Goldfinch

If you’ve been to New York, there’s a resonating sound that perpetuates across the island. All the cars and movement reverberate against the orthogonal architecture, a low echo, like the inside of a sea shell. And when you’re there, despite all the movement, energy and money, the sound penetrates, and with it a sort of existential fear. If you’ve watched 9/11 videos, you can hear the sound, between the screams and the crumbling of the towers.

The opening of The Goldfinch is probably the best approximation of that yawning maw I’ve read. It’s a blockbuster start, and no doubt what propelled the book forward into reader’s hands. The premise is top notch: thirteen-year-old Theo Decker survives a terror attack in a museum that kills his mother, and in the chaos, smuggles out a priceless work of art – The Goldfinch.

But where do you go from there? Donna Tartt follows through with a prosaic bildungsroman, at least for 500 pages or so. First New York city and the workings of teenage angst, apprenticing with a lumbering antique furniture dealer named Hobie. Young friendships and loss, occasionally taking peeks at exquisite brushstrokes of the legendary painting. Later, in scalding Las Vegas, he lives with his drunk, gambling father, and a Ukrainian artful dodger named Boris.

The narrative world Tartt builds is exquisite. Her prose is populated with uncanny verisimilitude, from the songs playing on character’s iPods to the specific make of early Americana armoirs. The sentence by sentence structure flows easily, and the pages swiftly turn. Theo – only occasionally distorted by drugs or drink – is for the most part a thoughtful observer. There’s a dose of timidity and shyness in his interactions. He’s rarely vulnerable with his feelings. These are all acceptable, accurate character traits of one who was orphaned in a violent explosion in his youth.

And yet Theo’s passivity is the book’s weakness. In a way, its a core flaw in any first person tale. The dramatic irony that comes from a limited perspective is mostly wiped away in the direct telling. Since Theo spends hundreds of pages simply observing and describing his interactions with Boris, Hobie and Kitsey, instead of acting, his inner voice can become grating. Its the reason many readers find Catcher in the Rye irritating: hell is other people, and what worse to be stuck in the mind of another (even one as sympathetic as Theo Decker) for a thousand pages.

And while the journey Theo makes is fascinating – there’s a certain hygge to the passages in the old furniture shop, slanting afternoon sun cutting through the wafting dust – it’s cut deep by slightly off-kilter passages of Russian criminals, shootouts with gangsters, cliched high society snobs.

The novel itself is basically cut in half at 500 pages – Theo’s maturation. He returns to New York from Vegas, is accepted into school, then … fade to black. Eight years later, he’s a junkie and a conman. A number of characters are simply cut. Of course, Tartt isn’t so gauche and unsophisticated to drop these bombs in clumsily, and we receive them through the eyes of Theo, who’s properly animated enough so they fit into the world’s scaffolding. But underlying it all is the feeling that Tartt wrote herself into a corner and had to shake things up (a figurative explosion) in order to propel the book along.

After spending 900 pages in someones head, you’d think Theo would come to some sort of closure about his mother’s death, or the meaning of the painting. He doesn’t. There’s an info dump of existentialist purple prose, leaning nihilistic, pretty much every end left untied.

By the end, any passionate reader is a bit stunned. Is that it? What did it all mean? What was the significance of the painting, the drug addictions?

The closest analog, which many critics have pointed out, is Charles Dickens, who wrote coming of age tales in Victorian England, often populated with colorful characters (both rich and poor) from the bowels of industrial London. His writing were serialized, riveting as page turners. Yet who remembers intricacies or the catharsis of Great Expectations or Oliver Twist? The overall narrative arc and ultimate meaning of his stories was secondary to the thrill of living alongside fully-fleshed characters, through both the exhilarating and the drab.

