Bears in the Garden

It is night in suburban New Jersey—real, rural night, a darkness I haven’t seen for some time. There are stars. The house is low: two storeys and a basement, a wide deck out the back overlooking a leaf-peppered swimming pool, all the detritus of middle-class life surrounding: barbeque grill, bird fountains, half-finished DIY projects, tarp-shrouded mysteries. The trees thicken and deepen into black. Through the double garage, itself a museum of tools and sentimentalities, the living room opens up.

Roxanne is planted firmly on (or rather, deep within) an armchair. Her eyes are down, glued resolutely to her iPhone screen. She’s going through Facebook I think, evidence of the social media coup I’ve heard the old have pulled on the young. Across from her, the television blares. I have claimed the sofa opposite, trying my best not to perch, aware of my tinnitus despite the noise and wondering whether I should be making conversation. Instead, I watch a glistening reporter on the TV speak about the recent shooting in Las Vegas. That great American checklist hovers Biblical above the screen: Donald Trump is mentioned, the emergency services are praised, thoughts and prayers are offered up in industrial quantities, and the gun control line (ever-coiled in the background) prepares to spring. Roxanne begins to play a video on her phone, and for a few moments the report is obscured beneath garbled lo-fi tones. On the sofa perpendicular to Roxanne’s chair, Claude is twitching. I watch his jaw clench and unclench.

A harrowed-looking woman appears on the TV. Ribbons exclaiming headlines criss-cross the bottom of the screen, covering her hands and the steering wheel of her car. Advertising slogans appear and are gone just as suddenly. Her eyes are beyond red—a kind of hollow purple, blotches of white speaking of the translucence there, the bruises all around. This woman, we are told, is a survivor. She tells the camera (just her phone, I think—a Skype or Facetime call) about the small window hundreds of feet up in the Mandelay Bay hotel where one man set up a small arsenal of modified semi-automatic rifles, kicked out the window, and opened fire on the crowds below. The news correspondent doesn’t stop nodding. At last, he interrupts her, as he knows he must: “And have you spoken to your children? Do your children know what happened?”

And there it is: the money-shot. Like the World Trade Centre, like the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, like a hundred thousand unnamed buildings beyond this nation’s borders, the woman’s face begins to collapse in on itself. Slowly at first—tremors ripple across the brow and the chin—and then all at once, until her words are lost completely. The camera zooms. Words were never wanted here in the first place.

***

Roxanne is apparently a California native, but her accent is pure New Jersey. She is in her mid-sixties and lives as an old hippy, taking trips and socialising with young travellers. It was she who agreed to host me, she who picked me up from the strange stillness of the Ringwood library’s parking lot in the early dark of morning, and she who gave me beer and cooked me an omelette when we arrived. She is lovely and, in her own strange way, childish—there is a certain naivety about her, an adolescent flair that must once have kept her young. Now it just makes her seem frightened. It’s difficult to resist throwing her in with any number of lost movie grandmas.

Claude, meanwhile, is a little younger, and French. He has absorbed the American conversational tendencies—that is, he asks you about yourself, nods for a few seconds, then proceeds to talk about himself for as long as you’ll let him. I learned that he’s from Paris, that he’s been in the US for twenty years, that he met Roxanne while travelling in the seventies (looking for—I shit you not—“the root of the blues”), and that he, unlike his wife, has resisted the allure of young travellers and old, unchanged dreams. That is not to say he goes gently into that suburban twilight; on our first meeting, Claude was stood atop a stool, a torn-out chandelier in his hands. “Hold this, will you,” he said, not looking at me, his face red. Of course, I did, and spent the next twenty minutes trying to stop my arms shaking as he performed surgery on the light fitting. Now, at 11 P.M. in front of the television, he finally cracks. I watch it happen.

“For God’s sake Roxanne, do you have to do that now? There are people trying to watch the news. You’re behaving like a fucking teenager.”

Roxanne, to her credit, steps up. She says nothing, but pouts, letting the video play agonisingly on, the tinny shrieks of some internet prankster carving wrinkles into Claude’s cheeks.

I keep my eyes on the TV screen. I hear—or imagine I hear—Claude’s teeth snapping against one another. Seizing the remote, he turns the TV up obnoxiously loud.

Normally a friendly, softly spoken woman who would probably describe herself as “bubbly” on Ashley Madison, Roxanne transforms. “Oh, grow up Claude,” she says, almost spitting, “stop pretending you give a rat’s ass about anything that happens outside of your office.” She squirms on the chair, her legs flopping over the plush armrest. Smartphone forgotten for the moment, she glares at her husband, small eyes flashing in the half-light.

