Like we did last year, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover design never seems to garner much discussion in the literary world, but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. Even in the age of the Kindle, we are clicking through the images as we impulsively download this book or that one. I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another, suggesting that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a page where you can get a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
Earlier this month Amazon released a list of 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime. It joins Esquire’s 80 Books Every Man Should Read, The Telegraph’s 100 Novels Everyone Should Read, Huffington Post’s more manageable 30 Books You Should Read Before You’re 30, and The Guardian’s ambitious and inflexible 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read.
These lists serve a purpose if you’re Jay Gatsby furnishing a library or if you’ve, say, just arrived from Mars and have no knowledge of Earth books. What they miss is that one of the greatest rewards of a reading life is discovery. In my 10 years working at bookstores, no one ever came in and asked me what they should read before their death — they would ask me what my favorite book was, or if there were any great new books no one was talking about, or they would just want me to leave them alone so they could explore on their own.
I discovered one of my favorite books because the author called our store and charmed the living daylights out of me. I found another in a box of old books that my Russian literature professor left outside his office to give away. So while I do think that you should read the canon if it interests you, I think it’s more important that you read the books that find their own way into your hands.
With that in mind, here is my list of books you should read (if you want to):
You should read the book that you hear two booksellers arguing about at the registers while you’re browsing in a bookstore.
You should read the book that you see someone on the train reading and trying to hide that they’re laughing.
You should read the book that you see someone on the train reading and trying to hide that they’re crying.
You should read the book that you find left behind in the airplane seat pocket, on a park bench, on the bus, at a restaurant, or in a hotel room.
You should read the book that you see someone reading for hours in a coffee shop — there when you got there and still there when you left — that made you envious because you were working instead of absorbed in a book.
You should read the book you find in your grandparents’ house that’s inscribed “To Ray, all my love, Christmas 1949.”
You should read the book that you didn’t read when it was assigned in your high school English class. You’d probably like it better now anyway.
You should read the book whose author happened to mention on Charlie Rose that their favorite band is your favorite band.
You should read the book that your favorite band references in their lyrics.
You should read the book that your history professor mentions and then says, “which, by the way, is a great book,” offhandedly.
You should read the book that you loved in high school. Read it again.
You should read the book that you find on the library’s free cart whose cover makes you laugh.
You should read the book whose main character has your first name.
You should read the book whose author gets into funny Twitter exchanges with Colson Whitehead.
You should read the book about your hometown’s history that was published by someone who grew up there.
You should read the book your parents give you for your high school graduation.
You should read the book you’ve started a few times and keep meaning to finish once and for all.
You should read books with characters you don’t like.
You should read books about countries you’re about to visit.
You should read books about historical events you don’t know anything about.
You should read books about things you already know a little about.
You should read books you can’t stop hearing about and books you’ve never heard of.
You should read books mentioned in other books.
You should read prize-winners, bestsellers, beach reads, book club picks, and classics, when you want to.
You should just keep reading.
Image via Abee5/Flickr
In his book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky explains why personal blogs and social networking sites can sometimes confound us. He argues that before the internet, it was easy to tell what was a broadcast and what was a private message. A television show was a broadcast — a message meant for a large audience of people, a public message. A telephone call, on the other hand, was a private message, meant for one other person. On the internet, though, the difference between the two kinds of media is much smaller. Is a personal blog a public or a private communication? Is it meant for mass consumption by thousands or millions of people? Not typically, and yet it can be read, theoretically, by billions.
This blurring of the two types of media is so difficult to grasp that it’s produced its own near-ubiquitous straw man argument, which blogger Jason Kottke calls “the breakfast question.” It comes up whenever anyone writes about social media: “Why would I care what you ate for breakfast that morning?” Shirky’s rebuttal to this is succinct:
“It’s simple. They’re not talking to you. We misread these seemingly inane posts because we’re so unused to seeing written material in public that isn’t intended for us. The people posting messages to one another in small groups are doing a different kind of communicating than people posting messages for hundreds or thousands of people to read.
I’ve been thinking about this particular idea a lot lately as it applies to Tumblr. For those who are unfamiliar with Tumblr, it’s a blogging platform that categorizes posts into one form or another — text, photo, chat, audio, video. It allows you to put out small bursts of content, which then goes into a feed. People can follow you, just as they can on Twitter, and they can “like” your posts and re-blog them. Tumblr offers a combination of Twitter’s viral capabilities with a more customizable experience that allows for a tremendous level of personal expression.
I’m something of a Tumblr addict. It is the first thing I check in the morning — before my email, before my Facebook page, but after I have some coffee (Some addictions are more powerful than others). What I love about it is the social interaction. I follow a large number of personal blogs that post funnier, more creative versions of “Here’s what I had for breakfast.” (I was following a blog that was, literally, about what people ate for breakfast, but I dropped it. I guess they weren’t talking to me.) I also follow a bunch of themed blogs –The New Yorker Tumblr, for instance. They don’t interact much with me, and that’s fine. They’re kind of like highly focused magazines, and I enjoy them accordingly.
