I’d Spent My Last Zorkmid…

In Slate, Rebecca Onion has an interview with a historian of capitalism who has retraced the history of “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels — it’s a lot of fun. In it, they talk about how the format of Choose Your Own Adventure, dismissed by publishers at first and then adopted enthusiastically a decade later, was akin to the plot structure of early computer games. Now, I liked Choose Your Own Adventure as much as anybody, but what I really loved was the text-based Infocom game, Zork.

They even made Zork themed Choose Your Own Adventure books, but I really loved the game. It was the problem solving aspect that most intrigued me, though. It was the worldbuilding.

In the originally Zork trilogy (later wildly augmented and expanded into an entire universe of other games) you’re an adventurer who descends into the ruins of The Great Underground Empire, a kingdom founded by and overseen by the royal Flathead dynasty until it collapsed and was abandoned by everybody but dangerous creatures and mischief-making loners. As you explore the kingdom and gather treasure, avoiding the slavering fangs of deadly Grue, you advance from adventurer to supplanting the Wizard of Frobozz and to eventually claiming the mantle of Dungeon Master.

There were no graphics. It was simple keyboard commands and text descriptions. But the three games added up to something of a comic fantasy novel, with pithy nods to 80s culture and working conditions in the early consumer tech industry.

Zork had mind bending puzzles, including mazes in total darkness that you had to map out for yourself. For some, that was the appeal. I loved reading about the Flatheads, though, and trying to figure out where the Grue came from or how the various companies like Frobozzco international was formed.

Man, if they made a new Zork, I’d buy it.

Marquez, Kafka and Original Sin

In Woody Allen’s Love & Death, Boris is awaiting execution for the murder of Napoleon, a crime he didn’t commit. “But isn’t that life?” he wonders. “Aren’t we all condemned to die for a crime we didn’t commit?”

I just read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1981 novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold and am so reminded of the sentiment. Our narrator returns to his home town to investigate the revenge killing of Santiago Nasar after a large wedding is ruined by the discovery that the bride, sister to the killers, is not a virgin. She names Nasar as the man she’d slept with before marriage. But it clearly never happened and so Nasar never suspects that anyone wants to kill him and when he finally realizes his danger, he has no idea why it’s happening. He dies, knived to death by butchers, holding his innards.

Image result for Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Which reminds me of Franz Kafka’s novella The Trial in which Josef K. is informed that he has been charged with capital crimes and will be judged for them, though the accusations are never stated. Josef K. is also found guilty and sentenced to death. When he is butchered on a public street he can only think that they have killed him, “Like a dog!”

There’s a lot going on in both stories about the inhumane social and legal systems we subject ourselves to while living in a society. But the heart of it all is Woody Allen’s observation that we will all die, saints and sinners alike, as we were sentenced from the start for the crime of being born. This seems to put the search for some original sin into perspective, though the culprit is probably remorseless entropy.

Hey Siri, Did Poe Kill Himself?

In my daily life, I am surrounded by people making astounding claims about computational power. Many of these claims are true. Insurance underwriters can increasingly predict our mortality based on our habits and behaviors and the more data they have, the more accurate they can be. Psychologists at Lancaster University have set computers to the task of figuring out whether Edgar Allen Poe killed himself after a descent into severe depression.

The researchers conclude, after having the computer compare Poe’s late-life writing through a database containing words, phrases and images that typically connote depression and the suicidal impulse, that Poe was depressed but did not take a direct hand in his death.

It’s a worthy project, but I’m skeptical for a couple of reasons. First, the database is necessarily bereft of writing samples from people who don’t write while suffering depression and from people who don’t write anything in advance of suicide. Second, I wonder if you can compare the writing of somebody like Poe, who is practiced at writing in character, to a database of anything, even if you’re using his letters and journal entries.

Not saying the study has come to a correct or incorrect solution, just that computers can’t know everything.

Graffiti Art > Political Ads

My aim here is not to write much about politics but creative arts are often, if not always, political and lines cannot be clearly drawn all of the time. We’re in the midst of Democratic primary season for the 2020 presidential election and former New York City mayor and the multibillionaire founder of Bloomberg LP, Michael Bloomberg, is running on a “can do” mantra, touting his competency and accomplishments. Fine. But he’s also complaining that his campaign offices are being tagged around the country with spray-painted epithets like “Oligarch,” “corporate pig,” and “Eat the rich.”

Of course, the Bloomberg campaign will take exception to this but, at the same time, the candidate has said he’d spend maybe $1 billion of his own money on advertising. His ads became quickly ubiquitous on all major social media platforms and on cable television networks. He bought a massive amount of ad spots to run on MSNBC during a debate where he was a participant and MSNBC was one of the sponsors. He bought Superbowl ads. Bloomberg is using his massive wealth to flood and takeover public spaces both online and off.

Graffiti is a communications tool used by people without $1 billion to also get their message out to the public. A Mike Bloomberg campaign office is an advertisement to everybody who walks or drives by it. So is a graffiti tag. Bloomberg will never see it that way, of course, but in the spirit of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Richard Hambleton and more importantly, to resistance movements around the world, we should see these tags not as the affront that Bloomberg does but as artists taking back space that Bloomberg is buying in our minds.

