Archive for literature

Yeah… So I Guess I’ll Just Write A Pulitzer Prize Winning Novel Then

Posted in creative writing, literature, stupidity with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2014 by drayfish

Writing writer stuff


An award-eligible masterpiece by drayfish

The first sentence grabs them. The second proves it wasn’t by accident. The third sentence fleshes out the subject matter, maybe alluding to the inherent ironies and minor twists of the absurd that will litter the work. The forth is just along for the ride. The fifth sentence, while being completely practical, and serving certain fictional necessities, perhaps fleshing out the mimetic breadth of the work, maybe developing an empathetic tie that allows the reader to invest in the protagonist’s journey (whether providing further description, or entering deeper into a character’s psyche to unveil the deeper motivations of their social, surface behaviours), is entirely too long and convoluted. The final sentence should tie up a neat little metaphor begun in the opening line.

The second paragraph expands the story in a new direction. Perhaps the introduction of a new character, or a small contradiction to the previous few lines of thought. The next sentence says something subversive, or quirky, or just gosh-golly fun, dangnabit. The next one introduces a crisp new simile so as to sound rather more poetical – but like the hand-made pottery of a giant praying mantis doesn’t really make any sense.

This sentence is just boring exposition. Unfortunately, so is this one. This one is a little more lyrical; punctuated, paddling in the penumbra of a point; it fools the reader into overlooking any previous sloppy storytellinglyness…

‘Maybe you could put in some dialogue?’ you say. ‘To flesh out the characters some more?’

‘And squeeze in a little underhanded exposition while we’re at it?’ I say. ‘Well, I may be just a poor sap from the country, with a slight limp and a handful of broken dreams, but I say we go for it. Gee, I need a cigarette (which has always been my one principle vice and is perhaps symbolic of a deeper, destructive self-loathing).’

Now comes a perfect opportunity to enter the mind of a character. Using italics will make it look artsy. But it can be cheesy, so it’s kept short. And refer to sex somehow.

This sentence is a thinly veiled admission of the writer’s own prejudice. The next one contains a missstake that spell-check missed. This one is punchy. This one frantically slam-dances around with wildly elaborative, excessively worded description, and too many adjectives. The final diadem of this paragraph makes an indulgent reference only the writer and a forth year mythology major can share.

Then there comes the padding. Every story has to have padding. A bit of padding anyway. But padding can be good. Actually, no, it is good. Padding is good. Everything needs some padding. That’s how houses stay warm, after all. Y’know, in winter? With padding. But not too much.

NOW the story jumps back into motion with a tacky shock-tactic. Maybe it has some fucking swear words in it too, so it sounds all gritty and real. It might even mention a celebrity in a really negative way, so the writer can seem caustic, and uninterested in fame.

This sentence is witty, and memorable; it has that unnerving ability to silently slip behind you and glide its hands over your eyes, so that when you guess the ending you feel as though you had a part in writing it. It can also show that the writer is manipulative, and tediously self-involved.

‘This bit doesn’t make any sense at all,’ you say. ‘It seems completely unrelated.’

‘But it will later,’ I say. ‘It’s foreshadowing.’

The format of the story widens here, introducing a new character or moving the narration to another scene. Perhaps the description of a guy the writer saw once at a bus stop. He gets an additional quirk though, that makes him unique in a metaphorical way – like Ahab’s leg, or the imperfection of Tess d’Urberville’s lip. But then he does something unexpectedly, unremarkably normal, like picking his nose, or reshuffling the cards in his battered wallet; something the reader can relate to. Something to help them empathise.

That character gets screwed over. Quickly. Sadly. It proves to be a chilling portrayal of the bleak unfeeling void of existence. It shows that the writer read Camus and went through adolescence.

Then this part. This part is action. Each move is fast. Each sentence quick. No lingering description. Cause and effect. Like stylised journalism. With imbedded onomatopoeic words like thud, and crack, and waaaaahh…KRA-SHANG! With commas, and full stops… and exclamation points as far as the eye can see!!! And when it’s over, an elongated line to cool off the frantic writing, to soothe and slow the speed of the story to something resembling normal.

It’s ripped off from a television show, this sentence. But it sounded better when the angry cop snarled it to the fidgeting junkie.

This bit wins over the literary types again. It shows, but doesn’t tell. Then comes the part where the atmosphere is truly evoked. It’s a recipe for the senses. A dabble of visualisation, with a simile or two for spice; a dash of aromas, stirred in for measure; perhaps the zest of a distant sound drifting in from the ether; and if someone rubs their arm across the texture of something and murmurs a sigh: et Voila!

This one confuses the present tense by having been wrote in the past tense.

Eventually the protagonist picks up an object, or maybe notices something, a smell perhaps, and it triggers a memory. This is a lazy dissolve to their past, but helps flesh them out, gives their journey motivation, and is blatantly stolen from a passage by Virginia Woolf.

This sentence wasn’t meant to, but halfway through its meaning starts to stir, it swells, hardening, rising, and suddenly enters into a whole different kind of imagery, it pushes through the mind, waits a moment, and then begins to grind a little, testing, developing a rhythm, until increasingly a desperate, insistent thrust takes over and the sentence continues, committed, unstopping, moving on, going on, keeping on, until finally it peaks, and at its climax, in the calm, once the frenzy has gently cleared, the reader is left unsatisfied, wondering if it was all a mistake.