But if that’s all Tumblr was, I don’t think it would be quite so important to me. It’s the community that makes it special. Checking my Tumblr feed is like checking in with my friends, even if these “friends” are people I know very little about and will possibly never meet in real life. I met most of these people through friends of friends or via the social discovery that re-blogging affords. I somehow stumbled into their worlds, and they were interesting enough to make me want to come back. I interact with enough of them that I can pretty clearly say that when they post something, it is intended for me. I’m part of their small group, and I have no qualms about that.
Lisa, on the other hand, is a different matter. Lisa is a college student at a large university in the Midwest (and Lisa is not her name; I don’t know whether she would want a bunch of book nerds suddenly reading her posts or not, so I’m not going to link to her blog here, either). She seems pretty smart, and she blogs about her love life, her schoolwork, her friends, and all of the other things that matter to her. I find Lisa’s life very interesting, and her blog is great. But I haven’t completely settled the “is she talking to me” question. While Lisa follows me back, we don’t interact with each other. She uses Tumblr in a very social way, she isn’t really part of the crowd of people whom I otherwise follow. And I find this somewhat troubling.
At this point, I need to lay a few things on the table. First, I don’t have a lot of close friends. My wife has several friends with whom she speaks on a regular basis. They talk about the things that are happening in their lives and how they feel about them. I don’t have that. I’m a social person, and there are certainly people I love to have dinner with, meet at a party, etc., but ever since college that kind of close friendship has eluded me. And I think I’m okay with that, for the most part. But you could certainly argue that I use Tumblr to fill some void in my life, as pathetic as that might sound.
Also, Lisa is very attractive. And Tumblr has a way of encouraging people’s vanity. On Wednesdays, for example, there’s a tradition of posting a photo of yourself; this is known as Gratuitous Picture of Yourself Wednesday (GPOYW). This has the effect of sexualizing a lot of Tumblr blogs, to the point that my wife, Edan, hated it for months and months after I joined because she felt like every woman on it focused so much of her attention on her sexuality. I think she’s probably right, though that was largely about who I was following (I used to run with a bad crowd, man). So let me just clear this up for you: I’m not following Lisa because she’s hot or because I’m a perv. Let’s be honest, if I wanted to look at 20 year-old girls, there are other places to do it; this is the internet we’re talking about. Also, Edan, now on Tumblr, follows Lisa, too. We talk about her posts with each other. “She needs to dump that guy; he’s bad news. He won’t even hold her hand!” Edan will say. “He’s a college kid. What do you expect?” I’ll reply.
While I can’t deny that gender plays a role here, that’s not all there is to it. I like following her because, for whatever reason, her narrative is compelling. Following her blog is somewhat akin to watching a reality TV show (Not one of the ones where they try to out-dance each other or diet for money, but one that just follows someone’s daily life). She’s my Jersey Shore.
But of course, Lisa isn’t a reality TV character, she’s a real person. Yes, I know Snooki is real, too, but celebrities are different. The fact that Lisa could walk the streets of every city in the world with complete anonymity makes her situation fundamentally different from, well, The Situation’s. There are different laws governing pictures of celebrities and real people. Celebrities belong to us — the public — in ways that private citizens do not. And treating real people, regular people, the same way we treat celebrities, is problematic. And let’s not forget that Snooki and her ilk are paid to be in the public eye and to put up with all that entails.
A few weeks ago, I went to an performance exhibition by my friend, the artist Charlie White. It was called Casting Call, and according to its website it was meant to further explore “White’s ongoing interest in the complexities of the American teen as cultural icon, image, and national idea.” For the exhibition, an art gallery was converted into two rooms, each separated from the other by a pane of glass. On one side of the room was a casting call for teen girls exemplifying “the All American California girl” — blonde hair, tan skin, etc. — between the ages of 13 and 16. White and his crew interviewed the models, took a mug shot-style photograph of them, and then brought in the next girl. On the other side of the glass, an audience — mostly art students and hipsters — watched. Our friend Stephanie, White’s partner, pointed out that everyone on our side of the glass was brunette (except, it must be pointed out, Edan) while all of the models were, of course, blonde. White and his crew discussed each girl, both amongst themselves and with the girl, as well, but we could hear none of it. We were left to interpret the scene for ourselves. “Oh, look, they’re letting that girl look at the photo. They must really like her,” I said. “Yeah, either that or they could tell she was upset, and wanted to reassure her she did a good job.”
