Tag Archives: family

Everyone who believes in books, or has (or has been) a child, should read Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree

Far From the Tree

A quarter of Americans read zero books per year.  The Onion, as usual, put it best: “Print is Dead at 1803.”  I know this is a blog. You’re reading it on a screen.  And I like blogs, and websties, and Facebook. (Twitter, however, is too scary. Mean people.) I read articles and sites online every day, sometimes for hours.  I teach online classes and collect and respond to student papers, even in face to face classes, electronically.  But books are different, and special.  People need to read more of them.[1] Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity demonstrates precisely what a book, and no other form or medium, can still do.

Greatly exaggerated

Greatly exaggerated

What it’s about: children who are different from their parents.  That, of course, would be all children, but a simple recitation of the chapter titles alone reveals something of the book’s scope and depth: Son, Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape, Crime, Transgender, Father.  The first and last chapters refer to Solomon’s personal experiences and bookend the other the chapters.

Of course, it takes nearly a thousand pages to cover the material.  Solomon frames his discussion of seemingly disparate groups in two main ways.  First, he talks about parents and children as having both “vertical” and “horizontal” identities.  Parents default toward the vertical—that is, what is the same between parents and children, and what is passed down (the language itself suggesting verticality) directly from parent to child.  Hearing parents, heterosexual parents, cis gender parents expect and assume their children will be the same as them.  But often, children are radically different, instead having what Solomon calls horizontal identifies, therefore becoming part of a new, horizontal community outside of the biological family —the deaf community, the dwarf community, the disabled community.  And sometimes, there is only the identity without the community: prodigies, children born of rape, children whose disabilities prevent them from any form of communication, who, unlike other groups, have not coalesced into an identifiable horizontal identity.

But even the idea of identity itself is complex, which brings Solomon to his other framework. Drawing upon his own experience as a gay man and the cultural trajectory homosexuality has taken during his lifetime, Solomon suggests that his subjects can each be understood as operating on a kind of spectrum.  On the one end of the spectrum is illness, which requires intervention: homosexuality, and various kinds of disability, were believed to necessitate cures, treatment to establish the vertical identity of the parents.  But on the other end of the spectrum is identity: a meaningful difference that is not perceived as undesirable, one not to be taken away, pitied, or, for that matter, admired.  Where different syndromes and orientations fall on this spectrum, however, is subject to contentious debate.

Not surprisingly, the book is exhaustively researched and extensively documented: over 100 pages of notes alone, so it felt nutritious—I learned more on every page.  But it is not just a synthesis of academic articles, or the more than three hundred interviews that Solomon conducted himself. The tensions between these ways of understanding children who are not like their parents—vertical/horizontal; illness/identity—inform each chapter, and my summary cannot do justice to the overall intelligence, nuance, morality, and warmth that comes through.   It is a long book that easily moves back and forth between individual case studies—no, not case studies, people, since “case study” sounds more clinical than the human, and humane, portraits that emerge—and academic analyses spanning literature, psychology, history, and medicine, navigated and negotiated by an author who places himself, and his well-informed beliefs and ideas on the page.  By the time I was done, I felt as though I had been through something, and gotten to know, and love, Andrew Solomon himself.  I didn’t agree with everything I read, but I considered everything I read.  Nonreaders are quick to create a false dichotomy between books and life, but they are wrong. The best books provide a deep, meaningful life experience for the reader.  Books, like births, create horizontal communities and identities as well.

One of the few 1-star reviews on Amazon.com, for me, helps explain the book as well as one of the many 5-star reviews: “The author talks 2 much- and he is super boring and actually sounds like he just took a class in college and is repeating what the professor said- very disappointed.”  This reader, unwilling to put in the time, retreats into the worst cliché, boredom.  (The part about “repeating what the professor said” baffles me, though, as through Solomon somehow didn’t write it.)  Reviews like this help me to understand the zero books per year number.  A good book, unlike other popular forms of reading, to say nothing of other forms of entertainment, makes the reader work, but feel as though the work is worth it. Even if I did not work as hard as Solomon, who took over ten years to write Far From the Tree.

I don’t know how he finished it so quickly.

Time: 50 minutes, not counting reading the book.

In Comments, feel free to share a book that you felt to be a meaningful life experience.  While Far From the Tree is of course nonfiction, any genre is fine.


