Play Along: The Essay and the Game

This essay was originally published in Kill Screen

“You didn’t see the thing because you didn’t know how to look. And you don’t know how to look because you don’t know the words.” — Don DeLillo.

The history of writing began in Mesopotamia, as the Sumerians, who had invented everything from alcohol to wheels to legal codes, had to then invent writing to keep track of all their other inventions. Of course, the writing they invented was declaratory, dry—a dispensary of data. In other words, it was nonfiction of the dullest sort. But this writing laid the groundwork for a nascent genre, one that was also nonfiction but less interested in bills, tallies, and contracts and more focused on thoughts, explorations, and graspings. This genre is the essay.

Named by the Writer Michel de Montaigne , essay in French is essai, literally “an attempt,” a venturing out to portray the commonplace occurrences of life not for business or law, but on their own terms. If general nonfiction is a perambulation, clearly demarcating its borders, the essay is a saunter that ignores the signs. Instead of proscribing to agreed-upon terms, essays are the true roman à clefs, generating their own rules to portray the realities they are exploring. To understand an essay, you have to be able to understand how it operates.

If this sounds familiar to you, good, because videogames work with the same principle: thrust the participant into a world, and see them either adapt to its conditions or founder. Games have been long and loud compared to other media forms, and the default question always seems to be are games art? This question–vague, loaded, and frankly, misguided–can only be relevant when it’s pressed forcefully, concentrating into the inquest, can games tell us something about the world in which we live.

Can art have play? 

The answer, of course, is that they can, even moreso than other mediums. Walter Benjamin, influential critic of the early 20th century, wrote on every medium of expression available in his day: art, theatre, literature, films. In this fertile period, Benjamin hit upon a crucial idea, that “just as the entire mode of existence of human collectives changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception.” If people begin communicating about their lives through writing, writing becomes the accepted channel to understand those utterances. If they start making films to explore the human condition, and people tune in, that’s how the great mysteries will be addressed. And if people start playing games en masse; well then, here we are.

Perhaps, then, to wring as much as we can from staid inquiry, we re-form the question and ask can art be games? Can art have play? In the case of the essay at least, that protean form springing out of its own head, we can get a sense of how our current game sensibilities modify our understanding of this previous form of media.

Take “Is There a God?”, written in 790 AD by Li Zhongyuan. On first pass, it looks like it could’ve been lifted from a text adventure: just past a valley’s edge, paths fork, one leading “nowhere in particular,” the other opening to a stream with piles of boulders resembling a tower and a walled gate. Inside that gate rests a darkness so deep “that if you were to throw a stone in here it would land with a splash reminiscent of water, echoing for as long as you remained in this place.” It goes on:

Surrounding the scene are two groves of straight trees, growing on either side of the tower and its gate and the wall in which darkness is, looking as if they were intentionally placed to frame what isn’t there.

What are you supposed to do with that? The essayist appears for a brief moment, noting that the darkness, if punctured, might just sound like water. Forget a god; is there a point to this half-finished level??

Image via Sheila in Moonducks.

Or consider Borges’ “Garden of Forking Paths,” a story so dense and charged it fractalizes in so many directions, each one given a primacy until it is cast aside for the next. It centers on a Chinese Professor who is a spy for the Germans during WWI. Chased by the British while trying to finish his last mission (highlighting the location of an artillery base), he is reminded by a Sinologist of his ancestor, who undertook a project to both write an intricate and labyrinthine book, and to physically construct a labyrinth all men would get lost in. This “garden of forking paths” reveals itself to be about time, and embraces “all possibilities of time” to open some events to plausibility, close others off, or even reconnect ones that seemed dead. And with that, he kills the Sinologist, realizing that his very name (and the windfall his action would produce) were the answers to his mission.

The essay is that, sure, but it is many other things: an epistolary, a metaphor, an allegory, an “indeterminate heap of contradictory drafts” that is uncannily familiar to the eponymous document in the essay. But it is more presciently my frustrated attempts to read it, to backtrack, to search all its nooks and crannies for that “100% completion rate” that means I get it, I’ve mastered it, I’m done.

Only the levels can’t be beaten. Each time I revisit them something novel catches my eye, or some new fact percolates to the surface, and I understand I need to make a new attempt. Like restarting Fallout with a charismatic computer whiz after I’ve beaten the game as a gunslinger, or completing a non-lethal run of MGS3, the new approaches carry with them new challenges, but also relinquish new rewards. They might be significant—an additional cutscene, a void pondered—or they might be insignificant, a new type of camo or a series of bankrupt signifiers. Whereas art is concerned with making a statement, with being analyzed in the most thorough way possible, games are about play and discovery, providing liminal spaces where meaning is crafted out of action.