A seemingly never-ending stream of girls came through the door. What fascinated me most about the entire exhibition is how quickly we could objectify the girls. I don’t mean objectify them in the way that it’s commonly used — to turn them into sex objects — though there was certainly a tinge of the erotic about the event; by objectify, I mean to make them into something not quite human, and in turn, to talk about them as though they were things rather than people. “She’s too old.” “I like that one, in the leopard-print shorts. She’s my favorite.” “Look at how weird her hair is. Why does she look like that?” It was how we talk about people when they’re on television, but these people were merely a few feet away. The pane of glass, and the contrast between the brightly lit casting room and the dim audience space, was enough distance to effectively dehumanize these girls. There were other factors at work, such as the blonde California girl’s status as marketing conceit and sexual totem, but I think a big reason we all felt free to dissect and dismiss these girls is because they couldn’t really see us. We were, more or less, anonymous. It was especially unsettling to turn around after watching for a few minutes and see one of the girls who had been in the call standing just behind us. How long had she been there, the girl in the leopard print shorts? And how did she suddenly become so real?
The internet is such a tricky place now that anonymity actually needs to be explained and defined. There are actually a couple of flavors of anonymity on the web, and each of them comes with different issues. The first kind of anonymity is the one most of us are familiar with online, the anonymous user or commenter. This user is indistinguishable from the other anonymous commenters, and they can occasionally make some useful contributions. Anonymity can allow people to be more playful than they would be normally, maybe a little bit sexier, a little bit funnier. But they can also just be thugs. This type of anonymous user crops up on nearly every blog post, and while they occasionally voice a particularly controversial opinion, they are usually there only to spew bile and throw insults at the author of the post. In the comments of this site, I once joked that “anonymous” is always such a badass (To which Max replied, “I’d like a t-shirt that says “Anonymous: Internet Badass.””). There’s a reason why some sites disable anonymous commenting of this kind; having no identity carries no threat of consequences. Even if others ridicule your ideas and effectively send you back to your cave with your tail between your legs, nobody knows who “you” are, so you can return the next day to fight again.
There’s a second, more nuanced type of anonymity that is possibly more prevalent than simple anonymous commenting, and that’s the disguise of the pseudonym. Every message board has its trolls, those who enjoy causing trouble, dissenting from the norm, and generally putting others down. I’ve yet to encounter a community online that doesn’t have at least one of these people. They are rarely truly anonymous, since most message boards, social sites, and other internet communities typically require a user name. Instead, these users hide behind a moniker — sometimes employing the same user name on multiple sites. Having some sort of identity does create some consequences. Users can be banned from sites, ostracized, or otherwise punished for their behavior.
Often, though, this type of user can simply change his name. This is another form of what Jaron Lanier, in his book You Are Not a Gadget, calls “transient anonymity:”
People who can spontaneously invent a pseudonym in order to post a comment on a blog or on YouTube are often remarkably mean. Buyers and sellers on eBay are a little more civil, despite occasional disappointments, such as encounters with flakiness and fraud. Based on those data, you could conclude that it isn’t exactly anonymity, but transient anonymity, coupled with a lack of consequences, that brings out online idiocy.
On Tumblr, most people interact via their blogs which necessarily have a name attached to them. This insures that people will be generally civil. It is also an opt-in system, where you have to choose who to follow, which I think adds to the welcoming feel of the platform. It takes a while to build up a following and to create a blog you can be proud of; why throw that all away by being a creep or a jerk? The value of the blogs themselves creates an added buffer against what Lanier calls “Drive-by anonymity.”
But there’s another element of Tumblr that I’ve seen cause some very disturbing encounters. Each Tumblr comes with the ability to enable a feature that allows others to ask you a question. It can also be used as a de facto messaging system. The user can then decide whether they want to post an answer to your question or delete it. The trouble starts when the user enables anonymous questions. Some people choose to leave anonymous questions enabled because it can lead to some very interesting content. For instance, if the user wrote a brave post about a disease they had, someone might leave an anonymous note about that, not wanting to reveal that they too have the disease. A more shallow but still amusing use is the frequent comment “I have a crush on you” or “I think you’re beautiful,” etc.
For every one such comment, there are dozens of vile, offensive comments, meant to do little other than demean the author of the blog and make them feel worse about themselves and their lives. For instance, I follow a woman who posts lots of photos of art, gorgeous film stills, great music, and, yes, sometimes pictures of herself. One day she put up the poster for the film The Girlfriend Experience, about a prostitute who spends the night with her clients, going to dinner or a movie before having sex for money. A day or two later, an anonymous person sent this message to her: “You look like you could give a pretty good “girlfriend experience.” How about it? Ever given any thought to doing something like that?” My response to this post was, simply put, rage. I posted a response along the lines of “The rest of us are trying to have a civilization over here. Take that elsewhere.” I was enraged that this person had used this feature of the blog to suggest that the blogger would make a good prostitute. Keep in mind that the author of this blog didn’t have to make this public. I assume she did so (without comment) to shame the jerk who asked the question. But it’s worth noting that there was no guarantee of attention from anyone beyond this one particular blogger. He did this solely to mess with, belittle, and intimidate the author of the blog. And he did so with impunity.