Claude splutters for a few seconds before leaning back into the sofa. He has chosen, he tells me with his heavy sigh, to take the moral high ground. He mutters something in French, and an unsteady silence follows. I swallow. “Now, Fred, as I was saying”—and here he glares at Roxanne, who is already back to her phone—“America in the seventies was a very different place. Just look at these pictures—let me see if I can get the Apple TV working.”

And without a hint of irony, Claude cuts off his precious newsreader. The final image is of a man wandering forlornly about the ruined foundations of his burnt-out Californian bungalow, the camera pushing its zoom to the limit, the golden face elusive. The reporter’s voice is flat. “He’s probably lost everything. Maybe his kids, or a pet. Perhaps the ashes of a loved one. Imagine.”

Claude is grinning, white teeth sharp and sudden. “Got it,” he says. The picture changes.

***

Election season has come to New Jersey. You can tell by the commercials, themselves a tourist attraction: where else does television treat its viewers with such open contempt? Floating above the insults each candidate throws at the other in the political infomercials is a strange talking point: the issue of the bears. Each year, New Jersey lifts the ban on bear hunting for a single week, opening the floodgates to the waves of hunters and would-be action heroes that apparently make up the majority of the state’s electorate. The black bears who wander down from the mountains and forest and state parks find themselves suddenly assailed, and supposedly learn a hard lesson about straying too close to civilisation. Of course, the glaring oversight is that the bears are hardly running back home to tell their friends not to go to Mahwah because gee, the humans sure are pissed—they’re killed, and the next bear is none the wiser.

The candidates’ stances on the annual bear hunt are comically predictable. “I say no more bear hunts!” the perpetually grey-haired Democrat announces to the cameras. “Long live the bear hunt!” the sharp, dead-eyed Republican cries (why do Republicans always look like Republicans?), “build a wall around the mountains—and make the bears pay for it!”

Claude, quiet and clear-eyed now that Roxanne has gone to bed, tells me about his own close encounter. It is after midnight, and we have been playing guitar in Claude’s office for the past hour or so—me, clumsy variations of the one blues scale I know, Claude a symphony of furious jazz licks buoyed, I think, by an almost teenage angst.

“I was out with the dog,” he says, gesturing to the dark trees beyond the deck, the barbeque, the pool. “He was—well, you know, he was doing his business, when he starts barking.” Claude isn’t looking at me—his eyes are fixed on the space just above my shoulder. New Jersey’s moon is round and white and close, as if leaning in to listen. Crickets and cicadas chirp in the darkness.

Claude’s voice is barely above a whisper. “He was barking and wouldn’t come back, so I went over. And there it was, a few feet away—huge, black, claws like kitchen knives. It was just stood there, looking past me. It didn’t move. I’ve never been so terrified.” He finally looks at me, and his face cracks into a smile. “Next day, I bought a gun.”

And without saying goodnight, Claude gets up. With one last look at the shadowed thicket beyond his garden, he turns and is gone.

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Things I Do in My Room – February 2017

Things I Do in My Room – February 2017

A disappointing month in that I managed to not watch a single film, despite it being Oscars season. I’d loved to have watched Moonlight or Manchester by the Sea or Fences or even La La Land (and I hate musicals), but my lack of money and the cinema’s need to rinse everyone who enters put paid to those desires. February can do one.

I also didn’t finish any TV series this month. I started watching The O.A. but have only made it four episodes in and I’m finding it harder each time to get over how fucking silly the entire thing is. I’ll talk about it next month when I finally finish season one.

I’m also adding an albums section. Albums will only make it in if it’s the first time I’ve listened to the album from start to finish in a single sitting.

Books I Read

Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky It was long but it was exciting. Lots of death, lots of misery, lots of poverty-stricken children–Dostoyevsky plays with nihilism but he loves his characters. It’s a great book.

The most impressive part of Crime and Punishment is how you can find Dostoyevsky in his characters. The worst parts of him are examined, repurposed, and re-presented in new forms. It’s great,

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If only every book could be read as quickly as The Medium Is the Massage.

The Medium Is the Massage (1967) by Marshall McLuhan – Trendy as all shit. I pretended to have read McLuhan all through my master’s, so I thought I’d actually give him a shot. I liked the pictures.

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil (2005) by George Saunders – This novella has grown into a bizarrely apt metaphor for Trump’s rise to power, and is likely doomed to be remembered as such. It manages to be hilarious and terrifying at the same time, and if that doesn’t reflect a world where men like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson can rise to power, nothing does.

In Persuasion Nation (2006) by George Saunders – These short stories are bizarre, hilarious, and fantastic. George Saunders just spoke in my city but the event was fully booked. Instead I went and bought his collection Tenth of December. Sigh.

Emerald City and Other Stories (1996) by Jennifer Egan – Great stories. Egan is ruthless and has a knack for turning mundane domestic scenarios into character studies of startling power.

