[insert literary reference]: Why Do Men Keep Putting Me in the Girlfriend-Zone? -
You know how it is, right, ladies? You know a guy for a while. You hang out with him. You do fun things with him—play video games, watch movies, go hiking, go to concerts. You invite him to your parties. You listen to his problems. You do all this because you think he wants to be your friend.
A month and a half ago, I made two posts regarding narrative structuring and play precipitated by a fantastic Vsause video and the J.G. Ballard novel, Kingdom Come. Since then, the idea of play has stayed close to if not always on my mind. Last week, in the middle of reading Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games, I realized I would need to revisit this topic.
You may recall that I was intrigued by the concept of what set different kinds of playing apart from one another (e.g. - sports versus video games versus reading). This is hardly a new topic and it isn’t one that I have researched thoroughly, but I am not entirely ignorant on this point. I wasn’t specifically looking for further insight when I started The Player of Games. Rather, I have been interested in starting the Culture series for some times and Mr. Banks’ upsetting medical prognosis ceased my dallying. After reading the sometimes maligned first novel, I couldn’t wait to dive into the far more popular Player or Use of Weapons. I’m thrilled I didn’t.
(A BRIEF NOTE: I have avoided spoilers to the best of my ability, but depending on your sensitivity to plot reveals, you should proceed with caution. That said, the novel is 25 years old.)
Immediately upon finishing the novel yesterday, I realized I a new title to add to my list of favorites and among the many reasons I loved this book has to do with it’s functioning as a philosophical novel. Good philosophical novels are few and very far between. No matter what you might think of Sartre, his fiction is quite dull. Lest you presume it my dislike has to do with his being a a mid-20th century French writer, I do not feel the same about Camus’ fiction, which I would rate among some of the best philosophical literature ever published without only a few caveats (uggh, The Fall). Voltaire, likewise, does a rather good job at veiling his treatise behind fiction and does himself a not too small favor by not quite taking the work seriously. The list of dreadful philosophical fiction is far longer than the list of decent attempts.
I think that one of the reasons that Player succeeds as a philosophical novel is that it doesn’t directly present itself as such. I’m sure plenty of people look to Banks’ Culture novels for his utopian philosophizing, but I came to them for his social ideas, grand universe building, and comparisons with authors I already love. I was certainly intrigued by the concept of Player, but I wasn’t expecting to find it so accomplished. I was roughly halfway through before it occurred to me that the whole novel could function as a philosophical examination of the machinations of an unexamined life as well as a rather thrilling journey by a problematic, game-obsessed member of the Culture.
Player touches on many of the questions that intrigued me about what makes us play and why we engage with different kinds of play. It feels at once like one man’s meditations on the topic and a stab at some grand theory. The main character, Gurgeh, lives and intellectual life entirely centered on play and yet doesn’t comprehend the mistake of his attempted cheating until he is brought to task by an annoying little drone. Forced by circumstance to play a part in a large game which he neither knows or even partially understands, his revelations are our own. He learns to play the game Azad, the driving force behind a barbaric and repressive empire, and in doing so follows the steps we do in learning to play at life. (Indeed, the metaphor of the game representing life is enhanced by keeping nearly every aspects of actual game-play a secret.) This takes place in a relatively short time and he has something like a rough guide on how to play, very much as is the case with life itself: others gives us their best attempts at advice, much of which we will never use and we do our best in a relatively short time to play a good game, maybe to even win (whatever that may mean).
That much of the premise could be reckoned from a thorough synopsis. What is far more intriguing are the ideas he stumbles on late in the game, still somewhat ignorant of the true stakes. Long after having learned the rules of Azad, he discovers that such knowledge is not the same as understanding it’s significance: (Page numbers taken from the ebook version)
“He hadn’t realized how seductive Azad was when played in its home environment. While it was technically the same game he’d played on the Limiting Factor, the whole feeling he had about it, playing it where it was meant to be played, was utterly different; now he realized… now he knew why the Empire had survived because of the game; Azad itself simply produced an insatiable desire for more victories, more power, more territory, more dominance…” (180).
This idea in hand, he realizes late still that:
“nothing was more guaranteed to cause you problems on an Azad board than trying to play in a way you didn’t really believe in” (239).
One would certainly hope that such principled belief and actions govern all, but that does not seem to be the case for many.
Very briefly after realizing how important it is to play Azad in a way which you believe, he realizes that the Emperor is playing with the very same wisdom:
”The Emperor had set out to beat not just Gurgeh, but the whole Culture. There was no other way to describe his use of pieces, territory and cards; he had set up his whole side of the match as an Empire, the very image of Azad. Another revelation struck Gurgeh with a force almost as great; one reading—perhaps the best—of the way he’d always played was that he played as the Culture. He’d habitually set up something like the society itself when he constructed his positions and deployed his pieces; a net, a grid of forces and relationships, without any obvious hierarchy or entrenched leadership, and initially quite profoundly peaceful…Every other player he’d competed against had unwittingly tried to adjust to this novel style in its own terms, and comprehensively failed. Nicosar was trying no such thing. He’d gone the other way, and made the board his Empire, complete and exact in every structural detail to the limits of definition the game’s scale imposed” (241-2).