Perhaps a child walks in here. At the exact moment an adult is doing something ghastly, obscene, or immoral. The child symbolises innocence. It is freedom; it can still pick its nose. When the child speaks, their words are so profoundly naïve they fill the room like a diamond splitting light. This lets the writer toy with the corruption of purity, of growth and the blessing of ignorance; it makes the light points lighter, the dark points darker, and flips the morality of the story on its head. If you actually bother to think about it though, it has little more substance than a fortune cookie mantra.

The narration at this point lingers on an image that seems entirely unnecessary; completely unknowable, like the bottom of an undrained coffee cup, or the depths of the human eye. The protagonist is haunted by the vertiginous spaces and incalculable immensity of the world. In their mind they use words they would never understand out loud. When they speak, only the reader hears them.

Because here – if there can be said to be one – comes the point of the story, the moral unearthed from this play of shadow puppets:

‘It’s brief and it’s curt, and when the character speaks it, it’s uttered as though unwillingly believed.’

It will be quoted on the dust jacket.

Then this part seems oddly familiar.

‘Oh, now I understand that bit from before,’ you say.

‘The foreshadowing?’ I ask.

‘Yes, but it hardly seems worth it.’

‘I know,’ I say. ‘But it rounds it all off neatly. And everything needs to have an end.’

Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Mystery Machine with the Suspicious Odour

Posted in criticism, literature, television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2013 by drayfish

Frontispiece (Hound of the Baskervilles)

IMAGE: The Hound of the Baskervilles frontispiece, illustration by Sidney Paget

I have taken quite a liking to the Sherlock Holmes stories lately.*  There is something paternally soothing about them – an assurance that no matter how bewildering the circumstances of a mystery may be, at the end of ten pages Doyle’s legendary character will deliver you back to the rational world with a condescending smirk and a lecture about how plainly obvious the whole matter was to anyone who cared to look.

It’s a trick, of course, a lie – as all detective fiction must be in order to function.  Sure the clues are there, but the aperture through which the reader must view the story is so narrow that one can only ever glimpse a sliver of the overarching tale.  The great fun of the Holmes character, ultimately, is that he goes out of his way to spoil such illusions.  In his final exegesis of each crime he metaphorically strides onto the magician’s stage, drags back the curtain and snaps on the house lights, revealing every trapdoor and wire to the stupefied crowd.  It’s ‘elementary’ because he was never taken in by the ruse.

Of course, Holmes is not himself adverse to pulling such tricks upon his audience.  He will often make an impossible observation, state the seemingly unknowable – ‘You have just come back from France’; ‘I see you are thinking of investing in the stock market’; ‘Your fly is open’ (…maybe that one’s not so miraculous) – and the characters surrounding Holmes will gasp in astonishment.  In the very first case they work together (A Study in Scarlet), Holmes at first refuses to describe his entire deductive process, momentarily withholding his suspicions about the murder in question and thereby propelling the plot.  As he explains to Watson:

‘You know a conjurer gets no credit once he has explained his trick and if I show you too much of my method of working, you will come to the conclusion that I am a very ordinary individual after all.’

However, this is precisely what Holmes goes on to do – repeatedly – for the remainder of his time with Watson, solving seemingly impossible conundrums, but always taking time to explain his methods, insisting that anyone else could do the same, if they too simply bothered to look.  As he states himself in ‘The Adventure of the Dancing Men’, describing the trick he uses to strike wonder into his audience:

 ‘[I]t is not really difficult to construct a series of inferences, each dependent upon its predecessor and each simple enough in itself.  If, after doing so, one simply knocks out all the central inferences and present’s one’s audience with the starting point and the conclusion, one may produce a startling, though possibly a meretricious effect.’

And it is only when Holmes then goes on to lay out the intuitive leaps and logical reasoning that lead up to his pronouncements that we readers applaud.  Indeed, it is precisely this inclination toward explaining his gimmicks that makes Holmes such a wonderfully fun character, rather than a condescending prat.

It should come as no surprise then that with such a devotion to the rules of an ordered and logical universe, Holmes’ most frequent bugbear (quite in contrast to his creator Doyle) was the willingness of those around him to entertain metaphysical explanations for the world’s mysteries.  Holmes believed that the world could be – must be – quantifiable, and so there is a recurring theme throughout the his tales of confronting and exploding superstition and mysticism.  In one famous example, ‘The Sussex Vampire’, Holmes immediately banishes the fantastical from consideration, refusing to indulge the panicked imagination of others and instantly dismissing the notion that a supernatural being could be dwelling in suburbia (in this instance a mother is suspected of having vampiric tendencies):

‘But are we to give serious attention to such things?  This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain.  The world is big enough for us.  No ghosts need apply.’

Over the course of the story, Holmes therefore dissects this false hypothesis, unmasking the ‘vampire’ by revealing the mystery to be a product of altogether too human emotions: petty jealousies, paranoia, and blinding affection.

Similarly, in The Hound of the Baskervilles (a great read I that cannot recommend highly enough), Watson is sent off into the gloomiest landscape imaginable to be stalked by a creature of gothic horror: the titular hound and its deathly curse.  It is only when Holmes turns up two thirds of the way through the story that he can drag the whole proceeding back toward the light of coherency.  All the mythical, mystical wonders that blight this landscape are dragged from out of the shadows, again to be cast down at the audience’s feet, the products of mere shadow puppets and paranoia.

