

The first game was much too easy. For the nemesis system to truly shine, you need a nemesis. It’s hard for this to happen when you’re cutting swathes through entire orc strongholds without breaking a sweat. Shadow of War attempts to correct this by adding harder difficulty modes. Nemesis difficulty is certainly better than the original, but if you’re going to use all the tools you have available like I do — converting orcs into spies set to betray enemy warchiefs, using the terrain to your advantage, recruiting a good ‘ole tough bodyguard  — it’s still pretty easy. This is largely a weakness of the “Batman-style” combat system, which limits combat to a few button presses. It’s stylish but shallow. For the second game in a row, I feel like I’m missing out on a lot of what the game has to offer simply by trying to play well.

The Familiar Volume 5: Redwood by Mark Z. Danielewski

My reviews for the first four volumes: One Rainy day in May, Into the Forest, Honeysuckle and Pain, Hades.

Thus we reach the latest novelty of the Familiar experiment: the season finale. The first four volumes slowly drew the disparate characters of the The Familiar, who have spent thousands of beautifully type-faced pages engaging in mischief, violence and introspection, directly into eachother’s paths. At last, we see them meet.

The great majority of Redwood is concerned with a single scene occurring in the Ibrahim’s living room. A gathering of main characters clashing over the fate of the eponymous kitten. It is a perfectly good scene. An interesting scene. Character and plot. It does what a good scene should.

But it’s the same scene repeated by the five different point of view characters present. There’s sundry details revealed in each chapter. Naturally one person will notice things that another does not. This includes some neat bits like seeing the Ibrahim’s comfortable middle-class house and lifestyle observed by other, less-privileged characters when we’ve already spent multiple books listening to Astair and Anwar struggle with money. Hardly enough to justify the repetition though.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a tight focus. Volume 1 comprised a single day, one rainy day in May, which felt lovingly crafted and well-paced, delving into the recursive depths and quotidian trauma a single day can hold. By contrast, volume 5 feels scant, even sloppy. It’s not merely the scene repetition — the writing itself feels imprecise, less sure-footed, the fantastic bits too muddy. I was not captivated nor satisfied in the way I expected to be.

Not everyone is in the Ibrahim’s living room. There’s movement elsewhere. Luther finally catches up with Domingo, though his arc continues to flirt-with but not commit-to the larger drama. The framing stories that open each volume receive conclusions or further clarity. The gruesome youtube clips of men shooting baby animals concludes and is tied into the main plot and wrapped up by Isandorno. The sections following cave people and far-future humans is far more cohesive and sensical, if still opaque.

I’m still on board the Danielewski train. One clumsy episode does not ruin a great TV show either. But it was certainly a let-down having the series first season finale be the weakest book thus far.

The Best American Essays 2017 edited by Leslie Jamison

Bland. Forgettable. These are not engaging essays. At the midway point, the collection putters into its longest piece — The Book of the Dead — which I should like, given it explores the mining towns of West Virginia, the same topic as a great documentary I watched earlier this year. It was intolerable. I skipped the last several pages entirely. Things improved from there, but generally when picking this anthology up, I’m looking for a good deal more than half-good.

These essays focus heavily on politics. The type of politics that shouldn’t need to be political, like race and health care. This is nominally an improvement on past years, where I complained of far too many essays about intensely personal experiences involving dead parents.  There is something tired about 2017. I suppose I’m looking for something exploratory or fresh and not the same litany of institutional misery I’m already reading everyday. 

Anyway, my favorites:

Indigent Disposition by Christopher Notarnicola : A chilling 2nd person narrative account of how we reduce undesirable people to mere bodies. Especially those that are impoverished or in poor health. Notarnicola enumerates the laws pertaining to “indigent bodies” in a specific county in Florida, and the story of a man about to become a body (“you”) and his brother, a self-made lawnmower man. But mostly it’s an indictment of a country and people that simply lets the most vulnerable among them die. Then blames them for it to keep its collective conscious clear.

 

The Reader is the Protagonist by Karen Palmer : Initially the title refers to the classic children’s book There is a Monster at the End of this Book, where the reader is indeed the protagonist as they turn page after page while Sesame Street’s Grover begs them not to. Karen Palmer is reading this to her daughters in a temporary house in Boulder, Colorado after fleeing her abusive ex-husband with her new one. This leads to a staggering coincidence where Palmer gets a job interview at a mysterious publisher, who turns out to contract crime fiction writers to churn out kitschy texts like a A Handbook for Hitmen. Skeeved out, Palmer leaves, only to discover several years later that a woman fleeing from her abusive ex-husband was murdered by his paid man. They found the publisher’s hitman handbook in his car.