As the massive game draws to a close, Gurgeh doesn’t feel a sense of completion so much as melancholy:
”How beautiful that game had been; how much he had enjoyed it, exulted in it… but only by trying to bring about its cessation, only by ensuring that that joy would be short-lived” (251).
I don’t have much to offer as a meditation on the book just now, but I would recommend it very highly to virtually anyone who looks to literature to better understand themselves and those around them. I have broken from the Culture series to read a graphic novel series my uncle has been pestering me about, but I won’t be gone for long.
(via A Softer World: 969)
Tropes are something of a mixed bag. On the one hand, they provide convenient story devices to incite interest or draw people into stories or which can even help to elicit a mood of idea and thus set a scene. On the other hand, they can devolve into dull, meaningless clichés which can shove a viewer out of the story. This brief rant will be about the latter. I considered not numbering this post because (1) it is not the start of a series— though it could easily become a regular post—and (2) I’ll likely lose count of such rants and will have to search old posts to find the next tick. Oh well, the number itself plants an idea in your mind, kind reader, which is really my intent.
The trope I have alluded to in the title is not one of those that approaches the realm of subgenre (e.g. advanced AI seeks to subjugate humanity or jaded couple rediscovers their love for one another) but rather is one of those smaller in-story devices that span all genres. It is over-used, predictable, and end the end, nonsensical.
Scene set: The Go-Back-to-Bed,-Honey:
A parent or temporary child guardian is in the middle something they wish to keep from their young ward(s). This could be putting together a Christmas present or speaking of an illicit affair or, as was the case with the impetus for this post, listening to incriminating tapes that might reveal one’s double life as a Russian spy. (It was the finale of The Americans and it’s far more compelling than I’ve made it seem).
The scene takes place in the dead of night as the character sneaks about downstairs or in the front room. Suddenly, they hear behind them either the patter of a child’s feet or, more startlingly, a voice. They move quickly to conceal their actions and put on a disinterested face.
“What are you going up?” “I couldn’t sleep.” ~Brief exchange concerning guardian’s actions serving to heighten tension and present concern of child’s suspicion. “Go back to bed, honey.” Child shuffles off.
WHY? Let’s forgive for a moment that a scene of this kind plagues virtually every tv show at some point as well as far too many movies and books. Let us pretend that we haven’t seen this series unfold umpteen-bajillion times. We can even pretend that the scene still works, effectively heightening the stress of an already tense moment and causing us to worry about our character’s immediate danger of revealment. Even if we forgive or suspend all of that disbelief, the scene still makes zero damn sense.
If they are to be believed, this child has come to you in the middle of the night not because they heard a noise and came in search of mystery but rather because they could not sleep. There is no resolution in the parent responding that they should go back to bed.
“Oh, right, of course [mom/dad/auntie mae]. I hadn’t considered that. I’ll do that straight away.”
This is sloppy, lazy, terrible writing. The person has tried to find a way to make a scene tense and has (1) chosen a cliche and (2) failed to even resolve the child’s problem.
Dear writers of fictitious guardian seeking to hide something from a child, please stop doing this forever. If you must use this trope, try to do what so few attempt and have the guardian be just a touch less shitty and have them address the child’s insomnia. Not only will it stop shoving us out of the story, it’ll make the whole scene do what it was meant to in the first place. A child in the room for two seconds isn’t tense but trying to comfort said child while covering something up sure is.
A wing-back chair and a side table would make this a perfect book-nook.
Three days ago, did a short writing exercise which I cobbled together from a list of sf story ideas and my own fancy. This was the original “idea”:
1,000 human beings are selected to board a spaceship headed for the stars. The trip is so long that they will die in space, but their descendants will reach a new planet.
to which I added:
Generational Space Travel; one child’s third person perspective as an outcast (500 w)
I wanted to write a child—it turned out to be a she—in the midst of torment coming from her peers. I was reasonably excited with the result that I shared it with my lady. She suggested I keep going with it, so I added to it a general purpose (read: non-genre) writing exercise. Abbreviated, that exercise went:
Synesthesia, according to M.H. Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms, is a description of “one kind of sensation in terms of another; color is attributed to sounds, odor to colors, sound to odors, and so on.” Writers consciously and unconsciously employ this peculiar method to convey the irreducible complexity of life onto the page. Use synesthesia in a short scene—surreptitiously, without drawing too much attention to it—to convey to your reader an important understanding of some ineffable sensory experience. Use “sight, sound, touch, taste, and, especially, smell.” 600 words.
This kind of writing, while not too difficult, does not come naturally to me. It takes a concerted effort for me to attempt at the kind of language which it is said came naturally to Nabokov. However, I liked Eilick (the little girl) and the first hints at her world, so it seemed worth it to try. The result was a lot of fun to write and I’m pretty proud of it. Without further introduction, here is the latter part of what I may continue to fashion into a story.
