In our monthly book club, we discuss whatever we happen to be reading and ask everyone in the comments to do the same. What Are You Reading This Month?
The Boss Fight Books series aspires to do for video games what 33 1/3 does for music: Enlist writers to explore the deepest depths of landmark works they love. Perhaps owing to the intimate personal interactivity of gaming, the Boss Fight series often places as much of an emphasis on the author’s experience with the games in question as it does the illuminating the inside story of its creation. That can be a decent vehicle for critical analysis, but the intricacies of game development are a dark part of this secretive industry that deserve more attention. It took a combination of personal storytelling and that kind of nitty-gritty creation chronicling to form one of the series’ best books, Spelunky.
It also required a huge detour from the usual Boss Fight and 33 1/3 formula. Instead of a journalist or academic, this 200-page piece was written by Derek Yu, the one-man development team behind the game. You can feel the loss of that impartial outside voice, but this autobiographical approach has plenty else to offer. Yu is at once a critic and a subject. At the book’s most clinical, he’s a magician explaining his tricks, using diagrams and the simplest language possible to illustrate how, for example, the game’s randomly assembled levels come together.
For someone like me, who’s spent hundreds of hours plumbing the incredible depth hiding below Spelunky’s simple Super Mario-like surface, this is a fascinating tour of its inner workings. For someone who’s unfamiliar with this modern classic, I imagine these more explanatory chapters might be tough to chew through, but they serve a greater purpose. In describing Spelunky’s mechanisms, intentions, and inspirations—the mysterious, indifferent world of The Legend Of Zelda; the complex cause-and-effect interactivity of NetHack; the short-form perfectionism demanded by infinitely repeatable arcade games—Yu is breaking down gaming as a whole. At the heart of this book is his own exploration of what makes this medium special, what it is about video games that inspires people like me to spend embarrassing amounts of time inside one. Coming from a developer who’s crafted one of the most intriguing, influential releases of the last decade, it’s an invaluable little piece of criticism and an insightful look at how something so obsession-worthy comes together.
The announcement that A Series Of Unfortunate Events is getting a second crack at screen life via Netflix prompted me to revisit the books, a staple of my tendency to reread anything I enjoyed the first time around. The last time I binged on the series was high school, and it’s possible that as an adult I’m getting even more enjoyment out of Daniel Handler’s droll prose and bone-dry wit. There are also references galore that I couldn’t possibly have picked up on as a child, not to mention all the sly mocking of other rose-tinted children’s fare that I appreciate with the hindsight of adulthood. But the majority of the series’ pleasure comes straight from the narration, where Handler’s stand-in Lemony Snicket interrupts the story to explain the definitions of words are the importance of key plot points, all with a determined pessimism. While Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are fine characters, it’s the character of Snicket that does the heavy lifting in the charm department, providing the series its darkly funny life force.
There are hopeful signs that Netflix understands Snicket’s importance to the series. The trailer showcased Snicket on-set, where he mirrored book-Snicket’s usual introduction by imploring the reader to choose other, happier reading material. One aspect where the 2004 Jim Carrey-led film version suffered was from transferring the story’s humor from Snicket to Count Olaf, the series’ villain. It worked to an extent, but moved too far away from making him a truly sinister figure, who spends less time on hijinks and more time enacting evil schemes to steal the Baudelaires’ fortune.
I’m currently at book 7, The Vile Village, in the midsection of the series where Handler wisely shakes up the formula of the early books by dedicating more time to the mystery he’s been hinting at since The Bad Beginning. Book 5, The Austere Academy, adds two more characters (the Quagmires—also orphans with a family fortune to inherit when they come of age) and a welcome friendship/burden to the Baudelaires’ lives, as Olaf schemes to get his hands on their family’s wealth as well. Snicket has been casually mentioning his personal stakes in the Baudelaire story for some time, but it’s not until halfway through the series that the reader can start piecing together exactly how he fits in. It’s something that went mostly over my head on my first read-through, and remembering the gist of Snicket’s role infuses the story with more mystery and more melancholy. It’s worth a revisit (or reading for the first time) before the series airs on January, Friday the 13th, if only because there’s so much more than going on than the titular series of unfortunate events.
Aside from Anna Kendrick’s memoir Scrappy Little Nobody (which I enjoyed), the book that’s held my attention the most has been the fascinating little thriller We Eat Our Own. It seems especially worth touting given its status as a debut novel from a young writer, exactly the kind of thing that could use all the attention it can get. At first glance (and judging a book by its title and cover), it looks like a straight-up horror novel, and the description of the story won’t do much to change your mind. It follows a nameless actor as he boards a plane to Colombia, having “lucked” into a starring role in a cheapie ’70s exploitation-horror film set along the Amazon. Once he arrives, however, he meets a director obsessed with realism and verisimilitude, an all-but-ignored script, and a disturbing vision of a movie that enters the annals of cinema vérité with the force of a thunderbolt.
The film-within-the-book is obviously based on Ruggero Deodato’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust, and interstitial sequences taking place in an Italian courtroom are an inspired reworking of the bizarrely true lawsuit brought against the grindhouse director for his gruesome little movie. But very quickly, the reader realizes the horrors have more to do with the tenor of the times. Local guerrilla revolutionaries and drug traffickers present much more harrowing real-world dangers than any imagined monsters, and the isolation and hallucinatory climate of the jungle does far worse things to the psyches of the assembled cast and crew than any of them suspect. Author Kea Wilson writes in a sort of gauzy poeticism, the words dripping with the weight of humidity and desperation, as these bargain-basement artists try to convince themselves of anything but the ugly reality around them. I’m taking my time getting to the end, because the prose fairly undulates with a hypnotic pleasure all its own. It’s a wonderful debut, and I’m excited for more from her. It’s a literary and novel-length version of The Monster At the End Of This Book, only it lacks the reassuring presence of a Muppet tell you its all going to be okay. It’s not.