Remember Karen Russell whose story “Haunting Olivia” appeared in the 2005 Debut Fiction issue of the New Yorker when she was 23? Her first collection of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is now out. NPR has another of her stories on its Web site, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.”
Posting has been light because I’m nearing the end of the quarter at school, and I am in the final stages of a very big project. And posting will probably continue to be light because I’ll be heading off on vacation as soon as school is done. I’m thinking about taking my laptop with me, but even if I do, I’m not sure how close I’ll be to the Internet. I’m excited about this vacation (we’ll be joining my family at the beach in North Carolina) not just because it’ll be a much needed break from school, but also because there’s no place I’d rather read than on vacation. On a proper vacation there are seemingly endless hours to spend with your books. I also love the way certain reading experiences become associated with certain exotic locales – and by “exotic” I mean simply “not home.” For example, last summer Mrs. Millions both read Walker Percy’s classic The Moviegoer during our honey moon in St. Maarten. The unfamiliarity of that island paradise mingled with the humidity of New Orleans where Percy’s Binx Bolling is trying to keep “despair” at bay. The book and the place where I read it combined to form a peculiar sort of dreamy memory that I love. Though I haven’t even gotten the suitcase out of the closet, I already know which four books I’ll be taking with me. I plan to finish The Count of Monte Cristo on the plane ride there. I’ve been enjoying the book immensely, by the way. After that I’m going to read Belly, a debut novel by Lisa Selin Davis that will be coming out later this summer. The publisher’s publicity compares her writing to that of Jane Smiley and Richard Russo. I’m also bringing a couple of nonfiction books: David Lipsky’s account of following a class of cadets through West Point, Absolutely American. Lipsky was originally assigned to write an article for Rolling Stone about the military academy but ended up sticking with the story for four years. I’m also bringing The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki, the resident business writer at the New Yorker. The book’s premise, which is borrowed from the world of economics, is that the collective choices of large populations of people are often correct, and that it’s even possible, by setting up what amounts to a futures market for ideas, to use this effect to predict the future. A good example of this is a futures market where one can bet on who will be elected president. Such markets have been very good predictors of actual events over the years. None of these books particularly strike me as “summer reading,” but I’ll just be happy that it’s summer and that my only obligation is to read.
I’m not a gamer, in any conventional sense. I like Brickbreaker, that insanely addictive game that seems to come standard on the Blackberry, and I can lose myself for twenty minutes or so in Tetris, especially if I’m on an airplane, but that’s about the extent of it. There are games that I’ve sometimes been tempted to play because I’ve heard that their worlds are beautiful, but I’ve resisted on the grounds that the absolute last thing I need is an absorbing beautiful thing to lose time in.
Given all this, I was surprised by how thoroughly I fell for Molleindustria’s Every Day The Same Dream when I encountered it a month or so ago. It’s a strange, somewhat harrowing little game that you play in your web browser, beautiful in the bleakest possible way. The world of the game is grey, constrained, populated by ghosts. The set-up is simple: your avatar gets up every morning and goes to work. Except that it isn’t quite every morning; after one or two rounds, you realize that your avatar’s caught in a repeating dream. And the thing is, chances are you’ve been here before: if you’ve ever felt trapped in a job that you hated, if you know what it’s like to get up every morning and set out into a pale workday that far too closely resembles yesterday and the day before and the day before that, then you may find this world suffused with a chilly familiarity. I did.
The game begins with your avatar standing next to his bed. The graphics are simple: he’s a white undifferentiated silhouette of a man. You walk him to the wardrobe and he puts on a suit. He walks past his wife, who’s perpetually cooking breakfast; she tells him that he’s running late. He walks down the corridor, descends in the elevator, gets in his car, drives to work, is yelled at by his silhouette boss, and walks down an endless line of cubicles populated by silhouette men who look exactly like him, until he finds a cubicle that’s empty. When he sits down in the empty cubicle the game begins again; he’s standing in his boxers by his bed.
