Ode on Computer Games: On Michael W. Clune’s ‘Gamelife’

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More than a decade ago Michael W. Clune began his recovery from a heroin addiction that reached its nadir with an arrest for drug possession. The arrest carried with it a felony charge that was later dropped. It all happened while he was supposed to be working on his dissertation as a Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins. Years after his recovery (and now a professor at Case Western Reserve), Clune wrote about his addiction in the highly-praised memoir White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin, which details his life as an addict in the streets of Baltimore, running around with people with names like Funboy and Cash trying to score their next hit.

It’s not necessary to have read Clune’s first memoir to appreciate Gamelife but it certainly makes it more poignant. In White Out he confesses that his addiction has all but erased the memories of his childhood, or at least the whiteness of heroin has touched them in such a way that they’re no longer meaningful. With his new book, dedicated to his siblings and retelling of his boyhood in suburban Chicago, it’s clear that he’s finally found a way back inside those memories — and for good.

The memoir is made up of more than just the usual recollections and confessions characteristic of its genre. Rather, its major concern — as strange as it may sound — is the author’s education as it relates to computer games. Here it’s as if Clune’s taken up the Kenneth Burke concept of “Literature as Equipment for Living” and replaced novels with computer games. Gamelife examines his childhood through the lens of seven games, from the early text-based adventures (Suspension) to first-person shooters (Wolfenstein). Each chapter corresponds to a different game and each game receives a kind of ekphrastic treatment: a literary technique, usually found in poetry, of using language to represent a nonverbal or visual work of art. It’s a subject Clune examines at length in his academic but readable study, Writing Against Time. One of the most famous examples of ekphrasis is John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which gives an impassioned description of an ancient work of pottery. In keeping within the tradition of ekphrasis, there are no photographs in Gamelife to accompany what for many readers will seem like obscure PC games. That such an inclusion is unnecessary anyway is a testament to Clune’s gift for description. His ability to convey what it’s like to participate in these games yields fascinating results. The lines of verbatim dialogue included from Suspension, for instance, where the main character is frozen inside a cryogenic tank, reads in Clune’s hands like a kind of absurd Beckettian play.

What matters most to Clune is not so much the advocacy of computer games. Questions like “Do video games matter?” or “Are they art?” are never really asked, let alone answered directly. What matters most is simply the undeniable fact that he’s poured so much time and dreams, thoughts and hopes, moods and memories into these games and that, as a result, a serious part of his childhood was shaped by them and therefore a major part of himself.

Clune doesn’t deny the addictive nature of computer games and their potentially harmful effects. He admits, “I have spent more hours in computer role-playing game bodies than some people who have recently learned how to walk and how to tie their shoes have spent in human bodies.” His gaming habit leads to some unpleasant moments, not least of which includes a general isolation from people (usually in dark basements with few windows). At one point he also attempts to steal money from his friend’s mother in order to buy a new game that he just has to have. However, the notion that video games are like drugs is misleading. As Gamelife attests, with drug use, one becomes withdrawn or closed off from the world, whereas playing computer games opens one up to new worlds and possibilities.

The kinds of lessons he learns as a boy from these games have nothing to do with things like hand-eye coordination. No, they’re much larger than that. He learns about metaphysics, the end of history, the black-market, death, and, yes, immortality. Dying countless times in video games might as well be a kind of immortality, suggests Clune. Because essentially every religion or myth system contains examples of immortals becoming mortal (“Think of Jesus or Arwen”), it only shows that “the idea of temporary immortality isn’t nonsensical.” Also, by playing the games, he must learn how to talk to the computer by carefully entering commands, which in turn eventually leads him to learning how to really talk to himself, a skill we usually associate with what the best literature can teach us.

Beyond the brilliant observations that seem to pop up on every page, the scenes of Clune’s childhood make for equally compelling reading, dramatically rendered as they are in rich novelistic prose. We feel like we’re actually there with young Clune, experiencing the moments of frustration as he puzzles through the impossible games and walks the bully-filled hallways of his middle school; we almost forget the 39-year-old author is the real bard behind the tale. Clune uses this double narrative technique, this zooming in-and-out style between younger and older self to hilarious effects. Its structure reminded me of Jean-Paul Sartre’s great intellectual autobiography The Words, which also focuses on the earliest years of the author’s life and education. Sartre’s book is filled with one deep insight after the other about how reading and writing has shaped his life, for better or worse, and in Gamelife, the phenomenological approach is similar only with numbers and computer games taking up the author’s intellectual energy.

