Finding Wallace (Part 1: How I discovered the figure of David Foster Wallace)

Finding Wallace (Part 1: How I discovered the figure of David Foster Wallace)

I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for the last ten minutes trying to figure out why I should write this post. My main concern is that it will only make sense to me and that, even after I make the proverbial thirty revisions creating a somewhat coherent text from beginning to end from what would otherwise be a collection of random  and unrelated anecdotes,  it will seem incoherent/redundant/stupid/pointless (reader’s choice).

The worst part is that I think that I nailed it down with the first sentence I wrote and only when I went to add a second word insecurity creeped in. I’ve also gotten into a fairly decent routine with book reviews and straying from them feels odd. Perhaps the right thing to do would be to write a disclaimer with huge big fucking words.

“WARNING: THE FOLLOWING POST IS VERY  RANDOM AND IT TREADS ON TOPICS THAT I’VE PREVIOUSLY WRITTEN ABOUT SO YOU MIGHT AS WELL DO JUST ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE OTHER THAN READING THE TEXT BELOW”

Now that I’ve gotten all my existential dread out of my system – and what better way to do that than by having a complete breakdown and posting it on the Internet – I think I’ll go back to my original first sentence to tell you how I discovered the magnificent writer David Foster Wallace.

I’ve wanted to do this for a long long time. When I first started this blog, one of the main objectives I had (besides book reviews that chronicle my reading habits), was to trace back the path that leads me to a book. Whether it is by mere chance (Dracula), nostalgia (Tolkien: The Painter), or a gift (Cathing the Big Fish) I like looking at the bread crumbs to see if I can identify the source that ultimately lead me to a book or an author whose work speaks to me on a personal level. In the case of David Foster Wallace the first crumb fell more than a decade ago in an office.

In the year 2007 the fourth season of “The Office: An American Workplace” had come to halt due to the writer’s guild strike. I had begun watching the show soon after the end of season two when Jim Halpert and Pam Beesly’s will-they-won’t-they romance was at a fever pitch, and two seasons later I was still committed one hundred per cent to the succesful coupling of those characters. (Context: This was at a time when I was hoping that my best friend would actually fall in love with me, so one can imagine why I responded so strongly to Jim’s predicament). Even though by season four the characters were together, the writer’s strike had left me wanting more so I went looking in IMDb to find out about The Office’s return. Going through all the different articles and post I read that John Krasinsky (Jim Halpert) would be taking his first stab at directing by adapting the book “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” by David Foster Wallace. Two years later I finally watched it.

Without going into too much details and to avoid spoilers in my next post, the problem with Brief Interviews with Hideous Men as a movie is that it is very slow and lacks any real sense of character. Despite an amazing cast and the richness of the source material it feels both pretentious and looks amateurish. I think that Krasinsky did not have the experience or the skills to pull this off so unfortunately his passion-project passed without much recognition from the general crowd and was quickly discarded in my film library.

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A few years into the future another sitcom ruled the world: “How I met your Mother”. Theodore Evelyn Mosby, “Ted” to his gang of friends, and his never-ending quest to find “The Mother” had conquered TV audiences thanks to its creative reverse story telling and the growing popularity of womanizer Barney Stinson played to perfection by Neil Patrick Harris. In a similar cycle of repetition I found myself hooked on a show with a romantic underdog and once again I prowled IMDb looking for more information on the show. In this search I found out that Josh Radnor (Ted) was going to direct his second film called “Liberal Arts”, and once again I made a mental note after watching the trailer.

Liberal Arts is a well-executed, competently directed film that is pretty much harmless to the casual viewer and that may resonate with people who miss their college days; I’d also recommend it to fans of the Ted character in HIMYM since Radnor pretty much plays the same notes in this film. There are a couple of scenes that I really liked centered around the (lack of ) quality of the Twilight books and another one about the calculation of the age difference between the two leads, but the movie also had moments where I was almost waiting for the characters to say “Liberal Arts are more profound people than you” and it felt a bit pedantic. Also, whilst I commend Radnor for directing and writing his own film I wonder if he ever noticed that every single female in this movie is sexually attracted to him.

