where the light goes

I finished The First Tree and I guess I’m not the glowing fan of it I planned to be—but not for the reviewers’ reasons. They wrote articles with snide titles like “melodramatic game about foxes.” That’s not my issue. I’m the first person to sign up for a gut punch. I don’t dismiss as emotionally manipulative the story beats intended to make you feel something other than glitzy pride. Even if baldly narrated. But…it wasn’t the ending I wanted. I’m tired of loss, and I wanted not to be losing, and I couldn’t avoid it. I tried so hard to get every star. Check every box. And it wasn’t enough.

But also, they snuck a Book of Mormon in there at the end, tucked away, and just…please be capable of dealing with the blows life gives you yourself. Don’t rely on prescribed notions of how you ought to be dealing. Because they’re unlikely to be tailor-made to your grief. And they’ll do you damage. So yes. That crutch of religion irked me. So much so that the ending irked me. Above and beyond the loss.

But the loss, uh. Sucked.

There’s the music, though. Untarnished. It was a great deal of what led me to buy the game in the first place. Have some piano and cello:

Had I played this the year it came out, when we buried my mom, I would have been destroyed. As it was, there was some gross crying. But not just about the loss. About the idea that creating life is supposed to erase it. It…can’t.

the first tree

I am clay in the game The First Tree’s hands. It is 5:30am, no one else is up, my baby is snoring on the monitor, the game is on sale for $3. I know nothing about it and don’t want to; the trailer features sunstars, a lone female fox (as noted in the writeup; there is nothing to clarify that visually) as your character, and meandering, lonely pianos. I buy it. I hesitate over it being a game by one, named guy—too singular in its vision, too pompous in its purpose, I worry—but perhaps the “let’s learn something about life and possibly death too” writeup had been suggested by someone else, or edited by the Switch or Steam stores.

It drops you right off into the narration of a guy with dad issues, but as the fox who carries on as the guy talks, the visual narrative is much more pressing. You find one of your cubs dead in the snow. You can’t mourn or…do anything. You’re a fox. You don’t talk. There is a brief canine whimper and then you’re just standing there. The narrator, who is describing to his wife or girlfriend the fox journey as a dream he had, interspersed with his life story and his dad issues, says that the fox is looking for her other two cubs.

And look I do. Ferociously. The mechanics of the game are simple; it’s just a platformer, but it will let you move on in the story, the narration, without collecting all the glowing star-like motes that dot the landscape, ostensibly to lead you on but–I worry–in fact markers of completion which, if acquired in full, will let you find your remaining cubs alive.

I would say I hate that I am so easily manipulated but I don’t. Not really. I want to find those cubs. So I scour the map. At first it looks like the motes are laid out easily like breadcrumbs to lead you to the next scene, but then I start finding hidden ones. Under rocks, behind outcroppings. So I start searching. And when I get to the threshold of the next zone I refuse to transfer over until I have a multiple of ten motes. It’s just a guess; there is no reason there has to be 20 then 30 then 40 motes. But it seems like a number a dev would have stopped at, per area. When I am below a multiple of ten I go back. Scour. Find the motes. Keep going, hoping I am somehow ensuring the safety of this fake fox’s fake cubs, because one of them was already dead, stretched out on the snow as if it were sleeping. But it wasn’t.

I’m not immune to the narrator, I’m just less interested in his story. It feels too familiar. Family members making the same damn mistakes over and over and the gulf between you too great for you to stop them. My sister just did the same thing, and she hasn’t been someone recognizable since she hit puberty. One abusive fuckwit after another, and again she returns to them like bees to honey. There is nothing you can say when you’re no one.

So I let the narrator’s words rain down on me and keep the fox galloping across the landscape, seeking stars. Trying to ensure that I don’t reach the end only to be told “haha, you missed one, I guess your dead kids stay dead.” Please let that not happen, I think. I am so wrapped up in the fox’s story that when I pass a family of rabbits there is a stab of, again, the familiar feeling–why does your family get to be whole and mine doesn’t?–a familiar silent snarl at every gathering of my in-laws, their squandered health and closeness.

fancy that

Damn it’s just all Proust all the time up in here huh.

