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Thursday, December 14, 2006

D.B. Weiss - Lucky Wander Boy

I picked up Lucky Wander Boy (Swifty: Official website of the book here) on a recent trip, mainly on the strength of its premise but without any real expectations, since the book is about, among other things, video games. A 'gaming novel' is not a prospect that would seem especially earmarked for greatness, and so D.B. Weiss's debut came as a welcome surprise: while perhaps not great in any real sense, this is certainly a very good book*, with more-than-capable prose and much trenchant humor.

Lucky Wander Boy is the name of a video game, one that never existed, but which Weiss sets in time with the early 80's classics like Pac Man, Donkey Kong, and the rest. The protagonist, Adam Pennyman, harbors deep-seated memories of playing it, and of never quite being able to ascend to its mysterious third stage. Over the course of the book, Lucky Wander Boy's third stage comes to symbolize an equally unattainable 'third stage' in Pennyman's life - one in which his vague aspirations will coincide with reality via a 'Moment of Decision'. To get himself started, Pennyman begins writing The Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments, a scholarly compendium of all the old games. Weiss, fortunately, is less interested in justifying old-school arcade games as high art than he is in satirizing the absurd excesses of analysis such an attitude can produce. You can tell he loves his subject matter, but far from uncritically, so that the distance between his authorial awareness and that of his protagonist generates much of the book's effect. The Catalogue in particular is a masterstroke of hyperbolic, overweaning analogies, with Berzerk compared to Kafka's 'The Castle' and Donkey Kong seen as a Gnostic allegory. Here's Pennyman on Pac-Man:

The Pac-Man's insatiable hunger for the dots and Power Pills that fill the corridors of his maze-worlds suggest weighty parallels, such as the ravenous hunger for More Life that Darwin saw in all species, any one of which would overpopulate and overrun the earth if not for the predatory ghosts of natural selection. Also, we are reminded of Marx's "need of a constantly expanding market" that "chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe" (Communist Manifesto) with the "vocation to approach, by quantitative increase, as near as possible to absolute wealth." (Capital), casting the Pac-Man in the role of corporate antihero in a utopian fantasy where the agents protesting his unfettered domination of the maze-world actually defeat him in the end. Obvious metaphors, lurking just beneath the surface of the game.

Without quoting it, I'll just say that the in-depth Gnostic Donkey Kong analysis is uproarious, and the increasingly deranged tone of the essays as the book progresses (and Pennyman's mental state declines) make for some of the book's most amusing passages. Pennyman might be something of a loser, a selfish obsessive who ignores the various women in his life while looking for existential truths in the pixels of Pac Man, but Weiss is more perceptive, not just in his analysis of character, but in his range of interests and sense of parody. In the course of the novel, Pennyman finds work at Portal Entertainment, a dot-com startup. His boss, Kurt Krickstein, outlines their mission statement and everything else as 'hip' and 'edgy', and Pennyman's (and Weiss's) obvious contempt sets up much of the humor. The dot-com satire isn't exactly unprecedented, but it sets up a nice enough contrasting backdrop for Pennyman's researches into the mysteries of Lucky Wander Boy. And the Mortal Kombat parody 'Eviscerator' - the basis for Portal's venture capital - is also dead-to-rights, with its over-boss, Ibn Alhazred, conflating Street Fighter multiculturalism and H.P. Lovecraft.

To be fair, Adam Pennyman is not exactly an original idea of a protagonist, or even a necessarily sympathetic one, but Weiss at least makes him engaging. Your level of personal identification will probably depend on the degree to which you share his interests; depending on your mindset, his gaming deconstructions and critical tangents will seem more or less ludicrous or convincing. The other characters are mixed; Krickstein is dead-on, but Pennyman's coworker and love interest Clio is standard 'cool girl gamer' central casting.

But much of the appeal, for me, comes from the tangents:

All that remained of my obsession with Mishima, Abe, Tanizaki, Oe, and Murakami was the following quote from Mishima's Way of the Samurai, printed out in twenty-four-point font and taped on my wall between a Billy Dee Williams watercolor postcard and a recently acquired Pac-Man clock.

He gives shout-outs to Mishima and Tanizaki; I would have bought it on this basis alone, even if he does include Murakami Haruki among the great moderns. Here's some more:

Now, the Z80X processors selected by Uzumaki hardware engineer Kobo Oe for use in Lucky Wander Boy came from a small test batch made by Zilog Corporation in Campbell, California. The manner in which they were acquited by Uzumaki is not known.

'Kobo Oe'? And his brother Kenzaburo Abe, no doubt...

