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Plume, 2003, $13.
The Poison Master, by Liz WIlliams
"Jon," by George Saunders
I HAVE seldom had as much trouble getting into a book as I had with D. B. Weiss's first novel, Lucky Wander Boy. Its opening chapters form a compendium of tics associated with late-century postmodernism and Hysterical Realism: quotes from imaginary texts, lists, a book-within-a-book, here titled the Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments; footnotes, and cutesy authorial intrusions with subtitles like "Why Anya's anger was already primed" and "The irony of it all;" the last straw, a disaffected slacker narrator so relentless and annoying that I threw Weiss's book across the room in disgust four times—a record!
And yet, and yet…I kept picking the damn thing back up again. Like a precocious geek who refuses to be rebuffed in his efforts to pick up girls, Lucky Wander Boy takes a licking and keeps on ticking. Weiss's annoying narrator, Adam Pennyman, doesn't exactly grow less annoying as the novel progresses. Instead he does something more interesting: through sheer force of will, he converts you to seriously considering and ultimately sharing his passion, which is for classic 1980s video games like Donkey Kong, Pac-Man, Asteroids, Space Invaders, et al.
I'll admit, these days, I spend as much time yelling at my kids to stop playing computer games as I did playing Missile Control and Asteroids twenty years ago. And I never even realized I missed Galaxian until I found it in Adam Pennyman's Index for the Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments. Actually, I'd never really thought of myself as a true geek until I read this book—okay, I was in denial—and even then there were a few scary moments when I feared I might merely be a geek remora, one of Weiss's disdained cultivators of geek chic.
But, no. Once I got to the Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments Supplementary Essay: "On Geeks," I was no longer in denial: for Lo! I passed the test. Not only that, I was a convert to Weiss's vision. I was hooked on Lucky Wander Boy.
Adam Pennyman is twenty-ish, smart-ish, cute-ish; either a borderline sociopath or a pretty normal guy, depending on circumstances. Adam has a convincing and very funny Gnostic interpretation of Donkey Kong, complete with sober footnotes on The Matrix. He also believes that, as a boy, he nearly saved his grandmother from cancer by beating Intellivision's Microsurgeon game in his basement rec room. When the Intellivision breaks, Grammy dies. "If the Intellivision had been fixed sooner—a week, a day, an hour—I could have saved her."
And so Adam grows up, sort of.
In the spring of 1999, several years out of college, I found myself out of work, fired from my job as script researcher on a movie entitled Viking! It did not bother me much, being let go. The movie was guaranteed straight-to-video. I had been fired from better jobs.
Adam lies his way into his next job, with an American video production company called Cattle Raid, based in Warsaw. He lies his way into a beautiful Polish girlfriend as well, but his true love remains the video games of his childhood, and once a friend turns him on to a software program known as MAME, for Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator, Adam is a doomed man. He downloads every game he ever loved, and it's not so much Game Over, Dude, as Life Over—"when Jeffrey slid that laptop over, I fell into a screen, and in a very real way I never quite climbed out again."
Lucky Wander Boy is Adam's account of life inside that black hole, centering on his great obsession: the legendary (and imaginary) arcade game called Lucky Wander Boy, designed by "the only female game designer of note in early '80s Japan, and perhaps its only female entrepreneur as well." Through luck—or is it fate?—Adam is fired from Cattle Raid, but soon gets a job at Portal Development and Entertainment, a cheesy production company in Santa Monica. Portal is run by the odious Kurt Krickstein, just one of the hilariously and savagely depicted support characters in Weiss's Wonderland; among the many properties Krickstein has acquired is a movie option on Lucky Wander Boy. When someone suggests allowing the option to lapse, Krickstein cries, "No!…Diversity is a very important part of the Portal brand identity. We have a diversified portfolio of intellectual properties, and this one fills our 'weird cult geek bullshit' quota." Adam thinks Krickstein has hired him to work on the screenplay for LWB, but at first all Pennyman does is write (or rather, avoid writing) descriptions of Portal's various online sites. These include:
1) Alien Bimbo Range: one of these hot bikini chicks is really a bloodsucking alien—can you find out which one and blow her away before she drains you dry? A cool new online game from Portal!
When the option on LWB is due to expire, Krickstein hopes Adam can act as intermediary between Portal and Araki Itachi, Lucky Wander Boy's creator. This is the point at which Adam's life spins seriously out of control, as it appears to take on the levels, obstacles, and dimensions of a game of Lucky Wander Boy.