He wasn’t alone. Every day, without fail, another person I follow posts a comment or question that an anonymous user asked them. These questions range from the classically juvenile (“I’m masturbating to you right now.” “Take ur shirt off!”) to more pointed personal assaults (“What’s it like coping with your obvious addiction to sleeping pills?” “You post a lot of photos of yourself because your looks are the only thing you have going for you.” “You’re an obnoxious bitch who probably has no friends.”). Not coincidentally, every one of these questions showed up on a blog written by a woman. So far, three bloggers that I follow have had to abandon their old online identities when creepy people began harassing them online. All of them were women.
Why are women treated differently than men online? I suppose the greater question is why they are still treated differently everywhere — online or otherwise — but since this post is about the web, I will focus on that. Surely there’s the garden variety sexism that permeates most of our culture, where women’s opinions are discounted or denigrated, and where the female form is used to sell everything from liquor to football. But I think there is something else at work online, and in many ways, it’s related to the strange feeling of watching all of those girls wait to have their pictures taken, as well as my conflicted feelings about enjoying college girl Lisa’s blog so much.
In her groundbreaking work “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” film theorist Laura Mulvey posits that Hollywood cinema always casts the audience in the role of the masculine spectator. The camera, therefore, becomes the male gaze, and the women on screen the passive objects of its gaze:
“In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Woman displayed as sexual object is the leit-motif of erotic spectacle: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire. Mainstream film neatly combined spectacle and narrative.”
She argues that simply looking is a pleasurable experience, and the cinema affords this pleasure by providing an atmosphere in which men are free to look at women, for as long as they please and with clear intent. She says, “At the extreme, it can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms, whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.” On the internet, this seems to be compounded. We’re free to look with impunity, and in some cases, we are free to anonymously harass, as well. Of course, it is sometimes pleasurable to be looked at, as well. While the internet indulges both of these impulses — to look at and to be looked at — it seems clear to me that we have once again forced the women more often into the latter role. Despite the great leveling effect that the web has had on the media — it’s given a voice to millions of people who would otherwise largely be silent — we are still creating a system of “sexual imbalance,” in Mulvey’s terms. This is most acute where the female image actually appears — on fashion blogs, personal blogging platforms like Tumblr, and of course pornography — but it is present, more or less, throughout the net. In fact, I’ve often found that what provokes the anonymous assaults, more often than not, are not pictures of women but arguments made by them. This suggests that the harassment is a form of maintaining the male dominance; that it possibly (and maybe often does) come from other women is irrelevant.
The key difference between the films that Mulvey dissects in her essay and the personal blogs I’m talking about is agency. The films were made by men — men called the shots (literally) and wrote the stories that cast women in the passive roles. Obviously a personal blogger decides what to post on her blog. But while this difference is worth noting, it doesn’t seem to matter much in terms of the audience’s reaction. In fact, the blogger’s agency frequently becomes a weapon for the blogger’s critics. “Well, if she doesn’t want to be called a slut, maybe she shouldn’t post such provocative photos.” Doesn’t this sound a bit like the “She was asking for it” argument?
Which brings me back to the problem of Lisa. Feeling as I do about the internet, and the role gender is fast coming to play in it, I feel implicated by her blog (through no fault of her own). Part of this comes from the hazy status of intent. Does she want me read her blog? Strangely, not long after I began this essay, someone asked her if she was comfortable with so many strangers following her daily life. She responded that she didn’t care; if they wanted to read about her and look at pictures of her, that was fine. This should have absolved me of my guilt, but it didn’t. I keep coming back to Mulvey’s argument: Am I deriving pleasure from looking at Lisa? I am. But I also post photos of myself, thereby enjoying the pleasure of being looked at. Still, no one has ever responded to an image of me with an anonymous note saying, “You look fat” or “Nice beard, asshole.” Only women have to put up with that. And that is shameful. (It’s worth noting that the hot film of the moment, The Social Network, would have us believe that social networking, at its base, is about checking out girls and stalking ex-girlfriends. It’s why the stuff was invented, to let men objectify women from a safe distance.)
And that’s what weighs on me as I follow Lisa’s blog. I’m aware of the voyeuristic aspect of following the blog of a much younger woman, but at the same time, I feel a sort of odd friendship with Lisa. If she weren’t following me back and I were merely reading her posts, as many no doubt do, in total anonymity, I think that would be different. Perhaps following back is all the recognition I need to feel like Lisa is talking to me. And it’s pretty clear from reading my blog who I am: I’m Patrick, I’m in my 30s, I live in LA, and I’m married. On the internet, being yourself is no small thing.
A year ago, I read one of those rare profound utterances that Twitter produces from time to time. It came from comedian Lindsay Katai: “The Internet: Where Ladies Promote Their Boyfriends’ Endeavors. Conversely, the Internet: Where Men Make Every Pretense of Appearing Single.” This rang true to me then, and I’ve thought of it frequently while reading Tumblr, where identities are formed one post at a time over weeks and months. The posts I most look forward to reading are the posts about people’s lives — the petty failures at work, the little strange thing they observed on the bus, a photo of themselves having fun.