In this sense, Holmes is the ultimate Victorian-Era Scooby-Doo, unmasking the irrational and mystical in order to expose the creepy-old-janitor-under-the-werewolf-mask of the coherent, objective world.  …Or, if anthropomorphised, mystery-solving cartoon dogs aren’t your speed: these narratives effectively operate as Socratic dialogues, exposing the metaphysical to be but a misapprehension of the plainly apparent.**

The great irony of this endeavour, however, is that it is precisely in his attempt to rid the world of mystery and mysticism that Holmes himself becomes all the more fantastical.  To return to Holmes’ own conjuring analogy, in his denouncement of the metaphysical he becomes the magician who takes you through the process of the illusion: he puts on a show so that you can be stupefied, then explains the trick so you can share in the conspiratorial glee, finally being wowed again by thinking back on how the ordinary was made to seem impossible.  Holmes makes the rational world, by virtue of its tediously unremarkable logic (not in spite of it), seem astonishing.

On a larger scale, what makes Doyle such a fantastic author is that he performs exactly the same function in his narratives: almost going out of his way to notify his audience of the trickery he is using to hoodwink them.  Doyle dazzles his reader with his audacity, and it is for this reason that he can get away with one of the most audacious acts in literary history: bringing his most beloved hero back from the dead.***

Scooby Doo

IMAGE: Scooby-Doo, Where are You? (Hanna-Barbera)

* I’ve also blathered about him further here.

** Just swap the mystery van’s endless, cross-country drive for a Socrates’ nomadic wanderings, and Scooby snacks for hemlock.  …Wait, no, that’s horrible.

*** Sorry, I should have said: SPOILER ALERT.  Scooby-Doo is a dog.

‘Love as War’: Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises

Posted in criticism, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2013 by drayfish

Robert Capa 1940

IMAGE: Ernest Hemingway, Sun Valley Idaho, 1940, photo by Robert Capa

These past few weeks I have had the great fortune of reconnecting with my favourite book, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (or Fiesta)*.  It is a book that I have often seen referred to as little more than the playful account of an expansive tourist bender – a group of spoiled Europeans sashaying through Spain to soak up the cheap booze and carnival excesses of the annual fiesta.  And yes, while it does indeed present some of the most evocative descriptions of drinking and partying, and the anarchic swirl of an exuberant sexual bacchanal, ever committed to fiction (the scene in which Jake has trouble going to sleep because he is blind drunk and the room keeps spinning around him is particularly captivating) – it is precisely because there is more going on beneath the facade of this apparent abandon that the novel is infused with an unspeakable lament and trauma, and the novel consequentially succeeds in being so profoundly moving.

Ernest Hemmingway was a boxer (he famously wanted to box Ezra Pound to toughen him up), and many people mistake his work as being similarly hard, punchy, overly-masculine prose.  What’s easy to forget, though, is that boxing is also about the precise, measured footwork going on underneath, and that is what Hemingway mastered: the delicate, descriptive movements beneath the surface of his imagery.  And this is nowhere more evident than here, in his first published novel; because on closer inspection, The Sun Also Rises, like the characters it depicts, reveals itself to be a deep, resonant and mournful novel that is only pretending to be carefree and aloof.

Although the characters might appear to be frivolous, urban socialites, criss-crossing countries on an binging vacation – this is a war book.  Set in the immediate wake of the first world war, this is a book about the nature of war.  A tale of tortured and torturous love.  Of self-loathing and emotional instability.  Of broken people, unsure of how to go on.  Of the psychological scars that remained after the declaration of peace as a civilisation struggled to come to terms with living through – but perhaps not wholly surviving – the great conflict that would redefine humanity’s conception of itself at the dawning of the twentieth century.

Much, like the narrator protagonist Jake Barnes, the novel therefore goes to some lengths to talk around the physical and psychological wounds that humanity has sustained rather than address them directly.  Paris and Spain are shown being haunted by figures wandering around in a state of numb shock, wounded soldiers and old fighters relieved to be alive, but not really sure what that life means anymore.  Jake is a wounded war veteran; his lover Brett is a war nurse whose husband died of dysentery; there are matadors trying to stave off fear; servicemen with amputations; a Count who has too much of the frontline, and violent revolutions, and who thus anesthetises himself with pretty women and alcohol.  All the characters are therefore adrift, wandering, unable to lay down roots or commit to anything.  They drink and hook up and travel, desperately trying to distract themselves from the horror that they have all witnessed, and struggling to recoup what they have lost, in themselves and society.

At its heart, this novel is a story about two nouns that have become almost sickeningly cliché: love and war.  But just as he does with his every application of misleadingly simplistic language, Hemingway strips these words back to their grammatical core.  It is a story about love in a time of war.  Love in spite of war.  About love as a type of war.  At the centre of this mediation it is an account of the relationship between two characters, Jake and Brett, who seemingly despite themselves, are bound together through the history they have shared in war (Brett was Jake’s nurse as he recovered from an injury not dissimilar from Hemingway’s own), and a love for each other that they cannot successfully resolve.  Seeing it as a fractious love story, one can observe a great deal about their relationship, their history, and this fiction itself, in the way that Hemingway chooses to describe that most familiar romantic trope, two lovers staring into each other’s eyes:

‘Don’t you love me?’

‘Love you?  I simply turn all to jelly when you touch me.’

‘Isn’t there anything we can do about it?’

She was sitting up now.  My arm was around her and she was leaning back against me, and we were quite calm.  She was looking into my eyes with that way she had of looking that made you wonder whether she really saw out of her own eyes.  They would look on and on after every one else’s in the world would have stopped looking.  She looked as though there were nothing on earth she would not look at like that, and really she was afraid of so many things.

‘And there’s not a damn thing we could do,’ I said.

‘I don’t know,’ she said.  ‘I don’t want to go through all that hell again.’