(This is from Elena Ferrante’s new book, The Lying Life of Adults.) Since when is Proust everywhere? Except for that one mention in a queer theory class he was completely absent from two undergraduate and two graduate degree programs. Are we having a Proustian moment here? I was under the impression that it was more of a Decameron sort of time…

the cloud atlas stratocaster solo

Actually, you know what else they talked of in the Yu-Mitchell interview? Yu, complimenting Mitchell (he is a writer himself but also a fan) said there would surely be tribute bands now, covers of songs that don’t actually exist. And what I would *love* to hear is a 60s-esque song—any of those mentioned in the book, I don’t care which—that incorporates the melody written for the Cloud Atlas movie by Tom Twyker, Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil.

I still remember downloading that soundtrack the day it came out, on my lunch break over my shitty wireless at work, and swooning, just swooning out there on the bench in the sunlight, listening to the Cloud Atlas Finale. I’ve written about to before, I know, but it goes everywhere I want it to, and it’s magnificent. Writing about music powerfully is hard—both Yu and Mitchell acknowledged this—and getting musical boneheads like me to be moved by technical descriptions of musical finesse (better to just describe the crowd to me, as during Jasper’s Sound Mind solo; that tells me more) makes it harder still.

But the music in that movie! That piano march. Do some psychedelic folk stuff with that and I’ll follow you to the ends of the earth.

horologically speaking

Not that anyone would much appreciate the comparison, but the horologists and their mission in the overarching, connective tissue in David Mitchell’s novels bears marked resemblance to the overarching, connective tissue in the Assassin’s Creed games. And, as in those games, what I enjoy most about the novels is how deep you can sink into the characters and location unique to the book, leaving the overarching structure aside.

Of course, in Utopia Avenue, the vast majority of what is supposed to cement us into a time and place is lost on me: next to every wink-wink-nod-nod musical reference has been lost on me (I recognized Nick Drake, but that’s about it: a revolving door of producers, lyricists, music talk show hosts, remorseful bassists and replacement bassists has been opaque to me, as expected), and the technicalities of producing music in the late 60s, so lovingly transcribed, might as well be in hieroglyphics to me.

The characters, though, are where I feel most at home in this book, perhaps more so than any since the Zedelghem chapter of Cloud Atlas (which I do want to reread, as well as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, for their connections to this book). Usually — and take this “usually” with a grain of salt, because most of Bone Clocks is hazy for me; as are whole big chunks of my life I spent trying to will into a meaningful career a job I took to avoid penury during the [last] recession — usually, then, we are hustled off from character to character too quickly to come to love them. Or we are shunted to their relatives or descendants, and it becomes something of a carnival of mirrors, trying to squint into this new character to understand bits of the last one we never got to know properly.

In Utopia Avenue we get to sit with each of the four band mates, repeatedly, and it’s far more rewarding than any day trip into psychedelia, caroming from one cameo to the next. Elf and Jasper in particular are endearing. I don’t generally…love?…how female characters’ interiorities are written. Except when they write grief — like when Cheryl Strayed wrote about the horse, and her mom saying “my dear, my dear” in Wild. Then, women seem like creatures to whom I am kin. But in general, no. It makes me feel like I’m watching a pantomime at best, if it’s not making me wince.

Elf, though, is amazing—

*spoilers*

—and I haven’t rooted so hard for a femme couple since fanfiction, when she sought Luisa Rey. I wanted so very much for her to be happy. I love how she navigates being the only girl in the band. Being constantly asked about being the only girl in the band. How her skill isn’t just sounding good but building good things, and she has the craft know-how to help others to do it too. I loathed her blindness to her boyfriend’s idiocy, but rejoiced that what finally peeled her eyes open wasn’t self-pitying sorrow but incandescent anger at him for stealing her song right out from under her nose. I love that she’s the learned one, that her family’s not a mess but she can still write. I love that she picks up on things being wrong with people under their surfaces. Elf seems like an actual person. Not a performance of Erudite Femininity.