Lucky Wander Boy the novel has myriad antecedents: there are echoes of Repo Man, Bruce Bethke's 1983 story "Cyberpunk," Being John Malkovich, High Fidelity, Ghost World—just about any geeky guy/gal story you can think of. But its clearest influence is Frederick Exley's fictionalized memoir A Fan's Notes, still the funniest, most frightening, and moving account of "that long malaise," a writer's life, ever penned (one of the greatest arguments for sobriety as well). Exley's obsession was twofold, with alcohol and the New York Giants, and he wrote of both with an eloquence that Weiss has clearly absorbed.
Why did football bring me so to life?…It had that kind of power over me, drawing me back with the force of something known, scarcely remembered, elusive as integrity—perhaps it was no more than the force of a forgotten childhood. Whatever it was, I gave myself up to the Giants utterly. The recompense I gained was the feeling of being alive.…
When I put a quarter into an arcade machine or call up an emulated game on my computer, I do it to escape the world that is a slave to the time that makes things fall apart. I have never played these games to occupy my world.
I wonder how much of D. B. Weiss's target audience—presumably clever people his own age, which seems to be Adam Pennyman's—will have read Fred Exley. I hope a lot of them have. Probably it doesn't matter, except for this: A Fan's Notes was a touchstone for an earlier generation. Lucky Wander Boy may just turn out to be the same for another one. It's a lovely, funny, sad book. I'm glad I stuck with it.
The opening pages of Liz Williams's The Poison Master were a walk in the park compared to those of Lucky Wander Boy, but the walk turned out to be a long one. The Poison Master is an elegant, finely constructed science fantasy that deftly interweaves Elizabethan alchemist John Dee's life with that of Alivet Dee. Alivet is also an alchemist, on a planet called Latent Emanation. Latent Emanation is ruled by a malevolent alien species that the planet's human inhabitants call the Lords of Night; these dark Lords have taken Alivet's twin sister as a bond-servant. The Poison Master Ghairen is from yet another planet, Hathes; he coerces Alivet into leaving Latent Emanation and journeying with him to his home world, where he hopes to develop a means of overthrowing the Lords of Night. There is much intrigue and counter intrigue, along with dense, gracefully written descriptions of marvels: hallucinogenic tours-de-force that sweep from world to world, with occasional side trips back to sixteenth-century England and Europe. Williams acknowledges the influence of an unlikely trinity—Jane Austen, William Burroughs, and Jack Vance—and there are indeed flashes of Austen's romantic touch, along with the more obvious tips of the hat to Burroughs in the drug fantasias, Vance in the dizzyingly colorful wordplay between worlds, as well as glimpses of Viriconium and Urth. Williams's major flaw is a relatively minor one: an excess of description that slows the novel's pace to a crawl for much of the middle section. Still, most of her joy in her own fabulous creation is transferred to the reader: The Poison Master is a kaleidoscope in which our own world is transformed into a place of strange irradiated beauty.
Finally, the best science fiction story I have read in many years is George Saunders's "Jon," recently published in The New Yorker. Saunders, a longtime contributor to that magazine, is the author of two story collections, Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, as well as a recent children's book, The Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp. His stories tend to be black, funny riffs on pop culture, sweetened by earnestly well-intentioned characters who aren't exactly redeemed by their failures, but manage to endear themselves to readers all the same. "Jon" presents a near-future so awful and believable, it's as though Saunders were sending back missives from the trenches. Attractive young people are forced to undergo neural surgery so that they are fed a constant barrage of commercial media images, which they rate for their various sponsors, all while living in a state of seemingly benign house arrest. Saunders's genius lies in how he renders this stream of corporate consciousness, which becomes language, prophecy, and dream for its adolescent conduits, while at the same time demonstrating his young protagonist's terror and yearning as he begins to sense the vast, inexplicable world he is unable to experience because of his altered neurology.
…what will it be like for us when all has been taken from us? Of what will we speak? I do not want to only speak of my love in grunts!… I want to possess all the articulate I can, because otherwise there we will be, in non-designer clothes, no longer even on TrendSetters & TasteMakers gum cards with our photos on them, and I will turn to her and say, Honey, uh, honey there is a certain feeling but I cannot name it and cannot cite a precedent-type feeling, but trust me, dearest, wow, do I ever feel it for you, right now. And what will that be like, that stupid standing there, just a man and a woman and the wind, and nobody knowing what nobody is meaning?
If we are not able to articulate our own experience of the world, others will do so for us, with disastrous results; this is the terrible message behind some of the greatest works of science fiction of the last century—Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange; Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker; George Orwell's 1984. George Saunders has found a new way of expressing this old, dire warning. It's a message that can't be repeated enough.
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