Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Pokemon Card Game, As Hacked By Tots

For several years running the girls conducted an ongoing game with the few dozen Pokemon cards they’d collected. The rules were clear to them (and created independently of the existing corporate rule structure) but confusing to me. The game seemed to involve courtship and marriage, and prolonged bouts of mischief — occasionally violent, always comic — conducted between clans of indeterminate character. Lengthy exchanges of dialog between cards was the norm. As stories developed, the girls would quibble over specific traits, but once the matter was settled, it remained settled.

As I watched the proceedings, two things struck me. First of all I was in awe at the voice and depth of character the girls would endow individual cards, which were little more than colorful cartoons on a small piece of cardboard.

Secondly, after witnessing them concoct their game and its world more or less on their own (they'd only seen one or two episodes of the television series, which failed to sustain their interest), I had to wonder if role-playing-games weren’t an innate instinct. As with many of the standardized games they played and enjoyed, cards were traded (via marriage, etc.) or lost (disease and violent death), but it wasn't enough just to play a variation on Old Maid: following an exchange the different characters would, at length, either lament or express relief at the outcome. In fact, the dialog between the characters (and the girls who played them) determined the shape of the game.

There seemed to be two objects to the game: 1) see who can get the other participant to laugh the hardest; 2) keep the game going for as long as possible. It didn't really end until this summer, when both girls gave their cards away after admitting they'd finally lost interest.

And yet an aspect of that early experience lives on in their video gameplay. If I eavesdrop on a Saturday morning session of LEGO Batman (always two-player mode, usually villains) I'll catch them talking to each other in the exaggerated tones of the characters they're manipulating. In fact, watching them play the game can be frustrating because there are frequent, extended periods when their gameplay isn't concerned with the dictated objective, but with horsing around in the environment and, yes, getting the other player to laugh.

It seems that, for my daughters at least, there are two impulses being met in games like this: the comic impulse, and, in assuming distinct voice and specificity of “another” character, the “acting” impulse.

When a person truly discovers those profound pleasures, she will rarely let go of them, and then usually only under great social duress (“Grow up and put the Barbies away, already!”). In fact, I'm wondering if these impulses are ever released at all? Is it not more likely that they are sublimated in the act of reading or watching, or given dictated expression in community theatres and church basements, or occasionally set free to entertain during a meal shared with a trusted audience?

Games! Huh! What Are They Good For?

In a puritanical variation on the "But is it art?" question, Jane McGonigal wonders whether video games mightn't be good for gamers, in a "Mikey likes it!" way. Clay Risen protests the question: "(Games) can be a hell of a lot of fun. Isn't that enough?" Meanwhile, experienced gamer Michael Agger does the sensible thing and awards McGonigal points per talking-point.

I have my own thoughts on the matter, based entirely on anecdotal evidence compiled and collated from the annals of my own experience. I've played video games since Pong, I dabbled in D&D back in the day, and I've mulled over what brings my daughters back to a particular game.

Oh yes, I do have thoughts.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Nikolski, by Nicholas Dickner: A Final Defense

Trussed up in his army-surplus sleeping bag, with his flashlight wedged under his chin, Noah examines the old map. He watches the mist rising from his mouth and thinks of Leonard, a classmate who at this very moment is busy stirring the venerable dust in Hydra in the Saronic Gulf. Noah has the feeling he is on the wrong island. He has thought several times of dropping out of university, but without a satisfactory alternative he could not bring himself to face the real world. And yet, here he is, stretched out on a bed of lichen, looking at an old map of the Caribbean, shivering (Nikolski, 163).

In 1991 I owned a portable word-processor. It was roughly twice the size of a laptop, and its unique storage cartridge could hold up to a half-kilobyte of information. I composed my final year’s worth of university papers on it, and one or two stories, then printed those out on the clattering daisy-wheel printer that came with it.

That printer broke down, time and again. There was an office equipment store across the street from where I lived, so I walked the item over for repair, and discussed matters with the store owner. It was a very small business, run from a bungalow house. We talked the trade. “Over 99% of my business is out there,” he said, with a vague wave. “You’re the only one who comes in.” After a few exchanges with the man, he looked me over and said, “I need a sales/customer service person to look after clients north of the 401. You interested?”

I thanked him, and said, “I’m afraid I don’t own a car.”

That exchange seemed to sum up too much of where I was coming from, and where I was — and wasn’t — going. I’d left the prairies for the big city, but what now? My brother was on the west coast, farming salmon. My sister was studying in England. I had friends studying in Paris, others teaching English in Tokyo, Seoul, and the newly liberated Prague and Berlin. Toronto was . . . well, the only certain thing I could say for it was it was expensive. The whole business of “what next?” had me in an abysmal state of mind.

A car — hell, it was a struggle scraping together enough coins for the self-addressed-stamped-envelopes that were returning my submissions with the usual rejection slips. And now I’d racked up a debt of a few thousand dollars to finish a degree that didn’t promise any sort of professional recompense upon completion. Was this really a good time to take out an additional loan to buy a car and apply myself to a trade whose future seemed increasingly dubious?