Pros and cons aside, there is one subplot in the movie that caught my eye. Radnor’s characters meets an awkward and lonely college student and their first conversation pivots around a book that he (the lonely college student) is reading for a second time and that Radnor’s character also read obsessively during his college days. Minor spoilers ahead: In the third act of the movie the college student tries to commit suicide Radnor’s  character tells him that he does not have to be like the author of the book – which again is unnamed – and in fact he should read something stupidly bad (Twilight). This unnamed book and unnamed author piqued my interest and once again thanks to IMDb I found the name of both: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

This time I got curious enough to research deeper on David Foster Wallace and I learned about the impact of Infinite Jest, his other works on fiction and non-fiction and his suicide at age forty six after struggling with depression. However, after doing the research my immediate reaction towards his work was intimidation – or in far more simplistic terms I thought “Whoa, this is BIG BOY reading” -, so I didn’t immediately jump into his writings which, at first glance, show no clear reference point as Infinite Jest is well-known for its difficulty and behemoth-sized.

The path set by The Office/Brief Interviews with Hideous Men/How I Met Your Mother/Liberal Arts had guided me to the figure of David Foster Wallace but did not manage to make me commit to one of his books. That honour goes to the essay “This is Water” and to the movie “The End of the Tour”.

This is Water by David Foster Wallace is a speech first given to the 2005  graduating class at Kenyon College. It is a beautiful text dealing with the importance of empathy and awareness beyond our self-centered default mechanism that expertly communicates a sense of optimism. It is the one piece of his that I constantly re-read and that I keep always on my phone because it is both inspiring and motivating and because it really helps me to put things in perspective. If you’ve managed to reach this point in this text, please indulge me a bit further and listen to his speech:

The End of the Tour has been the other big reason why I decided to read David Foster Wallace and that was, in fact, part of the subject of my very first post. Editorial note: after this sentence I re-read my very first post in this blog, where I talked about this movie. It is funny how I’m still echoing some of the sentiments in that post.

The film, as past-me said, is “a road-movie based on the trip that David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segel of How I Met Your Mother fame) and Dave Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg of The Social Network fame) took to promote Wallace’s famous book Infinite Jest. Lipsky, an unknown writer working as a reporter for Rolling Stone, covets Wallace’s achievements, thus creating the whole dynamic of the film”.

To this day, I still re-watch it from time to time. The conversations in The End of The Tour create a sense of kinship in me. It has become one of those perfect background movies that I can have on whilst I’m working on something  and that I can just jump into for a few minutes. As someone who loves books and that has been struggling with the idea of writing one for many years, hearing rationalized conversations about the sensations that I felt but that I wasn’t able to put into words was like finding a beacon of sanity. Every fear, hope and reality about writing is directly or indirectly present throughout each conversation.

It has been more than two years since The End of the Tour came out but I’ve finally read my first David Foster Wallace book and I’m happy to announce that the decade-old trail of crumbs has led me to a fantastic book and an amazing author. Next post it comes full circle: Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace. Until then, thanks for reading!

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I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: Adapting Nightmares

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream: Adapting Nightmares

I want to echo a phrase from one of my previous posts to begin this one: I was just thinking that this is just a great example of how video games can actually help to develop curiosity and how they can introduce kids to literature. Now, the game I discussed in that post was complicated and not suitable for a child (I was around ten when I played it) because of that complexity -heck, it is extremely difficult even now-, this next game I want to talk about was not “suitable” because it was disturbing. Thankfully, I had an awesome older brother who played it quite a bit so that whole concept of “suitability” was not really present, and thus I discovered I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. Don’t know anything about it? Allow me to show you the introduction of the game before I go any further.

Originally released by Cryogenics, I must have been around ten when I first discovered this game -thanks to our 486 Intel computer-. The images creeped the hell out of me, but I remained glued to the screen and watched consistently as my brother tried and tried, over and over again to beat it. I don’t think he ever finished it -and if he did, I doubt he got the good ending- but, like with other games, after a while he got tired of it and moved on to something else. A lot of time has passed since the late nineties, but I still remember this game and, because I have it installed in an old computer, I decided to replay a couple of weeks ago after feeling a rush of nostalgia and boredom to see if it still holds up.

Ten-year-old-me may have been disturbed by the images but thirty-year-old-me is amazed. The characters, themes, story arcs and settings, everything about this game exudes quality. To explain why, I need to bring into the mix the short story that this game is based on and the man who wrote it, Harlan Ellison.

Harlan Ellison is an american writer with more than 1.800 short stories under his belt (and counting) and work on screenplays, teleplays and comic books. He has been involved with iconic shows such as the original run of The Outer Limits and Star Trek, and he was indirectly responsible for the inception of The Terminator, a movie that shamelessly ripped off one -some would say two- of his Outer Limits episodes without acknowledging where it took inspiration from. He was won both Hugo and Nebula awards -the Oscars of science-fiction-, and one of those Hugo’s was precisely for the short story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.