I suspect I’m not alone in this. This is the pleasure of online life, it seems to me. It’s the reason, more than any fancy coding or user interface, that Facebook is so successful. We want to know each other, to see what’s happening in other people’s lives. We want, in short, to read each other’s stories. But that kind of world — one that values openness and honesty — can’t exist if half of its participants have to be constantly vigilant lest they be verbally assaulted, harassed, or worse. If we, as a culture, don’t do something to combat this, then we stand to lose more than just updates about meals and photos of pets. Like it or not, we are all going to have to live more and more of our lives online. I would hope that we could make that place better than the one we now call “real life” — a place where people are free to be themselves, yes, but also where they are free to decide what that means for themselves, without fear of humiliation or intimidation. That’s a place I’d like to call home.
Images 2 & 3: courtesy Charlie White)
The British journalist Sam Leith recently opened a review of Richard Bradford’s Martin Amis: The Biography with the following question: “Where’s Invasion of the Space Invaders? That’s what I want to know.” The 418-page biography, which has been undergoing a sustained critical beatdown since its publication last year, contains no mention of a book Amis published in 1982, and which he has been avoiding talking about ever since. “Anything a writer disowns is of interest,” wrote Leith, “particularly if it’s a frivolous thing and particularly if, like Amis, you take seriousness seriously.” He’s got a point; any book so callously orphaned by its own creator has to be worth looking into. This is especially true if the book in question happens to be a guide to early 1980s arcade games.
Like most Amis fanciers, I had heard of the existence of this video game book –- the full title of which is Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines –- but knew very little about it. What I did know was that he dashed it off at some point during the time he was writing Money, one of the great British novels of the 1980s, and that it has long been out of print (a copy in good nick will cost you about $150 from Amazon). And I knew, most of all, that Amis was reluctant to talk about it or even acknowledge it. Nicholas Lezard of The Guardian once suggested to him (facetiously, surely) that it was among the best things he’d ever written, and that it was a mistake to have allowed it to go out of print. “The expression on his face,” wrote Lezard, “with perhaps more pity in it than contempt, remains with me uncomfortably.”
Invasion of the Space Invaders, then, is the madwoman in the attic of Amis’ house of nonfiction; many have heard rumors of its shameful presence, but few have seen it with their own eyes. I recently discovered a copy in the library of the university where I work, and I don’t think the librarian knew quite what to make of my obvious excitement at this coup. (“Wow,” I said, giving a low, respectful whistle as she handed it across the counter. “Would you look at that?”) It’s a deeply strange artifact: an A4-sized, full color glossy affair, abundantly illustrated with captioned photographs, screen shots, and lavish illustrations of exploding space ships and lunar landscapes. It boasts a perfunctory introduction by Steven Spielberg (“read this book and learn from young Martin’s horrific odyssey round the world’s arcades before you too become a video-junkie”), complete with full-page portrait of the Hollywood Boy Wonder leaning awkwardly against an arcade machine like some sort of geeky, high-waisted Fonz. We’re not even into the text proper, and already its cup runneth over with 100-proof WTF.
One of the most frequently remarked-upon aspects of Amis’ writing is that it’s nearly always possible to tell, within a sentence or two, when you’re reading him. (You know it when you see it, with its gimmicks, its lists, its italicized stresses. You know it when you see it, Amis’s style, with its grandstanding repetitions.) And there’s a strange cognitive dissonance that arises from seeing that style applied to what is essentially — or at any rate quickly devolves into — a player’s guide to a range of early arcade games. He starts off with a cluster of short essayistic efforts about game addiction. A few sentences in, and we’re already deep in the familiar, hyper-stylized terrain of Amis country: “What we are dealing with is a global addiction. I mean, this might all turn out to be a bit of a problem. Let me adduce my own symptoms, withdrawals, dryouts, crack-ups, benders…” It’s hard to say who his intended reader might be here. You’d imagine kids would be an obvious demographic target, but that seems unlikely given that Amis gratuitously and jarringly raises the issue of child prostitution on the very first page. (The child sex industry has apparently been given a “fillip” by arcade machine addiction. “Kids,” he assures us, “are coming across for a couple of games of Astro Panic, or whatever. More about this later.”) This slumming fascination with seediness, characteristic of much of Amis’s early and mid-period work, is evident throughout. At one point, we are treated to a series of Hogarthian prose sketches of the grotesques the author sees all around him in these arcades: “Zonked glueys, swearing skinheads with childish faces full of ageless evil, mohican punks sporting scalplocks in violet verticals and a nappy-pin through the nose […] Queasy spivs, living out a teen-dream movie with faggot overtones.” (There’s a glossary at the back that helpfully provides the following clarification: “Faggot: gay.” The word’s use in the original context makes the contemporary reader flinch, but the ugliness of the matter-of-fact definition is downright unforgivable. This is one of several potential reasons why Amis is uncomfortable enough about Invasion to want to keep it out of print.)