It’s a fitting approach, mirroring the Goldfinch painting itself. Hyperreal, yet mundane. Perhaps even minimalist in its scope. Touches of darkness, absurdism. Maybe nihilism. A bird, chained to a perch, staring forth. Was the bird ever real? Is the painting capturing that reality, from some time in the 17th century? Or was it merely a notion in the mind’s eye of Carel Fabritius? Who knows what was his mind? All we have are his finite brush stroke, pigment and oil caught on canvas. It’s not art that stuns us, or changes our worldview. There’s no catharsis. We continue on with life. Yet there’s an enigma behind it, some shadow smudged on the wall. Did we miss something?

Lots of great art makes us feel like we’ve gained something, that we now possess a new experience. The Goldfinch (the painting, and the book), plays tricks on us, hinting at something grand. Yet when we open up the hidden cache, it’s empty. All that remains is a fading echo.

California Dreaming

This past December was the sophomore year of the Disney Star Wars resurgence, and fans and critics were generally pleased. Rogue One was an entertaining return to the time of the original trilogy, complete with Stormtroopers, Star Destroyers and Vader’s signature black helm. The key differentiator was the tone of the film, closer to a gritty war movie than the jolly camp adventure of the Lucas originals. Also missing were the opening crawl, John William’s score and signature fade wipes. So we’re left with a solid action movie, dressed up in all the mise en scène of Star Wars (the tech, jargon, lore) missing the feel of the core trilogy. From a business and marketing perspective, this is a brilliant move, broadening Disney’s Star Wars IP beyond the narrow artistic confines of the original films. Prior to Rogue One, this was all but impossible. See: the uproar over the blasphemous prequels; the Force Awakens honing tightly to the prescribed formula.

Yet there’s something lacking in the new broadened and reawakened reality. Something cynical in the ultra efficient filmmaking of the Disney-Lucasfilm industrial complex.

Thinking back to the 77 Star Wars, there was a crew of dreamers and engineers, shaggy and bespectacled. They lacked the funds of the big studios, so they improvised spaceships with model airplane parts and glue. I watched the original 77 film recently, and I was struck by those moments in-between. Not only the iconic scenes that are oft repeated (Vader stomping around, Luke’s wide eyed naivete), but the naturalistic shots of a krayt dragon skeleton in the sand, the denizens of Mos Eisley drinking and smoking exotic vices, Aunt Beru pouring blue milk, Han’s improvised frustrations, Leah’s feisty snark. It’s these non-serious in-between shots that make the universe feel lived in, that it will stick around beyond the battle between the Empire and the Rebellion. That feeling is lost from the later films, and most of the newer entries, where every moment is a life or death struggle, high intensity, and even the humor is that of soldiers, not idiosyncratic galactic weirdness.

The similarities to another California success story are striking: Apple. Jobs and Woz, hacking away in a garage with borrowed parts, their first computer cobbled together with a hand soldered board and wooden frame. Accolades, fame and fortune came later, but that first strike defined the core of what Apple would be: beautifully designed personal computers for individuals, not gray number-crunching machines. Just as Star Wars redefined the feel of space sci-fi in cinema (away from the cold techno optimism of Star Trek or 2001 to a warm, worn galaxy of adventure, populated with familiar archetypes, not unknowable aliens or pressing philosophical conundrums), Apple made nerdy gadgets the ultimate status symbol.

And of course, both Apple and Star Wars were massive hits, redefining their respective industries, entering the cultural canon, earning billions. Here we are, 40 years later, both have become institutions. Both are riding on their past glories, minor adjustments being marketed as courageous moves, but mostly just polishing and remixing the rich material of the past.

The question remains: is the magic still there? The spark that brought these two behemoths to life? Of course, Jobs and Lucas are gone. But there were others in the early days, down in the death star trenches. Disney has proven to be a responsible steward of cultural heritage (Star Wars, Marvel superheros and fairy-tales the world over). And Apple continues to bevel aluminum edges and perfect their minimalist helvetica marketing. But now they are the establishment.

The time’s ripe for another set of shaggy underdogs with zero budget and a dream.

