Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The nuclear solution (poem)

Following the grand example of the cancer cell, our great leaders have declared that perpetual growth
is the only way for humanity to prosper.
But never let it be said that our great leaders are unkind
to the Earth.
For they have decided in their endless magnanimity to
to provide her with radiation therapy.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Vineland by Thomas Pynchon

The year is 1984. Hippie survivor Zoyd Wheeler is living with his fourteen year old daughter Prairie in the Californian city of Vineland. His wife, Frenesi Gates left him (and the Hippie movement) shortly after their daughter's birth due to her relationship with prosecutor Brock Vond, becoming a FBI informant. As the novel starts, Zoyd is about to perform his annual act of insanity in order to continue to quality for his mental disability check. But his life is interrupted by Vond, who resurfaces, now nearly omnipotent with money from Reagan's war on drugs. He chases Zoyd and Praire out of their house, forcing them on the run. Now Zoyd and Praire has to figure out what has caused Vond to act, and piece together the past of their broken family.

When Vineland was first released in 1990, 17 years after Pynchon's previous novel Gravity's Rainbow, the critics were sceptical. Everyone expected a work just as grand as GR, if not more. This has lead to it having a reputation of being "Lesser Pynchon". But this reputation is wholly undeserved. Vineland is one of Pynchon's best books, perhaps even better than Gravity's Rainbow.

Vineland is like most of Pynchon's novel a humorous post-modern and absurd adventure, told in Pynchon's wonderful prose. We meet Ninjas with magical powers (one of whom is a main character), magical forests and roads, Thanatoids (people in a state like death, but different) and Kaiju monsters. But as in Against The Day, this is contrasted with characters who are painfully real and live with real issues and problems. Zoyd Wheeler is perhaps Pynchon's most sympathetic protagonist, and his quest to give his daughter a good home and upbringing and his love for his absent wife is heartbreaking. Pynchon's satire is also very close to concrete human experience: Zoyd having to perform an annual act of insanity in order to qualify for his disability check is cuttingly true as satire can get.

As in Against The Day the destructive impact of  our capitalistic society on basic human behaviour and feelings like love is explored. And just like ATD, Vineland is about historical events, this time how the 60s counterculture was infiltrated and destroyed by government repression.

To illustrate, Pynchon creates a fictional student revolution at a California university. The students secede from America and form "The People's republic of Rock n' roll", led by mathematics professor Weed Atman (another of Pynchon's wonderful and deeply symbolic names). But the republic is crushed and Atman is murdered, in part due to Frenesi's betrayal.

Pynchon uses this event to expose the power structure of the USA. This power structure takes many forms, from brute police force and drug raids to the insidious cultural attack of Hollywood films and television. America emerges as a dystopia in which the establishment destroys all dissent: a "scabland garrison state". Rebels like Zoyd are dismissed as mental degenerates.

This dystopian portrayal of America is of course emphasized by the novel being set in the year 1984. In fact, one can see this as Pynchon's answer to Orwell's novel, showing a real capitalist dystopia as opposed to Orwell's early cold-war anti-communist fantasy.

Pynchon views the "War against Drugs", as not about alleviating drug abuse, but in fact a strategy by the NIxonian-Reagan establishment to combat the counter-culture and suppress dissent. But as concerned Pynchon is with the abolition of civil liberties that this has led to, this repression by brute force isn't half as dangerous as the repression through media and culture.

Television (always called The Tube) is in particular a target for Pynchon's satire and analysis. It is for Pynchon a dangerous drug, that nearly everyone is on (including Pynchon, it seems, judging by amount of TV trivia he seems to know), spreads the messages of the establishment and takes over the lives of it's users. In a truly post-modern fashion, TV becomes reality for its users, who take in reality mostly through the distorted lens of television. A significant running gag in the book is that the characters watch absurd TV bio-pics, like Woody Allen in Young Kissinger, or Pee-wee Herman in The Robert Musil Story ("It was mostly Pee-wee talking in a foreign accent or sitting around in front of some pieces of paper with some weird-looking marker pen.."), many of which  are about TV personalities like Frank Gorshin, to further emphasize the point.