First published in 1967, the story is set in a post-apocalyptic world where a supercomputer created to handle the complexities of the Cold War – that later escalated to World War Three – becomes sentient and, after killing nearly all the human race, leaves only four men and a woman to torture for all eternity (the story is set in the hundred and ninth year of torture). The computer, as explained in the short story, is named AM “At first it meant Allied Mastercomputer, and then it meant Adaptive Manipulator, and later on it developed sentience and linked itself up and they called it an Aggressive Menace, but by then it was too late, and finally it called itself AM, emerging intelligence, and what it meant was I am cogito ergo sum I think, therefore I am” and the reason for the eternal torture of these five individuals is brilliant, and again allow me to quote from the short story “We had given AM sentience. Inadvertently, of course, but sentience nonetheless. But it had been trapped. AM wasn’t God, he was a machine. We had created him to think, but there was nothing it could do with that creativity. In rage, in frenzy, the machine had killed the human race, almost all of us, and still it was trapped. AM could not wander, AM could not wonder, AM could not belong. He could merely be. And so, with the innate loathing that all machines had always held for the weak, soft creatures who had built them, he had sought revenge.And in his paranoia, he had decided to reprieve five of us, for a personal, everlasting punishment that would never serve to diminish his hatred that would merely keep him reminded, amused, proficient at hating man. Immortal, trapped, subject to any torment he could devise for us from the limitless miracles at his command.”

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AM Talkfield #1 – “I THINK, THEREFORE I AM” (Used as time-breaks in the story. Source: Wikipedia)

The reason why I’m quoting so much from I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream is because this game works really well as a companion piece to the short story (there is even a clever easter egg where one of the characters, Benny, talks about the scenario described in it), and I think that it benefits from a side-by-side comparison. After all, there was just so much ground that could be covered in less than fifteen pages,  and the personalities of the five characters required some fleshing out in order to give them the necessary  backgrounds and story arcs for the game. To solve this issue, David Sears, the writer that worked with Harlan Ellison to shape the game’s script (there are more details about the creation of the game in this great article from gameinformer.com), asked him two questions: “Why were these people saved? Why did AM decide to save them?” and used those answers to start developing the characters:

tumblr_mljwfblDiX1r94e9jo2_250Gorrister’s story: A man wakes up inside a zeppelin flying without a crew. His heart is literally missing from his chest. That alone has to pique your interest. In the original text Gorrister is just there and doesn’t do much, but in the game he has one of the strongest character arcs. All the stories are veiled with the notion of regret (and if you have a sadistic sentient machine that can replicate events of your past the possibilities of endless torture dealing with regret are infinite), but he also deals on a personal level with the idea of mental illness -he put his own wife in a mental house-, and the writing and visual metaphors work really well to illustrate that: giving his own heart to be eaten by a jackal, getting his wife off the hook -literally-, burying the past… I can see why David Sears felt this is one of the strongest characters.

tumblr_mljwfblDiX1r94e9jo3_250Benny’s story: In my humble opinion the weakest story . Benny has suffered the most at the hands of AM. In the original text he was a “college professor, handsome and gay” tortured and mutilated to look like a man-ape. In the game he is still a man-ape, but his background is that of a man (married to a woman) with a military background that has to deal with the notion of selfishness and self-interest, and the reason why I didn’t like it is because the character’s dilemma seems awfully generic. If you have someone who has been mutilated why not explore that aspect in more detail? In a game that deals with the Holocaust and rape -more of that later- this just seems safe and bland. The fact that they omit  any gay angle is very interesting and telling of what may have been acceptable in a video game in the nineties; and it really stood out for me because Harlan Ellison does not shy away from this sort of topics. His famous science fiction anthology “Dangerous Times”, published in the sixties dealt openly with sexuality and homosexuality in some of its stories, so it just seems off to erase this aspect for the game.

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Ellen’s story: Her story deals with the idea of abuse, blocked memories and feeling powerless but unfortunately the execution is a bit poor. It starts great with her character appearing in front of a pyramid made of junk and her phobia of the colour yellow, but as the story unfolds and you find out that the cause of her fear is due to the fact that she was raped by a man wearing a yellow suit the story begins to crumble.

Speaking exclusively from a storytelling perspective, pulling off rape is extremely difficult because it will most likely read like you either don’t know what you are talking about, or that you are putting it for shock value. In the short story Ellen frequently has sex with the men of the group, and Ted (one of the two remaining characters) mentions how the “innocent” Ellen seems to particularly enjoy having sex with Benny because AM has given him “an organ fit for a horse” -this is mentioned in a fit of rage so it is up to the reader to determine if this is true or false-, but much like Benny’s stories I wished they had explored the character from the angle presented in the short story rather than what they went for. Random Question: Am I the only one that found her character’s attitude extremely sassy? I think somebody forgot to explain the voice actress her character’s background.

tumblr_mljwfblDiX1r94e9jo5_250Nimdok’s story: This story also deals with the idea of regret, but whereas Gorrister’s story ends with him finding peace for what he did, Nimdok’s story is about facing the consequences. Set in the background of the Jewish Holocaust, Nimdok is a doctor that sold out his own people in the name of science. He operated and tortured men, women and children and this story deals directly with that.

