Saturday, 13 September 2014

Epilogue #9

Yoko Ogawa
(translated by Stephen Snyder)

As a rule, I've decided generally not to cover short story compilations (a decision I came to after reading Haruki Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes) on the basis that there's often a lot more difficulty analysing and writing about them as a unified piece of work.

Having read Yoko Ogawa's Revenge (subtitled 'Eleven Dark Tales'), I'm unsure as to whether or not I can confidently describe it as a short story compilation. Though the said tales are all self-contained to some extent, a major characteristic of Revenge is how all the stories are linked in a number of ways.

The more overt, surface connections between stories are very skilfully incorporated, in my view. Rather than opting for making these short vignettes explicitly the sum of a larger, singular piece; Ogawa connects them more in order to illustrate how the insular lives lived by their protagonists can subtly impact on one another (events in the background of one story will be central or, at least, extended upon in a later story), and, through this, she is able to paint detailed portraits of her characters and settings without compromising the Kafka-esque minimalism of her writing style.

Backing this sense of connectivity up further is a strong thematic consistency. Broadly speaking, each story examines the strange darkness that lies just beneath everyday lives and interactions (she has warranted much comparison with David Lynch in this regard); something that is effectively presented, for example, in 'The Museum of Torture''s examination of how violence manifests itself within the everyday. The titular museum displays used implements of torture and violence alongside the completely ordinary artefacts of an otherwise normal, everyday, functioning home. As well as this, we follow the story's first-person narrator's growing feelings of anger towards her boyfriend as they spiral into contemplations of violence.

For all their dwelling on the strange, dark, and uncomfortable aspects of real life; Revenge's 11 vignettes are very accessible and - along with some short stories published in The New Yorker(equally fascinating and similarly evocative of a strange sort of eerie calm) - have made me want to explore more of Yoko Ogawa's work and, furthermore, to expand my knowledge of Japanese literature.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Epilogue #8

Inherent Vice
Thomas Pynchon

There are some things you can pretty safely expect to come across in a Thomas Pynchon novel -- hilarious character names, irreverent songs, staggering levels of research, perhaps a reference or two to 'magenta and green'... the list goes on. One could say, though, that there's a lot about the content of each work that's nevertheless pretty distinctive and unique amongst his canon. For example, debut novel V. intersperses a satire on New York bohemia with one character's obsessive search for an elusive historical constant known as 'V'; Mason & Dixon takes the real historical figures of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon and places them within a beautifully strange ghost story about the growth and development of the Age of Reason; and Vineland deals, broadly speaking, with its protagonist's complicated relationship with his estranged wife, his daughter, and the federal government.

At first, then, it may seem quite strange that Inherent Vice seems - in many ways - to be very similar to 1990's Vineland. Both novels explore the end of the ''60s dream' at the hands of an ever-growing and restrictive regime of authoritarianism; and they both present a drugged-up, surf-rock-soundtracked California as perceived by stoner protagonists. But, where Vineland flicked channels through tones and themes as diverse as political satire, melancholy nostalgia, eclectic cultural referencing, apparent zombies, and Godzilla; Inherent Vice sticks more-or-less to being a weed-reeking mystery novel reminiscent to varying extents both of the Coen Brothers' slacker-noir classic The Big Lebowski and the chaotic, atmospherically rich hardboiled crime novels of someone like Raymond Chandler (himself, of course, a huge influence on the Coens' film). That's certainly not to say, though, that Inherent Vice is - as some critics have argued - a depthless pulp detective pastiche.

The story - of private detective Doc Sportello being hired by his ex-girlfriend and subsequently finding himself dragged into the middle of a Chandler-esque mess of criminals, corrupt police / feds, and shadowy organisations - is presented to the reader in a way that will certainly be familiar to anyone who's read Pynchon before (and if you've not; then this is a great starting point).

The way Pynchon portrays the time period (beginning of the '70s), particularly, is in keeping with his post-modern brand of 'historiographic metafiction' (what a term): he, as ever, acknowledges that history is always constructed from the artefacts of the past through eclectic references to contemporary television, film, and music. Most interesting, though, is how Pynchon once again uses a historical setting to engage with the present day: the ubiquitous problems posed by gentrification are approached in a similar way to those of the colonialism that haunts his more sprawling historical works; the World Wide Web (and issues of privacy and censorship) is explored through its academic / government research-based precursor, ARPANET; and parallels can be drawn between Pynchon's representation of a paranoid post-Manson rise in restrictive authoritarianism and the post-9/11 'War on Terror'...

