Why I feel Leif Enger is the next John Steinbeck. ๐Ÿ“š

I started reading Leif Enger’s Virgil Wander yesterday. As expected, I got ambushed and clobbered by brilliant prose, and woke up groggy several hours later, with my face in the book pages, amazed that I was unconscious to the world for how long??

I’ve read all of Enger’s previous books in order of publication — not hard to do, since there are only two of them.ย  It’s fascinating to track the growth of a writer through the voices of his books. Peace Like A Riverย is like a spark of fire, and has the sound of youth: bursting with energy and superlatives, plumbing the heights and depths of emotion. It’s brilliant in the sense that light is brilliant and blinding. I got swept up in its ferocious passion, and love it for that.

So Brave, Young, and Handsome seems like a classic sophomore case. It feels more hesitant, as if now uncertain of its voice, and the fiery spark that animated Peace seemed almost quenched. Enger’s prose is still lovely and his characters are more poignantly drawn, but somehow the turns of phrase and imagery don’t glisten like they did, and this second novel doesn’t quite reach the heights of brilliance of the first. Yet, I sense that the prose of So Brave is starting to move in a different direction, as if it’s departing from the sources that animated Peace and reaching toward a new source or quality of prose, whatever that is. This second novel mostly falls short, although it sometimes enters that new source. While I thought So Brave was inferior to Peace, those moments of mastery encouraged me: Enger isn’t trying to recapture the past, but trying something new in his prose. (To be honest, I don’t think any author can ever quite recapture the spark of a first novel, and it’s futile to attempt.)

And Virgil Wander… Enger’s third novel successfully reaches those heights. That ‘spark’ is back, but it looks different. It’s still passionate, though not the fiery passion of Peace, and it feels more settled and matured.ย  Imagery and narrative glisten again, this time with more texture and complexity. And Virgil has something that the previous novels didn’t: a settled confidence that comes with experience and mastery of voice. The prose has control and precision that Peace didn’t have (and instead made up with passion) and So Brave was starting to reach for.

Have you read an author who manages to pack so much imagery and emotion into so few words?ย  Enger writes two sentences of less than ten words, or a two-line paragraph — and they paint a lush landscape in my mind, or evoke so many feelings of longing and wonder in me. It’s amazing. All his novels contain such turns of phrase, and they are the most precise and concentrated in Virgil Wander.

It’s been more than a decade since I last read or thought of John Steinbeck, but I think Enger gives life to his characters in Virgil Wander in similar ways as Steinbeck enlivens the cast of Cannery Row (my favourite of his stories) and The Grapes of Wrath.ย  Both authors have a way of drawing highly-textured, full-bodied characters in a single sentence. Main characters or bit players, they all spring off the page fully alive and with a sense of weight and history. And I think there are similarities between Enger and Steinbeck beyond characterization. Both have a whimsical knack for characterizing animals — simultaneously anthropomorphizing them while preserving their animal natures.ย  Both authors write with a strong sense of place, a deep embedding of the American person in their parts of America.ย  They address universals by getting into minute specifics of place and person. (For the record, I stole this from Russell Moore’s interview with Enger.)ย  And finally, it’s hard to describe, but it’s like both authors are pointing out the same kind of universal truth to me and evoking the same kinds of feelings in me.ย  The melancholy sorrow and numinous longing for beauty I felt when reading Steinbeck, I also feel when reading Enger.

Leif Enger’s prose is so simple, yet profound.ย  I want to write like him when I grow up.

I’m not finished with Virgil Wander yet, and I’m caught in the delightful position of simultaneously wanting to swallow it whole and savour every sentence. This is Enger’s best novel to date, and I look forward to being ambushed again the next time I pick it up.

๐Ÿ“š Now reading: Earth is But a Star. And a musing about reading anthologies.

Earth is But a Star, edited by Damien Broderick.
A science-fiction anthology of far-future/dying Earth stories and essays, by writers including Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, C.J. Cherryh, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, and Robert Silverberg. A fascinating, if cerebral, read through contemplations on humanity and Earth’s far-distant future.