I read that this character’s section was banned in France and Germany upon release due to how disturbing it was, and to be fair the game does not shy away from the horrific scenario: tortured children, prisoners caught on barbed wired, an eyeless man, a wall of howling dead faces. Nimdok’s story is one of the bests in the game along with Gorrister’s.

AM enjoys torturing people -and is in fact doing so with Nimdok- so the idea of the machine finding this human a “kindred spirit” works really well and creates a very twisted scenario with Nimdok’s being tortured by his own time torturing others. The fact that his character’s background in the short story goes as far as “Nimdock (which was the name the machine had forced him to use, because AM amused itself with strange sounds)” could be a reason why he and Gorrister came out strongest in the game.

tumblr_mljwfblDiX1r94e9jo4_250Ted’s story: Ted is the tiebreaker and the last one in this list for a very specific reason. Ted is the narrator of the short story and should have, in theory, the strongest arc, because we get a bit more background and personality from him -turns out he is a bit crazy after all those years of torture-. I’ve mentioned before, that I had an issue with Ellen and Benny’s approach because they did not explore the angle of the short story, but video game Ted completely deviates from the short story and it works really well. He fears how the others may see him due to his lies, a subject matter less heavy than Ellen’s, but interesting enough so that it is not as generic as Benny’s, but what truly elevates Ted’s story is how they managed to fit and work in his narrative ideas from famous books such as Cervante’s Don Quixote, Goethe’s Faust, Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, Plato’s Symposium, Dante’s Divine Comedy and T.H White’s Sword in the Stone. This story borrow’s elements from all these works and uses them on characters, settings, themes and conversations, and it is a joy seeing how cleverly they’ve interwoven  all of them.

Throughout the stories there are references to other literary works such as 1984, Macbeth and the stories of Sherlock Holmes. These are sprinkled, again very cleverly, in the “Psych profile” the equivalent of a hint section, but it is in the game’s climax where we get one final reference to the works of Freud by showing AM’s mind split into the Id, the Ego and the Superego; and only if you’ve finished each character’s story correctly you’ll be able to get the “good” ending.

The genius of this game resides on the creators trusting the player to either know, learn or interpret all these ideas and references. However, going back to the beginning of the post, I can’t ignore the fact that my fascination did not begin because of these ideas and references. It is clear that had my parents known more about this game they would’ve certainly stopped me from watching my brother play it, and yet I do feel that some context is needed after writing all this, because one could reach the very erroneous conclusion that I shouldn’t have been exposed to it at that age.

The thing is, when I was ten all the adult themes and ideas completely went over my head, and all that stuck were the images and, even though I admit they were disturbing, they were not as bad or traumatizing as say, Mufasa’s death in The Lion King -that is still difficult to watch-. Perhaps they were more explicit and graphic, but without context they were just images and I’m very glad that I was exposed to them because, as disturbing as they were, this is yet another example of how a child’s curiosity evolves, twenty years later, into the rediscovery of a great game with very ambitious ideas, complex themes, lots of book references, and most importantly I’ve learned about another writer that I’ll be looking into in more detail. So here you go parents: extremely disturbing video games can lead to literature! (Mental note: make sure you copyright this for future bumper stickers)

What better way to finish this post than with the short story narrated by none other than his creator? Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

Random Trivia: If you’ve watched both videos you may have noticed that AM, the supercomputer, is voiced by Harlan Ellison in the video game. How cool is that?

BONUS ROUND: Full play-through!!

The Name of the Rose & The Abbey of Crime (An Adaptation)

The Name of the Rose & The Abbey of Crime (An Adaptation)

When I originally conceived this blog I knew that this was going to be one of those entries that I’d write down sooner or later. It is one of the early examples I recall of an adaptation of a book that planted the seed of curiosity and the desire to find out about the source.

In the early 90s when I was around eight or ten years old (apologies if the memory is somewhat fuzzy) we had an Amstrad Computer with two disc slots and hundreds of games (Alley Cat, Livingstone, Vulture, Superman, Double Dragon, just to name those that I played the most), but if I had to highlight one of the games that really caused an impression it’d had to be “La Abadía del Crimen” or in English “The Abbey of Crime”.