‘We’d better keep away from each other.’

‘But, darling, I have to see you.  It isn’t all that you know.’

‘No, but it always gets to be.’

‘That’s my fault.  Don’t we all pay for the things we do, though?’

She had been looking into my eyes the whole time.  Her eyes had different depths, sometimes they seemed perfectly flat.  Now you could see all the way into them. (p.23)

We see here a striking metaphorical encapsulation of Hemingway’s descriptive style: crisp, clear and declarative.  He doesn’t get poetical and syrupy.  He writes in lean, precise prose, even when articulating with the most loaded of emotional scar tissue.  Our narrator Jake – like his author Hemingway – is a journalist, who observes his world in nouns and verbs, honed with objective diligence, but it is what he isn’t saying, what he cannot bring himself to verbalise beneath the surface of this exchange (the ‘It’ of ‘it isn’t all that…’, ‘No, but it always gets to be…’), that is most revealing, and that motivates all else.

As is gradually revealed throughout the text, the ‘it‘ that Jake and Brett cannot bring themselves to verbalise is Jake’s impotence – his inability, after the horror of a devastating war injury (after which he was shipped home, where Brett nursed him back to health and they fell in love), to make love to her.  It is never made explicit whether his injury is physical or entirely psychosomatic, nonetheless, it has rendered him impotent, and this failing haunts him, (he believes) preventing him from being with the woman he loves.  To function – he comes to believe through his dislocated definition of masculinity – as a man.**

Consequentially, the book swells over with an almost obsessive meditation upon manhood and what it takes to remain ‘hard-boiled’ in the face of great emotional suffering.  Hence Jake’s obsession with those most masculine of men: bullfighters, and his preoccupation with boxing, and fishing, and fighting.  He is a character who has been rocked to his very core, and is trying to rebuild an image of himself that he thinks (wrongly) will restore him to himself.

Jake’s unwillingness to speak, to reveal his pain, is not bravado; in a world of survivors numbed by trauma, Jake is a state of post-traumatic anesthetization.  He cannot bring himself to verbalise his experience, so he shuts it out instead, blocking his pain and sorrow from consideration.  As the scene with Jake and Brett continues, the impediment that lies between them again rises to the surface:

‘Don’t talk like a fool,’ I said.  ‘Besides, what happened to me is supposed to be funny.  I never think about it.’

‘Oh, no.  I’ll lay you don’t.’

‘Well, let’s shut up about it.’

‘I laughed about it too, myself, once.’  She wasn’t looking at me.  ‘A friend of my brother’s came home that way from Mons.  It seemed like a hell of a joke.  Chaps never know anything, do they?’

‘No,’ I said.  ‘Nobody ever knows anything.’

I was pretty well through with the subject. (p.23)

Although Jake can never verbalise this in a straightforward manner – this is first-person, ‘I’ narration, and he is someone actively trying to avoid being too introspective, wary of the agony it brings – his trauma instead comes out in the imagery Hemingway uses to describe Jake’s experience of Paris and Spain.

In Paris we repeatedly see Jake erupt with rage and frustration, to become knotted up in self loathing by the men he repeatedly observes with Brett, and what, perhaps, he suspects these proxy relationships say about him, the lover she wants but cannot be with.  He prickles at the sight of the flighty, carefree young men with whom Brett dances at the club, obsessing over their clean, white, unblemished (presumably unmanly appearance), repeating the stunned observation ‘And Brett was with them’ as he struggles to block it out.  The men are in fact revealed to be gay, and one might well reason that subconsciously this is what infuriates him most: what they perhaps reflect about him if these are the kinds of men Brett is drawn too.

More revealing, however, in Spain Jake’s internal turmoil is made manifest in the echoes of war that play out in the chaotic, metaphorical eruption of the fiesta:

At noon of Sunday, the 6th of July, the fiesta exploded.  There is no other way to describe it.


The marble-topped tables and the white wicker chairs were gone.  They were replaced by cast-iron tables and severe folding chairs.  The cafe was like a battleship striped for action.


Before the waiter brought the sherry the rocket that announced the fiesta went up in the square.  It burst and there was a gray ball of smoke high above the Theatre Gayarre, across the other side of the plaza.   The ball of smoke hung in the air like a shrapnel burst, and as I watched, another rocket cane up to it, trickling smoke in the bright sunlight.  I saw the bright flash as it burst and another little cloud of smoke appeared. (p.132)

For Jake, the Fiesta exploded.  A cafe is described stripped down like a battleship.  The ball of smoke from a firework hangs in the air like a shrapnel burst.  People spew out everywhere, rockets are described  firing off on every other page.  It’s chaos and spectacle.  A mass of cheering and shouting and eruptions.

This is war.

Hemingway, through the expansive, imagistic allusion of our traumatised focal character, is sublimating the horrors of battle into this chaotic revelry.  Jake cannot discuss his post traumatic stress, nor how this pain has echoed out into his relationship with Brett, and so it is made manifest here, in this heady bacchanal.

Over the course of this frenzied vacation, Jake will lose himself amongst the festivities, coming to see his fears and longings and self-loathing literalised in this social upheaval.  Although seemingly keeping his cool, trying to remain ‘hard-boiled’, just like all of the other characters on this journey, he remains lonely and yearning and lost.  The end of the book therefore returns us to that same image of two broken people, pressing against each other to keep the sorrow at bay.  Jake and Brett sit close together, back in the exact position they began this journey: two mournful lovers in a taxi cab, staring into each other’s eyes, lamenting the wreckage they have left in their wake, and talking of their hopes for the future, if only they could repair themselves.