The medial bulk of the book is accounted for by the actual “addict’s guide to battle tactics” promised by its ungainly subtitle, and this is where it really flourishes as a bizarro-world extracanonical oddity. It’s as though Kingsley Amis’ youngest son had shied away from the family business and wound up making a living as a games reviewer with a weakness for the high literary style. Here is one of the great aesthetes of the sentence offering tips on dealing with Space Invaders’ descending alien infantry:
The phalanx of enemy invaders moves laterally across a grid not much wider than itself. When it reaches the edge of the grid, the whole army lowers a notch. Rule one: narrow that phalanx. Before you do anything else, take out at least three enemy columns either on the left-hand side or the right (for Waves 1 and 2, the left is recommended). Thereafter the aliens will take much longer to cross their grid and slip down another rung. Keep on working from the sides: you’ll find that the invaders take forever to trudge and shuffle back and forth, and you can pick them off in your own sweet time.
For what it’s worth, this is actually very solid gaming advice. I tested it out on one of those classic arcade websites, and the man knows what he’s talking about — it is all about phalanx-narrowing. (If I ever happen to pass Amis on the opposite side of the street, I’m not sure I’ll be able to prevent myself from shouting across at him like one of the garrulous yobs who populate his novels, “Oi, Mart! Narrow that phalanx!”) He’s technically correct, too, about the fact that, when the aliens descend to the very lowest rung, “you can slide around underneath them, touching them with your nozzle, and survive!” — but I’m not sure he’ll be wanting that sentence to show up in The Quotable Amis, should such a volume ever appear.
He is almost as enthusiastic about PacMan, although you get the sense that he sees it (in contrast to Space Invaders) as a fundamentally unserious endeavor. “Those cute little PacMen with their special nicknames, that dinky signature tune, the dot-munching Lemon that goes whackawhackawhackawhacka: the machine has an air of childish whimsicality.” His advice is to concentrate stolidly on the central business of dot-munching, and not to get distracted by the shallow glamor of the fruits: “Do I take risks in order to gobble up the fruit symbol in the middle of the screen? I do not, and neither should you. Like the fat and harmless saucer in Missile Command (q.v.), the fruit symbol is there simply to tempt you into hubristic sorties. Bag it.” Curiously, for a writer so deeply preoccupied with stylistic refinement and playful innovation — who elevates the pleasure principle to a sort of aesthetic moral law — Amis favors a no-frills approach to gaming. The following piece of Polonian advice pretty much encapsulates his whole arcade ethos: “PacMan player, be not proud, nor too macho, and you will prosper on the dotted screen.” I’m no expert, I’ll admit, but I’ll go out on a critical limb here and suggest that this might be the sole instance of the use of the mock-heroic tone in a video game player’s guide.
Aside from the off-the-charts weirdness of its very existence, the book offers a number of peripheral pleasures. For one thing, there’s a half-expected (but still surprising) guest appearance from what I would be willing to bet is a young Christopher Hitchens. In a diverting rant about the increasing presence of voice effects in games, Amis recalls his first exposure to such gimmickry at a bar in Paris on New Year’s Day, 1980:
I was with a friend, a hard-drinking journalist, who had drunk roughly three times as much Calvados as I had drunk the night before. And I had drunk a lot of Calvados the night before. I called for coffee, croissants, juice; with a frown the barman also obeyed my friend’s croaked request for a glass of Calvados.
Then we heard, from nowhere, a deep, guttural, Dalek-like voice which seemed to say: “Heed! Gorgar! Heed! Gorgar … speaks!
“… Now what the hell was that?” asked my friend.
“I think it was one of the machines,” I said, rising in wonder.
“I’ve had it,” said my friend with finality. “I can’t cope with this,” he explained as he stumbled from the bar.
Elsewhere in the book, he considers the possibility, raised by Paul Trachtman in the Smithsonian, of a future evolutionary strand of video games in which “You have a ten-year reign as a king and you have so much grain, so many people and so much land,” and in which “if you don’t feed your people enough, they start to die.” Trachtman is essentially prophesying the advent of hugely successful games like Civilization and Sim City here, but Amis summarily rejects the idea. “The predictions of the video eggheads are grand and stirring; at the time of writing, though, all the trends in the industry stubbornly point the other way.” Elsewhere, he rubbishes the now-iconic Donkey Kong, the first major success of Shigero Miyamoto, who went on to create Mario and Zelda. “Donkey,” he quips, “your days are numbered. The knackers’ yard awaits you.”
It’s just about possible, if you squint hard enough, to see Invasion of the Space Invaders as Money’s sickly non-fiction twin. Amis occasionally alludes to the fact that all this arcade-lurking and button-bashing is being done both as research for, and at the expense of, a novel he is supposed to be writing. And there are certain advance rumblings here of the comic juggernaut which was to arrive two years later. John Self, for instance — Money’s boorish and omnivoracious narrator — has a particular weakness for a brand of microwaved hotdogs named Blastfurters. In a desultory entry on the game Cosmic Alien, Amis mentions that he first came across it in a “kwik-food beanery on Third Avenue,” where it “looked perfectly at home among the up-ended cartons and the half-eaten blastfurters.” The novel itself features a small but crucial role for its author, whom Self first mentions as follows: “Oh yeah, and a writer lives round my way too. A guy in a pub pointed him out to me, and I’ve seen him hanging out in Family Fun, the space-game parlor, and toting his blue laundry bag to the Whirlomat. I don’t think they can pay writers that much, do you?”