In a nook recessed far back into the corner of her family’s quarters, Eilick tries to follow her father’s advice about how to shirk off the day. With her legs folded beneath, she faces a small porthole, her eyes lightly closed. She breaths rhythmically, carefully, evenly and tries to—but no, she shouldn’t try—let go of the boys pushing past her on the walkway. This time, she doesn’t notice Jial’s glance. She turns just before the bag strap would have hit her and remains blissfully unaware. She slips out of Jallon’s now playful grasp with ease and he never instigates the others to conjure undirected meanness and spite.
She breathes slower still, heart rate falling with each exhalation.
After she slips out from under all of this weight, she remains still. She imagines nothing at all. The room’s soft corners smells of home but also confinement. The piped in, hundreds of times recycled air is grey turning warmed orange as it ceases to be duct air and becomes the atmosphere of home. She feels through her knees a simple cacophony of Aniars’ movement in vacuum and the neurons of its combined nervous and circulatory systems. The agents of what makes Aniars the living world make meals, smelling like beautiful, long held notes to the hardest worked and toneless chatter to the hardened cynics. They tend flaxen-voiced and siren-throated children alike. They sweep and they experiment and they maintain and they monitor and their collected vibrations make the grey walls blue with sadness, or maybe contentment.
Now swimming in the stilled air, orange as nothing natural Eilick can remember having ever seen, she slides her hands up her thighs slightly and opens her eyes to the porthole. She drinks in flat black stippled with white points and scattered with small reds, yellows, a blue. With eyes adjusted to the blackness behind her thin skin, she feels the lightest brush stroke of taupe behind a particularly dense collection of stars. Mr. Rynnick says this won’t be visible much longer. Eilick follows the streak until it terminates at brushed, riveted steel and she purposefully moves her gaze back to the middle.
The stars sing, their music warm and silken. Despite her day and Jallon and Jial and the collected ensemble of incomprehensible cruelty of her classmates, she smiles. When a single tear beads at her eye, she is happy for it. She blinks slowly, releasing the sentiment to her cheek, and bows her head.
Now back in her own mind, she thanks her father. The day still happened, but now it carries no weight at all. Looking back out the porthole, she reads the history of the Milles in the stars. It is written in pictograms and glyphs and letters and it leads to Aniars today and will one day culminate in a place left deliberately blank in every Mille’s mind.
Have there ever been exactly one thousand of us? she thinks. Not for as long as she can remember. Surely at some point in her years they must have fluctuated back to their launch number, at least for a day, or an hour, or a minute, before another death or birth broke the round number jagged again.
What do the others call themselves? They could think of themselves as Milles too. Or Oliefa or Shen. She knows they wouldn’t need to stick to this format. They could name themselves anything they liked, but she liked to think the Milles were just this similar to their brothers and sisters.
At the portal to their quarters, Eilick hears a rustling and rubs the trail left by her tear from her cheek. She leaps to the door, smiling. “Daddy!”
Toothpaste For Dinner comic: i love it when you talk words
A direct quote from The Times newspaper, talking about a Peter Ustinov documentary and saying that:
“highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”.
See, AP? That!
For personal reasons I’d prefer to keep to myself, the last month or so has been tough for me. I don’t think anyone besides my girlfriend and couple of my very closest friends realized, and for that I am happy. I am a very open person but I prefer not to bog other down with my problems unless they are (1) directly involved or (2) able to be of some help. I don’t want to give the impression that things have been going poorly overall. That is not at all the case. Though my work is not terribly stimulating, it has lots of advantages, I work with some great people, and it leaves me time to write regularly, which has been making me very happy. I’m still reading voraciously, though I haven’t found time to watch many movies lately, which is always a shame. My friends are great as ever as is my health. I have plenty of things for which to feel fortunate, but alas, there are difficulties which require work.
Enough of that. I’d like to focus briefly on something that has been making me feel good. With a few exceptions (the aforementioned girlfriend and a couple of friends), I haven’t told many people that I have started writing fiction against. That is to say, I haven’t told many people in person. Mostly I’ve stuck to this blog. I did tell my mother because I knew she’d like to hear it, but other than that I didn’t want to be the guy who tells everyone he’s a writer, or that he’s working on this story, see, etc, etc, etc. Sure enough, once I have more finished products to show around, I’ll start promoting, but not before.
The information has still gotten around a bit. A few more friends heard by word of mouth and have been asking me about my progress and, the other night while catching up on the phone, my uncle told me how thrilled—his word, not mine—he was that I had started writing again. He never saw any of the stuff I wrote during my undergraduate years, but that wasn’t going to keep him from being excited. I may have mentioned this uncle in the past. We are brothers on nothing more than the lineage level. In every other way, we are brothers. His daughters call me uncle, which still almost makes me teary, and we somehow look up to one another while acting as the dual backbones of our troublesome extended families. Hearing him express his excitement filled me with great pride and humility and I was more than a little touched.
To all of my not only supportive but also agog friends and family, let me say thank you. I have always found strength in your faith but I would never have expected it to grow so much with time.
On that note, I would like to give a name to the germ of a series I started think about last week, the very same (series of) world(s) that I spent a couple of hours beginning to build last night. That name is the Suzerain, and I would refer you Merriam-Webster’s second definition.