An alternative title to the book might even be The Numbers, as Clune makes a strangely beautiful and compelling case that the secret ingredient to bringing fantasy to life is not words, but numbers. Numbers are what makes the fantasy of his computer games seem so real. He begins this meditation on numbers by first telling of his churchgoing childhood days when his father use to give him five dollars every Sunday if he could memorize the numbers that corresponded to the church’s library of hundreds of hymns. He uses the money to buy a Dungeons & Dragons inspired computer game, The Bard’s Tale II, which marks the beginning of his education on just how mystifying numbers can be. Numbers are, after all, an otherworldly phenomenon. And yet.
The human depends on the inhuman for its grip on the world. Inside every human face that crumples in sudden sorrow is a skull that grins. Unfeeling bone supports every hug. The ancient primitive mollusk suction-and-release of our orifices gives our words breath and makes our thoughts go.
Later on the page, in language equally poetic, he adds, “Put the rule of numbers in fantasy like a spine of bone and you will walk out into what is not there.”

There are more funny scenes than seems possible in a book of 200 pages: the killing of Adolf Hitler over and over again in various games; the precociously foul-mouthed Irish cousin; Clune getting lost on his way home in an unfamiliar neighborhood and seeing the 2-D map of Ultima III imprinted on his brain scrolling beneath his feet instead of reality. Here the prose becomes almost spellbinding; it reads like Patrick Leigh Fermor setting off for Constantinople, as Clune describes in wondrous detail all the fantastical landscapes and miniature cities he sees in his mind. One even has “a name I can’t pronounce.”

But perhaps the funniest scene occurs in the chapter titled “Pirates!” — about a computer game with the same name. Desperate to improve his social situation, and using the game as a guide, Clune manages to recruit some students to set up a kind of parallel society within their tyrannical Catholic middle school (i.e., anarchy). Of course, it doesn’t work, but that doesn’t stop them. In fact, they’ll stop at nothing, not even for the poor lunch lady monitor, Mrs. Hughes, who’s trampled over by a stampede of middle schoolers during recess. I haven’t come across a scene as hellishly funny since reading The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde a few summers back. In his monster-like form, Mr. Hyde, stumbling at a good pace down a dimly lit street one night, collides with a young girl running at him at top speed. Much to the narrator and reader’s dismay, Mr. Hyde doesn’t stop. Just like the piratical youths, he ignores the screams and keeps going.

It seems dubious to suggest that Pirates! altered Clune’s worldview from a young age, but fast-forward to his adulthood and it’s clear he’s still thinking hard about markets, as evidence by his scholarly work, American Literature and the Free Market, 1945-2000.

The last lines of the book “When I die, I will remember the color of the sky” prove just how elusive a writer Clune can be, though not unpleasantly so. He reminds us that it’s “Not easy to talk to yourself…You need a code.” Gamelife is that personal code for Clune, and, like the acrostic code in Might & Magic II or the cryptic phrase “seven in the morning” that the “in” crowd at his middle school repeats over and over again, the full meaning of the above poetic line may have to go unsolved as well. But it’s clear by the end that Clune’s managed to close the distance between computer games and his life — hence the title — to create a unique memoir. Like a computer game with high replay value, I started the book over from the beginning as soon as I finished it.

We Can’t Go On, We’ll Go On: William Gass’s Middle C

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The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.

Joseph Skizzen, the main character of William Gass’s masterful new novel, constantly reconsiders and rewrites the above sentence, sometimes with slight modifications; other times, the sentence balloons to more than a page, but its despairing tone never changes. Gass would certainly sympathize with Joseph’s compulsion for revision. “Something gets on paper,” says Gass about his methods, “and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised, and then it gets revised.” Due in part to his obsessive rewriting process, Middle C took the author nearly 20 years to finish, and The Tunnel — a tome that has baffled critics and sustained a cult readership since its publication in 1995 — took Gass nearly three decades to complete.

Middle C begins in Austria, where Joseph’s father decides on a whim (“presto-chango”) to persuade the family to forgo their Catholic upbringing and assume Jewish origins instead. This way, the poverty-stricken family can access the underground organization that smuggles Jews to England and escape the trajectory of fascism that was beginning to take hold in Austria, one that Joseph’s father anticipates. In London, Yankel Fixel, Joseph’s father, once again sheds his name (and identity) for one more properly English: Raymond Scofield. It is as Raymond that the father suddenly stumbles into a great fortune that irrevocably changes him once more. He deserts the family without notice, leaving his wife and two kids to board a New World-bound ship to search in vain for him in America. Only much later on in life, still trying to make sense of his absence, does Joseph, in his rather bookish way, forgive his father: “…you wouldn’t arrest the actor who played Hamlet for the death of Polonius.”

But despite the appearances of its beginning, Middle C is not just another story of the immigrant struggle in America. The main struggle, as the central sentence of the novel alludes to, is the question of whether or not the human race, given its bloody history, deserves to go on, to survive.