Winter Stars (1985) by Larry Levis – Larry is my favourite poet. He occupies the comfortable middle ground between wise, lyrical, and trendy, and never crosses over into intimidating experimentalism. I don’t like feeling stupid.

TV I Watched

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My face while watching The O.A.

The O.A. (4 episodes) – Never has a show been so silly and yet taken itself so seriously. It’s well-shot I guess, and I hear episode five is the big one that blows minds.

Albums I Listened to

Skeleton Key (2016) by Nick Cave – Dwell for too long on Nick Cave and he’ll start to irritate you. The album is good, yet despite all the son-death he still sings predominantly about mysterious, leggy women. Stick to what you know eh?

Away (2016) by Okkervil River – Gorgeous, and much better than The Silver Gymnasium. “Okkervil River R.I.P.” and “Comes Indiana Through the Smoke” are bangerz. The album ends with twelve minutes of ambient forest sounds. You’re pushing your damn luck, Sheff.

You Want It Darker (2016) by Leonard Cohen – As lovely as everything else he goes within a few feet of. That said, his voice has reached almost parodic levels of depth–on occasion it’s just a rumbly vibration.  

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Behemoth doin’ rituals and stuff

The Satanist (2014) by Behemoth – O FATHER, O SATAN, O SUN! One of the best metal albums of the last several years. The arrangements are incredible, Nergal’s voice is brutal, and he’s clearly done his Biblical research, which lends the whole Satan-worshipping vibe a worrying level of authenticity.

Les Enfants Sauvages (2014) by Gojira – I accidentally bought this instead of L’Enfant Sauvage, and a live album is never going to be the best way to get into a band. That said, it’s a hell of a live album–Gojira seem to me like Meshuggah meets Bodom meets Mastodon. Very, very heavy, in that steelworks assembly line kind of way.

Games I Played

Darkest Dungeon (PC, 2016) – Lovecraftian as Chthulhu and savagely unforgiving. You recruit Victorian heroes (choosing from fun classes like Leper, Highwayman, and Vestal), lead them into grimy holes, and watch the random number generator fuck you over and over again until all your heroes get too stressed and die of heart attacks. Rinse and repeat.

Things I Do in My Room – January 2017

So I’m ditching the previous neglected format and stealing my friend David’s idea (davidhasalife.wordpress.com) and pretending I came up with it. I can’t believe he stole my idea.

Being a twenty-four-year-old male who spends life travelling between two distinct rooms, I have a lot of free time. These are the things I consume in that free time. Prepare for monthly chroniclings.

Here is JANUARY.

Books I read

Train Dreams (2011) by Denis Johnson

I read Train Dreams in one sitting, and now I want to read it again. It tells the short and unremarkable story of Robert Grainer, a woodsman and labourer in the American West at the start of the twentieth century, and is the most gorgeously written thing I’ve read in forever.

I’m not sure how it’s so short—it feels like a lot happens, and the prose remains vivid, descriptive, surprising, and idiosyncratic. What seems at first to be a kind of non-plot focused on one man’s life gradually spirals out to encompass that entire American century before dissipating quietly with little resolution beyond simple human decay. I sobbed in the bookshop I was reading it in.

In short, I want to be Denis Johnson.

The Old Man and the Sea (1952) by Ernest Hemingway

Somehow I’ve only just got around to this. It’s pretty much what I expected. I don’t have anything smart to say, but I do wish I had a male mentor figure who I admired as much as the boy admires the old man.

I also hope to be as good at clubbing sharks as the old man is when I’m a hundred. Honestly, this is the manliest book ever written.

Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad

Awkwardly racist novella rescued somewhat by Marlowe’s first-person narration, but god damn it’s still great. If it wasn’t wildly inappropriate to teach this sort of thing to teenagers in schools, no modernist novel would be better at winning over (white) teenage boys to literature. The thing is full of edgy standalone aphorisms. “We live as we dream: alone.Sixteen-year-old me would want that on a t-shirt.

Essay idea: Marlowe as Ancient Mariner figure. DISCUSS.

Purgatory (1979) by Raúl Zurita

It’s a book of poems, or perhaps a really long poem. The appeal of Purgatory is that it is real serious shit. When I or any other millennial sits down to write a poem or when we think of our favourite contemporary poets, chances are the worlds those poems exist in or respond to are pretty safe. Even political or activist poetry tends to be written at a safe distance, a fact that makes the common old man/right-wing complaint that liberal arts types exist in their own pretty little worlds rather easy to throw around.

This tired judgement however absolutely cannot be thrown at Zurita. Held and tortured by Pinochet in Chile, Zurita was/is a mad bastard who branded his own face, tried to blind himself with acid, and relied upon art’s ability to transcend suffering in a very real life-or-death sense. Purgatory then is about as intense as you’d expect.