... Which would seem to lead quite nicely onto Pynchon's most recent novel Bleeding Edge (expect a post about it at some point). Anyway: overall, I found that - for a novel that's received some derision for being 'Pynchon-lite' - Inherent Vice was still rich in the detail, the silliness, and the seriousness that one can expect from one of Pynchon's works. It may be his most accessibly written, and it may not scale the same dizzying heights of ambition as Mason & Dixon or Gravity's Rainbow, but it's no less worthy of a place within the canon of one of the most unique and brilliant writers still working today.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Epilogue #7

Raising Steam
Terry Pratchett

I'd been thinking recently about how Terry Pratchett was probably the author who first got me really interested in literature, and also about how good a 'first author' Pratchett is: as well as just being in tune with the fantasy genre that's often favoured by younger readers, the knowing sense of humour and tendency towards satire and social commentary take it a bit further, Pratchett's use of parody and pastiche opens up a wealth of further reading (for example, the City Watch novels could lead one to the works of Raymond Chandler; allusions to the Dungeon Dimensions can lead to H. P. Lovecraft, etc.), and -- overall -- through adding more and more depth to the settings and characters of his Discworld novels over the years, he's created a universe that encompasses the influence of so much literature, while itself being no less unique and overflowing with originality.

It had been a while since I'd read something from Pratchett, and - having not read any of the most recent Discworld novels - I went into Raising Steam curious about how the fictional world had changed and developed (especially seeing as how many of the recent novels seem to be about the Disc's increasing technological developments and slide towards industrialisation).

I feel like, having read the novel now, there's definitely been some change to the world -- Ankh-Morpork isn't as comically drowning in its own squalor, and this novel dwells less on the fantastical elements of a fantasy world and more on those of a more recognisably 'real' and constantly developing one. Raising Steam is, generally speaking, about progress: when a young, enthusiastic, Northern (or Discworld-Northern, anyway) autodidact engineer invents the first functional steam engine, the reader witnesses how - around the Disc - various groups react to both the perceived wonders and the perceived dangers posed by the innovation. In dealing with this theme, Pratchett clearly still possesses the ability to balance real-world issues and satire within a fantasy setting (a reminder here that I should really re-read Small Gods at some point); something visible in how one of the key themes of the novel centres around an extremist reaction by a faction of dwarves against technological advancement and explores effectively how those with power will exploit the fears and anxieties of ordinary people in order to further their own pursuits for further power and control.

If there's any fault with Raising Steam, I'd say it lies to some extent with the structuring of the novel. The early parts of the novel -- in which Pratchett is introducing and gradually bringing together the various characters -- sometimes feel somewhat disjointed: I'm wondering whether this is to do with the fact that Pratchett is, sadly, only able to write now via the use of voice-recognition software. I can definitely see how such a situation would effect how one is able to compose something as structurally complex as a novel (especially one like this that is set in a multitude of locations scattered across what is a seemingly constantly growing fictional world); and something that I feel is redeemed by the fact that Pratchett's style of writing and characteristic sense of humour is highly conversational in tone anyway, as well as by the fact that - as the characters come together and the plot finds its focus - the novel becomes ever more enjoyable and readable.

Raising Steam may not hit the heights of Pratchett's best work; but it's nonetheless a very readable novel displaying not only Pratchett's ability to effortlessly balance rich imagination and humour with contrastingly serious themes, but also that he - like his character, Dick Simnell - has immeasurable passion, pride, and care for what he has put so much time and effort into creating over the years.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Epilogue #6

The Luminaries
Eleanor Catton

In my 'Epilogue' about Eleanor Catton's interesting (and highly recommended) first novel, The Rehearsal, I wondered how (and, I suppose, if) her style in that novel -- one characterised by experimentation in a modernist / post-modernist style existing closely alongside, I thought, a strong interest in relatively accessible, 'gripping', storytelling -- would translate from that book's relative brevity to the oft-stated immensity of her second novel, The Luminaries.

It was definitely something that I kept close in my mind throughout my time reading The Luminaries; especially given that it's during the opening part of the novel that I thought the ghost of The Rehearsal lingered most strongly.

This part -- centred around the character of Walter Moody wandering into a meeting of twelve men connected by a recent cataclysmic event in the gold rush town of Hokitika, New Zealand and eventually gradually piecing the twelve's individual stories together -- is similar to The Rehearsal clearly in formal and technical terms. Much like with that novel, the reader is thrown into the immediate aftermath of an event (in that case it was a sex scandal between a teacher and a student; and in this case, it's a particularly eventful night that ended with a comatose prostitute, a dead old timer, and a disappeared young man) that is delved into further through a series of interconnected subjective narratives, detailing the wider settings, characters, backstories and events that are explored further in the later parts.