If you play with them, you get to enter their worlds, and at that point anything’s game. 

These essays, challenging in their own time, represented each author’s distilled perspective, using the tools of their era yet playing with them in unexpected ways. For Montaigne, his play led him away from dialects, polemics, tracts, and treatises into more common ground. For Borges, play led to a vertiginous conflation of events real and imagined, people remembered and revised, until Nazis blended with professors, and policemen with pawns, in what now sounds suspiciously like a potential Xbox One launch game.

But just as play allows for the essay’s world to be plumbed and understood, it exists in videogames tenfold, reified into an avatar the player controls. Here the misdirection works similarly, and though the player may be tasked with recovering a vast sum of money from a defected spy (as in MGS3), or leading your lineage to greatness (as in Crusader Kings II), these goals serve as skeletons, containing some semblance of the thing itself, but not in its breathing, vibrant form. I won’t dispute the emotional heft embodied in Big Boss’s salute at the end of the game, but more revealing of MGS3‘s qualities as a game was the interactive opening sequence, or the different paths you could use to dispatch The End. If you follow the game, or read the essay, you might understand it. But if you play with them, you get to enter their worlds, and at that point anything’s game. Whether it’s the fifth Michael Jackson remix out this summer or the latest Thomas Pynchon, the way we look at one medium influences how we look at another, and so we can play not only with these individual forms, but take especial joy in their interplay.

So, with that in mind, I’m heading back to Barthelme’s Forty Stories to try to beat my high score. Or at least emerge a little less confused.

Room in New York, Edward Hopper, 1932

Trucked In

Winters are when most
get discontented—tender faces struck
by wind blown past covered ears, blocking
sensational atrophy. Pocked
or pocketed, snow falls apart.

In times like these, a burst of orange
helps. Literally, oranges stacked
like a witch’s teat
on our counter, stronger even
than the broken perfume bottle
I find upon coming home late at night, lingering
longer than the glass bits I fail to clean.

The universe tends towards entropy, and so
do our plans on Thursday night, a simple
recipe fizzling into a Friday watching
The Apartment in your apartment. I laugh
at the perfect ending but still feel
disordered,

ordering Indian by bike pedal through blizzard.
How does the food get here, you ask, as we
stake forks into rice, chickpeas, onion,
garlic, peppers, tomatoes, ginger, cilantro, and
a variety of spices.

I look for an answer, and see the oranges.
I see a moment, and it freezes, ordered, in front of me
until I move toward it—and then it brightly pops.

They bring those in by truck.

The Children’s Crusade, or, torpedoing future generations

A current preoccupation of mine is considering how each generation considers itself the absolute supreme, the most topical, the only one that matters. This makes a kind of sense, of course  but it’s something that’s taken some time for me to develop. Take the rash of movie remakes—I used to view the latest remake of some nostalgic property with a healthy dose of skepticism and disdain. And I still do, for the most part, since they’re typically just simple cash grabs. But among the pandering can be opportunities for reassessment: are the values of the original property intact? How does this resonate now? Do we look upon its shortcomings as a place to reflect, or readjust?

(As an aside, the latter question seems to come up a lot with video game remasters—are we compromising the game’s essence by cleaning up the presentation and streamlining the controls? Or are the changes warranted because they “translate” the game to the present moment?)

Do we look upon its shortcomings as a place to reflect, or readjust?

Many creatives choose to examine inter-generational uncertainty by creating a dystopia, and thrusting characters into it. Station Eleven by Emily St. john Mandel is a good example, as are The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. In each, the world has been irreparably wrecked, and part of the joy(?!) of the reading is in uncovering the why, where, when, and how of the disaster, even if it isn’t clearly telegraphed.

Part of me has a gleefully dark sense of humor concerning our eventual doom, most characteristically a bet I made with my younger brother a few years ago. He was so convinced that the Ebola virus would have a catastrophic outbreak that he bet me something like $100 that Ebola would be responsible for at least one million deaths in the next 10 years. I was perhaps too tentative in not proffering a counter-bet on another disease, but I gleefully took his bet. (Still waiting for that payout…)

Perhaps this mentality also shows the bias of my present-ness, since in many ways our world is safer than prior generations: the threat of nuclear annihilation doesn’t loom as large, our ability to identify and cordon off dangerous viruses/epidemics is sophisticated, and we essentially live in a police state that makes it difficult to engage in terrorist activity. But that doesn’t mean that the near-future can’t be even more calamitous than our past. Which means that gleeful bet may not pan out like I thought.