The point of the game seems to be to break this numbing routine. Options and variations begin to reveal themselves: you can decline to put on your suit and then get fired for showing up at work in your underwear. Instead of getting in your car you can walk in the opposite direction to a desolate intersection, where just once in the game you’ll encounter a robed and hooded homeless man. “I can take you to a quiet place,” he tells you, and then he takes you to a graveyard where you linger for just a moment before you wake up standing by the bed again. You can get out of your car on the freeway, walk into a field and pet a cow. You can catch an orange leaf as it falls from a monochrome tree outside your office. You can walk past the endless row of cubicles onto a rooftop, and throw yourself over the edge.
Several commentators on various online forums devoted to gaming describe it as “a creepy little game.” I can’t really disagree, but it’s also beautiful.
The game was created two months ago by Molleindustria, which describes itself as “an Italian team of artists, designers and programmers that aims at starting a serious discussion about social and political implications of videogames.” Molleindustria was founded by Paolo Pedercini, born “somewhere in northern Italy” in 1981. He describes Every Day The Same Dream as “a slightly existential riff on the theme of alienation and refusal of labor.”
One can spend hours trying to decipher the meaning of the game (and people have, endlessly, in the afore-mentioned gaming forums.) But meaning aside, and even aside from the sad beauty of the game’s gray world, I was thinking about it the other day and I realized part of its appeal: it reminds me, in its very existence, of what the Internet used to be.
I came online in the mid-90s. People were pouring online in those days, but not everyone was there yet; I was far enough over on the leading edge of the curve that my classmates at The School of Toronto Dance Theatre thought I was exotic for having a computer and an email address, but far enough behind that astonishing things had already been done. The artistic potential of the Web had become apparent over the previous several years, and some of the websites I encountered were absolutely beautiful. I began teaching myself HTML code in my bedroom at night.
“The web is still artistically driven by unaffiliated labors of love,” the website designer Paul Frost wrote, sometime during that period.
I’m sometimes nostalgic for what the web was back then. I don’t claim that it was better. It was just different. There were high barriers for entry, and it wasn’t nearly as useful: aspects of the web that I take for granted today (buying groceries online, booking plane tickets, etc.) weren’t really there yet. But at the same time it was a stranger, wilder, in some ways more beautiful place.
Every Day The Same Dream reminds me of that lost web. It’s nothing if not an unaffiliated labor of love.
The “Best Books of 2003” lists are coming fast and furious now. I’ve grabbed the links to a handful of them for your reading pleasure. The New York Times selected just nine books to be dubbed “Editors’ Choice,” a prestigious honor. The Seattle Times put together slightly a quirkier list of best books, while SFGate does a more all-inclusive notable books list. I also dug up some lists from a couple of papers that are not known for being literary trendsetters, but whose lists are rather refreshing, and perhaps more in tune with the tastes of the broader reading public when looked at next to the heavyweights: here are the “best books” lists of The Star Telegram in Dallas and the Sun Herald out of Biloxi, Mississippi. There isn’t a book that appears on all five of those lists, nor even on four out of five. There are four books which appear on three out of five lists, and together they make an eclectic bunch. The best of the year? Perhaps not, but a good little quartet:Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel Garcia MarquezDrop City by T.C. BoyleHow to Breathe Underwater by Julie OrringerThe Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise ErdrichAnd now, weighing in at 133lbs. is the BIGGEST book of the year… (and according to Guinness, it’s actually the biggest of all time)
I heard from folks in Iowa about the visit by Jim Shepard for his “audition” for the Director spot. Shepard’s sense of humor apparently sat well with students who appreciated the levity injected into the mock workshop that Shepard conducted. The mock workshop wasn’t all funny stuff, though, and students were impressed with the thoroughness that Shepard brought to the discussion of the stories that were critiqued. The reading also went over well. Sheppard read a little from his novel Project X and a little from his collection of stories Love and Hydrogen. The reading was entertaining but also brief – by all accounts a plus for MFA candidates who doubtless sit through more and longer readings than almost anyone. For his craft talk, Shepard discussed Denis Johnson’s story “Emergency.” I’m told that Shepard’s visit was the most well-received so far, but there are also rumors going around that Shepard has reservations about taking the job, which he touched upon in this article from the Des Moines Register. Next up: final candidate, Ben Marcus.Previously: Richard Bausch, Lan Samantha Chang