What follows is a brief reflection, from both writer and reader on what should and should not be published. There’s no good answer.

 

H. by Sarah Resnick : Resnick’s uncle is a recovering heroin addict. She takes care of him, with occasional help from father, and about half of this long essay is about that difficult relationship. The other is exploring America’s inability, our outright refusal, to provide quality treatment for addicts. Resnick profiles a center in Vancouver, BC where addicts are free to enter and provided state assistance to get their fix: Clean tools, from needles to pill-crushers, a safe space and attendant nurses. Despite its proven efficacy as an avenue to get people clean, most other western nations continue to ignore data in favor of gut feel. Easier on the pride to let people die than let go of the rhetoric on personal responsibility and shame.

 

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

When I was a kid, there was this religious family in the neighborhood, real devout and sheltered, that I would visit on any pretense simply so I could play their suite of Christian Nintendo games. Specifically, the Noah’s Ark one, where you took control of Noah and scoured the 2d landscape seeking two of each 8-bit animal, stacking them one by one on your head, and heading back to the ark. Check it out.

Also when I was a kid, my parents forced me to attend catechism, which was mostly a disaster. Except this one sequence where each kid was tasked with creating a paper bag animal to perform an Ark presentation, wherein each kid was supposed to mimic the call of their assigned animal in all its cacophonous glory. I was assigned the horse. I had a mean neigh. I came down with an awful flu, barely able to crawl out of bed, mere days prior to the big event and could not participate.

Further kid tales: My aunt, religious in a way no one else in my family was and cognizant of my early love of reading, purchased a series of kids’ bible stories, wherein this little girl I’m pretty sure was named Alice could turn her bible into a magic portal that allowed her to experience various Old Testament tales in-person. Or maybe it included the New Testament too but I forgot about those dull morality lessons in favor of fire and brimstone. Given the format of this piece, you’d expect my favorite story to be Noah’s Ark. But actually it was #2, behind the Tower of Babel, which captures my imagination still.

While it’s unclear if I ever truly believed the Ark existed, it is otherwise crystal clear that the story of Noah fascinated me from a young age. Think about it for a second: God hit the reset button and basically wiped out the entire planet, tasking Noah with the incredibly dubious task of somehow getting two of every single animal into a single ship. There’s barely any mysticism to back him up. Yeah he had a much longer lifespan than regular people, so what? He lived most of it after the adventure. What is the lesson here? There is none. This is one. Don’t fuck with God or you’ll be made extinct in an arbitrary yet precise fashion.

Thus when I picked up this novel at a used bookstore in Fort Bragg and discovered the first chapter was an account of the voyage of the Ark, recounted by an illicit stowaway, I bought it immediately without bothering to consider what the other 9 ½ chapters were about. Not only was it a well-written story about the Ark, but it puts to the forefront many of my practical issues with the story: How do all the animals fit on the ark (there’s more than one), how does Noah find every single animal on earth (he doesn’t), what do they eat while on the ark (the animals), and so on. Barnes’ tone is wry, cynical. Noah is a harsh master commanded by a harsher master and the animal passengers face the consequences.

Then, following the close of chapter 1, what joy to discover that nearly all the rest of the stories have some allusion to arks, to boats, to epic and impractical journeys! Whether they be eighteenth century travelers to Mount Ararat, seeking the Ark’s wreckage, to an art history lesson on The Wreck of the Medusa and a meditation on misrepresenting reality in art to better communicate that very same reality. Other, Ark-less chapters, include Barnes’ rumination on the love, triggered by observing his wife sleeping in the middle of the night: What’s the point? Why love? Is it the answer or the question?

I was surprised to find how much this book has in common with two of my favorite writers, David Mitchell and Italo Calvino. I’ve heard of Barnes but never in relation to those two. Other than the uncommon structure itself, Barnes is clever with language and has clearly considered deeply the various injustices humans lay upon one another.  But where Calvino is playful and insightful and Mitchell is honest but optimistic, Barnes is far harsher, his wit expressed as  bemused cynicism. Humanity is far from a great steward of this planet, as the stowaway of chapter one details, and it’s been a series of self-inflicted misfortune since the flood. Especially in the late 80s, written deep in Cold War terror as this book was. Men especially are oafs. Women, like the animals to Noah, must suffer them (there’s one story as problematic at this sentence).

And in the bleak future to this history, humanity’s next extinction will be self inflicted. As the final chapter details, we won’t even be satisfied with heaven.