‘Gleeful’ isn’t the word I would use to describe the dystopian world created in Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary, and ‘enjoyment’ sounds nearly as perverse, but it’s hard not to admire the effortless way the novel creates a sense of atmosphere and populates it with intriguing turns of language. It drops the reader right into its world, its brisk pace  working in step with its surrealist candor. And all in 138 pages.

The novel centers on Mumei, a precocious young Japanese boy, and his great-grandfather Yoshiro. More accurately, it centers on a world where global catastrophe has led Japan to isolate itself from the world. Soil is irradiated, earthquakes and other disasters are common, animals are scarce, and Japan’s youth have been so wracked by the changes that they no longer develop properly (or at all). Mumei himself is described variously as bow-legged, calcium-deficient, and octopus-like in his movements. He may actually be turning into an octopus. Heightening the tragedy, Yoshiro and his generation, those responsible for not preventing this doomed world (hint hint), seem unable to die, caught in a terrible limbo while they witness future generations wither. As the novel puts it: “Mumei’s generation was equipped with natural defenses against despair. As always, it was the elderly they had to feel sorry for.”

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adapted (by me) from “The Emissary”‘s cover art

In response, Japanese society loses all semblance of rationality, with facts being replaced by superstition and language being warped in a manner reminiscent of Infinite Jest‘s subsidized time. (With the old holidays no longer seeming appropriate, the public is queried and comes up with “Body Day” [to replace “Sports Day,” since children are no longer strong enough to play them], “Extinct Species Day,”  and, morbidly, “Being Alive is Enough Day” to replace them.) Though never explicitly stated, Japan’s culture is seen as being in such dire straits that the language spoken may be Mandarin instead of Japanese.

There’s dissonance in this last point: many of the most inventive parts of the novel, the ones that make you stop and forget the terrible world being depicted, deal with language being forgotten, nuance being misunderstood. Labels in English (a forgotten language for the younger generation) are instead broken into constituent sounds, or used by older folks to evoke nostalgia and cosmopolitanism. Supporting the hunch of Mandarin being the official language here, Chinese characters are constantly evoked in writing (the German city of Rothenberg being translated into “Outdoor Hot Springs Heaven”). There’s humor here, though its missed more often than not.

Despite the evocative (and perhaps even accusatory) setting, not much actually happens in the novel. But that’s perhaps the point, as the glimpses we do see form a concatenation of tiny rituals, compromises, of how Yoshiro and Mumei must exist in this world. The tartness of an orange,  the “scrapping of footsteps on gravel,” the feeling of the ground when one falls of of their wheelchair, all of these small moments inject some respite, some grace into this world ruined by simple indifference and neglect.

I’m the wrong person to follow up here, but the madcap ideas expressed here seem like logical extensions of current issues affecting Japan—falling birth rates, the effects of climate change, the tension between progress and tradition. There’s a very current fixation on issues which seem too large to tackle, and Tawada does a fantastic job showing how a society failing to deal with those issues can compromise itself in ways that make both perfect sense and no sense at all.

Many years apart but of the same sentiment is The Children’s Crusade, a little-known collection by French writer Marcel Schwob, recently republished by Wakefield Press. Written in 1896, it is framed as a number of stories following the actual “Children’s Crusade” that was said to have taken place in 1212. Each story in narrated by a different observer to the crusade: a cleric, a leper, two popes, a few of the children themselves.

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“The Children’s Crusade” by Marcel Schwob

Each of them bear testament to the endeavor, and in doing so reflect back their own concerns and desires of the world. A disaffected goliard flits between joy and despair at the thought of “cruel men who gouge out the eyes of children, and saw off their legs . . . to put them on display and evoke pity,” and wonders if God will save them. A leper seeks to frighten the children but is instead awed by their grace. A pope, upon hearing of the fate of these children (disappearance, death, slavery), curses and then absolves the Mediterranean. Each character is able to see and, to a certain extent, predict the doom that will befall these children, but none take any action in forestalling it, whether through a belief of divine providence (“Blessed be our god who does all he does well and protects even those who do not confide in him,” chants the Sufi Qalandar) or a pleading for divine intervention (an imagined Pope Innocent III stews over the news of the crusade while contemplating his own mortality). They are as sleepwalkers in a fugue.