Joseph’s a clipper: he cuts newspaper articles about the world’s atrocities and posts them on the walls of his attic, a collection he refers to as the “Inhumanity Museum,” a museum that will “remind its visitors of the vileness of mankind — not its nobility and triumphs.” He undertakes this task as if it were his life’s work. Professor Skizzen resembles more the thoughtful, melancholy professor-protagonists that inhabit Saul Bellow’s work than he does the rambling Professor Kohler of The Tunnel. While much of the book takes place inside the world of Skizzen’s mind, a dark, roving mind preoccupied with the future of humanity, the sections that depict his childhood (as Joey) are so precisely told with vivid details that they read less like reminiscence, and more like scenes unfolding before our eyes. Gass, who was briefly a student of Wittgenstein’s at Cornell, is a playful writer. And Wittgenstein’s theory that language creates its own reality is very much apparent in Middle C, not just in its absurd, enigmatic beginning, or its many language games — several words at the end of sentences intentionally rhyme — but with its questioning of identity and reality, notions that Gass constantly upends. For who cares if Skizzen (German for “Sketches”) fibs about his age, lies about his family’s past, and even concocts an imaginary career for himself as a music professor? He is, after all, an invention.

After leaving London, the Skizzens resettle in “The Heart of It All” — the middle C of the country, if you will — in fictional Woodbine, Ohio, a “tiny two-bus town” where Joseph and his older sister, Deborah, are raised by their husbandless mother. Joseph quickly loses himself in a love for the piano and eventually learns to play with some level of distinction, though not without great effort: “His approach to playing was like that of someone trying to plug always fresh and seemingly countless leaks — his fingers were full of desperation…” The cast of grotesque characters that Joseph meets in Woodbine easily rivals those from Winesburg, Ohio (the comparisons are inevitable). There’s Mr. Kazan, proprietor of the High Note, the music store where Joseph works, “who brought his beard around every morning at ten when the store opened, if he remembered the key.” Madame Mieux, the bosomy community college French teacher who employs a fake French accent even when she speaks English and fails to seduce Joseph after she invites him over to her home decorated in piles and piles of pillows. The head librarian, known as the Major, not only gives Joseph employment, but also a place to live in the garage of her home, where the rooms overflow with puddles from house plants. Then there’s Hazel Hazlet, a black woman with a mullet who talks to her teddy bear and sells Joseph a beat-up car for under $50 (she also possesses an angelic singing voice). And those are just a few of the odd characters in a much larger cast, each of whom bursts with an eccentricity all his or her own, as if they’re trying to upstage one another in quirkiness.

For an author who’s nearly 90 years old, Gass writes remarkably well about what it’s like to be young. The reflective lyricism of the passages on youth throughout the book recall Rilke’s great coming-of-age novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, a work Gass admits a fondness for in interviews. From Middle C:

When you’re young, time is a puzzle, like interlocking nails. You wonder what you ought to be doing or what the future holds or how things that don’t seem to have worked out will work out; and in such a mood, even when you are focused on the future because you are yet to get laid, to bloom, to beget, to find your way, to win a tournament, you nevertheless don’t detail far-off somedays in your head; you don’t feel your future as you feel a thigh…because the present is too intense, too sunny, brief as a sneeze, too higgledy-piggledy, too complete, too total, a drag already, whereas there is simply so much future, the future is flat as the sea three miles from your eye while the beach you are sitting on is aboil with sunshine and nakedness.

But unlike Rilke’s provincial Malte, Joseph never leaves his small town for the big city. For one thing, he doesn’t even have proper citizenship, an annoyance that surfaces just as he’s about to accept employment at a small library in Urichtown, or Whichstown — as the residents pronounce it, partly because it’s said to be haunted by witches. Despite the risk, Joseph makes a fake ID so he doesn’t have to confront his past, and gets the job. Gass plays with the notion that each person has many “selves” in a lifetime, not just the one filed on bureaucratic records.

Throughout the novel we see Joseph continue down a path of fabrication that his father had begun. He lies on his CV about advanced degrees acquired overseas in Vienna so that he can obtain a musicology professorship at nearby Whittlebauer College, where he calculatingly selects Schoenberg, the father of atonal music, as his area of emphasis. Although Joseph doesn’t even really care to listen to him, he’s such an “intimidating composer” nobody will question it.

The book ends on a note of astonishing suspense when Joseph’s fate is quite literally sealed in an envelope. The president of Whittlebauer College discovers that an imposter is among them, a professor “with an educational history that has proved false.” What unfolds proves that readers would do well to heed the book’s epigraph: “Remember me! remember me! / but ah! forget my fate.” For as loveable and harmless a creature as Professor Joseph Skizzen may be, especially in a world so cruel, his behavior during the faculty’s Ethics Committee meeting in the final pages leaves us terrified and shows us that he too is only human. We’re left, like the apocalyptic sentence he’s forever rewriting in the book, to reexamine all that we thought we knew about him, about our place in the world, and the philosophy of the so-called “self.”