The poetry itself is startling—Zurita flows between multiple voices, dismissing the idea of a monolithic self, and locates transcendence somewhere in the pampas of the Atacama desert. “Night is the insane asylum of the plants,” he writes. Alright then.

Books I’m in the Middle of

Crime and Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The first hurdle in my much-maligned push to actually read some books that were published before 1900, Crime and Punishment started out as an absolute drag. I’ve been reading this book for what feels like years.

Thankfully, a couple of days ago, something changed. Maybe it’s because I abandoned the paper edition and started reading it on my Kindle (if the text isn’t modern, at least let the book be modern), but I’ve started to genuinely enjoy Crime and Punishment.

Yes, the style is cripplingly old-fashioned and Dostoyevsky/his translator never got the show, don’t tell memo from their MFA tutors, but the drama is tight, the tension is ever-present, and the characters are superbly drawn.

I’m about 60 percent through—Raskolnikov, his mam Pulcheria Alexandrovna, his sister Dounia, and his buddy Razumihin have just bullied Pyotr Petrovitch from the dinner table and now they’re all having a laugh (except moody old Raskonlikov who, again, sixteen-year-old me would have wanted on a t-shirt).

I’m curious to see what the mysterious Svidrigailov gets up to. Will he shag Dounia? Will he not? WILL RASKOLNIKOV KILL AGAIN?

On Poetry (2012) by Glyn Maxwell

I’ve also been reading this for what feels like years. It’s not that the book isn’t beautifully written—it is—it’s more that the content is so totally discouraging. “Not doing this in your poems? Seriously?” Maxwell seems to say, “You might as well kill yourself lol.”

It doesn’t help that he comes across as a real smug bastard while also fulfilling every stereotype there is about middle-aged male academics.

Basically, I’m too much of a fragile snowflake to face the cold hard truth as expressed by this haggard hair-dying fringe-preserving wine-sipping old bastard.

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Postcapitalism (2015) by Paul Mason

I will never finish this book.

Beyond Good and Evil (1886) by Friedrich Nietzsche

I will also never finish this book.

Films I watched

Star Wars: Rogue One (2016)

I liked Rogue One—I thought it learned from The Force Awakens’ mistakes, I thought the scope was sensible, and I thought the story fit the space before A New Hope suspiciously well. Impressively, it made me want to go back and re-watch the original trilogy, which I hadn’t seen since I was ten.

But why was the sci-fi Shaolin monk even in the film? Why butcher your film’s tone so flippantly? Why invite controversy by casting one of the only Asian men in the film as some mountain-dwelling wise man who knows kung-fu and who, despite living in the fucking future, insists on fighting with a stick? Why not throw in the Arab from Soul Plane for good measure?

On top of that, Rogue One still hasn’t quite grasped how to do an engaging female protagonist. Jyn Erso is a step up from Rey, but still comes across as more of a blank template for a non-sexualised, independent, free-thinking, and self-reliant female protagonist than as an actual character with a memorable personality.

At least the baddies are still great—there’s morally weird CGI-restored zombie cheekbones and, at the end, Darth Vader hacking people to pieces on camera for the first time. This is what we signed up for.

Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)

Well look at that, I did go back and re-watch the old ones. Despite how adorable baby Mark Hamill is here and despite the near-lethal levels of patented Carrie Fisher sass, I think A New Hope has aged the least well. Sorry.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

This is it baby. The best Star Wars film by a long shot. Shit got good, shit got bleak, Han Solo learned about sexual consent, Vader came for dinner, Lando got punched in the face, and then Luke got a robot hand. The drama never stops.

Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi (1983)

The fuck is going on? What are those guinea pigs doing? Why aren’t Luke and Leia horrified about that time they got off? Beyond that, I never realised that the ending was the inspiration for the endings of Nintendo’s Starfox games. Basically, medals and closing circle wipe. Done.

The Master (2012)

My effort to get back to serious movie watching began with The Master, continued with an hour of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, and then petered out when I fell asleep.

I feel sure that The Master is an incredible film—Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are mind-blowingly good and several scenes are the stuff film students’ YouTube reels are made of (“Have you ever had sex with a member of your own family?”).

Cinematography is consistently impressive, though much of the drama is filmed in a strangely detached “floaty” way that slows the pace. With some solid insults thrown in (“PIG FUCK!”) and a cult as the backdrop to the interplay of two warped egos, The Master sets itself up for success.

Not an especially gripping film though—at least not for me. I had to put my phone away and make an effort to sit up and pay attention. I suck.

Green Room (2015)

YEAAAHHHH Nazis and Patrick Stewart and punk rockers getting savaged by dogs. If you want uncomfortable, horribly realistic violence meted out with rusty shed tools, this is the film for you.