And Jasper…his autism actually invites a more serious, less kooky view of the horology mind/control stuff than the more neurotypical renderings of it seen in The Bone Clocks. Instead of wasting time having us read more shock and disbelief from the character just learning about it (not that it’s not deserving of shock, but we’ve encountered this so often as readers by now that we could write the script for the once-per-book horology reveal ourselves), we jump straight to logical compartmentalizing, which is the best tool Jasper can summon to protect himself.

Jasper is endearing in his forthrightness, both with the world he often fails to understand, and with himself. His difficulties, rather than making him fragile, make him a more likable path into the — I can’t remember what Mitchell called it on the book launch interview I got to watch for ordering a signed copy through B&N — the Mitchellverse, I think his interviewer called it? The horological stuff. You don’t have to have read the other books to enjoy Utopia Avenue, it’s true, but Jasper’s story in particular is going to make more meaning for you if you do.

Jasper is where the book feels ready to end. And it doesn’t. The real ending feels…edited? Like an editor said no, we can’t end with your mystical stuff, man, we need to end on a note people who came to read about the music scene in the 60s will understand. So we do. And it feels unnecessary. Or it would if I had not attended that interview, where Mitchell said something like “and people will need to know why Utopia Avenue isn’t famous, why they haven’t heard of them.” Which a.) isn’t necessarily true, but b.) put me in the position of reading faster and faster as I reached the end of the book, wondering, now that I had been told to wonder, what tanks the band.

I guess, I guess, the Mitchellverse requires an explanation for Utopia Avenue’s absence from the other books? I guess? But they could just be absent, end of story. You don’t need to retcon them into the other stories, they can just not be there and that’s fine. Arguably, I guess, you don’t need to retcon Luisa Rey into being gay, either, but I appreciated it here, and it was a sidenote — a welcome sidenote — not a glaring attempt at being hip and woke, like a certain children’s fiction author insisted upon recently.

Utopia Avenue remains one of the more enjoyable books in the Mitchellverse. Again, not because of its setting–which is mostly wasted on me–but because of the characters. Whom we get to know good and proper this time, instead of rushing off to view the antics of someone tangentially related to them.

If you’re interested, here are notes I jotted down during Mitchell’s B&N interview, which was conducted across the Atlantic by Charles Yu, whose work I have not read (but Mitchell had, and referenced it frequently, resulting in more of a conversation between writerly acquaintances than a series of remarks, which was more enjoyable to hear anyway):

  • there is no escaping the cluster of archetypal themes [that keep coming up in your work] because they are you
    • work with the fact that you can’t escape
    • one of his themes is miscommunication
    • find new manifestations of your archetypes
  • novels can be better at feelings than feelings
    • more precise
    • what novels are really good at
  • the watching of longform drama (shows) over films as surely having some influence on the novel (novels in general and also this one specifically)
  • research: go there, walk around, look for ghosts
  • Yu: “I formulate an emotional [tax? fact? I can’t read my handwriting] and write a rule around that”
    • what is being taken for granted in this world? what do people say “this is just the way things are” about
    • what IS the way things are?

oh. they know.