This game was fascinating and it looked amazing –still does considering it was published in 1987–. The title screen was mesmerizing and it always managed to get me in the right mood. The plot could be summarized quite easily: two monks (Guillermo of Occam and his novice Adso) arrive to an abbey to investigate a murder. It begins with the scroll down narration of Adso, now an old man writing the events, and immediately surprises with an isometric look that was revolutionary for its time and that no other games had attempted back then. It just immerses the player within the walls of the abbey.

The game is anything but simple. It is based on exploration, trial and error and strictly fixed timelines that have to be met religiously (Tu Dum Da!) otherwise you risk expulsion from the abbey. It has no clear instructions and, even if you manage to complete the story, I wish you the best of luck reaching that 100% completion rate. I’d highly recommend it for those wanting a good fix of nostalgia and an extremely challenging game.

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Look at those glorious Amstrad graphics! But don’t get distracted and stand in the right spot, otherwise that Obsequium bar is going down.

I want to take a small detour to talk a bit about one of its creators, Francisco Menendez. He was born in Asturias and was a wonder boy of the late eighties game industry boom in Spain. He was a visionary and it took him and his team fourteen months to complete the game, unfortunately after joining the game developer Opera he grew discontent with the entire process and the excessive emphasis on marketing rather than game creation. He left video games and shifted his focus on a project he labelled Intelligent Memory Matrix (PALOMA) based on the idea that memory could be used not only to store data but also to execute commands at the same time. Sadly, he committed suicide at age 34 in 1999. This post is dedicated to his memory. Detour over.

Prior to those fourteen months of development, and after having read the book “The Name of the Rose” he contacted the book’s author Umberto Eco. He tried to explain the idea of the computer game and his vision but, not understanding the concept pitched, Umberto Eco did not allow him to use the name of the novel, and hence the game was titled “The Abbey of Crime” which had been the working title of the novel before settling on “The Name of the Rose”. The main story of the game is pretty much what is in the book, but beside the title change and the surname of the main character being changed from Baskerville (nod, nod, wink, wink) to Occam, this is as faithful as an adaptation gets.

I’m pretty sure that there is plenty of material regarding the adaptation of a book into a movie but I think that it’d be a fairly accurate guess saying that, in comparison, the amount of materials  touching on the adaptation of a book into a computer game is minuscule; and taking into account the technology in the 80s I honestly think that this game is a miracle and it well deserves its cult classic status.

I want to keep my nostalgia glasses on for this article, so I’ll avoid talking about the movie because I only saw it many years later in college. I did have an “experience” with the movie as a kid, -alright I’ll indulge you with my random anecdotes- when my parents, out on holiday, called our summer-house where my brothers and I were staying with our grandmother to make sure that “under no circumstance we should watch that movie”. Needless to say we watched it in one of the two TVs we had.  The only thing that I remember from itwas seeing a boob for the first time on TV. Good times. I will not talk any more about the movie, but I’ll give you a ranking between book, game and movie in terms of my preference: Book first, the game second, the movie third.

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Spanish book cover: simple and effective.

I put the book first because after all the build-up and wonder that the game ignited in my innocent mind “The Name of the Rose” had become associated with forbidden. I read it when I was a teenager following my history assignment mandatory reading of “The Pillars of the Earth” which, as you can obviously imagine, made me get my medieval freak on -and as you may remember from previous posts that was a time when reading was not a priority-. “The Name of the Rose” gives bestsellers a good name. It was published in 1980 and  it is Umberto Eco’s debut novel. (Random Trivia: apparently Umberto Eco had a list of titles for the novel, one was “The Alley of Crime”, the other “Adso of Melk” but all the people he spoke with preferred “The Name of The Rose”). It is smart, gripping, wonderfully written, atmospheric and just perfect. I could see every single image in my head as I moved along and there are not enough good things that I can say about it.  Just read it.

[Tangent]I was just thinking that this is just a great example of how video games can actually help to develop curiosity and how they can introduce kids to literature. I was also thinking about other books that I’m interested in reading because I played the video game and I could only think of two: “Roadside Picnic” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky and “Metro 2033” by Dmitry Glukhovsky –oddly enough both of them in Russian– so next time you badmouth videogames look how they can stimulate curiosity. [/Tangent]

Just to prove my last point,and if this post has sparked your curiosity, you can download the game here in English from the official site of the game developers. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did: http://www.abadiadelcrimen.com/download/abadia32_2008.zip and if you just want to take a look without the effort (you lazy bastard!). Full playthrough:

“Stat rosa pristina nomine, nomina nuda tenemos.”