Synopsis: young punks go to play a gig at an isolated estate out in the American countryside. Once they get there, they realise it’s a neo-Nazi camp. Still, they’re punk as fuck so they play “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” and feel like they’ve done their bit in the fight against Trump. BUT after the show they witness a murder and get locked in a room and held at gunpoint and, from there, shit spirals swiftly out of control.

What’s great about how the drama plays out is that [vague spoiler alert] the film seems to delight in instantly murdering the most capable members of the band.

Big muscular dude who isn’t afraid of guns gets cut down by a machete-wielding skinhead during the very first breakout and remorseful renegade Nazi who has a history of violence and a fucking shotgun gets his head blown off before he does anything to begin his redemptive arc.

In the end, we’re left with misunderstood ex-Nazi girl and the wimpy lead singer who had his arm hacked off in the first half-hour of the film. Watching these two discover their absurd badass sides is almost uncomfortably entertaining.

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The Ones Below (2015)

An impossibly scandinavian woman and the Governor from The Walking Dead kill a woman, drown a cat, and steal a baby. It’s not a very good film.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

Life-changing. Arnold Schwarzenegger is at his stone-faced best. There are one-liners to end all one-liners. There’s a child actor who not only avoids inciting death threats but who is actually occasionally funny. Sarah Connor is perhaps the most badass and complex female lead since Ripley in Alien—one minute she’s snubbing her child (there are some seriously satisfying parental snubs in this film), the next she’s trying to murder the cowering family of a computer programmer, and the next she’s reuniting with her gun-owning desert-dwelling Mexican friends and downing tequila.

She’s a kickass progenitor to Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, but admittedly she does little to deviate from the whole “women are crazy” trope. Anyway, Arnie gets to do the whole tender father thing he does so well in Kindergarten Cop when Connor’s son gets tired of his mother’s snubs, and there are some classic comedy moments when said boy tries to teach Arnie how to be hip.

The action is over-the-top, the effects are great, and there are some surprisingly complex themes touched upon. This is a film that rewards you for what you put it—if you want the best of mindless action movies, you’ve got it, but if you want to sit and think about representation or the implications of advancing technology or how the flow of time affects free will or the morality of whatever then you can do that too.

But at the end of the day, Arnie is the best person in the world and that is why you come, why you stay, why you quote the film afterwards, and why you move to California and vote Republican.

TV I watched

Channel Zero (Season One)

Regretfully, the whole creepypasta phenomenon kind of passed me by, but that’s because sorting through people’s shitty stories in search of the good ones seemed like hard work.

That said, I love the whole internet mythology concept, so when I read on Cracked that Channel Zero was a thing I thought I’d check it out (even though it’s made by ScyFy, who really do not have a good track record).

Season one is a standalone story based on Kris Staub’s excellent creepypasta “Candle Cove,” which is short, sweet, and genuinely chilling, and can be found here. The TV adaptation is, of course, rather more involved.

You know the setup: backwoods American town (Ironton in this case), small community, god-fearing WASPs everywhere. A children’s TV show called Candle Cove, involving puppets, a pirate, and a horrific hooded skull-monster called “The Skin-Taker,” has reappeared on-air for the first time since the ‘80s, and it’s making the children do weird things.

This first series of Channel Zero is, well, pretty good. It takes liberties with the source material, makes the occasional silly jump into the deus ex machina realm of “the supernatural,” and the pacing is all over the place, but the actors do well (even the children) and the central themes of childhood terror and adult neuroses are brought to life in pretty interesting ways.

The central monster is also both grotesque and unusually presented—there’s no skulking in shadows here. The horror is upfront and unadorned, and is all the more chilling for it.

Games I Played

The Beginner’s Guide (PC, 2015)

I was excited to finally play The Beginner’s Guide as I’m all for weird experimental empathy games or anything vaguely artsy that helps me justify spending hours of my life pressing buttons to score points in virtual worlds.

The concept is a strange one—you’re led through a series of games and levels by The Beginner’s Guide’s developer, Davey Wreden, who tells you that these levels are the work of a friend of his named Coda.

Coda, we’re told, is no longer making games, and Wreden has gathered dozens of examples of his friend’s work that he wants to share with the player so as to encourage Coda to start making games again. This scenario is entirely contrived—Wreden created each of the games himself and there is no Coda.

Instead of surface authenticity then, these elements contribute to creating a kind of metafictional essay about narcissism, human frailty, and self-hatred. As I played through The Beginner’s Guide, I realised it wasn’t as clever as it thought it was—it got pretty heavy-handed towards the end and the cracks in the façade began to show. I became determined to be smug and eye-rolly.

