October 19, 2007
So I Guess I Know When I'm Buying a 360
October 02, 2007
The Slim Follow-Up
In the last few months, I've had the opportunity to read some new novels by favorite authors. The differences are legion: Lethem is an American writer whose musical tastes tend towards the distinctly American, Murakami is a Japanese author with an interest in jazz; Murakami writes in a strange landscape of the unexplained supernatural, where there's apparently a universe right next door that touches our own in unusual and distinct ways¹, whereas Lethem writes with an approach to his supernatural that while no more explained, somehow feels more rational in its approach. Lethem's leads are out at the extremes, unusual and quirky, with Tourette's or the ability to fly, whereas Murakami's main characters are often almost bland, fairly ordinary people who are nonetheless a little cut-off from their fellow man², almost unknowable, though often they touch on more interesting characters.
But one thing they have in common is that both have released rather slim and relatively uninteresting follow-ups to their best novels.
In Murakami's case, that means after dark, a novella-length story encompassing a single night which I was able to read in a single sitting. Compared to last year's Kafka on the Shore, it's a bit of fluff, sort of like a four-star chef preparing an amazing meal for you one day, and then making you cotton candy the next. Kafka was so inspired that I spent hours and hours with it last year while on vacation, sitting, racing through to the end at the water's edge in New Hampshire, and spending the next few days wishing I had more of it. The ending, in particular, worked on so many levels, and left you supremely satisfied by the work. After that, after dark's confections are startlingly minor, like a marathon runner being too tired out from his latest race to do anything but follow it up with a 3K. I can't fault him for it, but I can't help feel a little disappointment, and hope that the next has more substance to it.
So it is, too, with Lethem. His astonishing 2003 Fortress of Solitude explored race relations among school-age Brooklynites in the 1970s (along with family turmoil), and paired that with a supernatural ring that granted his protagonist the power of flight. The book completely caught me by surprise: I had read a good hundred pages before the story took off, quite literally. To think that this was the follow-up to the very solid Motherless Brooklyn of 2000 or so was pretty incredible.
And then comes You Don't Love Me Yet: A Novel, which seems to have that subtitle just to make you think it's not a slightly inflated novella. I wasn't fooled. The characters never completely worked for me -- the shorter length necessarily meant less depth, especially considering how many characters we're introduced to so quickly. Four band members, a conceptual artist, and a guy who calls on the phone; a subplot involving a kidnapped kangaroo³; the main storyline being a girl-meets-boy that tries to tie several of these elements together. Probably the only thing worth reading in the book was the scene where the band makes a great debut at a party hosted by the conceptual artist, who brands it as an "Aparty", where attendees are supposed to wear individual headsets and listen to Walkmen separate from everyone else -- indeed, that character is probably the most interesting, and I don't even recall his name.
These short novels particularly disappoint because of Cormac McCarthy's excellent The Road, a very short and spare novel that nonetheless may be McCarthy's best. It's certainly the most interesting of these three novels by far, and maybe the comparison is unfair. But I just want to point out that slender needn't mean shallow.
The only analogue to games I can think of in recent memory is of the example of David Jaffe, who is most well-known for his design work on God of War. After God of War, Jaffe turned to do something a little smaller in two different ways: one was a handheld project that was cancelled (called Heartland, I believe), whereas the other was his PlayStation Network title Calling All Cars. Jaffe was famously (and understandably) fed up with making epic linear story games, and ready for a challenge of a different sort.
The nice thing about games, of course, is that in this case we got to have our cake and eat it too -- even though Jaffe had moved on from the God of War series, the team was still there and able to put all that great work to use again in a very compelling sequel, much in the way that Naughty Dog continued without Jason Rubin, for example, or the Halo folks continued without Alex Seropian. The nature of games as being such a huge collaborative effort makes this possible, allowing those that follow to have a good chance to deliver on the promise of a first title, or even a second4. Indeed, God of War II, in the hands of another project lead is arguably a superior title, much like Star Wars was followed by the best film in the franchise under the able hands of another director, Irvin Kershner helming The Empire Strikes Back.
I don't particularly mind that gaming doesn't have its rock stars, in that sense, those named folks who are very visible to the mainstream. The mainstream knows Steven Spielberg, but it doesn't know Jaffe. Perhaps Wil Wright has penetrated the public consciousness a little more now, with appearances in venues like Newsweek and Time, but I suspect that Spore won't cross over like The Sims did largely due to the alien weirdness that will be on its front cover. Until we have a much larger audience, designers' names will rarely mean anything to the public -- it will continue to be brand-based, title-based, rather than individual-based. I think this is fitting; hobbyists and fans will continue to know more than the public at large, and may make buying decisions along those lines -- I know I'm interested in anything Jonathan Blow has to say (or sell), or Wil Wright, or Meier, or Seropian, or even Jonathan Mak (creator of Everyday Shooter and immensely entertaining indie figure), or for that matter Clint Hocking or any of those designer folks you see on my sidebar (yes, even Longo).
Some day we'll get there, I think, but it's going to take a long while. And that's okay.
¹These are themselves interesting due to the themes they sometimes take. Glass is interesting to him; this latest features a television that somehow is involved in the endless sleep of a young woman, and I recall a mirror in one of the short stories in a collection this year. There are also animals: a missing cat in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and a sheep figures prominently in A Wild Sheep Chase, and they occasionally sprinkle . (back)
²This is, of course, a large part of why I enjoy and identify so strongly with Murakami's work, particularly in the last couple of years. (back)
³What is it with him and kangaroos? I seem to remember them figuring somewhat prominently in Gun, With Occasional Music, though the overall plot of that novel is fairly lost to me now. (back)
4This can, of course, backfire entirely. Sometimes people run with a series for too long and it needs to be sent off to a whole fresh team to do it justice. Tomb Raider is probably the most notable example of this. I continue to be interested in what those folks will bring out next with Lara, they've done so well with the recent titles. Although it certainly doesn't hurt that I have friends at Crystal Dynamics either. (back)