Schwob presents these stories as short snippets, moments of clarity and/or madness plucked out of their daily struggle. In many ways the technique is similar to that utilized by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa in his short story “In a Grove,” more popularly known as the primary influence for Kurosawa’s Rashomon. Instead of one story, one truth, one arc, we are privy to a sequence that is shrouded, guided by voices whose worldviews are incompatible with one another. We are impelled to look for understanding and connection while simultaneously being compelled towards pity at the predetermined nature of the crusade. The truths these characters espouse are by-turns bleak, fleeting, and delusional. Far from being shepherds, they are instead wallflowers. Cognizant of the past, when they are confronted in the present they are aware of the future’s awful potential, but are powerless to influence it.

 


 

In college, in an English class, a professor showed our class a picture of Paul Klee’s “Angelus Novus” and asked us to interpret it. The angel—a ramshackle, ugly creation, appears as out of a fog, and its eyes are cast off both past us as the viewer and beyond, to some point we can’t yet see. The future? The hidden? The unknown? We were stumped, disarmed, by this unseemly creature.

The German critic Walter Benjamin, whose writings I greatly admire, was also transfixed by this piece. He wrote of it, describing it as:

though [the angel] were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair, to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.

The storm of the present, of circumstance, constantly throws off-course our calculations of where we currently are and where we aim to be. As our position amidst the storm changes, so too do our sign-posts, our safe harbors. If we miss a deadline, a climate goal, a child’s birthday, that’s fine. We adjust, we recalibrate, and then we move on. The danger is not in the sense of progress not being made, since we are constantly moving. It is instead in the lingering, centuries-old sensation that we are witnesses to a parade whose beginning has been forgotten and whose end, however enterprisingly aimless, is never in doubt.

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Angelus Novus, by Paul Klee

“Missing Person” by Patrick Modiano

Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature is a momentous event, when the world’s stage clarifies a particular writer’s works into a cohesive, powerful body and then celebrates it. But even this prize, too, and its accolades, fades with the relentless march of new stuff: new books, new “literary events,” new sequels or endings of trilogies, new comebacks from old authors. Not to mention all the movies, games, and albums that come out. Daniel Handler at The Believer has an entire column dedicated to reading old Nobel laureates, and while it may be a good resource to find great old books, the laureates themselves appear as lost treasures, excluded from traditional canons and instead given this badge of distinction.

Patrick Modiano won the Nobel for Literature in 2014, and the reaction from many Americans (myself included) could be aptly described as fitting, if by “fitting” I mean fitting into the crux of his work and life (the latter of which I won’t touch on save to say that, in true Modiano style, it requires a lot of digging and isn’t quite fulfilling). Modiano delves into stories of characters reaching into their own histories—whether on a personal or communal level—and stitches these searches together with documents. The tension (and, indeed, irony) that arises here gives the novels their emotional heft: the characters are filled with doubts, gaps, and are looking for proof; the documents, forms, and conversations are concrete proof but lack any sort of context.

“Me? I’m following something up.”
“Following something up?”
“Yes. My past.”
I had said this rather portentiously and it made him smile.

This is certainly the case with Missing Person, published in 1978 and with a 1980 translation by Daniel Weissbort. The novel follows Guy Roland, amnesiac detective, as he decides to turn his sleuthing skills inward once his boss, Hutte, shutters the detective agency where Guy works. His search takes him from a community of Russian emigres in Paris to the snowy resort of Megève all the way to Bora Bora. And on his journey he meets the people who filled his supposed prior life: his girlfriend, a French model who he lost touch with at a border crossing; an old deceased friend, recollected through a photograph and brought to life by her despondent pianist husband; another friend, a former jockey with a disposition more spooked than the horses he used to ride.

pexels-photo-268474

image courtesy https://www.pexels.com/photo/antique-ephemera-french-letters-268474/

 

Modiano’s style, filtered through Weissbort’s translation, is tight and without flourish, with some chapters dedicated solely to lists of addresses. Yet this simplicity by intent leaves gaps (literally, in dialogue; spatially, across the 47 chapters; and formally with a lack of adjectives and adverbs) through which the reader can sense longing, a lack of resolution. Similar to the way that the films of Ingmar Bergman may be better appreciated outside of Sweden, where they have to be read via subtitles as opposed to just heard, the lack of embellishment enhances the seriousness and intent of the writing, even as it keeps it at a distance.

I felt a different sense of dislocation and searching, one more meta-fictional than Guy’s/Pedro’s: my own awareness of the exoduses from Paris during the Occupation so lacking, I looked for clues, signifiers, in Modiano’s spare writing. Much as I’m sure he initially felt, I couldn’t make sense of the ephemera—the addresses, the phone numbers, the overheard conversations—and what was left to me was an overarching sense of sadness and loss, of an issue skirted around because of its raw pain.