[1] I’m not going to get into the electronic vs print book issue here, except to say that I still read books only in hard copy, and I can’t imagine having read this one on a screen.

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The Three Movies that Traumatized Me

 childhood-trauma-rpg-d-amp-d-lvl1-demotivational-poster-1216902600

For some people, it’s Bambi.  For my brother Al, it was ET and Pee Wee’s Playhouse—he must have had a psychic intuition about that Pee Wee Herman guy.   But everyone can look back on childhood and recall—sometimes fondly reminisce, as I suppose I do —about the Movies that Ruined Their Lives.  (In the comments, go ahead and mention the movies that traumatized you. It’s fun!)  It’s not that I hate the movies or think that they’re bad.  As Facebook would say of my relationship, it’s complicated.

1) The Shining

shining

I remember the day that Brendan, Michael, and I watched The Shining at Irving’s house, I guess at some point in elementary school.  Irving had the only VHS and, obviously, most neglectful parents.  I think they were going through something.  Supposedly, kids figure everything out and know what’s going on, but I was a confused, oblivious child.  Danny, the boy with the title’s power, seemed roughly our own age, and when he talked to his hand decades before talk shows would emplore people to do the same, and called his pointer finger Tony, then spoke in a raspy voice as Tony, it didn’t seem funny, or campy, or kitschy, or cheap.  It was fucking horrifying.  So was the “REᗡЯUM” in lipstick on the bathroom door, which spelled out “MURDƎЯ” in the mirror, something that at 10 years old (maybe?) I DID NOT SEE COMING AT ALL.  And that was nothing compared with the terrifying twin dead ghost girls.  Like regular twins aren’t scary enough.  And of course, the Naked Lady in the bathtub, who begins as beautiful (not that I noticed; see: oblivious) and turns into a shrieking, droopy-breasted  hag as she chases Jack Nicholson down one of the million hallways in the film.  The later scenes, involving Jack going crazy, hacking poor Scatman Crothers to death with an ax, and subsequently menacing and attempting to murder his wife and child, had little effect after the powerful childhood magic of Tony,   REᗡЯUM, the girls, and especially the Naked Lady.  Either that or I had no more unconscious recesses left in my brain the ruin.  As Psycho must have done for a previous generation, The Shining made me scared to go anywhere near a bathroom for, like, a year.   And for many years after, Michael and I would yell “Naked Lady!” to each other, a phrase which for other kids may have evoked laughter, or titillation. Bur for us it was like screaming Boo! Times a million.

I watched The Shining again about a decade later. I was an English major in college and wanted to see what all the fuss in my head had been about.  This time, the movie was hilarious, a black comedy about writer’s block and isolation, less about Danny and bathrooms than Jack Nicholson’s madcap persona and the ridiculous haunted house conventions that had been beaten into everyone’s heads a hundred times by then. A hotel built on an Indian burial ground? Really?  I laughed at the film, at Jack, at Jack’s stupid, frozen face at the end, and myself, for misreading the movie so badly.

the_shining_ Jack frozen

And then I watched it again about six years ago.  I was teaching a class about conspiracy and paranoia in literature and film and wanted to pair Diane Johnson’s excellent, underrated novel The Shadow Knows with a movie.  And it was scary all over again, for new reasons. This time, I hardly saw anything supernatural or monstrous about it.  Instead, it seemed a harrowing psychodrama about loss of masculinity and domestic abuse, the not- at-all-funny ways in which women and children are most threatened by, most likely to be murdered by,  husbands and fathers,  supposed protectors and providers.  Without society or any kind of social arrangements, Jack has nothing to keep his rabid unconscious in check. I was disturbed all over again.  Maybe I wasn’t as oblivious as I thought as a child.