This book is out of print. I first saw this in a local library and was so taken by the theme that I determined to buy a copy by hook or by crook. I ended up emailing the publisher, a small university imprint, and asking if they had any copies leftover from the original print run. Remarkably, they did and were willing to sell. So I had the whimsical experience of calling up and buying an OOP book directly from its publisher.

~~~

Unlike novels, the format of anthologies encourage dipping in and out of it as you please, picking and choosing which stories to read, not needing to read anything in order. Earth is But a Star has fiction interspersed with essays, so it’s tempting to just read all the fiction and then check out an essay or two, maybe read them later. (But face it, “read them later” never happens.) But I resolved to read the anthology in order from cover to cover. In doing so, I noticed something.

This habit of dipping in and out of a collection of stories is encouraged (or exacerbated) by publishing in the Internet age. News websites, blogs, online fiction ‘zines; and the practice of saving articles to Instapaper or Pocket… it’s so easy to read a piece of writing online that is isolated and removed from any surrounding context. Even online fiction ‘zines present their issues less in book-form with stories nestled between covers and lined up in a certain order, but as a landing page from which one clicks on links to stories. Apart from being linked from the same page, an online story or article has no spatial or temporal relation to the other stories in the issue. Less sense of a chronology, more sense of a radial branching network. That’s the kind of pattern that arises from a hypertext medium.

Whereas a physical ‘zine or anthology has stories in some sort of sequential order. Sure, a webpage has that too (the links are in some order), but a physical book embodies that orderly restraint more stringently than hypertext. One subconsciously assumes that there is a purpose to that order, and I’m certain there is.

Even so, one can still dip in and out of an anthology. It’s easy to jump ahead to the next story if the current one doesn’t hold your attention. Especially in Earth is But a Star, where I’m vastly more interested in the fiction than in the essays. But I resolved to have some self-control and read from cover to cover, missing nothing.

But I think there’s more to this than self-control: it’s being willing to surrender myself to the journey within the book. I’m relinquishing my choice to dictate which order I read the stories, and allow the book (and the editor/s) to lead me from page to page.

In this Internet age where reading material is rife and often disembodied from context, and the consumer is the one dictating how and in what order to consume media, it is a discipline to relinquish this choice and submit oneself to be led in a specific way. But I think there’s something profound in this submission. I’m accepting that the editor has purpose and meaning to this narrative trajectory they want me to go on. That there is a meaning and motive behind this journey, and that is worth exploring and pondering, even if I don’t agree with the trajectory. That every stop made, be it a short story or an essay, is a worthy stop to make right here, right now, at this point in the anthology. By surrendering myself to a journey directed by someone else, and resolving not to miss any stops, I get to experience a narrative different from mine.

Yes, it’s something (relatively) trivial: reading a fiction anthology cover to cover. But if I can’t submit my attention and choice to an anthology editor, am I willing to submit to some more important story? If I can’t take time to read a fiction collection in order without missing anything, how can I expect to take time to read and thoroughly investigate some bigger, more serious news issue, from all angles?

Sustaining attention through a narrative trajectory is a habit to cultivate in the trivial occasions as in the more serious occasions. Best I start with a science-fiction anthology.

๐Ÿ“š Book review: The Gatekeeper, by Nuraliah Norasid.

The Gatekeeper, by Nuraliah Norasid. Read July 2018.

An urban fantasy novel set in a world heavily reminiscent of Singapore. Norasid is a Muslim Singaporean author, and this novel won two literature prizes in 2016 and 2018.

The story follows Ria and Eedric, two characters who, amongst other things, are racial minorities — Ria is fully non-human, and Eedric is of half-human, half non-human parentage. Both characters face ongoing prejudice and ostracism that comes from being of an unacceptable, defeated bloodline. The story is about their struggle against a ruthless world and the increasing gulf between the majority culture and their minority status. While there are moments of brightness and hope, the story has a fatalistic overtone and ends bleakly. But not unsatisfactorily — this bleak ending is a prompt for reflection about one’s own assumptions about race, culture, and the position of minorities within a majority culture.

This book is of particular interest to me because I was Norasid’s countryman. _The Gatekeeper_ is steeped in South-east Asian culture: the history and setting of Manticura is reminiscent of Singapore’s own history, Ria and Eedric are representations of the indigenous Malay people prior to Chinese and European colonization. The novel contains a subtext of highlighting and critiquing the progress of Singapore from pre-colonial to colonial to independence to modernity, and also the social ills and complexities of inter-cultural and interracial matters in modern Singapore. The dialogue is written in the colloquial English of the region, rife with “Singlish” grammar and Malay words. When I read the dialogue, in my mind I also heard it spoken out loud in an accent well familiar to me.