“Is it really my life I’m tracking down? Or someone else’s into which I have somehow infiltrated myself?”

But on another, more general level, I realized the kind of searching I was doing, that we all do, when we read: we become familiarized with the stories, the goings-on of the characters, their peculiar traits. Aren’t we interjecting ourselves into their lives, ones which we had no place in at the novel’s start and which we have only a dim awareness of by its end? Of course, that may be the entire point of reading, to develop this awareness and understanding, and perhaps with it, empathy, but I appreciate the warning call Modiano raises, that our searches may be in vain, our hope for closure confounded.

Guy/Pedro certainly exists in this flux, and by the novel’s end he has the pieces to his prior life, but is still missing the frame with which to organize them. In a late letter to Hutte he voices this concern: “Until now, everything has seemed so chaotic, so fragmented … Scraps, shreds have come to light as a result of my searches … But then that is perhaps what a life amounts to … Is it really my life I’m tracking down? Or someone else’s into which I have somehow infiltrated myself?” The ghosts in Guy’s/Pedro’s story linger, but is he the right person to try to stir them?

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“Boluevard du Temple” by Louis Daguerre, 1838


Featured image: “Acid Victorian Age” by Giacomo Carmagnola

“Autumn” in Autumn

Essays, story collections, vignettes—they allow us the opportunity to read a variety of thoughts, on varied subjects. Devoid of any centralized focus, we’re invited to partake in them occasionally, like a painting, to engage deeply in the realm between the frame and then, satisfied, saunter off, perhaps to a new painting, a new sensation, or perhaps to our own thoughts.

Karl Ove Knausgaard has made a name for himself ruining the demarcation lines in his own memory, letting thoughts interrupt or interrogate moments otherwise mundane, charging them with a force flowing and vivid. It’s the struggle of a man coming to grips (in near real-time) with what it means to remember, to impart meaning in memory, and the tension between trying to impose some meaning on it now versus what must have been dredged from it then. We read this process page-by-page and feel we gain through it, if not an insight into our own relation to our past then through the fantastic, coherent confluence of another’s.

Autumn, by contrast, is a group of short pieces written chronologically, ostensibly to his then-unborn daughter, introducing her to the world. Its subject matter is precisely the mundane: teeth, twilight, fingers, chimneys, vomit. In Knausgaard’s hands they are rendered into tiny points of reflection and rumination, as when he transmogrifies shame into glee. Or, like their topic, they are more mundane, less filled with light, and while most do become interesting many begin with scientific descriptions of the topic at-hand. The joy of exploration sometimes becomes a slog.

The most compelling thing about Autumn, however, is not any particular section but the liminal space between them, when you turn the page from one fragment to the next. Each piece is an essay, an attempt, to reach some level of veracity with the subject, and when Knausgaard thinks he’s gotten there he’s content to end. It has (a degree of) closure, and must have felt so for him, given the remit of the book (one piece a day, each day). For the reader, however, such pacing is impractical, and the pieces aren’t suited to that level of deliberation. (Koans they ain’t.)

Walter Langley – Memories (1906)

Instead there’s much joy to be found the the space between them. In an early piece, “Wasps,” he procedurally recounts an encounter while painting, ending it with taping off some vents and trapping the wasps. This leads to “Plastic Bags,” which contrasts the artistic listing and swaying of the bags with their more problematic place in nature. As he stares at one bag, in water, he feels not any great resolution but the sense that he “was still in the middle of something  and always would be.” The parallels are suggestive and inviting.

But the most rewarding is halfway through the book. In “Autumn Leaves” he uses the item to evoke apples and family, the tart taste and cidery smell conjuring genealogies of both the apples he’s eating and the family he’s sharing them with. Yet while this evocation is felt, it brings about the larger realization that his current life is the one he’s fixated on, not the past one. “I think of it every day, that what matters is now, that the years we are living through now are when everything important happens,” he writes, leading to a conclusion where he proleptically mourns this moment, one where he’s trying to be present, to appreciate. It’s not about the past, it’s about the now.

Except it really isn’t, since the next piece, “Bottles,” is a humorous childhood story of a town drunk. It’s all reflective, vivid yet reduced in typical Knausgaard style. It begins, as many others, with an exploration of bottle-as-object, but it’s impossible to hide the smirk that forms when he segways into the memory. It seems such a playful refutation of what came before, and invites the reader to guess at Knausgaard’s thoughts: is he aware of this contradiction? Does he find it a joke? Or as a point to be proved? I’m not quite sure myself, but ask me tomorrow and I may have a new thought on the matter.