Although superficially each of the characters with which Hemingway populates his book look bright and cheery, calling each other ‘Chaps’ and collapsing into bed with each other, they are all revealed to be drifting, self-loathing people, all screaming beneath the masquerade.  And so, throughout The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway lets the shadow of that terror and revulsion pass beneath the revelry like a fish under the surface of the water, motivating them all, haunting their every waking thought, but, like their trauma itself, never able to be acknowledged and overcome.

brassai group in a dance hall 1932

IMAGE: Group in a Dance Hall, 1932, photo by Brassai

* Inasmuch as it is ever possible to do something so transitory and perfunctory as label something your ‘favourite’ anything …even though it is.

** Indeed, if you want to be really smutty about it (and let’s why not) The Sun Also Rises is also a bit of a crude double entendre: the other thing that ‘rises’ (or fails to rise) is the thing he’s been obsessing about the whole book: his ‘manhood’.

Does Shepard Dream of Electric Sheep? Thoughts on the Indoctrination Theory in Mass Effect 3

Posted in criticism, literature, Uncategorized, video games with tags , , , , , , on January 11, 2013 by drayfish

IMAGE: Mass Effect 3 (Bioware)

Although I am not a subscriber to the theory, and was not a contributor to their discussions, I was rather disturbed this past week to see that Bioware, publishers of the Mass Effect series, have decided to clamp down hard on a subset of their fans: those who believe in the ‘Indoctrination Theory’ (a theory that argues the muddled, obscure ending of Mass Effect 3 was in fact a dream-state from which the protagonist, Shepard, was struggling to wake).  Without warning, and with little explanation, Bioware’s Community Coordinator Chris Priestly began culling anything remotely to do with the discussion of IT, halting the primary thread (which had been running in some form or another for the past ten months), banning people who kept trying to discuss it elsewhere, dismissing anything written on the subject as ‘Spam’, and even completely deleting some threads (including an open letter pleading with him to allow fans to speak on a topic they care about).  Instead, fans who wanted to continue talking about IT were instructed that they could only do so in a closed off, invitation-only Group section of the site – that they were no longer permitted to discuss their interpretation in the public forums.

Again, I am not ultimately one of the fans effected by this blanket censorship, and so did not follow their discussions closely, but as far as I could see the (single) IT discussion thread was not a flame war, nor was it awash with triviality.  It appeared to be a group of people who passionately loved the game (in a way that I no longer can, given the disgusting implications of the text’s underlying thematic message),  players who were in many cases praising the work of the developers for being genius enough to sculpt a mystery of Hitchcockian depth and wonder.  Not exactly the barbarians storming the gates.

Frankly, it seems a rather shameful and prejudicial way to treat the fans that remain, arguably, the company’s most loyal and fervent supporters – particularly as it is a move that directly imposes a censorship upon what subject matter can and cannot be discussed in a forum that purports to offer a voice for the Bioware community.  I’ve not seen the topic of Synthesis, or Control, or Destroy (the other three primary conclusions to the ending (each of which concerns eugenics, totalitarianism or genocide as their central tenets) being forced to dismiss themselves to invitational groups away from the public discourse.

To me there seems to be a very unsettling precedent being set in this censorship, one that appears to be escalating a pattern of silencing the subject matter that fans are allowed to discuss on that forum (a prominent thread pointing out the many contradictions between the pre-release promises made by Bioware representatives and what was delivered in game was also shut down, with complaints disappeared).

In any case, in light of this unnerving development, I thought that I would (if you will permit me) return to some thoughts that I originally wrote on the BSN forum concerning this subject and its broader implications for gaming, back before even the mention of this concept was taboo.  As will be immediately evident, these comments all concern the potential implications of the Indoctrination Theory, should it have been revealed to be true…

. . . . .

As much of the criticism I have levelled at the conclusion of Mass Effect 3 is predicated upon the notion that the narrative arc with which we have been presented by Bioware is the entirety of the game, I did want to speak briefly (and I know my version of the word ‘briefly’ differs from most) to what it would mean if this is not, in fact, the end of Shepard’s tale.  …And yes, I am about to utter the words ‘Indoctrination Theory’, which I know for many players will no doubt inspire images of me sitting in a basement with a tin-foil hat.

Even before the Extended Cut was released I was always reluctant to weigh in on whether I thought the Indoctrination Theory was valid (although I will admit that I dearly, passionately hoped that it would have been so); but now that both the Extended Cut has rolled out and seemingly discrediting the reading, and Bioware itself has declared definitively there will be no more content after the ending, it seems that what I will go on to describe is more an account of what might have been, rather than what will.  So in that light, I would like to speak to what it could have meant for this game, this franchise, and the entire medium of video gaming, if it had have been the plan.

People need not have me repeat yet again the components of the Indoctrination Theory – suffice to say that it involves the jarring ending being but a psychological morality play within Shepard’s wounded psyche; Ghosty-McSpace-Scamp represents the voice of three options, two of which led to surrender, and the third, Destroy, playing out as a catalyst through which to break the stranglehold of Harbinger’s influence (hence the breath amongst the rubble: Shepard is reawakening to the real world).

If this is what is actually occurring, if a later supplemental free DLC patch to the game were to reveal these events to be the imaginings of Shepard moments before the true conclusions of the game (whatever they might actually be) play out, this narrative will be one of the greatest acts of literary manipulation and storytelling ever conceived.  (Again, I want to point out: I am not saying that this is what is happening – merely what it would mean if it is.)