Well, that would certainly be one explanation for this book’s existence; he may have been short of cash at this point, and a brief diversion into video game writing may have been an easy way to turn his coin-devouring addiction to the space-game parlor into a few quid. But there’s an argument to be made that Invasion, as powerfully strange as it looks against the setting of the author’s oeuvre, is in keeping with his perennial preoccupations. Games and game-playing are, after all, both a presiding motif in Amis’s novels and a fundamental principle of their construction. His most successful fictions are arranged around antagonisms, rivalries, and hidden maneuvers. London Fields is an elaborate trap-like construction in which three male characters (including a blocked novelist) are manipulated by a female mastermind into bringing about her own murder. The Information is about a failed writer’s increasingly malicious attempts to destroy the career of his more successful friend. The plot of Money is a Nabokovian conceit in which Self winds up the loser through failing to recognize the game. In that novel’s most bluntly metafictional moment, the character called Martin Amis lets Self in on some of the secrets of his trade: “The further down the scale [a character] is, the more liberties you can take with him. You can do what the hell you like to him, really. This creates an appetite for punishment. The author is not free of sadistic impulses.”
Amis’s characters are always playing and getting played; his books are filled with humiliating drubbings and pyrrhic victories on the tennis court, the pool table, the darts oche. Even that business about which he is most serious — the scrupulous, almost paranoiac abstention from banality at the level of the sentence — is a form of play. The title of his criticism collection, The War Against Cliché, indicates the height of the stakes, but belies the fact that it is ultimately still a game, just one that Amis is very serious about. As a reviewer, he takes a grim satisfaction in catching out his opponents in solecisms, platitudes, and pratfalls (Raymond Chandler’s celebrated hardboiled prose is actually, we are told, “full of stubbed toes and barked shins”). As a novelist, his ludic delight in finding new ways of playing with language — new ways of narrowing the ever-descending phalanx of cliché — is palpable in every sentence. So for all its contextual aberrance, this strange and disreputable book actually makes a certain kind of warped sense. And if for some reason you happen to be looking for a guide to arcade games of the early 1980s, you could probably do a lot worse.
A week ago, an article in the New York Times created a mini-furor in literary circles. As the resident Japan expert in my circle of friends, everybody was asking me, “So what’s the deal with these cell phone novels?”The NYT article was the first I’d heard of them. I did a quick Internet search, and what do you know? The Times was right, they’re all over the place. Google spits ups thousands of pages, and several of the more popular novels are listed on the Internet Movie Database as films in production.What does this mean for the English novel? Is this the future of literature? In Japanese, maybe. There are a number of features of Japan’s language and culture that make a cell phone novel more palatable than it would be in English. First, Japanese grammar is much better suited than English to the kind of short sentences writing on a cell phone encourages. As a high-context language, a complete sentence in Japanese can consist of just a single, lonely verb. Japanese speakers and writers frequently and freely omit subjects and objects from their sentences, expecting the reader to figure out what’s going on. Go figure. The use of Chinese characters also serves to compact sentences. Since you don’t have to actually spell out entire words, as in English, but can represent them with an ideogram, you can say a lot more in a much smaller space.Secondly, and perhaps just as important, cell phone novels tap into long traditions of Japanese prose and poetry. First, even a cursory examination of a cell phone novel will show a visual connection to the poetic traditions of haiku and tanka. The connection doesn’t end there, at its best the writing itself has an economy and – I’ll regret saying this – poetry that taps into the same tradition. The medium – you try typing a novel on the keypad of a cell phone – forces the writers to make every word count, and (in Japanese at least) it shows. The themes, as well, harken back to traditional Japanese themes. The first “modern” novel (written by Murasaki Shikibu in 11th century Japan), The Tale of Genji, was basically a high school love story, and nothing has changed since then. In manga, on television and in literature, the amatory exploits of high school students have always captured the imagination of the Japanese public. And the long, long literary tradition there, combined with the frequent use of public transportation, means that books in general, whether written on cell phones or not, occupy a much more important place in Japanese culture than in the West.So what are these cell phone novels like? For the curious, I’ve translated a short passage from Sky of Love, the number one best seller by Mika, recently made into a movie. I’ve only read the first chapter, but apparently it’s a heart wrenching tale of young love, as seen through a Jerry Springer filter of premarital sex, teen