Seriously? The tea people read Proust? Why hasn’t anyone I know read Proust? And it’s not just out-of-fashion high literature. It’s anything. Literarily speaking, it feels like I live on the fucking moon. I know lots of people who used to read books, but none who do now. I’m just pushing past page after page, having thoughts with no one to share them with on equal footing—at most, it’s me babbling, just self-indulgent pedagogy, my least favorite form of interaction. I just unearthed all my Barry Lopez and Edward Abbey and Rick Bass books, books I’d forgotten my mom saved for me by hiding them amongst her own books, thus avoiding my dad’s purge. And I started and just…

Who? Who do I share that with? Who fucking cares? As an adult, today, how are you supposed to make friends? Once you leave college, you’re pretty much boned. No one I know reads, or runs, or bikes, or likes the outdoors. And that’s partly my fault, I know—I love virtual worlds too, and it’s those people I know. Gamers, not hikers. But why do people have to closet themselves up like that? Can’t you fling the blanket of your interest wide? And if not, how do I find you? Why am I reduced to seeing only the crumbs of your passing, on tea tins and bathroom graffiti (back, you know, when you could encounter public bathroom graffiti)?

smithereens

I’m just coming back to Utopia Avenue after a bit of a hiatus, because it got lost in our moving boxes which [masked] relatives helped us pack. And I have to say, trapped in a kaleidoscope of bad family relationship displays, this sudden bit of warmth was more moving than I think it was meant to be:

Also I think I am just more alert to it because I spent all yesterday as a miserable sorrowful witness to our neighbor’s grief. We don’t know them at all, we just moved here, and at first we thought the screams — there were police — were domestic violence. But it was grief. A car accident, a woman’s son dead in his twenties. They had a big family; the street filled with cars, people helped his mother to a seat as she sobbed and sobbed. I had hoped it was her husband, because no one should have to outlive their child. It would still be terrible but at least it wouldn’t be that. But no. It was her son. And she screamed, and I listened. And I worry that some stupid part of me hopes that by acknowledging others’ loss and not trying to ignore it, I’ll pay loss enough obeisance to avoid it myself. And that’s stupid, because loss doesn’t work like that.

Looking at their house today was so fucked up, because it looked like any other day. Sunlight, cicadas, someone mowing somewhere. To wake up and have your son not wake up into that too would be just…fuck. I don’t want to imagine it, but I am trying, again as though enough vicarious sorrow will help me avoid it myself, and it’s not a skill you get to improve with practice, like a piano or interviewing.

Anyway, I loved that warm moment in Griff’s first chapter. Some gentleness in a world frequently portrayed as having been shaped, largely, by artistry born of hardship and lack of care. “You don’t have to be unloved to make something lovely” is not a message that gets trotted out enough.

Edit: Goddammit I shouid have finished the chapter before I opened my damn mouth.

ahhhhhhhh

Here are our peeps!

As seen here:

Whose face is on fire? Is that a mortalitasi thing? A headdress of the northern chantry?And you can see in the VA clips the names of the characters they voice. I have to go back and see if they’re any of those in Tevinter Nights. So we have a petite lady with long hair (not the eleven thief from the comics surely? isn’t the preference to keep those comic mains as side characters to allow for more backstory reveal later?) a femme qunari, a human rogue maybe, the central figure who could be a version of the player character but could also be…*squints*…an elven warrior of some kind? Maybe Dalish or maybe one of Solas’s people? Then someone with a huge gun (qunari sans horns? who stole gatlock tech?), a super shadowy dude (is this the mortalitasi? we have to have one somewhere), a um. Mage of some kind? Is this the Dalish? And then the person with their face on fire.

Damn I hope they don’t burn out on this. Totally justified if they do but damn. A bright spark in dismal days.

to shake the sleeping self (1)

I almost bought this book the last time I was in a bookstore, right before the coronavirus broke out here and we all went on lockdown. Instead I bought Northland, by Porter Fox, which was good.

This intro though, shit. This guy is three years older than me. I didn’t know my cohort was old enough to start having life crises. On our own I mean, beyond those foisted on us by the economy or, I guess, a pandemic. All this about having been told our whole childhoods that we could be anything, though — which message was given with good intentions but problematic consequences — man does that ring true:

(Also I don’t know that I’ve ever been slapped so hard by a Thoreau quote before. Ouch.)