But god damn it, the ending: that [spoiler alert] sacrificial beam and the grand ascension and the emotional shoegaze blaring out had me weeping like a child.

It’s a good game and the fears it wears on its sleeve are easy to relate to, particularly if you’re in your twenties and are panicking about your life. Ultimately it doesn’t totally succeed in what it tries to do but it’s absolutely worth playing, if only to broaden your idea of what video games are and what they can be used to communicate.

Inside (PC/PS4/XB1, 2016)

Best game involving pig-baiting of all time.

But seriously, if you’re at all interested in storytelling, art direction, world building, dystopias, or pop philosophy then go and play Inside. It requires no prior video game experience and is one of the most consistently stunning, smart, and atmospheric games I’ve ever played. I don’t want to say anything to spoil it.

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Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn (Wii, 2008)

It’s a fucking turn-based anime strategy RPG. It’s not artsy. It’s addictive as shit, insanely difficult, and somehow it never ends.

The plot is simultaneously childish in its good/bad morality and bizarrely complex in its German duchy-style political landscape. Female characters all dress in skimpy armour and there are a lot of questionable haircuts and it goes on for FORTY HOURS.

If you’ve played any previous Fire Emblem games you know how terrible it is when your favourite character gets sniped by some fucking baghead with a 26 percent chance-of-hitting longbow and then you have to start again because you can’t bear going on without fucking Rolf because Shinon would be devastated.

As a bonus, playing Radiant Dawn gave me a new appreciation for Ike in Smash Bros Brawl. The man’s a machine.

REVIEW: WHITE TEETH – ZADIE SMITH

Zadie Smith’s much-celebrated debut novel, White Teeth, is, like the London it inhabits, an inconsistent and sometimes jarring entity, but one that ends on a resonant high, feeling whole and a little forced – a union made to work. It’s a warm novel that cares about the obstacles its troubled characters encounter, and its drama swings from domestic to comic to coming-of-age and back again, culminating in several life-or-death moments located both in the father figures’ war-time pasts and in the now-familiar future of genetic manipulation. It’s no coincidence that these are the centres of the book’s conflicts; White Teeth is near-obsessed with how histories, legacies, and traditions survive relocation and diaspora to affect the future. It is a book about compromise, and while it somewhat vaguely approaches big themes, Smith’s narrator never betrays her self-awareness; absent here are the heady mysticism and vague smugness of Salman Rushdie, to whom Smith has been compared.

And they are big themes indeed: eugenics, science, faith, morality, tradition—but, despite what the novel’s easy comedy and accessible prose suggest, they are themes you’ll have to work to excavate. Smith scatters her novel with recurring buzzwords and images that indicate obscured themes whose depths remain untapped. The titular “white teeth,” themselves referenced again and again in different forms—Irie’s determination to be a dentist, Clara’s own missing row, Magid’s glistening whites—speak eloquently about invisible roots and white facades, but don’t seem to resonate further than this initial clever metaphor. Similar references to “Fundamentals” and to the compromises Samad relentlessly bemoans demand more attention than they perhaps warrant.

Indeed, symbolism comes thick and fast in White Teeth, sometimes to the point of viscosity; even Smith’s characters on occasion fight to overcome their functions as narrative mechanisms. Likeable, consistent, and useless white Brit Archie considers guilt-ridden and controlling Bangladeshi traditionalist Samad his mentor, who in turn resentfully spawns troublesome fanatic son and Anglicised atheistic son. But here’s the kicker: it was the fanatic who grew up in England and the atheist who was sent back to Bangladesh!  If this sounds like a sitcom, know that it sometimes reads that way too. Thankfully, Smith’s female characters tend to be more convincing, feeling less like disguised mechanisms present only to drive the plot forward.

But for all the cavities in White Teeth’s surface, it’s an intensely likeable book; generous, complex, funny yet serious, and able to pull off oscillation between domestic realism and self-aware narrative artifice. The well-handled sub-plots intertwine and swell to a grinning crescendo, and dichotomies of past and future, white and brown, life and death are seen scarpering from the building, a knowing smile etched in the space left behind.

REVIEW: THE REMAINS OF THE DAY – KAZUO ISHIGURO

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is one of the most English novels I’ve ever read, but it is not unapologetically English (for that wouldn’t be English at all). Rather, there are so many suppressed emotions, quiet sit-downs, and “I’m not a racist, but…”s that I felt an awkward swelling in my breast. And as we all know, vague shame at one’s own emotion is the most English feeling of all.

Archaic Englishness is presented in opposition to a modern Americanness, its characteristic notions of rank and reserve set honestly against post-war values of democracy and labour politics, its imperial monuments seen in an awful new light. Brilliantly, this central dynamic is never intrusive; this is partly due to Ishiguro’s superb narrator, Mr Stevens. An ageing butler to the once-great Darlington Hall, Stevens is a man in the twilight of his days. He is an unreliable narrator, but he does not, for the most part, lie—he is rather trying to justify certain absences and failures so as to maintain his own delusions. He is an unconsciously but desperately unhappy man.

