Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The haze of real life

A day late and a dollar short. I don't even know exactly what that phrase means, but that's how I feel.

I blame video games. Not for my not knowing. For the feeling.

But more about that in a minute.

I've received a BoB nomination. That's BoB. Best of Blog Weblog Awards 2004 — The Best Personal Blogs You Ought To Be Reading! So this is the part where I say it's an honour just to be nominated.

Now I also feel obliged to spread the word of BoB. I know that the 19 of you who regularly read my ramblings don't go in much for awards or ratings. But in case you stumbled here by accident and you're into blogging, you should know about BoB and the great work the people at BoB are doing. Support BoB. It's about the little blog, the blogger's blog. "The BoB Awards go out of their way to recognize the great efforts of those online diarists who blog about their[sic] minutiae of their life."

Also, there may be some strangers passing by to review the nomination, so please be nice to them. There. Have I whored myself sufficiently? (I'm guessing pointing out their typo won't do me any favours.)

Now back to our regularly scheduled entry.

I've been struggling to meet a deadline for work. At the expense of sleep, quality time with my daughter, quality time with the guy I'm shacked up with, time spent buying Christmas presents for others, time getting film developed and writing up and sending out Christmas cards (is it too late now?), time spent getting that bank mess straightened out. You get the idea. But not at the expense of time spent reading.

While the job struggled to take shape and monster hunts with Helena were limited, I read another stupid novel. Isabella just had to have her little book fix. How inopportune.

I'm tired and cranky. Mostly, I'm in an I'm-such-an-inadequate-mother funk, frittering away my days so that evenings and weekends I can tell my little girl, "Mommy can't play right now. Mommy has to work." We send Helena to daycare so Mommy can have bubble baths and read novels.

(Whine: but I really needed that bubble bath — it's been a rough few weeks, and then there was that whole interview thing that had me completely distracted from work anyway, and I can't be a good mommy if I'm not in myself, rested and happy. Blah, blah, blah.)

I blame video games.

Only this time it's a video game in the form of a book. Specifically, the form of Codex, by Lev Grossman. (I have it in paperback, courtesy of QPB, but it seems it's generally not available yet.)

Edward should know better. An investment banker with a couple weeks off before taking up a new position in London should know better than to get sucked into a video game. Or into a search for a heretofore thought imaginary mansucript, cataloguing a library, getting himself tangled up, albeit at a distance, in the personal drama of one very rich and secretive family.

He really should know better. Some of the reviewers consider this a flaw, that the protagonist is too stupid to be believable. I think it adds colour to his character — don't all of us (even you successful types) do things against our better judgement? I should've known better.

The author holds down a day job as book critic for Time. He's read enough books to ask some interesting questions about the fate of the narrative in a technology-driven society. He's not the first to do so, and he won't be the last to scrape together a novel from these ideas.

Lev Grossman's literary thriller Codex transcends the current vogue for the archaic—explicitly linking the 14th and 21st centuries by considering the respective, and not entirely dissimilar, powers of parchment and PlayStation. It's an artful, populist, conceptually ambitious exercise in what Umberto Eco has labeled "postmodern medievalism" (a microgenre pretty much dominated by the Italian semiotician's own The Name of the Rose and Monty Python and the Holy Grail). An addictive meditation on narrative addictions, the book toggles between the disconcertingly lifelike virtual environment of a state-of-the-art video game and an increasingly dreamlike dusty-stacks search for a lost, possibly apocryphal Chaucer-era manuscript.

The cracked code proves disappointingly primitive and the double-crossing machinations are almost perversely low-stakes. If anything, there's a modest, slackerly charm in the manner Codex fulfills its thriller obligations. You can sense the author's sheepishness about stepping on the suspense pedal. The closest to a brush with danger is a brief, awkward confrontation on the sidewalk; there's no car chase, just a climactic cab ride over the Manhattan Bridge to nowhere more sinister than brownstone Brooklyn.


I couldn't put the book down. Grossman somehow (how?) captures the compulsivity of video games and translates it to text.

The best games have a complex narrative structure. Unlike the passive activity of television absorption, and more so than books they delude you into thinking you are in control, an active participant with power over your characters' fate. But your characters' worlds only extend so far as someone had the foresight to code them.

Edward at a LAN party:
They were all in it together, a Local Area Network of brothers in arms, bound by the electric bond of virtual combat. Could a book do this?


Well, yes. When it incites discussion. Admittedly, reading is more of a solitary pursuit, but video games even when designed as single-player adventures retain the same immersive and compulsive qualities.

From the New York Times:
He's a stranger in the world of computer gamers and programmers, just as he is in the library; we enter it with him: "He was starting to see what people found so addictive about these games. Momus had none of the slapdash inefficiency of reality: every moment was tense with hushed anticipation, foreordained meaning. It was a brighter, higher-grade, more compelling, better-engineered version of reality." You might say, just like fiction.


Breaking away from this novel left me with the same hungover quality as after playing games far into the night, when the digitized world invades your sleep and transforms your real-life instincts, when you look for trapdoors in uneven surfaces and plot escapes through alleyways you'd never noticed before. Feeling forced to repeat mundane tasks till you get it just right, or in case you're missing something.

(Do people younger than I experience that nausea, or is it so much a part of their lives they don't notice it?)

How does Grossman achieve this in a book? Maybe the credit lies more with the reader, like with the player, than we give credit. The willingness to give oneself over, to accept the rules, to step into a universe of someone else's creation.

Some call the ending abrupt and disappointing. The ends of games are generally anticlimactic — you feel jolted back to reality; where do you go from here? But I fail to see a better resolution. Anything "flashier" would ring false. The ending was logical, fitting, open.

The novel does bear out Grossman's conviction that books are not a threatened medium:
Books are beautiful, and we have deep sentimental feelings about them, but that's not why they'll survive. They'll survive because nothing else can do what they do. And that helps me sleep at night.


The book's finished. The job I was working on is done. Now onto more important matters: who will be the next apprentice?
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