Long Player: An Introduction

Series image via Library of Congress (http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c17301).

This is a statement of intent for a new series I’ll be embarking on, titled “Long Player.” The idea here, besides getting me to write with more regularity, is to produce a series of thematically linked essays that take their titles—but not necessarily their inspiration—from the song titles of an album. So each series of linked essays (which might only link tangentially, by the way) will last for the length of the album, at which point I’ll pick a new album and start again.

I’d like to keep things purposefully vague and free-flowing in terms of structure, so some essays will be personal, some will be exploratory, some will read like (boring?) academic papers, and some will instead be short fiction/poetry. I’ll iterate as I get a feel for the format. But the idea appeals because it implicitly allows for the kind of cross-media explorations I find most fruitful. I’d also like to stress that this isn’t like some 33 1/3rd knock-off but rather an admittedly flimsy attempt to just create stuff, using this device as the creative constraint.

I’ll be kicking things off with Yo La Tengo‘s album Fade, which came out in 2013, is 45:48 long, and has the following track listing:

  1. Ohm
  2. Is That Enough
  3. Well You Better
  4. Paddle Forward
  5. Stupid Things
  6. I’ll Be Around
  7. Cornelia and Jane
  8. Two Trains
  9. The Point of It
  10. Before We Run

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On Letter Writing, pt. II

A wise friend of mine, when I told him I wrote letters of multiple pages to faraway friends, simply scoffed. Too much pressure, he claimed, to convey all it is that time and distance accumulates in one life to another. Too much! Much easier to just send a peculiarly picked postcard with some brief words. The words won’t say it, but imply “I thought of you (and think of you) long enough to crystallize that thought into a memento: this postcard.” Any thought of its own inadequacy, or the void of what’s not said, is washed away by simple presence. You’re there, I’m not there, but here we are.

 

 

Image: The Passion of Creation, Leonid Pasternak

M a n y

Note: this piece is an expanded version of experimental fiction originally written in 2011. Images via Ernst Haeckel.

Morning

The first thing you see when you wake up, or the last thing you see before you go to sleep. The only meal stubborn enough to be served all day.

Myrmecology

The branch of entomology that deals with ants. Derived from the Greek for ant. The period after World War II was a dark time for ant-based studies, with the proliferation of technology and Cold War tensions directing humanity’s achievements elsewhere. Thankfully, 1981 marked the resurgence of myrmecology, and interest in ants (whether the carpenter, bullet, crematogaster, or dinoponera variety) has been strong ever since. Estimates place ants as 17% of Earth’s total terrestrial biomass, and further argue that there may be as many species of ant as-yet undiscovered as there are known ant species.

Mirrors

Looking at something else to look at yourself. Reflecting the mannerisms of someone else to convince them to like you by seeing them in you.

Mm hmmmmmmmm

Waking up. Stretching. Emoting the sublimity of a moment, properly. Warm soup belly. Unflinchingly answering in the positive. Feeling content. Feeling confident about the usage of adverbs. Being content. Radiating excess energy. The random brightening of lights.

Multivalent

The state of having a valence greater than two. A thing that has more than two somethings. One thing that spawns many things. One thing with many sides. The quality or state of having many values, meanings, and approaches. [See M a n y.]

Magic

I didn’t believe in magic until my mother told me the story of her pet bunny. It goes like this: she went to a camp with her parents one summer, and the bunny went along. The day after they arrived it got lost, and despite thorough searches, it would not be found. By the last day my mother had almost forgotten about it, the way most children do when things leave them for no reason [see Memories for clarification on the differences between children and adults]. On the last day of camp there was a meal, and for that meal were a number of treats: beer-simmered sausages, veggie shish-kabobs, fried chicken, Mrs. Felderson’s famous potato salad, s’mores. And, to top it off, a delicious pot of rabbit stew. It was fresh, tasty, and exquisitely seasoned. Everyone enjoyed it: it ended the camp on the highest of notes. Only on the car ride back (after minutes of silence that later became normal in their relationship) did my grandparents tell my mother that, in the delicious rabbit stew that she had partaken in, was her own bunny.

That is when I knew that anything could happen.

Making Out

Tongue sails billowing. Currents rushing, swirling. Complete absence of seagulls. Observation of stars, creation of constellations (at any angle). Throwing the map away, trusting the winds not to betray. Not being able to drink the water beneath your chin. Wanting that thirst. See Mmmuaaa-!