Reading this book was an interesting experience. Norasid uses a fantasy setting to put distance between the reader and the cultural commentary on the real-world, to “make strange” the reality of the world so that we can see issues that would otherwise be camouflaged in normalcy. The cultural commentary was clarion and prompted my own reflection (I’ve experienced both sides of the racial-cultural majority/minority divide), but more than that, I was captivated by the juxtaposition of familiarity and strangeness of Manticura-Singapore. In some ways, that’s how I feel every time I go back to the region: it’s familiar, but also strange, and I’m now a foreigner in a place where my roots were — and perhaps, still are.

๐ŸŽฎ Recently played Cultist Simulator.

Cultist Simulator, by Alexis Kennedy/Weather Factory. A roguelike game where you build and lead a occult organization while maintaining a semblance of normal life, and uncover the mysteries lurking behind the world.

I backed this on Kickstarter. The game developer, Alexis Kennedy, is the creator of Fallen London; I’m a fan of his world-building and game writing (IMHO he’s one of the best game writers around). Kennedy/Weather Factory is also an advocate for open game development, posting developmental roadmaps and constant progress/accountability updates on the blog. It was a privilege to play the beta builds, and watch the active development of a game over time.

The game itself is a tidy, visually beautiful, story-rich little piece. Kennedy has created an original world/story of horror and occult mystery that is slowly unveiled in snippets as one plays the game. The roguelike mechanics of cards and timers wasn’t too hard to master and maintain (though I did get “eased into” it through the beta builds), and after a while, I was able to achieve end-game states without too much difficulty.

I enjoyed Cultist Simulator — not just the game, but also watching its development from pre-Kickstarter to post-release plans. Weather Factory has a great deal more updates and DLC planned for Cultist Simulator, which look to add more variety and complexity to the existing gameplay. I can’t wait to find out more.

๐ŸŽฎ Recently played Voyageur, an indie game.

Voyageur, by Bruno Diaz. A text-based, procedural exploration/adventure game with roguelike elements, where you play a space traveller on a one-way voyage, visiting worlds and gaining resources.

Easily played in a few hours; there are several end-game states with interesting storylines, but since the text is procedurally generated, you can play it indefinitely and keep visiting worlds forever. (I wonder if there is a “long distance” achievement or something?) The game mechanics and resource management weren’t too hard to figure out — mostly because there were only two major variables to manage — so reaching end-game was straightforward.

What interested me most about Voyageur was the procedural generation. There’s a lot of hype nowadays in the games world about how to use it to add variety and randomness into games, so I finally got to observe it at work through in Voyageur’s descriptions of worlds, and the appearance of in-game events and choices. Indeed, it’s impressive how much variety, and thus atmosphere and sense of scale, can be achieved by the procedural generation. On the other hand, I started recognizing the patterns after a while (possibly because there weren’t that many choices), and that broke a bit of the atmosphere. It was interesting to observe a game mechanic at work — its outcomes, and what kind of limits it may have — and I think that the hype around procedural generation is well-deserved and it has potential to be used effectively in games.

Voyageur was made by a single developer. It shows: it’s a small game in spite of the procedural generation, and I quickly ran up against its limits. Nevertheless, I’m impressed by what he’s achieved, an evocative little game with delightful writing, that simultaneously feels intimate because of its small scope, and expansive because of the procedural generation.

๐ŸŽฎ Now playing: Sunless Sea.

Now playing Sunless Sea. By Failbetter Games, the same folks who created Fallen London.

I’ve always loved the setting of Fallen London and the storytelling by Failbetter Games, so I’m enjoying Sunless Sea thoroughly. Its half-roguelike, half-adventure/RPG nature has been a point of criticism, but I like its slow pace and straightforward resource management aspects. Yes, there is frequent threat of death/game over, as is normal for roguelikes, but I’ve been able to manage survival quite well — much to my surprise. (My previous experience of roguelikes was FTL: Faster Than Light and the frequent, frequent game-overs frustrated me a little bit. I should try FTL again.) The early game experience is a bit slow with getting my characters off the blocks, but after doing a couple of voyages and returns to base and acquiring more money and resources, the pace picks up as my characters could travel to more locations and experience more stories.

As for the story… I play games for their stories, and Sunless Sea delivers in spades, which I’ve come to expect from the developers. Lots of storylines and lore that build on the Fallen London world. Absolutely delicious and delightful. I’m still playing this, and I think I’ve well and truly gotten past the “early game” section and am into the thick of things. I’ve yet to finish any major quests or achieve endgame states, so there’s much to look forward to!

In fact, this game has gotten me back into playing Fallen London… alas, there goes my productivity for the rest of the month!

๐Ÿ“š Book review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, by Natasha Pulley. Read June 2018.