Instead I applied for, and got, a job at the city’s oldest bookstore. It seemed like a reasonable compromise. History would have to play itself out on television screens, while I settled in amongst the books to pay off my debts and contemplate my next move.

I should mention that I’ve always found it hard to establish ties to people. It seems I’m too withdrawn, too much of a homebody. None of my very few lovers was ever able to understand why I was content to make a living selling books. Sooner or later they would end up asking themselves — and, inevitably, asking me — why I didn’t want to travel, study, pursue a career, earn a better salary. There are no simple answers to these questions. Most people have clearly defined opinions on the subject of free will: Fate (no matter what you call it) either exists or does not exist. There can be no approximations, no in-betweens. I find this hypothesis reductive. In my view, fate is like intelligence, or beauty, or type z+ lymphocytes — some individuals have a greater supply than others. I, for one, suffer from a deficiency; I am a clerk in a bookstore whose life is devoid of complications or a storyline of its own. My life is governed by the attraction of books. The weak magnetic field of my fate is distorted by those thousands of fates more powerful and more interesting than my own (147).

Friendships formed, most of them with a profundity that continually catches me off-guard. We coupled up, disbanded, re-coupled. Children were born and raised, occasionally released to another's care. The lightness of it all was almost to be expected — the world is changing, who can keep up? — but the emotional depth and weight that haunted us all was the inevitable surprise. There are friends my wife and I see every two years or so, and in those rare meetings the relief we feel when we first catch sight of each other is palpable.

And now the bookstores are closing. There are more television screens than ever, and they are once again filled with crowds of people demanding change. Our children travel to distant countries, then return to the family table for supper. Their own social and sexual congress seems at once lighter and more haunted than what we remember from our early adult years. And is there any trade or profession they can rely on for provision?

This fingernail clipping of personal history is all I can offer by way of literary criticism to defend my attraction to Nicolas Dickner’s novel, Nikolski. Our personal stories have a shape and continuity to them that will not be denied, but these shapes elide. Late revelations are always forthcoming, and like the novel’s late revelations they confuse as much as they clarify.

Still, there is an appeal to this book that is almost musical. Like so many of Dylan’s marathon songs (“Brownsville Girl,” “Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts”) this novel introduces people with passions that defy both summary and satisfaction. Dickner has said that, after hearing Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” for the first time, he threw the manuscript for this novel into the trash, and fled his apartment. I’m grateful he retrieved it and pressed on. This is a novel with a fade-out “conclusion,” suggesting the song carries on even after the listener moves on to the next bit of entertainment. It is as humane and optimistic a conclusion as literature can offer.

My earlier Nikolski ruminations are here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The World More Full Of Weeping by Robert Wiersema

The World More Full of WeepingThe World More Full of Weeping by Robert J. Wiersema

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert J. Wiersema dusts off a very old and very dark fable and pulls it into the here and now, in his short novella The World More Full of Weeping. The story is relayed in a deceptively straightforward manner, that cuts a direct route to the payoff. But the real surprises occur once the reader has had time to reflect on the subtle and disturbing connections layered throughout.

To say anymore is to rob readers of a short and powerful bit of writing. This can be read as a stand-alone work, or as a taster of Wiersema's unique alchemy of suspense which he brews to similar effect in his larger novels, Bedtime Story (A) and Before I Wake (A). Highly recommended.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Oh Pure And Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

Oh Pure and Radiant HeartOh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Someone from Booklist has read Lydia Millet's Oh Pure And Radiant Heart and encourages would-be readers to “think Twain, Vonnegut, Murakami, and DeLillo.” Since I enjoyed the novel enough to finish it, I think I'm qualified to amend that list.

Twain: do not think Twain. Not even for a second. You're thinking “Twain” right now, and I'm telling you: no. Stop. Twain loved nothing more than, as the British punks say, “taking the piss.” Millet probably began her novel with the intention of taking the piss out of America's soul-withering reliance on nuclear arms, but when she's not focusing on that, she's putting the piss into so many other narratives — particularly the marriage of Ann and Ben, a bond which goes further than the novel's fantastic ending to strain all credulity — it frequently became difficult for me to take seriously what the author takes seriously. This is not Huckleberry Finn. This is not even Tom Sawyer, Detective. This is simply not Twain.

Vonnegut, Murakami: fairly apt comparisons, actually. Millet takes a cheerfully flaky approach to the most dire subject imaginable and uses absolutely everything she has at her disposal to make her argument sing and persuade, a tack similar to that of Vonnegut and Murakami. Having said that it is important to reiterate, I think, that Vonnegut and Murakami achieve their effect with varying degrees of success. Same, here. Oh Pure And Radiant Heart might not resonate as deeply as Slaughterhouse Five, but there is no denying the similarity of approach and effect.