What The Luminaries does differently, though, to The Rehearsal is examine that theme on a larger scale: both literally in the fact that a mining community is larger than a high school, and in a more figurative sense in its exploration of themes of how greed, exploitation and violence branches from the (then) emergent capitalism that is now a central part of contemporary life. Overall, I found the novel a highly engaging work that effectively balances a gripping, interestingly told period mystery with an intriguing exploration of - amongst others - themes like the unreliability of the historical narrative / the illusion that is objective truth; and the wider consequences of capitalism on social communities.

If I had any problem with The Luminaries, it's that I thought it lost steam a bit towards the very end; as the novel becomes more about simply describing events that have already been established. Though there were some moments of beauty there and though it was interesting to see some of these events through a new perspective, it felt to me like the one time where Catton seemed to become a slave to her ambitious and very careful astrologically-centred narrative structure. Overall though, I'd highly recommend the novel to anyone after a thrilling story with a bit more going on underneath.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Epilogue #5

The Castle
Franz Kafka

The final novel in the Vintage-released collection of Kafka's complete novels, The Castle, is one that's left me with a mixture of opinions and thoughts hanging in the ether -- much like, unfortunately, the story set up by Kafka in this unfinished work.

Out of the three novels, this is probably the strangest and most striking -- it's more strongly surreal than its predecessors, darker and also more absurdly humorous. We - like the protagonist, K. the land surveyor - are introduced to an odd small village that's seemingly in permanent Winter and ruled over by bureaucrats in the castle that overshadows it; we see the people who live there and their relationships with one another, we experience K.'s difficulty to do his job in this village (or even to figure out what it is) and the difficulties posed by the increasingly elaborate and deranged bureaucracy, as well as by the two comically incompetent and uncannily strange assistants assigned to him... and then...

Yeah. Unfortunately -- as well as being, in my view, the most atmospherically well-realised and gripping of Kafka's three novels -- it's also the most incomplete. Like the other two novels in the Vintage collection, this novel ends with a section put together posthumously from fragments and drafts... unlike with those two, though, this only serves to make The Castle end abruptly a little bit later than it originally would have done.

Nonetheless, it's worth reading for many reasons. The wintry, remote and peculiar atmosphere of the village is one of my favourite settings from Kafka's three novels; and the paranoia- and anxiety-inducing sense of bureaucracy that characterised The Trial is heightened with the seemingly incomprehensible system of government that oversees the village, while the novel also encompasses the more in-depth characterisation that could be seen in Amerika.

It's just a shame that it all ends so

Monday, 17 February 2014

New Storytelling: Gone Home / Kentucky Route Zero

Games telling stories is nothing new.

Within the ever-burgeoning indie scene though, there have been a spate of studios pushing the boundaries of how stories can be told within this medium. The two games I've played most recently -- The Fullbright Company's highly-detailed exploration experience Gone Home, and (what is available of) Cardboard Computer's intriguing, episodic magical realist adventure Kentucky Route Zero -- are two games that I've found particularly interesting in how - in very different ways - they pull the focus away from traditional game elements like strategy or reflex-testing and push it more totally towards narrative; crucially, without compromising the interactivity that separates the medium of games from film and (most of) literature.

Even though, as I said, games telling stories is nothing new; and though there are undoubtedly plenty of great games with brilliantly-executed narratives (to name a few, Grim Fandango, Bioshock Infinite, and the - for my money, unsurpassed - Deus Ex), the medium can run into unfortunate issues when trying to balance a well-crafted story with the crucial elements of interactivity offered uniquely by games. Especially if said game has a story that doesn't lend itself so much to gaming's traditional propensity for frequent violence.

I think the best example of this is Rockstar Games' 2011 game, L.A. Noire. An overall very good and ambitious game, with a complex and engrossing story and a highly commendable setting in the form of its beautiful recreation of 1950s LA; my only real problem with the game was with the unfortunate flaws in the gameplay. The interrogation mechanic was an admirable experiment, but suffered from overuse; and the more traditional gameplay styles on show -- shooting sections, car chases, quick time events, arbitrary collectibles, etc. -- sometimes felt kind of shoe-horned in for the purposes of adding some interactivity, in a way that limited the sense of immersion that is crucial to any story.

How, then, do my two examples deal with this problem? Especially given that, I should note, neither of them feature violence, puzzles, competition, or strategic elements to propel their stories.

What Gone Home does is take the attention to detail and focus on independent exploration that games like Deus Ex, Thief and System Shock --- (fun fact 1: Fullbright is formed from members of the Bioshock 2 team, making them sort of Looking Glass alumni by proxy; which is, fun fact 2: partly why my brain is hardwired to like their game so much) --- used to flesh out story and character details, and makes this the primary backbone of its narrative structure.

As Katie Greenbriar having returned from travelling around Europe, you piece together the whole story through what artefacts you find in the house -- letters, journals, books, photographs, amongst many others. This mechanic, though highly simple, contributes a hell of a lot to the game.