This way, The Tube is used by the establishment to control people, and in the end Pynchon suggests that it was The Tube which eventually killed off the Counterculture: "Minute the Tube got hold of you folks that was it, that whole alternative America, el deado meato, just like the’ Indians, sold it all to your real enemies, and even in 1970 dollars — it was way too cheap..." Also: "Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it's what the Tube is for.."

Unlike Marijuana and LSD, the Tube is a drug that helps the establishment, which is why the former is illegal and the later encouraged. (this hypocrisy is underlined when we meet Hector, a former agent for the Drug enforcement Administration, who is so addicted to TV that he has to quit his job and undergo treatment)

This echoes the gigantic telescreens in Orwell's 1984, which Pynchon alludes to: "As if the Tube were suddenly to stop showing pictures and instead announce, 'From now on, I'm watching you."
 But Pynchon seems to argue, contra Orwell that the government doesn't really need this surveillance. The Tube (and our culture in general) controls people perfectly well without it: in the 60s, Brock Vond starts up forced re-education camps for Hippies who are busted in drug raids, but by 1984 he doesn't need to force people into them: young people sign up for the camps voluntarily, a truly chilling image.

But Pynchon is no pessimist. Just as in Against The Day and Gravity's Rainbow he puts the forces of love and human empathy against the capitalist machinery, which in the end redeems Frenesi and reunites the broken family.

Vineland is one of Pynchon's best. It is also one of his shorter novels despite a lot more happening in the book than my write-up here hints at, and is as such a good starting point for readers that are new to his work.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Hotel Dusk: Room 215

Video games are often stereotyped as poorly-written orgies of violence:  That may be true in many cases, but is just as often just a stereotype. And I have never played that disproves this stereotype more convincingly then Hotel Dusk (not that I needed convincing). Before I continue, I should warn the reader that parts of the plot are given away in this review.

Hotel Dusk: Room 215 is a 2007 visual novel/Point- and click adventure game for the Nintendo DS, developed by Cing (who sadly went out of business in 2010). You play as Kyle Hyde, former detective in the New York Police department. In 1976, he was betrayed by his partner Brian Bradley, who was working undercover on a case involving a criminal organization named Nile. It seems that Bradley has joined Nile for real. Kyle confronts Bradley about this by the Hudson river, but the meeting ends with Kyle shooting Bradley, who falls in the Hudson  and disappears without his body being found. Kyle, disgraced, quits the force and takes up a salesman job, but continues to search for Bradley, who never explained why he betrayed Kyle and the police force and who Kyle is convinced is still alive. In December 1979, this search leads to the Hotel Dusk of the title, which is located in California, near Los Angeles. There Kyle soon discovers that the other guests have dark secrets in their pats, just like him, secrets  that might help him find Bradley.

The objective of the game is more or less to uncover those secrets. You do this in two ways. The first is solving puzzles, just like in a traditional western Point and click adventure game, ala Gabriel Knight or the Monkey Island series. If you ever played one of these, you feel right at home in Hotel Dusk. Here the game greatly benefits from being on the DS, as all the Point- and clicking is done via the DS touchscreen with the stylus. This is major improvement from the old mouse-driven computer adventure games, which I wouldn't be surprised to learn was actually developed by sinister forces in order to give the player a bad case of mouse arm.

The second is by simply talking to the other characters and gather information from them. Hotel Dusk is a visual novel, which means that it is text- and dialogue driven game, in which the player proceeds by choosing what the player character will do or say. An interactive novel in other words.
While playing you get to choose what Kyle will say to others, what questions he will ask them.
If you choose the right question's you will in most cases get information, which will enable you to progress in the game. But you can also choose poorly and say the wrong things. Some dialogue options can anger the other characters, due to being rude, invasive or aggressive. You can also lie to the other characters, which mostly backfires when they discover the deception. While there is just as in real life some leeway for mistakes, but if you anger another guest too much, they might stop talking to you (leaving you unable to progress), or it might even result in Kyle being thrown out of the hotel, all which leads to a game-over. (Certain puzzles requires breaking the law or at least hotel rules, and being discovered doing so also results in being thrown out and a game-over)

This text and puzzle heavy gameplay is ably supported by excellent graphics, in particular the spectacular character animation. While the backgrounds and environment are 3d, the characters are 2D animated in unique sketchy style, that is like nothing else in gaming. This is not only because of the sketchy art style (the only similarity to other games is a light manga/anime influence), but also due to the brilliant use of rotoscoping. The music, composed Satoshi Okubo is also excellent, if a bit repetitive, but absolutely capable of emotional resonance.