  2. The Fly

fly_poster

Not the 1950s Vincent Price classic, although I did see and love that movie as a child. No. In 1986, a few years after The Shining, I was at an in-between movie age and faced a choice: to see the Transformers (the cartoon movie that no one wants to talk about these days, featuring Orson Welles’s last role. Ah, cruel fate), or David Croneneberg’s remake of The Fly.  Later in life, I’d grow to love many of Cronenberg’s films.  Jeff Goldblum/Seth Brundle’s revolting and horrific transformation—no easy head-switcheroos here; the way   Brundle snaps a man’s wrist arm-wrestling in a bar; the way the mutated Brundle-Fly uses his fly vomit to disintegrate a man’s limbs; the way Gina Davis’s push dislodges Brundle-Fly’s jawbone and with it, his last vestige of human resemblance; Brundle-Fly’s like-nothing-else-ever appearance at the very end, after he accidently goes through the teleporter alone, failing in his Shining-esque plan to use the machine to merge his own DNA with Gina’s and their in-utero child, and how he points the gun at his own head but in his hideously deformed state can’t pull the trigger and Gina has to do it for him. OH MY GOD.  I can’t believe I ever saw another movie again. Or slept again.  Or had children.  But YOU WILL NEVER GET ME IN A TELEPORTER.  This plot summary was written from memory and without IMDB or Wikipedia.  Although I have not seen this movie in over 25 years, its images are burned into the internal plasma screen of my psyche.  Unlike The Shining, I do not expect to see The Fly again.

3. The Elephant Man

elephant-man_poster

Now, here’s the catch: not only have I not seen the Elephant Man since I was a child; I NEVER saw The Elephant Man. Although I added to my Netflix queue over a year ago in a failed attempt to cure myself through immersion therapy.  Which counts for something, I guess.  Even before The Shining, I saw a short clip of The Elephant Man on TV.  The clip I saw, which, again, I remember vividly although it was over three decades ago, features John Merrick, as he was known in the film, wearing a pillowcase over his head and fleeing a mob, which rips his mask off only to shock themselves into stunned murmurs.  Suddenly emboldened, Merrick bellows, “I am not animal! I am a man! A human being!” before collapsing from the exertion.  Then I saw a Ripley’s Believe it nor Not (or something like that) episode featuring Elephant Man reenactments, although the disfiguring makeup was far cruder than the film’s and, if I remember right, kinda purple. No matter. I become obsessed with The Elephant Man, reading all I could about him while strenuously avoiding any pictures of him, or John Hurt in the movie, which was not easy.  Even at the time, I had no idea what I was scared of.  Was I going to run into him somewhere?  I was kind of scared that I would, although obviously the odds of, say, being killed by Jack Nicholson were far greater.  Would I turn into him?  Um, no.  I didn’t know what I was scared of.  I still don’t, although the fact that I felt terrorized and traumatized by the clip is, as far as I can ascertain without having actually seen it, the exact opposite point of the film itself, which seeks to re-humanize, rather than dehumanize, the Man, not the Elephant.  I should really watch it.

But I won’t.

Honorable Mention: Snoopy Come Home.  In 1976, Snoopy, one of my childhood loves, ran away from Charlie Brown. Or something like that.  Did he run away, or was he left behind? Was it a misunderstanding? If you need to know, go check Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snoopy,_Come_Home , which, unbelievably, has a significant entry on it. I haven’t seen this one again and don’t plan to.   And unlike the others, I hardly remember it.  Call it traumatic amnesia. All I know is that Snoopy was gone for like an hour and a half, and everyone is crying and crying and crying those big Peanuts teardrops from the sides of their eyes like water hoses, and then five minutes before the end, after everyone gives up, Snoopy Comes Home and it’s all OK.  Well, Charles Schultz, it WAS NOT OK.  The ending could not fix the feelings of loss that, when I close my eyes and psychically look back, I may not have yet gotten over. 

Time: one re-traumatizing hour.  

 215px-SnoopyComeHome

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Transference

 

DVD-Video_bottom-side

Two years after buying a recordable DVD player, one year after the threats from my wife got serious, I begin transferring the home movies of my children from VHS tapes to DVDs.  I know I’m still at least one platform behind, but any digital form is better than one that can be destroyed by light, air, and time.

Because they’re analogue, I need to play them in real time to copy them.  And as I do, I watch them, and I realize that the last time I watched them was the last time I transferred them, from camcorder cassettes to VHS.  Their entire existence rests on converting them from one obsolete medium to the next.  

As I watch, I see my young self and young wife, recent parents and, far more seriously, recent homebuyers.  I see my oldest son, now a teenager, as a baby, then a toddler, then an older brother to his new baby brother.  And I think, Ah, so young, so cute.  The kids, too.  The tapes from twelve to eight years ago show a new family in a small, snowbound Minnesota house, each of us swaddled and layered in Fleet Farm sweat clothes, the new baby in so many layers that he’s a Midwest Matryoshka.  All laughing and smiling, just joy, spinning, dancing.  Nine years, four houses, and three states elapse in two hours, and our daughter, now five, is born. 