The symmetry between audience and experience would be sublime: all the rancour and disbelief on the internet, all the fighting for Shepard’s identity and ideology would perfectly parallel the character’s own fight for survival, breaking the hold of an omnipotent, omniscient force that seems to compel him/her to act against his/her actions.  All of the angst, all of the sorrow, even my own pretentious blather, would therefore feed directly into the psychological rallying cry that that our focal character, Shepard, requires to wake him/herself up from this delirious stupor, and return to the fight.

Indeed, if Indoctrination Theory is accurate – if the concluding moments of the game as we have them now are but the shadows cast upon Shepard’s mind by Harbinger in an attempt to bend him/her to the Reaper’s will – then Mass Effect 3 would not be Game of the Year: it would be Game of the Century.  No hyperbole.  It would do for the communicative form of gaming what Citizen Kane did for film, what Joyce’s Ulysses did for modern fiction: it would turn the medium itself into a fundamental, inseparable element of the means through which the narrative was communicated.  It would elevate the audience’s engagement with this text to a profoundly intimate level (arguably impossible in any other artistic form), would fold dissenters and believers and self-righteous critics on both sides all into the miasma of speculation and emotion required for Shepard to act.  It would be the perfect culmination of player agency in the story-telling medium that Bioware has promised (and for the great majority of these narratives, delivered) for the past several years.

This ‘ending’ would be an intentionally, necessarily disturbing waypoint in the journey towards this tale’s epic dénouement.  And in such an instance, I will be at the front of the pack, howling myself hoarse with praise for the audacity and brilliance of this writing team and its talented crafts-people.

There would be no more question as to whether games were art.  People would simply harrumph and murmur the name Mass Effect as they do Mona Lisa, and then swan away to drink lattes and wear berets and talk about Kierkegaard.

Having Shepard (and by extension the Player) awake from the most audacious (and in fact necessarily cruel) act of player trolling in the history of gaming, only to then fight on with a greater comprehension of the alluring pull of this mind-altering persuasive power that has rippled through the entire Mass Effect canon…

Well that would be…  Would be…  Well there aren’t even words to put into context what that would be, because it would necessitate a whole new descriptive language of player and text interaction. (‘Cluster-Mind-frakafication’ leaps to the tongue.)

Mean?  Yes.  Deceptive?  Yes.  Misleading?  Oh, my wordy, yes.  But a rousing way in which to further bind the player to this character with whom they have journeyed, fought and loved?  Sign me up.

So in this light, I would have loved to have seen Indoctrination Theory play out.  It would have been an extraordinarily audacious play on the meta-fictional structure of the game.  Movies and fiction can’t do that: hold off on the release of the final scene of a film until the audience is good and invested in one reading, only to kick it up a notch with a later addition to the tale.  It is one of the great benefits of the delivery system of the games medium, one that I would love to see people utilise in more experimental, expressive ways than simply: ‘Hey guys, here’s Sonic 4: part 1…  Maybe you’ll wanna try part 2, ‘kay? ‘

I remember Stephen King experimented with that old-fashioned episodic form with the original publication of The Green Mile, and while I wasn’t a huge fan of the book, it seemed to work quite well for him in ensuring that the true narrative wasn’t spoiled.  His rationale – drawing on the experience of his mother, who he said had a tendency to always flip to the back of a book and spoil the ending – was to ensure than no-one could leak the information before he was ready to reveal it, and that by doing this he was participating in a very focussed, specific engagement with his reading audience.

My dream – and with the passing of the Extended Cut release it has now been revealed a completely insubstantial fantasy – is that with time constraints pressing in, Bioware decided to give the audience the cold, hard-sci-fi conclusion that this franchise has always flirted with, intending always (with the freedom of extra time to work on the DLC) to release the soaring, but-heroism-and-unity-can-still-fight-back conclusion that has always (until the ending) triumphed over the rigidity of the Lovecraftian nightmare.

Again, in such a case, the ending would have to be free (they would be rightly pilloried for trying to ‘sell’ the hopeful ending), and it would have to be handled delicately so as to not undermine the fans that have, quite rightly, invested in the conclusion as it stands.  Bioware would have to avoid posing this as a: ‘Ha! Ha! Gotcha!’, but rather as a bold expression of the whole experience of indoctrination, binding the players experience to Shepard, to manifest the battle within.

I should clarify, however: personally, I have no interest in Indoctrination Theory if it does ultimately turn out (as it appears it now has) to operate as no more than an ‘alternate’ reading on the current canon ending.  Indeed, in such an ending it seems merely a vicious malformation of the player’s engagement with the plot, failing to even provide a satisfactory conclusion.  If the end of the game really is just Shepard lying bleeding to death in rubble, then I completely check out.

Ultimately, one of the major problems with the Indoctrination Theory – aside from the fact that Bioware has almost certainly denied it’s very existence – is that it is an ending that backs the player into the corner of having to commit a heinous act in order to fight through the dream-state: obliteration, domination, or eugenic purging.  You have to select one on order to even hope to end the deception – and you have to do so without actually knowing whether your dreaming or not.  It’s a horrifying, and grotesquely pricey gamble.

The only way that this action could function is if Bioware’s plan was always to push us into an extreme act, an act for which we could never forgive ourselves, in order to (clumsily) force a kind of empathetic bond with the major villains of the work.  In such a case the question would become how much could you/would you, Shepard, be willing to sacrifice to save the Universe – as a prelude to the real conclusion, waking the character from whatever choice was made in DLC and stomping some Reaper ass.  Still awkward, still vile, still an utterly unjust violation of the player’s agency, but one that intentionally muddies the stark moral delineation between the potential for action between the heroes and ‘villains’, forcing a hypothetical moral conundrum upon the player that will reverberate even after the uplifting conclusion…  Of course, this presupposes that the Reapers are little more than the rocks upon which our characters dash themselves, and Shepard is compelled to see the choice that confronted all those who pursued these creatures before him/her, hoping to control or thwart them.