Machair

A fertile, low-lying grassy plain found along the Outer Hebrides. A TV series located in the same place. A thing abandoned without pretense but also without history, like the opening pawn in a chess match.

Moron

See me. Or spend some time with me.

Memories

Children are the paintings. Adults are the ones looking at them. The shunting is instantaneous. And irreversible.

Mbira

An African instrument consisting of a wooden board, a resonator, and staggered metal tines, the last of which are often adapted from cutlery. Further proof that you can you can play with your food instead of just eating it.

Mom-and-Pop

An apron and a corn cob pipe. A type of store usually only seen in old TV shows. In the UK, a corner shop or an offy. Where people go after they feel guilty about Black Friday.

Mockery

The pantomimed question of why human beings treat each other the way we do. What some readers might want to express after a terrible pun.

Marijuana

See Mm hmmmmmmmm. See also Munchies. A drug, like coffee. Like dreams. (Both of which it either nudges away or softly embraces.) Possible side effects include anxiety, especially when you realize you’ve by mistake just eaten your roommates pot brownies. For some, see me my roommate.

Munchies

Result of above. Cheeze whiz. Processed foods. Mayonnaise. Seven cheeseburgers in one go (from Burger King, though). Guacamole. Granola bars and juice boxes. 7-11 runs. Five pounds of Twizzlers in a “convenient” plastic container. Someone else’s cookies. Resurrection of stale chips. A simple indulgence. A need to be (full)filled, to occupy a space repeatedly emptied. An effortless, supple way to look at the complicated question of why we exist: to be filled.

Mmmuaaa-!

A simplification. Can be lengthened, shortened. A kiss, with emphasis on its lingering qualities. A mellifluous act which cannot contain the mellifluousness it generates.

Micturating

You’ll have to look this one up yourself.

Making Up

Not Making out. Not even close. Though the aftermath has the potential to far surpass it, vertically if not horizontally.

Mulct

Verb or noun, to extract money from someone either through taxation or deception, or the payment thereof. Etymology: derived from 15th-century Latin mulctare, further from mulcta ‘to fine.’ Usage has steadily dropped since the 1800s, with a comeback unlikely.

Moustache

If not a fan of Making out or Mmmuaaa-!, grow one. Requires: a fine-tooth comb, words from your father, a lack of noticeable maturity elsewhere, a pair of aviators, courage.

Me

A compilation of all past and future entries. A constant time capsule. A misappropriation. The space in between the hitting of the F5 button and the rendering of the result. A way of living that is constantly refreshed, that can only be lived as-is. That cannot but imperfectly be shared with others. An ideal that makes loneliness bearable. Another answer for another day.

Meandering

Going about; one way to end things.

 

haeckel_stephoidea_edit

 

On Letter Writing

(image: Johannes Vermeer, Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid [detail])

 

Letter writing made a lot of sense when the internet didn’t exist, or even when phones didn’t in a personal capacity. Or even phones in general. A staple of the 50s b-movie teen flick was never a letter slipped under a door, or a note tied to a rock thrown through a window, but rather a discrete (both temporally and secretly) phone call listing a time, and a place, to gush out the secrets. (And then they’d usually get eaten by a monster, but that’s besides the point.)

Teddy Roosevelt, I found out thanks to Edmund Morris’ excellent three-part biography, wrote plenty of letters while navigating between his dusty ranch in North Dakota and his posh life in New York. Most were informational, or exciting, like when he killed a bear that was charging through a thicket, or when he captured a group of thieves who stole his canoe. (One of the thieves even managed to have the epic name Pfaffenbach.) The dude built his own raft, coaxed two buddies to traverse a frozen river to catch the thieves, and after catching them, escorted them solo across the North Dakota plains to the nearest jail. But don’t worry–he had a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to keep him occupied. He ended up writing some letters explaining his thoughts on the book, and while he wouldn’t commit to calling it either a great or a terrible book, did manage to pen the following insightful words: “Do you notice how he never comments on the actions of his personages? He relates what they thought or did without any remark whatever as to whether it was good or bad, as Thucydides wrote history–a fault which tends to give his work an unmoral rather than an immoral tone; together with the sadness so characteristic of Russian writers.”