DeLillo: yes. Lots and lots of DeLillo. The principal characters puzzle over the significance of the most arcane subjects that float across their field of vision, which sometimes yields surprising insights, and at other times yields unintentionally comic punchlines. This is definitely DeLillo, who can be obliquely terrifying and heartbreaking but who can also strain the patience of readers who finally have to get the groceries in from the car.

I will add one name to this list, a substitute for America's greatest satirist: Madeleine L'Engle, a fanciful writer who loved science, but for whom physics was not always metaphysics enough. L'Engle's raison d'etre as a writer was to explore the motivations that turned people from loving and lovable creatures into dire grotesques that would willingly exterminate another's — indeed, all — life. There are moments when Oh Pure And Radiant Heart reads like A Wrinkle In Time, utterly divorced of the daily and grounding concerns of family. This might be intentional; it is frequently effective. But it also generates a confused sort of loyalty in the characters, which just as frequently tried my patience as a reader.

It is surely a rich irony that New Mexico, which has played host to so many nuclear tests, is one of America's most fecund artistic locales and the launching site of various strains of New Age thinking and behavior. Is this novel a satire of this sort of vaguely arty, misplaced hope? Is it an evisceration of the mentality that absurdly relies on nuclear arms for a sense of safety? Does it lay bare a muddle that our society has persuaded itself is a mystery? Occasionally the novel succeeds at all of the above — too occasionally for me to give it a flat-out recommendation.

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Thursday, February 03, 2011

"Once Again You Can Dance ... If ... You ... Want To."

If you step into just about any respectable city art gallery (the National Gallery in Ottawa, let's say) with a cognizant and reasonably critical adolescent (my 12-year-old daughter, for instance) and proceed through a given wing historically (the Canadian wing, to continue) starting with the staid, commissioned portraits of the 17th century and moving on to the more expressive modes of the 18th century, the romantic landscapes lush with natural resources and foreboding in scale, then stepping into the bold declarations of the 19th century and the Impressionists, before settling finally into the 20th century and its wide and wild variety and concluding with one or two rooms devoted to abstract expressionism — including, maybe, a crudely drawn circle, or large canvas with three neatly painted stripes that somehow fetched a cool 1.6 million tax dollars — you can pretty much count on the following exchange:

“Dad? What happened?

“Uh . . . well . . . for a variety of social and economic reasons, a ramshackle triumvirate of curators, theorists and bright young things were able to exploit international media and pretty much remove their product from the common concerns and experience of the larger public. You could also argue that commercial illustrators took up the slack left behind by the self-appointed elites, I suppose.”

“Could we go back to that other room?”

“The Impressionists?”


Always the Impressionists.

Well, I may not know what I like, but I know art. And the music that's being sold as today's rock 'n' roll is pretty arty stuff. It provokes questions. Questions like: When I listen to Gang of Four putting a fine gloss on their British angst, or Deerhoof cheerfully noodling around with sonic expectations, what is it that makes me reach yet again for early Talking Heads or Laurie Anderson? It's not as if the newer acts are bereft of any capacity to charm and amuse. Nor, on consideration, are the older acts qualitatively “better” than their edgy progeny. Is it strictly a matter of me developing a calcified cochlea? Or were the New York Punks the Impressionists of rock 'n' roll, effectively bringing Nietzsche's Hammer down on a genre of music and reducing it to a million ever-splintering shards?

What happened?

I haven't yet developed a theory for what happened and who's responsible, but when I do I'll definitely have something to pitch to the folks at Continuum Press. In the meantime, the new stuff has its moments, which you may like more than I do. In my case, after giving the new a few obligatory spins, I quickly shift gears back to what naturally appeals: the sensational soul sounds of Charles Bradley and the Menahan Street Band — someone sign this 62-year-old newcomer(!) to the Wattstax Anniversary Project. Also Gregg Allman: I don’t know how T Bone Burnett persuaded him to go ahead and commit to the first installment of a Rubin & Cash-like final act, but God love ‘em both, that’s what we’ve got.

But the album I've played most for the sheer unfeigned joy of it is the recently exhumed Batman and Robin, a hasty cash-on-the-table assignment that Sun Ra & The Blues Project took on in the 70s. At the time, the album cover artwork was probably the selling factor, and perhaps at first spin the music doesn’t immediately recommend itself; the gang seems to have cooked up and delivered the goods on a single Monday-to-Wednesday stretch, before cleaning up for their regular gigs. There are botched cues, and the cross-fades are wielded with a heavy hand. One quick listen to “Batmobile Wheels” reveals a tune of Classical origins that has not been significantly retooled. But nobody sounds like they begrudge the work. And, damn, it’s fun!

It's a combination of music that appeals to my inner 12-year-old, as well as the burgeoning elderly grump. Until I come up with a proper theory for it, I'll just sit back and enjoy it in unburdened bliss.

Today's title is a line uttered by David Byrne in the LP release of The Name Of This Band Is Talking Heads. The line didn't make it onto the CD re-release.