pregnancy, gang rape and mortal disease. Enjoy.Translation note: Two things. First, I’ve done my best to preserve the sentence structure and formatting of the original (at the expense of clarity and good prose, I’m afraid). This is more or less how it looks and reads in the original Japanese. Second, it’s common in Japanese for people to refer to themselves in the third person. The protagonist here does that frequently. It’s a habit that’s considered somewhat childish and endearing.Sky of Love (the novel in Japanese, for those who’d like a visual reference.)PrologueIf I hadn’t met you that day…I don’t think I would haveFelt this bitterness.This pain.This sadnessCried this much.But.If I hadn’t met you…This happiness.This joy.This love.This warmth.I wouldn’t have known that either.Today, I’m going to look through my tears and up at the sky.Look to the sky.Chapter One– A smile”God, I am so hungry♪♪”Finally lunch time. Felt like I’d been waiting forever.Same as always, Mika puther lunchbox on her desk and opened it.School is a drag.The only thing I like about it is eating with Aya and Yuka, my friends from class.–Mika Tahara–She’s a freshman, who started at this school in April.It hasn’t even been three monthssince she got here.She’s met some people she likes and gets along with. She’s had some pretty good times.She’s short.And stupid.And not that prettyDoesn’t have any special talents.Or even know what’s she wants to do with herself after graduation.Bright, tea-colored hair she dyed right after she got here.She’s wearing a little makeup, but it looks strange on her, especially at this time of day.She stumbled out of middle school and right into average.She had normal friends.She had normal crushes.She dated three guys.I don’t know if that’s normal, or what.But, what I know is normal,is that those relationships all ended fast. That’s what she’s saying.She doesn’t know real love.All she knows is how to fool around,Just that.Love…Who needs it?It was right then…I met you.Mika’s life: she expected it would end in the same boring way it had begun. Meeting you was going to change all that.Like always, Mika and Aya and Yukawolf down their food.Why is it everyone gets so quiet when they eat?The classroom door rattles open,A guy with one hand in his pocketwalks overto the three of them.That guy, he stands in front of themAnd he starts talking. Casually.”Hey! My name’s Nozomu. I’m in the class next door. You heard of me?”The three girls look at each other.They pretend they don’t know what he’s talking about.Just keep eating their lunches.Since I’d gotten to school, I’d heard a lot of rumors about Nozomu.A player.A flirt.A playboyIt seemed like he was walking around schoolwith a different girl on his arm every day.”Watch out for Nozomu!””If he’s got his eye on you, you don’t stand a chance.”Didn’t somebody tell me that…?He’s got a well-proportioned faceon a tall body.Highlights in his hair,styled with wax for that “casual” look.Eyes looking right at you, like they could see… something.He’s got the right stuff for getting girls. There’s no question about that.The problem is his personality.Maybe… if he was a little more serious…With all those rumors floating around. I don’t even need to tell you I’m not interested.The three girls continue eating their lunches, pretending they haven’t even noticed him.”Hey, now. You’re ignoring me? Let’s be friends. ♪ Come on, give me your number.”His insistence makes me thirsty.Mika, annoyed, grabbing a bottle of barley tea in one handgulping it all down.”What do you think I’m going to do? It’s cool. Just tell me your number.”There’s silenceSuddenly, Aya breaks it.Mika and Yuka, looking at each other in disbelief.Aya gives him her number with a smile.It’s hard to believe this is happening.I wait until Nozomu has left the room, all puffed up and full of himself. Then turning to Aya, blurting out:”Why would you give your number to a guy like that? He’s trouble.”Aya responds to Mika’s worry, like it’s no big deal.”What can I say? I like cute guys. Ha.”Aya’s a mature, beautiful woman.She’s stylish and her best feature isher long hair, a little wavy, and the red-brown of tea.She’s got bad luck with guys. All the ones she’s dated are just playing with her…That’s why, even when she gets a boyfriend, it’s just a few dates, quick break-up, repeat.”Aya. Don’t get serious with a guy like that.”To Yuka, with the serious faceAya turns and lightly replies.”Don’t worry about it.”School lets out.I go home, and lay around in my room, watching TV.That’s when…♪Ring♪The ring echoes through the room.There’s no name on the caller id.It’s from a number that’s not in my phone.I wonder who it is…I pick-up to find out.”Hello…?””…”… silence.”Hellooo…”I say it with a little more self-assurance.Click.Beep, beep, beep.They hung up.Prank call?Probably a wrong number.♪Ring♪Again, the ring echoes through the room.The same number as before.They’re not going to say anything anyway, I think.So, I answer like I don’t give a shit.”What?””…lo? Hello. Hello?”On the other end of the line, I can faintly hearthe sound of an unfamiliar man’s voice.”Who is this?”The guy on the other endshouts in a voice so loud I think it’s going to blow out my eardrum.”…Mika? The signal’s bad! It’s Nozomu! You remember? The guy who talked to you at lunch today!”WTF? Nozomu?The Nozomu who hits on all the girls? That Nozomu?The guy who got Aya’s number today… That Nozomu?I start to panic.I can’t findthe words to reply.I should just hang up. Shouldn’t I?