Relying on this mechanic -- in a way, a sort of reincorporation of gothic 'found' narratives for contemporary consumerist societies -- rather than on exposition or cut-scenes, allows the player to be told a linear story in a non-linear fashion without it in any way messing up the game (contrasting with my experience of the very open Fallout 3, where I travelled to Rivet City too early and ended up missing out an entire mission path); making this a truly and commendably interactive narrative, where there's the literal interactivity of playing the game merges with that of piecing together the story in your mind from the various objects and clues you find in whatever order you choose to find them.

It goes without saying as well that a major share of the game's appeal lies also within the most traditional aspect of it: the content of the story itself. I don't want to spoil it (this is really the sort of thing that's most rewarding to go into relatively blind), but I want to praise the Fullbright Company for their telling of an emotionally resonant and touchingly personal story, and in a way that frequently and intelligently plays on and with our expectations of what stories the medium of video games is capable of telling.

This experimental shifting around of boundaries where storytelling in games is concerned is one of few things that Kentucky Route Zero has in common with Gone Home.

At first glimpse, the game behind Cardboard Computer's dreamy story, which revolves around a truck driver named Conway's journey to make a delivery through an America that echoes the worlds created by the likes of David Lynch, Haruki Murakami and Franz Kafka in its juxtaposition of the highly surreal and the highly mundane, looks more traditional than Gone Home. In appearance and general gameplay, it strongly resembles a point-and-click adventure game; and in how its story is relayed to the player, there are clear cues taken from one of gaming's oldest genres: interactive fiction (or the 'text adventure').

As you play the game though, it becomes apparent that Cardboard Computer are dedicated to experimenting with and reshaping how video games can tell stories.

This will first become apparent in how decision-making works in the game; differing as it does from what we see in many games - whether it be the 'single-handedly-build-an-orphanage-from-twigs-and-your-own-hair-or-kick-a-sentient-being's-head-in-and-then-nuke-everything-in-the-universe'-style big morality of, for example, Mass Effect, or even the more nuanced, pessimistic approach of something like Deus Ex. The decisions the player makes in this game (what Conway might say to his dog about the current situation, for example, or whether to listen to a tape or have a conversation with the person who is playing the tape) are often curiously mundane, or even humbling; but they serve strangely (yet very effectively) to really increase your personal engagement within the interactive world. As KR0's creators said themselves in this highly-recommended feature on the game on, "[it results in] a more human experience, a more empathetic experience. Or also more kind of mysterious experience where they don't feel like they're in control. It's not a power-trip fantasy".

As you progress through the game, Cardboard Computer subtly introduce more and more formally unorthodox elements such as the very minimalist moments when the game presents the player with narrative vignettes reliant basically only on an evocative duo of prose and atmospheric, seemingly implemented with almost surgical care and precision, sound. Most impressive of these though is the playing with narrative perspective; something that first makes an appearance when you find yourself assuming control over the character of Shannon, making specifically the decision as to how she reacts to meeting Conway for the first time. This escalates as the game progresses and has reached its (thus far) apex with my personal favourite scene of the game: a scene that I won't spoil other than to say that it takes place in a characteristically surreal museum and is comparable in style to literary modernism.

It remains to be seen how Kentucky Route Zero is going to continue with its innovations in future episodes, but the recent 'interlude' piece - 'The Entertainment' - and some claims in this recent progress statement from the game's creators suggest that they don't plan on sticking to a formula.


Both of these games have very good implications for the future of games as a medium for interactive storytelling as a whole; the independent scene, helped significantly by the increased availability of sophisticated production and distribution tools, is forever flourishing as a site for creativity and experimentation. There are tons of indie studios like Cardboard Computer and the Fullbright Company excitingly subverting and playing with gaming's traditional tropes and characteristics (for more of that, incidentally, see here), as well as those with ambitions geared more towards the unfamiliar and the avant-garde.

It'll be doubly interesting, too, to see how the mass of creativity within the independent scene will exert its influence on the bigger developers and the bigger games.

--- --- ---

Some further reading:
'Gaming and Fiction: Telling the Story to a Whole New Audience'. Lucy Prebble, 'The Guardian'

'On videogame debate, misunderstandings and the importance of keeping an open mind'. Tadhg Kelly, 'Edge'

'From Bioshock Infinite to Gone Home: The Story of the Fullbright Company'. 'Edge'

'Breathe In The Road: Cardboard Computer and Kentucky Route Zero'. Charlie Hall, 'Polygon'

'The Making Of: Kentucky Route Zero'. 'Edge'


Gone Home is available for £14.99 from Steam

Kentucky Route Zero's season pass is available for £18.99 from Steam