But the core of the experience is the writing, which is one of the best in all of the video game medium. It's greatest strength  is undoubtedly the characterization, which  can even rival the best novels I have read. The dialogue also has a very natural flow to it, that is very realistic.

The plot and storytelling is also incredibly strong. The only real flaw is the setup, which relies on the unlikely coincidence that all the people in the hotel are previously connected to each other somehow. But with such strong characters and a otherwise excellent plot (which I can't do justice in synopsis), it feels like nitpicking.

 The late 70s time period is another nice touch, which gives the game much of its charm. Much of the plot hinges on the limitations individuals had before the information society and the internet. Characters are able to "disappear" and hide. The plot has as it's foundation a hoax that simply would be impossible to perpetrate today. Information has to be gathered from talking to others, instead of consulting the internet. A good example (which also demonstrates the gameplay) is when Kyle meets a famous writer, Martin Summer. At one point, he lies to you and claims that Martin Summer is just a pseudonym, his real name is Alan Parker. Later, you talk to a fan of his books, and ask her about this. She informs you that Summer is not a pen-name, but in fact his given name. If this had taken place today, Kyle would have been able to find this out himself, using the internet. This furthers the theme of the importance of communication and is a lovely way to let the setting inform gameplay and plot.

Perhaps the foremost reason for the strength of the writing is that it lacks most if not all cliches of not only the video game medium but also the mystery/detective genre the game belongs to. Most video games are about you doing something epic and heroic, defeating a villain, saving the world etc.., which is true even in the non-violent adventure games. This is also the case for detective novels, in which the detective usually solves a murder, and brings the bad guy to justice, something that is true even of the more cynical noir novels. To say the least, Kyle Hyde does none of that.

What remains is a deeply unorthodox video game and a just as unorthodox detective story. Kyle never uses violence, but instead relies on his ability to convince others to give him information and his problem-solving skills. The  problems and mysteries he solves are all deeply personal. There is no saving the world here. And while there is murder involved, it isn't the driving focus as in the traditional mystery novel.

There is no villain either. Conflict exists, but is resolved peacefully and all the characters in the end emerge as sympathetic. The only candidate for the villain role is eventually revealed to have been dead for months by the time the game starts, shot in revenge by one he has wronged. The game here brilliantly de-constructs the traditional and in fiction omnipresent revenge story, in which all problems are solved by killing "the bad guy". The villain is revealed to have a daughter, who he loved and is totally innocent of his crimes, who now is left without family.

In place of the violence of the common crime novel or video game, the game offers the alternative of communication. Kyle has the ability to make people tell him the dark secrets in their pasts, and in this confession, they seem to be redeemed. If there is a message in Hotel Dusk, it is simply that honesty and communication are important, and can make you a better person. As mentioned above, you can anger the other people in the hotel to the point, that they don't speak to you any more, or even have you thrown out. But there is nearly always a simple way to avoid this: be nice to others and tell them the truth. A clear message, or at least good advice.

The ending is very ambiguous and bittersweet, but also shines with a subtle hope. In the end,  Kyle has seemingly accomplished little. He hasn't found Bradley, or any of the other missing people in the story. Unlike nearly every other detective story, the guilty remain unpunished and the one exception hardly seems worth it.
But in his interactions with the other guests and the staff of the hotel, he has in some sense redeemed them and himself. He has found out why Bradley betrayed him, and seems to be able to put it past him. The others, who have lived miserable lives plagued by guilt over past wrongs, has thanks to Kyle found the motivation to continue living and try to make amends for the mistakes they made.