Yet looking at these people on TV, I realize that I don’t remember the times this way. What I remember is the stress and mess, the lack of money, the ever-present question: what’s going to happen?  Not unlike now, but then even more so.   I never liked recording the movies, never feigned love or expertise manning the camera.  I always felt that parents who spent their time with a lens in front of their eyes were blocking their view of their children, already anticipating the minute when that very moment would turn to nostalgia: Ah, look at us. We were so happy fifteen minutes ago. 

But it has not been fifteen minutes. It has been fifteen years, and I can see not just how fresh but how fragile the moments were. I’m glad I didn’t film too much, the Warren Report of our lives, the volumes Proust would have filmed if he’d lived in the Midwest and owned a camera.  But I’m grateful that I have something, a few compressed flashes beyond the faded reel of my own mottled memory, and that these videos are more luminous and numinous than my mental VHS’s translucent haze.  I wish that I could transfer the images in my head to a newer platform as well, and as the last tape cuts to static, I close my eyes and imagine how today will look to the future me of the next transference, how I’ll look at the deteriorating self that I now see entering middle age, and instead I marvel at how young and thin, how thick the hair, how joyous the moments, since I have recorded proof that they will not last.

 

Time: less than an hour. Lost track.

This was published in the 2013 issue of Maryville University’s literary magazine, Magnolia.

Hourman update: despite two posts this month, still on hiatus.  Thanks for hanging in there.

–Jesse Kavadlo

 

 

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Textbook Marriage

Belvedere Castle, in NYC's Central Park. So romantic!

I read fiction about suffering, madness, and death.  Not brave quests to overcome seemingly-impossible obstacles.  Not lovable talking animals learning valuable lessons.  Not We-Disliked-Each-Other-at-First-but-Now-We’re-Falling-in-Love stories, unless untranslated from the original Austen.  No happy endings.  Fittingly, I am also a college English professor, down to my daily uniform of corduroy pants and up to my suede elbow patches.  So the books in my American Literature class this semester represent Unhappiness’s Greatest Hits, especially marital misery.  For all of its green lights, ash heaps, and eyes in the sky, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a novel whose plot boils down to adultery, filled with lines like this: “Most of the remaining women were now having fights with men said to be their husbands.”  So far, no student has asked how I personally feel about the subject of marriage itself.  They do not ask, Are you married? Or, What do you think?  So thankfully, I don’t have to tell.  As long as they don’t want to know, I can keep my personal life out of it.  That’s good.  If they did ask, I would be afraid to answer.

Neither great nor Gatsby, he's really a legume

Instead, we stick to the stories.  And I find myself in the position of persuading skeptical students—women at least as often as men—to see how, in Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” from 1899, Edna must have felt trapped in her marriage, even as she strives to exercise some semblance of control through her questionable decisions.  I need students to consider the possibility that, in the “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” the care given to the unnamed, seemingly unreliable wife by her husband could be the cause of her illness, not the cure.  And I want them to imagine that these stories’ turn-of-the century timeframe does not mean that their gender troubles have all been settled by our own enlightened turn of the millennium.  The conventions of first-comes-love, then-comes-marriage, then-comes-baby-in-the-baby-carriage are powerful traps—for women, certainly, but, in Ernest Hemingway’s and Nathanael West’s work, men as well.  Fortunately, students don’t wonder how I feel about marriage personally.  They think they know.

I know why the caged bird drowns herself

In New York, where I lived most of my life, maybe marital ambivalence is well understood—fewer and later marriages are the norm.  But where I now live in the Midwest, many of my students are engaged by their junior year.  Many more marry upon graduation.  When characters rightfully stand up to parents, my students say things like, “My parents and I are BEST FRIENDS!”  I roll my eyes and think snarky thoughts and generalize about the Midwest as though I don’t live here, too.

Yet there is something about me my students don’t know. Something that few, except for those closest to me, can fathom or would even suspect.  It’s a truth so clandestine, so potentially startling, that it casts a bright light over my dark, shiny veneer of authority and credibility as a writer, academic, and curmudgeon.