"Well, you've got to check this out," Anthony said. "We just got it today, it's a movie by Kitano Miyake, the hottest young director in Japan, he's made eight movies this year alone. He shot this one on sixteen millimeter in two weeks. I saw it this afternoon. It's out there, way out there, but - let's just say I've already reserved a place for it on my top-ten list for the year, and it's only March."

This one's more subtle. Although 'Kitano' would make you think Beat Takeshi at first, that would actually be the prolific Miike Takashi he's talking about. (go on, say 'Miyake' three times fast).

Also namechecked: Scott McCloud, Nolan Bushnell, Shigeru Miyamoto, Custer's Revenge, the dumping of ET cartridges in the New Mexico desert, Grant Morrison's run on Animal Man, etc. Although it might seem pedantic to point out all these references (and twice as pedantic for Weiss to have included them), they're half the fun of the book. If these names mean nothing to you, if you're completely at a loss as to what I'm talking about, then Lucky Wander Boy probably isn't for you, although it is possible to forgive a novel for being obviously niche-marketed: having read niche books on topics I have no interest in before (Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch, for example) and having been able to appreciate the writing alone without catching everything that's being said, I can say that Weiss is more than willing to meet the reader halfway. The references to old gaming, Gnosticism, Japanese Literature, and corporate culture are present in force, but the narrative drive is strong and the characters' neuroses are (on the whole) sympathetic.

As for the Japanese characters, they fulfill uniformly stereotypical roles (the Zen monk, the silent yakuza, the expat still troubled by notions of honor, the 'exotic video queen' (quoting back cover on the last one)), but in a novel where the protagonist's understanding of the country has been formed entirely by gaming and martial arts films, what else would you expect? Weiss, again, knows better: I can believe he's read Mishima and Tanizaki. There are even a few slight J-pop references.

I wish Weiss hadn't confined Pennyman's interests so strictly to early 80's, Atari-era gaming though; my entry point was the early NES era, and seeing Pennyman slag off Double Dragon (and presumably all other post-Intellivision console games) was a little dispiriting, if perhaps an accurate bit of characterization (after all, entry points vary, and nothing is ever as good as it was 'back in the day'). But, oh well...

Lucky Wander Boy gets more surreal as it progresses, with Pennyman drawn deeper and deeper into an increasingly delusional world of gaming mysticism. The ending is inspired as much by The French Lieutenant's Woman as it is by 1-ups, with its very literal 'extra lives.' Without giving spoilers, it's possible to view it as a cop-out - but I prefer to see it as symbolizing the expansion of pure probability and possibility present in the old games obsessing Pennyman. In life, it implies, like in games, when shit gets fucked up, you can always hit restart. Not necessarily true in any real sense, but certainly thematically consistent.

Here's a great passage, towards the end, incidental to the plot perhaps, but ringing with truth:

-but as it turned out Re-Play was all wrong. The arcade was very brightly lit, with an atmosphere better suited to a supermarket. To get to the Classic gaming area, you had to walk through Re-Play's real moneymakers: the modern shooting games with real simulated automatic pistol recoil, the jet ski and motocross simulators with tilt-sensitive controls, the live-action dancing games in which children jerked around like clumsy marionettes on weight-sensitive pads, drumming games, lots of two-player beat-em-ups. The cacophony seemed familiar at first, but it was composed of the wrong kind of noise, lots of over-orchestrated cheese-funk MIDI soundtracks, massive explosions and voices, real voices, not synthesized but digitized from real actors. Rather than working in harmony to create an aural ambience, each sound fought tooth and claw for supremacy over the others, and the final result was far too rich, a distraction, like a pound of saffron in the rice...determined to make the best of it, I stepped to the Tempest machine and started to play, but the kids milling around the arcade behind me were an impossible distraction. They were all wrong. Baggy clothes on the girls...the guys could have baggy clothes, but the girls? Any girl in an arcade should be wearing tight black jeans. It was not open to discussion. Her body type was irrelevant. And everyone primly obeyed the No Smoking signs, not understanding that they were there to be ignored.

Well, right on. Hanging out in old-style arcades, the kind with shitty cheese pizza, tokens, and a certain dankness, simply is a widespread generational experience (although one, as Weiss points out, that it's not necessarily easy to have anymore, with the floodlit travesty of the modern arcade), and the fact that it's been relatively ignored in contemporary fiction seems more a matter of time-frame than anything - i.e. most kids lining up quarters on Final Fight simply haven't gotten around to writing novels yet - not necessarily a bad thing, mind you; I can't say I'm looking forward to the inevitable teary-eyed hagiographies; Weiss's detachment and slight skew seem about right for this material. If you've ever sat there thinking "But what does Mario, like, mean?", Weiss has come up with some nicely original answers - and funny ones, at that.

*and definitely a step up from Worlds of Power.