Again, I frankly don’t think that this is in any way what Bioware had or has planned – it seems to me that this revelation should have already been made by now if they had any actual intention of running with it…  But I guess for me, the Indoctrination Theory is like a scratch on the roof my mouth that I cannot help but keep touching with my tongue.  It lingers because although I can ultimately dismiss almost everything else that supports Indoctrination under the shortcomings of apathy, rushed design, or happenstance, one doubt remains.  Sure, no one looks at the creepy kid as he scrambles onto the ship; fine, because who’s looking anywhere but at the giant mutant insect blowing civilisation into powder?  Sure, there is absolutely no way that Anderson could have gotten in front of me with pristine clothes and no visible wounds; but he said the walls were moving around and maybe the developers (somehow) didn’t catch that logistical speed bump.  And yes, even those goddamn dreams – intrusions into my Shepard’s semi-cipher identity that really stick in my craw (it’s a thing; a craw can be a thing!); if I squint a little in my mind’s eye I can finally dismiss them as purely clumsy, woefully mistimed swings at emotional engagement.

But that breath scene.  Someone has to explain that Shepard breath scene after the Destroy ending. I have to have it explained.  Need it explained: justified, contextualised, even deleted as a fault – anything.  But something needs to be done, because at the moment, from whatever angle I read it, it seems to be saying to the audience: ‘Oh, and by the way, gentle player:

‘Screw you.

‘…No really. You, drayfish.  You.  Screw you.’

Because that scene has no merit whatsoever besides intentionally, openly trolling the audience.

They know that we’re not infants – simply shaking a set of keys in front of our eyes will not delight us to forget everything else we’ve seen.  They may not have known that a healthy portion of the fans would react as vehemently to the principles of the endings.  They may not have foreseen that everyone would (I think entirely justifiably) interpret the Relays exploding as the ruination of all life (although when you pull out to a universe-sized wide-shot that reveals tsunamis of devastation rippling into countless stratospheres, I’m not sure what else they were expecting).  But that breath scene is an addition (needless at best) to this salad of gormless iconography.  And because it goes nowhere, asking its viewer to believe that Shepard not only survived the Reaper destruct code that was meant to kill him/her, but lived through the structurally devastating Crucible explosion; and then lived through re-entry into Earth’s now blighted atmosphere, the premise goes so far beyond the realm of the fantastical that it would be like the creators sat down with a game of Mad-Libs to devise the ending plot:

‘I was walking through LONDON when I found a GIANT LAZER that sent me to SPACE . It was here that I met CREEPY GHOST who made me feel EXISTENTIAL NIHILISTIC ANGST until I BLEW UP the UNIVERSE and went home for more DLC .’

If the creators of this franchise really have that little respect for their audience then there is little left to say at all. If the breath scene (as it currently does) continues to have no relevance except to tantalise with utterly fruitless speculation, then I fear that my investment in this franchise will be truly eroded through – and I desperately do not want that to be so – because it really will mean that a prank was more important to the creators of this universe than thematic cohesion and narrative sense.

…Even as I type this, however, I can acknowledge with sorrow that I am in the bargaining stages of having my hopes dashed.  It’s Christmas Eve, I’m standing in my pyjamas, a teddy bear tucked under one arm on the staircase as I watch my parents stuffing the stockings with gifts from a trash bag, both hushing each other in case they wake me.  ‘But – But there is still a Santa, right?’ I’m murmuring into the dark.

Come on, Bioware.  Let there be some kind of impossibly fortuitous path through the murky narrative haze.  Give me back Santa.  You have no idea how much I still want to believe.*

IMAGE: Mass Effect 3 (Bioware; additional snarkiness: me)

* But as we were all made aware: on 26th June Santa lay beaten to a pulp in a back alley. A note, left by the attacker read: ‘For the Lulz’.

(Originally published, in parts, on the ‘All Were Thematically Revolting…’ thread:

John Tranter: He’s great. That is all.

Posted in literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 25, 2012 by drayfish

IMAGE: The Floor of Heaven (HarperCollins)

The poet John Tranter is a bit of a hero of mine, and recently I have been revisiting his brilliant verse novel The Floor of Heaven.

For those unfamiliar with the work, I cannot recommend it enough.  A clusterbomb of narrative play and a musing upon the glistening miasma of high and low art, it is a work of striking depth and genuinely dizzying fun.

…And yes, I said ‘glistening miasma’.  I’m comfortable with that.

While I would definitely recommend buying a copy to savour (is it sad that I have three copies? one signed?), if you’re reluctant to trust the word of a faceless blogging nerd on the interwebbies, you can check out the entire book, which Tranter has kindly posted to read (completely free), on his homepage:

Tranter was also the founder of the fantastic (also extraordinarilly freeJacket electronic journal.*  There you can find a fantastic analysis of the book by Kate Lilley (originally published in the journal Southerly), a reading that engages much of the intertextual commentary Tranter produces through his swirling narrative layers.