I have a happy marriage.  I am happy. 

Please.  Don’t judge me too harshly.  It’s difficult, not just in my line of work but in America in general, even in the Midwest once college ends and adult life begins, to admit to being happy.  Before I decided to write this essay, in fact, I needed to consult with my wife to make sure it was safe with her to come out. 

“It’s not something I can talk about with most people,” she agreed.  “When my friends start talking about their husbands, I just smile and keep quiet.”  For the record, she agrees that we’re happy.  And like me, she was happy before we met.  One person can’t make another person happy anyway.  Being happy is not a choice. While we’ve managed to meet other happy couples over the years, they also tend to keep their business to themselves.

Of course, no marriage is perfect.  My wife doesn’t like that I chew too loudly.  I don’t like that my wife doesn’t like that I chew too loudly.  As I keep having to explain, it’s temporomandibular joint disorder, and eating bagels is no picnic for me, either.

OK, our marriage is perfect.   But it’s not as though our lives are perfect.  We have struggled with money, with painful decisions, with bouts of dissatisfaction, with buying homes and raising three children, with health scares and the everyday array of American anxiety.  But through everything, it was and always is the two of us, together, against the world.  Never against each other.  

We knew we were going to marry each other on the night we met, when we left Webster Hall, a loud downtown club, at its 4 AM closing, to walk and talk together.  After stopping at an all-night diner for coffee, we went to Central Park to watch the sun rise as we sat in Belvedere Castle [top image].  Neither of us was looking to get married, so like an experienced screenwriter my wife threw in an obligatory Third Act conflict, declaring a few weeks after we met that she wanted to move to San Francisco, going as far as to fly there with an eye on an apartment in the Haight.  In my memory, our story unfolds like a movie.  What would be three quarters of the way through—or in real time, a month after we met and upon her return home—we were back together and soon engaged.  At the end, we married, in Brooklyn, eleven months from our first night in Central Park, wondering why it took so long.  

If our lives had really been that movie, I would not watch it.  Too Hollywood.  It would feature a long musical montage of us: walking up First Avenue with ice-cream cones, then ordering pasta dishes with different color sauces so we could mix them together at the table, to the cook’s dismay.  Flipping through bins of second-hand CDs, perusing stacks of used books, watching “Stomp” on Second Avenue, taking the L to Brooklyn, fumbling coins for our laundry, sitting on the floor and drinking a bottle of plum wine for so long that we missed our restaurant reservation and didn’t notice.  All while a Foo Fighters—no, worse, a Goo Goo Dolls—song played in the background of the scene.  Laughter, smiles.  An uplifting romantic comedy, when the only romantic comedy I like is “Annie Hall.”  But we really did do all that in our first months together, and the night we met was the first of thousands of beautiful, magical times we would spend together. 

Ugh.  You see the problem.  I wrote “beautiful, magical times.”  I know, I know: what people like us do behind closed doors, in private, is our own business.  We have no right to flaunt our happy lifestyle, to shove it in other people’s faces.    

Since then, every Valentine’s Day my wife cooks a heart-shaped meatloaf.  When our first son was born, I wrote Welcome Home to mother and child across the living room with dried rose petals.  For reasons I still can’t fathom, I was once singing the “Annie” song into a banana: “The sun will come out, banana, bet your bottom dollar that banana, they’ll be some.”  I looked up to realize I was not alone in my foolishness, only to hear my wife join in singing too: [together] “Banana! Banana! I love ya, banana.”  Giggles and hugs.  Our cars are matching colors.  And so on.  These and many more are the joyful, shameful secrets I must never reveal if I want to be respected, for they push the limits of tolerance, even in a free, Western, supposedly open-minded society such as ours. 

In addition to being an Expressionistic representation of modern alientation and angst, The Scream may also depict how you feel right now from reading this post. I'm so sorry.