This book reads like the fantasy equivalent of a hard SF novel: the story is primarily concerned with exploring an interesting idea, and the characters are just pegs to hang those ideas off. It’s an interesting concept, but the plot and, especially, the characters left much to be desired.

It started off well enough with an interesting premise (a terrorist bombing on Scotland Yard). The two POV characters were a bit bland and their POV voices read practically identical, but I was willing to go with it at first as the ideas in the story were interesting.

I did have a lot of trouble with the narrative style. It just seemed vague in the hazy, obscured kind of way. Now, I could detect a certain subtlety to it, like it was looking at characters, scenes, and the implications of scenes through sidelong gazes… but this didn’t work for me. It might be subtle to another reader, but I perceived it vague and bland. It was very much like looking through a hazy windows at happenings on the other side. The haziness didn’t tantalize, it just obscured things.

Unfortunately the novel didn’t get better. The story took an unexpected turn at around the 2/3rds mark: the romantic twist. Now, I generally take a dim view of romance in stories, and thus am quite critical about them. I completely did not buy this one. I think it wasn’t set up to my satisfaction — there were feints of some romantic flavour in the earlier scenes, but the payoff was jarring, like gunning from zero to 100% in a single scene. What’s more, I felt let down by the follow-through: the characters got away with it without any emotional fallout or consequences whatsoever in subsequent scenes. –Actually, there were consequences, but entirely of the plot-device sort. The consequences in character development seemed… non-existent.

As a result, I was thrown completely out of my suspension of disbelief, and lost respect for the story. I struggled to finish the rest of the novel because I couldn’t accept how the romantic twist changed and didn’t change the plot. Sad to say, I finished the novel with the taste of disappointment in my mouth. (And the plot about the terrorist bombing somehow slid out of focus and ended in a whimper, and the novel ultimately focused on the romance and relationships. Not quite what I was led to expect at the start of the novel.)

It’s probably just me. Overall, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is not a bad story. The ideas the story was exploring — namely how predicting the future impacts on causality and human nature — was quite interesting, in spite of the pedestrian characterization. And I’m quite sure that some of the subtlety in the narrative was completely lost on me, and it’s just the way I read books. But I didn’t think it was a good story either.

Game review: Dreamfall Chapters and the Longest Journey series.

A review of Dreamfall Chapters, a game I just finished this weekend, while also touching on The Longest Journey (played ~4-5 years ago) and Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (played right before DFC).

As with most of my book and game reviews, I prefer to call it a contemplation on my experience of story and character, gameplay and interactivity, how all of them mesh together in the medium of interactive game.ย  As always, there are spoilers everywhere.ย  Don’t read if you haven’t played the game before.

ย 

I.ย  The Longest Journey: a story that came too late.

Naturally, my experience of the Dreamfall games (particularly the storyline) was greatly influenced by my playthrough of The Longest Journey, and I came to TLJ a decade too late.

Continue reading “Game review: Dreamfall Chapters and the Longest Journey series.”

Game Review: KOTOR2, and How story and choice influence gameplay.

Note: I analyze KOTOR2 to some depth.ย  This review may be spoilerish.

The two Knights of the Old Republic RPGs are my favourite parts of the Star Wars universe.ย  (Admittedly, I haven’t experienced much of SW beyond the movies and some of the video games.ย  Haven’t even watched The Force Awakens yet — hopefully soon!)ย  So when KOTOR2 received its graphics upgrade in the middle of this year, I decided to play through both games back-to-back. I was especially eager to revisit KOTOR2 with the TSLRCM mod installed.ย  My first playthrough was on the vanilla game — boy was the endgame substantially broken with so many storylines left on cliffhangers without resolution, leaving me rather confused about everything.ย  So TSLRCM is absolutely necessary for fully experiencing KOTOR2.

It’s amazing how different the two games are.ย  Here’s a review of my experience, and how the different philosophies of the games influence their respective gameplays in profound ways.

Continue reading “Game Review: KOTOR2, and How story and choice influence gameplay.”

Game Review: Homeworld, and epic storytelling.

Homeworld, the video game series I loved long before I ever played or even finished it.

I first saw a friend play Homeworld 2 soon after its release. I was smitten — piloting a spaceship and flying through space is my fantasy dream — and shortly after bought both HW1 and HW2. I much prefer to do things in chronological order, so of course I had to play through HW1 completely before getting to HW2.

So I tried… for 10 years. I don’t play a lot of RTS and prefer turn-based tactics, so there was the RTS learning curve as well as the HW1 learning curve. Suffice to say that playing HW1 was an exercise in frustration, something to grit my teeth through, and not at all fun. So I’d try a little bit, get stressed and vexed, ragequit, then come back again in a year or so to try again. While the gameplay was my bane, the rest of it was fabulous. A SF lover’s dream. That’s what kept me coming back, but without much success.ย  Until 2015.

Continue reading “Game Review: Homeworld, and epic storytelling.”