The novel follows Stevens on a vacation of sorts. His new master, an American named Farraday, has lent Stevens his car after suggesting he take some time to see the English countryside. Stevens plans to visit Miss Keaton, a woman with whom he once worked at Darlington Hall, to see if she would consider re-joining the staff. This, Stevens insists, is his only motive.

The bulk of the narrative is made up of Stevens’ memories, through which the reader gains a spectator’s viewpoint. Stevens, for his part, is endearing but never especially convincing—we pity him, but we are not swayed by his attempts to justify some of his more oblivious or unsavoury actions, which tend to mark movement in the novel-wide oscillation between comic and tragic. When Stevens tells us how he’s been reading racy romance novels so as to better understand the “banter” of his new American master, our wry grins are doubled by the contemporary resurgence of the term. However, when he attempts to justify certain services to the Nazi-sympathising Lord Darlington, or when he attempts to express his personal feelings towards Miss Keaton, Stevens’ self-delusion swiftly turns tragic.

But then comic and tragic are terms perhaps too theatrical in their implications; the emotional drama of The Remains of the Day is always understated, suppressed, and swept to one side. In a remarkably English critique of English practise, Ishiguro writes with incredible subtlety, creating convincing wide-angle worlds occupied by characters of incredible detail and nuance. The drama is personal, human, and crushing, but this isn’t a high-drama blockbuster—the sadness you feel will be quiet, heavy, and affecting.

 

REVIEW: THE WIND-UP BIRD CHRONICLE – HARUKI MURAKAMI

Saying that a writer with a book called Kafka on the Shore is influenced by Franz Kafka may seem like a rather redundant statement to open a review with, but there it is. Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994) is really very Kafkan indeed.

The novel follows mild-mannered Toru Okada from mundane beginnings through an often dream-like journey of personal spiritualism and communion. Okada’s life is swiftly established to be one of disappearances: first his job vanishes, then his cat, and then, most significantly, his wife Kumiko.

That said, Okada’s story is only so much his: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is interspersed with appearances from peripheral characters who arrive, tell stories, and vanish from the main narrative. These are some of the novel’s most brilliant sections: One anecdote, related by World War II veteran Lieutenant Mamiya, is the first story to introduce the recurring symbol of the dry well. Mamiya speaks of his time in the Japanese army and recounts how he was captured whilst on a mission in Inner Mongolia and forced to watch his commanding officer be skinned alive. The tale culminates in Mamiya’s abandonment in a dry well out on the Mongolian steppes, and it is here that he lapses into dream, marking the beginning of a vaguely defined dream/reality oscillation that continues for the rest of the book.

It is these segments—Mamiya’s well-story, his later tales of war-related woe, and several other uneasy anecdotes from other evanescent characters—that strike that Kafkan chord so purely. Reading of Mamiya’s horrific ordeal in Mongolia, I was reminded of “In the Penal Colony,” whereas other parables of identity, isolation, and transformation pointed towards other texts in the Czech writer’s oeuvre. That said, it is not the writing or the language itself that conjures these associations, but rather that uncomfortable and dream-like atmosphere that pervades—the feeling that Murakami’s characters, like Kafka’s own, are suspended and lost even in seemingly familiar settings and scenarios.

Of course, all of Kafka’s novels remained unfinished, perhaps because this kind of oppressive atmosphere does not lend itself to easy or satisfying conclusions. We should not be surprised then that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle seems to slip and stutter towards the novel’s close. The intriguing narrative threads laid out at the book’s start, themselves indicative of a vast and complex network of unseen operations, become less intriguing as more of them are revealed. Certain complex elements of the book, such as the character of Noboru Wataya, are either explained away in disappointing wrap-ups or are forgotten completely, whereas the titular wind-up bird becomes less a mysterious omen and more of an empty emblem by the novel’s close.

As a narrative then, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is intriguing but unsatisfying, engaging but not cohesive. Murakami’s writing is as glittering as ever, with several instances of pause-and-re-read-sentence admiration occurring in my first read-through. Such linguistic elegance contributes to the novel’s colossal initial charm; by the time the last page looms, it’s hard not to feel a little let down. Murakami may not have completely kept his promises in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but we forgive him the novel’s shortcomings in light of its many strange successes.

 

NIETZSCHE LOVES DARK SOULS

‘He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you

That there is the first passage that pops up if you google ‘Nietzsche quotes’ (or in my case ‘neitszche quotes’ – spellin r hard). Many readers will be shocked to learn that Nietzsche was in fact not talking about From Software’s 2011 masterpiece Dark Souls when he wrote these lines in his 1886 book Beyond Good and Evil, but was rather offering aphoristic existential advice or something similarly trivial.