I Have Stolen Your Image

This morning, the Paris Review sent a delightful poem by Campbell McGrath called Plums. It seemed bold to me for somebody other than William Carlos Williams to do this. It’s a prose poem, too and has a voice all its own. It definitely has its own take on plums:

“Was it the first time I’d been West, first time driving across the country? Was it the promise of open space, the joy of setting out, the unmistakable goodness of the land and the people, the first hint of connection with the deep wagon-ruts of the area, the living tissue through which the valley of the Platte has channeled the Mormons and the 49ers, the Pawnee and the Union Pacific, this ribbon of highway beneath a sky alive with the smoke of our transit, the body of the past consumed by the engine of our perpetual restlessness? How am I to choose among these things? Who am I to speak for that younger version of myself, atop a hill in Nebraska, bathed in morning light? I was there. I bore witness to that moment. I heart it pass, touched it, tasted its mysterious essence. I bear it with me still, an amulet smooth as a fleshless fruit stone.”

Or, does it?

The HR-ification of Daily Life

As a former magazine employee (though really after what’s now remembered as a last “golden age”), I might find it too heartbreaking to read the Dan Peres memoir about Condé Nast. But as it was published, I’d finished reading This Could Hurt, a workplace novel by Jillian Medoff where the heroes all work in the HR department of a market research firm that’s been upended and hobbled by the Financial Crisis.

It’s a solid office-based book and I’m a big believer in fiction that portrays the working life. Very often, to set an interesting plot in motion, an author will rely on some deus ex machina to reduce or eliminate the pecuniary needs of the protagonists. One way to do this is to just make the main characters wealthy enough that they only have to work by choice, if at all. Or maybe there’s an inheritance, or a benefactor with other motives… it is nice to get our characters out of the office and into a small town in Thailand, when we can. But most readers have to go to work and they deserve our attention, too.

Among the reactions I’ve seen to the Peres memoir are people who are shocked or surprised that people might take drugs and then go to work, or that they might drink alcohol at lunch.

Medoff’s novel, published in 2018 and set in the early part of that decade, gets a lot of its plot from people stretching and breaking the HR rules as they develop overly personal relationships with one another, in and out of the office. I dare say that though the novel is written by a high-level HR pro, that much of the behavior in her book would not be tolerated in a real workplace, were it unearthed by the wrong people.

Now, in the old days, especially in media, drinking was tolerated in the workplace — well, not for everybody, because nothing was ever for everybody. The guy who indulged in the 3 martini lunch wasn’t a lush with a problem who is messing up the health insurance premiums for everybody, he was a guy with an expense account and enough clout and influence that he could be tipsy or lazy in the afternoon. So if you wrote a workplace novel back then and had a character tip back strong cocktails in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, the reader would immediately get that they’re reading about a man of influence.

My guess is when presented with that same character in 2020, most readers would see a man with poor judgment and impulse control and a potential villain. Maybe a modern Falstaff would be the best possible outcome.

When I used to work at Forbes there were tales of a long-abolished office drink cart. We 20 somethings wondered, “why don’t they bring that back?” But we knew why and knew it wasn’t coming back. Now people don’t even think it would be a fun idea to bring the drink carts back. They see it as evidence of our collective past dysfunctions.

Cockroaches and Epiphanies

Last night I read The Cockroach a novella by Ian McEwan where a cockroach undergoes a purposeful, though Kafkaesque transformation into the British Prime Minister. It is a lot of light-hearted fun.

McEwan’s novel got me thinking about potential fictional representations of America’s president and those thoughts crashed into Josh Marshall’s observations about the behavior of post-impeachment Trump, a man who seems beyond all epiphany.

Which brought me to the moment of great change in the last part of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens:

“Yes! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!”

How would that end, were his Scrooge our Trump? I see: “Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious! Glorious!”

“‘TOTAL EXONERATION!’ cried Scrooge, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.”

What other ending could there be?

The Ending of Candide

“The end of Candide is for me incontrovertible proof of genius of the first order; the stamp of the master is in that laconic conclusion, as stupid as life itself.” -Gustave Flaubert

I’ll never be able to sum that up as well as Flaubert. The famous ending is, after all of the calamities, misfortunes, tortures and pains endured by Candide and his friends Pangloss, Cunegonde, Cacambo, Martin, the Old Woman, Paquette and Girofleo, that the only solace is productive work and that excessive philosophizing is just a path to superfluous misery.

“We must cultivate our garden,” says Candide, dismissing another of Pangloss’ arguments that everything has turned out for the best in this best of all possible worlds. By this point in the story, Pangloss has renounced him optimism but has decided to keep arguing for it anyway, because that’s what philosophers do.

It’s nice to see the roots of literary and theatrical absurdism creep out from a satiric epic. Though Voltaire would likely skewer an observation like that.

The Devil Is In The Writing

If you don’t read enough poetry, and I don’t, please know that The Paris Review will email you a daily poem. They tend to be a great length for morning reading and are always well selected. Today’s was “Mephistophelese” by Boris Pasternak, which includes the delightful:

“The devil in blood-red stockings with rose rosettes 
danced along the sunset-watered road—
he was as red 
as a boiling lobster.”

Coincidentally, I’ve had a short humor piece published today at Promptmag. It’s about a demon writing to Satan to report success in Iowa (and also to ask to come home.)

Enjoy!

Voltaire on Writing

A lot of Candide content coming up. For a Saturday, some writing (and playwriting) tips assembled from the Paris chapter of Voltaire’s masterpiece:

“How a play can be of some interest but of almost not merit:”

  1. It is not enough to contrive one or two situations found in any novel that always captivate audiences.
  2. One needs to be original without being far-fetched.
  3. Be sublime, but always natural.
  4. Write like a poet without letting the characters speak like poets.
  5. Never sacrifice sense to rhyme.

There are few good tragedies out there. These are the most common failures:

  1. Mere idylls in dialogue form.
  2. Political tracts in dialogue form.
  3. Addresses to gods by writers who cannot reach humans.

Voltaire intended a few shots at Corneille and Racine. Fun stuff.

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