During WWII, and even before, the Japanese established what they called “comfort stations” where “comfort women”–basically women forced into sexual slavery by Japanese soldiers–were coerced into having sex with soldiers to “keep moral high.” One woman, taken from Korea to a camp when she was 15, was abused sexually and physically for months before she was finally let go. In her shame, she moved to China, and after the war met a man (who already had children) and married him. Fearful of the sexually transmitted diseases she had contracted during her repeated sexual assaults, as well as how physically ill they made her, she went for medical help, with doctors ultimately deciding to remove her uterus. As a way to cope with the surgery, and the sobering fact that she would never be able to have children, the doctors suggested she write a letter to the child she would never have, as a way to cope.

These days, letter writing seems almost an esoteric act, as if there’s a Trystero-like conspiracy behind it (You write letters? To who? Saying what?). Of course, the answer is both plain and predictable: yes, to friends, mostly, or whoever will have them, and about nearly anything. Once, I even wrote a letter about writing letters.

Anything, that is, save the every day. The majority of letters I receive nowadays are either spam, bills, or marriage invitations. I’ve always gotten the first, recently started getting many more of the second, and probably get too few of the third (though given my own prospects in that regard, maybe it’s not surprising). They are received with some level of regularity, and so become yet more markers of the accumulations that construct a life only when the final pieces are in. The rote, day-by-day drinking of coffee, commuting (or driving) to work, experiencing soul-crushing boredom beside near-rapturous moments of accomplishment, are more or less how we have to lead our lives, but it’s difficult to convey those granulated experiences in a way that doesn’t sound like a shopping list of activities and feelings: I started class again this week. I’m anxious, but excited. Maybe I’ll meet someone-? Far be it from me to smash such transcriptions, like the society in The Letter Killers Club, but I simply don’t find them productive when you’re talking to someone so far away, both geographically and temporally.

So what to write about, then? Other methods of slipping the knot. The epistolary is a genre notable for its formal constraint of being composed solely of documents, mostly letters. Some famous books, like Frankenstein and Carrie, employ the epistolary form in varying degrees. Its development is interesting, as a common trend is that earlier uses of epistolary form use the constraint to peer into the thoughts and insecurities of characters in ways that would otherwise be unimaginable in the 18th-19th centuries (though I guess they compensate for this with a lot of jokes about purity and sex, so it’s a fair trade). The Coquette, published in the U.S. in 1797, utilized the form entirely throughout the text, serving to both connect directly with the tragic heroine Eliza Wharton and to provide an easy narrative transition after her death. Later uses of epistolary are often sparing but effective at disjarring a narrative, presenting some document that complicates the section it’s woven around. Nabokov’s Pale Fire is centered around a long poem bookended by commentary of said poem, providing a useful framing device nonetheless unable to hold its contents.

Of course, for all of these stories letter writing was still a dominant form of communication, if not the dominant form. The only contemporary equivalent I can think of (and I’m stretching the sense of “contemporary” here) is the terrible 2006 film The Lake House. I can believe in a magical mailbox sending letters through time. What I can’t believe, on the other hand, is that Keanu Reeves is supposed to lead a romantic drama. But then again, I suppose they were just asking each other Maybe I’ll meet someone-?

So why are letters mostly gone? Don’t we still need an outlet to explain our good deeds, or help with  our bad memories, or simply to vent? Or are they now, freed by technology from serving as “catch-ups” or “updates,” simply too much of a bother to do, taking too much effort for too little effect? While I agree with the lifting of these simple frames has made it harder to get a letter started, I try to remind myself that a letter is kind of like an essay: looking at etymology it’s a trial, a test, an attempt, one that can’t be ventured toward if you don’t indeed venture. It will go at the beginning and tumble its way to the end. The only difference is that, when you’re done with a letter, you simply get to sign off and leave.

VTY,

Nick

 

P.S. If you’ve actually managed to make it through here and your major thought the whole time has been, “but he doesn’t write me letters,” then I implore you to send me your address. My letter may not be the best thing to grace your mailbox, but I’ll be selling your address to marketing companies, so it certainly won’t be the worst.

Quotes on Writing from Richard Poirier

Writing must not be simple. Yet most commentators on the literary, political, or cultural matters treated . . . give every impression that writing is somehow easy, that words can somehow be set into place and count on not to move.”

 

“Reading can be a civilizing process, not because the meanings it gathers may be good for us—they may in fact sometimes be quite pernicious—but because that most demanding form of writing and reading called literature often asks us to acknowledge, in the twists and turns of its language, the presence of ancestral kin who cared deeply about what words were doing to them and what they might do in return . . . Good reading and good writing are, first and last, lots of work.”

 

 

“We are always and everywhere trapped in language; it is our central means of self-expression, yet it is imprecise, maddeningly slippery, not equal to our thoughts or our feelings.”