The shock I mentioned is understandable because holy crap Dark Souls literally has an in-game setting called ‘The Abyss’ and an expansion called Artorias of the Abyss that features a knight who physically delves too deep into that aforementioned abyss and thus invites said abyss into himself and becomes a monster and wait, wasn’t the marketing slogan for Dark Souls 2 literally ‘Go Beyond Death’, and aren’t both Dark Souls and its sequel famous for their morally ambiguous endings that expose each game’s chain of events as cyclical and mundane and your painstaking efforts as ultimately pointless on a cosmic scale? Aren’t souls and humanity reduced to currencies that you harvest in the wake of absent gods?

Yes. All of this is true. Our suspicions are aroused. So just how Nietzschean is Dark Souls? Is the Chosen Undead some kind of post-god Übermensch? Not quite – Dark Souls rather echoes that existential Kafkan joke: the impossibility of reaching the end or of returning to the beginning, with man stuck in the middle (with you). The Chosen Undead, like Kafka’s go-to protagonist, finds himself caught up in just such a cyclical, purgatorial, and fate-less scenario. Nietzsche, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pre-empted this Kafkan scenario, writing: ‘Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the superman – a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting’.

Anyone who has suffered through beatings by Ornstein and Smough or stripped off all armour to sprint past those two bastard archers in Anor Londo can certainly vouch for the latter sentence’s relevance, but it is the former descriptor of man’s suspension that is at the heart of Dark Souls. After all, the Chosen Undead is likewise suspended –  between ages, between hollow animalism and impossible godhood, between the dark age of man-alone and the fire age of theocracy, between each NG+ Undead Asylum and each Kiln of the First Flame. Every check-in to the YOU DIED hotel reminds the player that the figure of the Übermensch remains, for the human, necessarily unreachable.

One may argue that the Chosen Undead cannot be an existentially marooned hero since he/she is ‘chosen’ – but this is not so. This moniker is only ever granted in-game by characters that ‘choose’ the player-character to further their own ends: the knight of Astora; Kingseeker Frampt; and Darkstalker Kaathe. And suitably, the player is free to choose his own obedience to these figures. The darker, more explicitly Kafkan alternative to this choice is enforced by Dark Souls 2, within which the player arrives in Drangleic seeking a cure to undeath, before forgetting his personal mission and getting caught up, pawn-like, in a pre-set mythos that ends in futility and stasis.

After all, the gods in Dark Souls are in no position to be choosing undead saviours; their age of fire is passing, and besides, they’re all either mad, incompetent, or absent. The game’s lore is rife with gods failing to earn their titles, and Gwyn, the final boss, is a god reduced to a hollowed undead state. Nietzsche, like Albert Camus, claims that in a world devoid of gods and eternal values, one can either choose to rebel through independent establishment of moral order, or face dissolution (for Camus this was – as in The Myth of Sisyphus – suicide, whereas for Nietzsche it was madness. In Dark Souls it’s a combination of the two: hollowing). The Chosen Undead chooses rebellion (wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise), and Dark Souls is shaped to reflect the vitality and importance of this decisive act of individual expression.

This focus on the individual will to power (to borrow another phrase from Nietzsche) comes across in the lack of an overarching system of in-game morality. Other RPGs will often prevent a player from killing friendly characters or NPCs, but Dark Souls offers no such constraints; every creature you meet in-game can be murdered without any kind of omnipotent figure or invisible system stepping in to arbitrarily label you ‘evil’. The game goes on to hammer this moral absence home through its competitive multiplayer, which involves the anonymous invasion of other players’ worlds. Kill too many players and you’ll amass sins, but these pointedly have no in-game effect and are absolved simply through paying a creepy and crooked priest-figure the appropriate number of souls (which are themselves reduced to secular currency in Lordran).

Dark Souls then offers no cosmic spectrum of right or wrong; even the surviving gods turn out to be unworthy of the moniker and can be killed or saved depending on the player’s whims. Consequently, any moral meaning that exists by the time Gwyn lies slain is carved entirely by, and known only to, the individual player. The impossibility of extending this self-forged morality across a godless mankind is what drove Nietzsche to despair and madness, and what inexorably drives the player again and again towards the final empty choice at the game’s end and, ultimately, each new NG+ cycle.

Dark Souls may just be the most secular game with wizards and priests in that I’ve yet encountered. The absence of coded moral absolutes and the consequent space-to-be-filled is why it’s always a treat to talk to other players about their own experiences with the game – look out for those who insist the game ‘has no story’; they might just be amoral sociopaths.