So, try to get a hold of this game if you can. As said, Cing went bankrupt in 2010, (proof if anything, that capitalism doesn't reward quality or talent) but not before developing a sequel: Last Window: The Secret of Cape West. They also made the similar Another Code series, consisting of one game for the DS and one for the Wii, which takes in the same world as Hotel Dusk. I haven't played them myself, but if they are half as good as Hotel Dusk, they will be worth it.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Five writers who should have received the Nobel Prize

Today the winner of the Nobel prize for literature is announced by The Swedish Academy. I am deeply sceptical of the whole idea of prizes in literature. I agree with Jan Myrdal, who in a 1974 tv interview (1), expressed a worry that such prizes have a limiting or controlling effect, by showing authors what and how to write,  enforcing the artistic standards of the bourgeois establishment. The very fact that most people have a pretty clear idea of the kind of books and authors who win these awards show that Myrdal is right: It's well known that most award-winning writers are non-experimental, "apolitical" realists with no sense of humour. The best thing would to abolish all literary prizes, including The Nobel and disarm the Literary establishment of one of its most damaging weapons.

But even if we hypothetically accept the prize as a concept, it is hard to argue that the Academy has done a good job of recognizing merit. Granted, merit is a subjective concept. But most writers, who have been awarded the prize in the past have been forgotten, and most of the writers who are remembered today did not get it. Time is in the end the only judge that matters, although I must admit that there are many authors who are unfairly forgotten. Nevertheless, with few exceptions like Thomas Mann, most writers who in my opinion based on merit should have been given the prize have been ignored by the academy. So here is a short list of writers, both living and dead, who should have gotten the prize. This list is based on my own limited reading, and others can surely give other names (2). The list come with short motivations, which shouldn't be taken too seriously.

Alan Moore, for taking writing in the Comics medium to new heights with works like "From Hell".

Thomas Pynchon, for his experimental and magnificent novels, which with humor and empathy explore what it means to live (I must admit that a big part of the reason I want Pynchon to get the Nobel is because I want to see what he will do. If he does something a smidgen as delightful as what he did when he received an award in 1974, it will be worth seeing)

Allen Ginsberg, for his innovative poetry, which revealed the human costs of modern capitalism.

James Joyce, who has done more to innovate the modern novel than any other writer.

Virginia Woolf, for her poetic fiction, with its deep psychological insight.


(1) The interview can be found here (in Swedish)

(2) For example, I haven't read much of Auden (though I have liked what I read), so it wasn't really possible for me to add him to the list. Ditto for Zola, Tolstoy, Graves and other famous "Nobel rejects".

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Life disease (prose poem/ short fiction)

"Life is an aberration, a disease of the lifeless universe. The moon is but a reflection of the Earth, as it should be."

When I first read the book, I dismissed it's author as a madman, but slowly the thoughts contained therein started to grow inside my mind and gain control. At first, it was just a mild disgust at sunlight on my skin, that with time became unbearably strong. Now the sun for me is like a repulsive insect crawling across the canopy of the sky; it's light a poison, regurgitated by photosynthesis, giving birth to the sickness of life.

I hide inside by day, covering my windows, only venturing outside on moonless nights, not able to bear the reflected light of the moon (and only with agony can I withstand the distant light of the stars). I pity the moon for being forced to reflect the light of the sun, stripping her bare of the beautiful darkness.

Now, I eat mostly to escape the pain of hunger, the ultimate symptom of the life disease. The only hope in my continued existence, is for the eclipse. Not an ordinary eclipse, for even a "total" eclipse permits the odious light from the corona to reach the Earth and only lasts for a few minutes at most, but the final eclipse.

It is written in the book, and the stars will be right to bring it about within my lifetime. The author was not so lucky, and had taken his life after finishing the book. From it I have learned the spells that will have to be performed.

Soon the moon will move closer to the Earth and slowly swallow the horrible light and the disgusting warmth of the sun forever, extinguishing the vile disease of life. We will look up and see neither sun or stars, but only a beautiful dark, cold moon... Luna...Luna

Author's note

This poem started with the central image of the Sun as an "insect crawling across the canopy of the sky" and grew from there quite naturally. As I tried to explain why someone would think that, I went from hatred of the Sun to hatred of light to hatred of life, and love of the antithesis of both the sun and life, the barren Moon.
Another inspiration was my own sensitivity to sunlight as a child. I actually covered up my bedroom window with a black blanket, because I couldn't stand the light of the early afternoon. (the window faces south). But of course this poem is pure fiction and I don't really believe any of things it main character believes. I am on much better terms with sunlight nowadays, although a lot of that sensitivity remains.
Finally, I would like to dedicate this poem to H. P. Lovecraft, for invaluable inspiration.