Great thinkers, artists, and writers are supposed to struggle in their loves.   The best someone should hope for is the marriage of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, passionate at first but then tense and drifting later on.  It could be worse: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre’s drunken turbulence; or worse, Edgar Allen Poe’s creepy union with his thirteen-year old first cousin, Virginia Clemm; or worse, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s catastrophe.  Actually, I’m not sure which is worse.  But it’s not a contest; it’s like the opposite of a contest.  Of course, there are renowned literary romances.  Just not literary marriages.  The story of Darcy and Elizabeth ends once they marry, Catherine and Heathcliff marry others, and Romeo and Juliet, you know.  For every novel like Ian McEwen’s Saturday, including a happy marriage, there are hundreds, thousands, of unhappy fictional marriages.  From the impression I get from journalism, there are hundreds, thousands, of unhappy nonfictional marriages, too.

Yet even Tolstoy, who famously warned readers of happiness’s narrative monotony—“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” in Anna Karenina, another great and terrible novel of adultery and death—was, by most accounts, happily married.  Or at least, like Joyce, he was happily married for most of his life, before the marriage finally soured.  Thankfully, my wife and I have been married for only fifteen years, so there is still plenty of time for us to have the dramatic and tumultuous relationship we envy in others, the kind of traditional marriage that we can admit to in the open, without fear of intolerance or ridicule.    

For now, until the rest of the world is ready, I live in fear that one day, my literature students will find out who and what I really am: someone who makes them read only about misfortune in marriage, when my own is inappropriately happy.  And that I secretly hope my children will think we’re still best friends when they’re in college, too.

Jesse Kavadlo

 Time: OK, this requires some explanation. I originally wrote a 60 minute version for last Valentine’s Day, but when I was done I thought I might try to do something else with it. I spent a lot more time on it, in exactly the way I promised myself I wouldn’t for the blog, made it longer, edited it more carefully, and sent it to the New York Times Modern Love column.  Which, um, didn’t want it.  If you read “Modern Love” regularly, you’ll notice that they like stuff that’s far more depressing than this piece, missing the point that SO DO I. Oh, well.

It’s coming out in hard copy next week in Maryville’s literary journal, Magnolia, which is fine with me. Unless someone wants to buy it. Then email me.

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Game Over: When Bad Things Happen to Good Videogame Characters

Death by a thousand pixels

Two nights ago, I noticed that my boys, ages 10 and 13, looked—there is no other word for it—depressed.  Two weeks ago, I wrote about their obsession with/addiction to Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, including this: “for all the seeming fantasy, what the game—most games?—embodies are the very same strictures surrounding American school and work life.  Playing the game must be fun, too, I guess, but the real joy seems to be advancing to the next level—only to work toward surpassing that one, ad infinitum.”  But they didn’t look happy now.  My younger son should have been especially happy, because my older son had helped him beat a tough part, much to my chagrin—I’ve told them repeatedly that they should not play each other’s turns or games, since the playing, not the winning, was the point.  You wouldn’t ask someone to eat your ice cream for you.  They persisted anyway.

But now, they weren’t down because they had lost.

They were down because they won. It turns out that they beat the game. 

And with that victory, a kind of defeat: my doctorate of philosophy calls for a diagnosis of Existential Crisis, one that usually doesn’t set in for another few years, the nagging, gnawing, corrosive question that sets in at adolescence and, in some cases, never ceases: Is That All There Is?

It turns out that once you get to the last level, beat the last villain (in video game parlance, “Boss,” which seems weirdly Marxist to me), and rescue Zelda, the credits roll (Dear Fellow Old People: video games have credits), and play simply starts over at the beginning again. 

I asked them: what did you think would happen?  The point of the game was, as always, to kill monsters, beat bosses, acquire money (“Rupees,” which seems weirdly Asian Subcontinent), and move one level closer to finding Zelda.  It couldn’t go on forever, could it?  Did they think victory would reveal a secret code for a secret club or secret game? That a crisp $20 bill would pop out of the Wii? No, but—and here I paraphrase—they didn’t think that winning the game would feel so much like losing it.  Not just emotionally—really, all that happens after you win is that you go back to where you started, same as when you lose.

For all the scholars who suggest that video games are texts ripe for analysis, or that they even surpass more conventional narratives like stories thanks to their interactivity and player control, the end of the video game seems very different to me from the ending of a story.  As Walter Benjamin says in “The Storyteller,” readers intuitively understand all of life through the end of the story, which represents a kind of death, or through the actual death of a character:

The nature of the character in a novel cannot be presented any better than is done in this statement, which says that the “meaning” of his life is revealed only in his death. But the reader of a novel actually does look for human beings from whom he derives the “meaning of life.” Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will share their experience of death: if need be their figurative death—the end of the novel—but preferably their actual one. How do the characters make him understand that death is already waiting for them—a very definite death and at a very definite place? That is the question which feeds the reader’s consuming interest in the events of the novel.