Soulsborne

I first discovered Dark Souls huddled down in a dingy basement, like one of the lost and despaired corridors so common in the game’s setting.  Since then the series has been one of my favorites.  The second installment made some dramatic shifts to core gameplay elements (backstabs, poise) and felt off, but I still powered through and slaughtered Nashandra.  But it was 2015’s Bloodborne and last year’s Dark souls III that the series hit its high point, mastering the formula.

After what felt like months of battling frustration, I finally beat both Dark souls III and Bloodborne last month (at least the vanilla game), so I feel like I can finally comment on the series as a whole.  What makes these games so appealing?

The fascinating thing about the game design of the series is they take the opposite approach to many of their peers.  other RPGs go heavy on dialog and exposition, Souls is sparse.  Other games rely on randomized enemies and events, everything in Souls is scripted.  Other games polish a user interface util its intuitive and clean, Souls sticks with a barebones tables and text.  It eschews difficulty modes or learning curves.  It simply presents a direct challenge to the player and gives them tools to work with.

All the praise of the original still stand: uncompromising difficulty, cryptic lore, unhelpful statistics, pixel-perfect collision and response.  But III and Borne honed the formula to a fine tip.

I will say that III feels like a remake of the original.  Certain zones are identical, from the architecture to the trash mobs.  Some zones *are* literally the same (Anor Londo), but experienced hundreds of years later, so the stones have experienced considerable weathering.  At times this is a bit of a letdown, that we can’t experience more of From Software’s brilliant originality, but it’s good that those motifs can be experienced on the current HD modern console generation.  III goes beyond the original for a number of zones and bosses (Abyss Watchers, Pontiff) and closes with a nice throwback (Soul of Cinder as Gywn).  

Bloodborne is a different beast.  Probably the darkest video game I’ve played, the setting is an unholy melding of victorian architecture and lovecraftian horror.  One of Dark Souls core mechanic – blocking with shields – has been abandoned (even mocked), in favor of guns, parrying and lifeleech rallies.

Beyond the fights, Bloodborne tells its story in fascinating ways.  Players gain “insight” from encountering and defeating bosses, or consuming Madmen’s Knowledge during the playthrough.  As insight increases, new details are revealed about the world.  Monsters grow dozens of eyes, like spiders.  And instead of merely a bloodred sunset, a huge spindle-legged monstrosity is revealed, climbing the steeple of the central cathedral.   Numerous characters have also blindfolded themselves, removing their vision of the mundane world in exchange for a glimpse of the eldritch truth.

The player’s journey moves through creepy plazas and grand cathedrals, along with dingy villages of wooden huts.  But it also warps in and out of nightmares and dreamscapes, trapped in some recursive figment of cursed and dying adherents of the blood church.

All that being said, Bloodborne’s dark palette and and motifs can be overwhelmingly dreary, and DS III is a nice change of pace to fight on glowing lava fields or sparkling snowscapes.

Even as the Soulsborne games are objectively solid, but it’s is the organic community that’s turned them into legendary hits.  The lore, secrets, and the labyrinthine level design requires multiple playthroughs and hours of erudite study, plenty of fodder for wiki communities to digest.  Beyond that, freakishly talented players have adopted the game as a prime candidate for speedrunning.  The various combinations of achievement possible in the games is astounding.  Some run through and slaughter all the bosses as quickly as possible.  Other’s find glitches and exploits to simply reach the end credits in twenty minutes.  Some even do it all naked, without getting hit once.  Others stick the online PVP gameplay, using exotic weapons, or trolling opponents.

I’ll never be that good, or have that much time and dedication.  I’m content to master the game to the level where I can defeat the bosses, maybe come around again in NG+ and defeat them a second time.  There’s nothing more satisfying than finally executing all the perfectly timed rolls and counter attacks to victory, hands sweaty, heart pounding.  In a way, that rush is behind me, which is a bit bittersweet.