* The original journal appears here:; it’s sequel Jacket2 (no longer edited by Tranter) can be found here:

‘Lord, What Fools These Mortals Be’: Batman and the New Gods of the Super-Heroic

Posted in comics, literature with tags , , , , , , , on August 20, 2012 by drayfish

In the wake of the release of The Dark Night Rises the popularity of the world’s greatest detective is currently at its peak.  Earlier this year a copy of the first issue of Batman (Batman no.1, 1940) was sold in Dallas for $850,000.* Two years ago, the comic book in which the character Batman first appeared (Detective Comics no.27, 1939) was sold for over $US1 million.**  And only days earlier, the first issue of a comic in which Superman appeared (Action Comics no.1, 1938) sold for exactly $US1 million.  Aside from answering, once and for all – and forever – which hero is the greatest (psst: It’s Batman…), I think these extraordinary sales can be seen to say something of the significance that these characters have as legitimate social artefacts.  And with The Avengers having just Hulk-stomped the box-office in wholly unprecedented ways, it’s worth exploring why it is that these super heroic narratives are so embedded in modern cultural iconography.

When we think of comic books it is easy to be put off by the lesser, gratuitous works that can be seen to litter any medium: works of adolescent sensation where Lady Spandex and Captain Forearms fight the ferocious Explosion Monster (I’m copyrighting that by the way).  But if you cast your mind back to the characters that have lasted – some for almost a century – who have been revived and re-contextualised with each generation, you can see some quite intriguing archetypes on display.  Most obviously there are the early superhero characters that have their origins in Greek and Roman mythology: Wonder Woman is an Amazon; early artwork of The Flash depicted him as an exact replica of his mythical antecedent, Hermes (or Mercury) messenger of the gods; but the superhero genre as a whole is a modernisation of these ceaseless epic tales.  These are Gods among humankind, warriors granted unearthly powers; and like myths in their time, which sought to rationalise the human experience through fantastic tales of morality and fatalism, these superhero narratives, and the heroes they gave rise to, often speak to the concerns of the modern world (with equal smatterings of violence).

Consequentially, there is inestimable pleasure to be had dissecting the many allegorical facets of these seemingly innocuous adventures.  Like Gothic fiction before it, where social angst could be played out with the aid of invasive, inhuman vessels into which our paranoias might be poured – Dracula as the personification of our xenophobic terrors; Frankenstein’s monster as the scientific desecration of the natural; the Werewolf as our primal desires stirred alive to roam free – comics can likewise play out collective neurosis and escapist ideologies.  Sure, we don’t see the Hulk stooped to recite Milton in the flickering of a fading fire, but he still speaks something of a retribution visited upon mankind for its foray into unnatural science (gamma radiation, wasn’t it?), or the id left unchecked to rage and destroy.  Superman, often seen as the adolescent fantasy (the underestimated Kal-El hiding his true power under the awkward mask of bespectacled Clark Kent), is also the ultimate American immigrant magnified.  …And in a cape.  Spiderman is puberty.  The X-Men are (perhaps a little heavy-handedly) intolerance in all its forms.  The Silver Surfer is… Well he’s… Okay, I don’t know what the hell he is.  The dude is naked and surfs through space.  That’s weird.

I assume that I am not the first to draw this comparison, but to me Batman is the modern Hamlet.  Sure, he’s a little more proactive, is perhaps a little kinder to his sidekicks (he doesn’t send them off to get executed, at least), and doesn’t have quite as unnerving a fixation upon his mother, but the thematic similarities run deeper.  Both are characters whose narratives are born in the death of their parents (Hamlet’s mother is just as lost to him in her debasement), both are Princes motivated by revenge to seek justice, both are contemplative, melancholy, and use artful deception (skirting the edges of madness) to bring their opponents down.

“That I, the son of a dear father murdered,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Should don a cape and cowl and leotard,

Punch clowns and freaks and ne’er-do-wells,

drive a hellacious car and date a Cat…”

…Okay, so maybe I don’t want to stretch the comparison too far.

Perhaps most tellingly, however, is the parallel between their environments.  Something is rotten in Denmark, and the entire state reeks of this corruption.  The new King is morally poisoned; wise figures such as Polonius sink into drivelling inanities; dear friends like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betray and are betrayed; Ophelia is lost to insanity when she forgets to use a floatation device.  The world is a manifestation of the turmoils within Hamlet’s mind, and the forces waging to tear his psyche apart.  And in exactly the same manner, Gotham City is Bruce Wayne’s inner monologue projected outward on his urban sprawl.  The city is awash in lawlessness and vice, its colourful criminals manifestations of a perverted communal consciousness – indeed, there is profit in reading the entire Batman narrative as merely the elaborate delusions of a rich kid named Bruce lost in the haze of a dissociative disorder, sitting in his own Arkham Asylum cell.  Thus, few of Batman major villains are superhuman.  In most cases they are intriguing psychological tropes: Two-Face is the self-loathing schizophrenic; Joker is the psychotic unchecked by the superego; Poison Ivy is the environmental militant blinded by her convictions; Penguin is the social climber haunted by an inferiority complex; Riddler is the sad, self-sabotaging egomaniac.  And king amongst them all is their antagonist, Batman, who nightly wages war on the excesses of these personal demons, never able to kill them, but outwitting them, beating them into submission, and returning them to the momentary quiet of the subconscious where they fester, waiting to spring forth again.

And so he occupies a unique space in the comic book pantheon.  He is a terrifying figure, not noble and bright, but slinking through the shadows, almost Goya-esque, heroic not because he is granted super powers he is obliged to use, but a mortal man (now over seventy years old), battling against the neurosis that threatens to overtake us all, and haunted by the profoundly human realisation that his struggle can only end with death.



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