In other words, as human beings we can never understand the full significance of our own lives, because we must live them, from our perspective, and can’t reflect on our own ending, because we’re, ya know, dead.  But we can contemplate the full life, objectively, of a fictional character, because the beginning and end of the story delineate the full beginning and end of their existence.  And so through fiction—the figurative deaths that are stories and the more real but still fictional deaths of characters, we may understand something big—Death!—that, by its very nature, eludes our grasp, and therefore we may take comfort. As Benjamin concludes, “What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.” It’s uplifting.  Really.  So we think that we’re sad when our favorite characters die or our favorite stories end, but we also, on another level, feel good, or, if you’re Aristotle, experience catharsis, a purging of the bad emotions, once you’re through.

Or, as Frank Kermode understood it, narrative endings are not only dress rehearsals for death, but they are inextricably linked to our apocalyptic sensibilities: “Fictions,” Kermode says, “whose ends are consonant with origins satisfy our needs.”  The conventions of story itself dictate a beginning and an ending; for every “Once upon a time,” a “Happily ever after.” He goes on to suggest that “one has to think of an ordered series of events which ends, not in a great New Year, but in a final Sabbath.”  Or a Black Sabbath, if you’re not feeling particularly rapturous.  Kermode relates the endings of all stories to the endings of all things: narrative endings as death, but also death as a narrative ending, “the End is a fact of life and a fact of the imagination.”

But video games seem not to provide Benjamin’s comfort, Aristotle’s catharsis, or Kermode’s closure at all.   There is no Once Upon a Time or Happily Ever After, only the grim, relentless Middle—just like our own real lives.  As I wrote in the other blog, main character Link looks and seems a lot like Peter Pan. But it’s not just the pointy ears and pointy weapons, the green clothes, or the shock of hair.  Like all video game characters, and like Peter Pan, Link is, for all intents and purposes, immortal and eternally youthful.  You could make the same case, I guess, for all fictional characters—that they revert to being alive and young when you start the book or movie again.  But that’s symbolic.  Thanks to endless “lives”—the word gamers use—and concomitant reincarnation (a word no one uses) with each reset or replay, Link lives, and dies, again and again and again.  As a father, I find no sentence weighs heavier on my heart than when one of the boys tells me, when their game time is over, that “I’ll just play until I die.”  He’d like that, I suppose.  The shift to first person—“I” die, not “Link dies” or even “my game ends”—makes clear that the games are about defying death, but they also focus relentlessly, discordantly, on death itself.

You thought you had it rough?

But if Link cannot ever die, if there is no final level—since the thing resets ad infinitum—no sense of an ending, then it feels like there is also no point.  The Onion, as always, gets it hilariously right: “Video-Game Character Wondering Why Heartless God Always Chooses ‘Continue’”:  “ORANGEBURG, SC–Solid Snake, tactical-espionage expert and star of PlayStation’s ‘Metal Gear Solid,’ questioned the nature of the universe Monday when, moments after his 11th death in two hours, a cruel God forced him to ‘Continue’ his earthly toil and suffering.”  In the end, “God,” of course, is revealed to be “Orangeburg 11-year-old Brandon MacElwee,” who “offered no comment on His greater plan for Snake, saying He was ‘too busy trying to get to the part with the knife-throwing Russian girl.’” 

But players realize that they are not gods, or God, and that the never-ending levels and never-ending deaths in video games provide a different, cautionary lesson than those in stories: the ironic moral that there is more to life than acquiring points and money, more to existence than merely getting to the next level.  And I said this to the boys, concluding that “this is why I don’t let you play the hard parts for each other.  All you’re doing is speeding up the end, and it’s the playing  itself that’s supposed to be the fun part.” 

With that, my ten-year old looked at me, eyes bright and wide, and said, “I understand now.”

Time: It looked like I was gonna finish in 50 minutes, but then I decided I wanted to find the Benjamin and Kermode quotes that you probably didn’t read anyway, which took me overtime to 75 minutes.  I’ll finish faster the next time I play.

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