From Software says they’re done with the Soulsborne series, but the formula has been such a wild success, I’m sure spiritual successors will abound.  I’ll be there, dodge rolling and backstabbing with the rest of them.  Praise the sun.

A Rose by any other name

On a dusty bookshelf tucked away in the corner of a nondescript brick building, it sat, yellowed paper and bent spine. Printed in the early 80s, jacket art and overblown font signifiers of the time, newly translated from the Italian. Before the Sean Connery Hollywood adaptation. The Name of the Rose.

On the first handful of pages, an unnamed narrator discovering a lost text in a dusty european enclave, the written testimony of a monk from the 1300s. It’s a theme Umberto Ecco has embraced and highlighted in most of his work – discovered texts, reinterpretation, what of the *thing itself* is lost and gained in transition.

The tale itself a Sherlock Holmes mystery set in a medieval monastery. Adso of Melk, the young protag, accompanies his mentor William of Baskerville across the Italian countryside to an ancient monastery nestled in the mountains. It’s the time of two Popes, split between Rome and Avignon, and church politics play heavily on the workings of the plot. Soon after their arrival, monks start showing up dead of mysterious circumstances.

William fits the Sherlockian mold (Adso the Watson) as close as possible, and there are great scenes where the former bends over a murder scene in his handcrafted spectacles, sniffing out clues. Much of the book, however, is dedicated to obscure theological debates among the monks over minutia, references to the titles of long forgotten books, chants and songs never translated from Latin. It makes the reading a bit of a fractured experience, incredibly dry and long passages leavened with vivid accounts of murders or vicious tactics of the inquisition.

Heresy figures predominantly. Entire sects of monks are labeled heretics due to minor emphasis on the original Biblical text, in this case – Christ’s poverty. What were Christ’s true thoughts on possessions? “Render to Caesar”, of course, but what if the church *is* Caesar? Of course, the rich pope and priests in Avignon would want to legitimize property, if only to maintain lavish lifestyles in gold laden cathedrals. One character even speaks at length of the holy properties of various gemstones. Following all this, the poor monks, who wish little more than to live a life of service and transcribing tomes, are labeled holy or heretic, depending on the political alliances of their order (and are thus burned at the stake).

All this political infighting and background noise brings a hint of conspiracy to the murders in the monastery. Is it a vengeful assassin, enacting the killings to send a message (which appear to mirror God’s judgement from John’s Revelation)? William and Adso are forced to consider both physical and logical facts of the deaths (who was in the vicinity, what time of day), and the tertiary details (a dead monk was transcribing a certain book, was this heresy for a certain sect)?

As is Ecco’s forte, the rabbit hole goes ever deeper, all the way to madness. William and Adso explore the forbidden library, constructed as a labyrinth, tricked out with psychedelic incense and false passageways. Near the conclusion, Adso has a breakdown from exhaustion, envisioning a hellish feast where the entire cast of characters, along with Christ, the apostles, infamous bandits, even the popes commit any and all permutations of heresy. Everything sacred is violated, from communion and baptism on.

The final act of the book wraps everything up nicely (from a plot standpoint), but the open questions persist. If ideology becomes enforced with the rule of law (and punished by the sword and the stake), then everything can become heresy, punished at the whims of a capricious tyrant. If information is incomplete, is deductive reasoning useful, or does it lead to faulty conclusions? Should certain knowledge be taboo, locked away in hidden libraries, accessible only to the select few?

Ecco himself saw many of these nightmares come to pass in Italy during the 30s. Mussolini and the cult of fascism swept through the country. The intellectual elites elevated an ideology and in turn designated what (and who) was heretical. Mob rule, societal peer pressure, government backed thugs forced the common man to march in line. After Ecco died earlier last year, a phenomenal essay was republished on his experiences as a boy and thoughts on fascism’s roots.

The monks, castles and inquisitors of 700 years ago are but dust and fragments of text in lost books. But the root of that nightmare – inflexible ideologies, heretical pronouncements – are as fresh as newly transcribed parchment, the ink yet to dry.