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.

Games as Art – Recent Releases

BioShock Infinite

BioShock is a descendant of Deus Ex, which in turn grew out of System Shock. All those games were First Person Shooters, but they put on a layer of inventory management, skill sets, “spell casting”, and level based puzzle solving.

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BioShock’s big acclaim was the setting and world building – a sunken city decked with the trappings of Ayn Rand’s objectivism, lost beneath the waves. The player saw the results of the civilization, how unchecked greed and bioengineering led to a drowned hell. Big Daddies and Little sisters were probably the biggest gameplay innovation. Kill the “helpless” mutant girl to collect a large dose of ADAM and you’ll have to face the rampaging Daddy. Narrative was intertwined with gameplay in a way that improved both

Infinite takes the same spiritual DNA of its predecessors and evolves into something new. We have the fantastical dystopia – this time a city in the clouds, led by the charismatic religious leader Comstock and his zealous flock. There’s an equal mix of racism and beautiful neo-classical architecture. The color palette is big and bold and full of light, like a carnival on a perfect summer day.

Unfortunately, the carnival aesthetic is extrapolated a bit more than it should be. The entire game feels like a ride at a fair. You walk into a new area, floating buildings and zeppelins docking together, glorious sunshine beaming down, illuminating a huge statue or poster of religious or racist iconography. You walk around for a minute, marveling at all the detail built into the world (flushing toilets! Ice cream vendors!). Then some guards recognize you and there’s a quick and bloody battle, employing a variety of weapons and “spells”. You might jump onto the skyline, a sort of by-the-rails grappling hook. Then visit the vending machine to buy some upgrades or ammo.

The big narrative conceit of the game is Elizabeth, a wonderfully animated companion who you are rescuing/kidnapping throughout the plot of the game. She has big innocent eyes and Disney-caliber voice acting. And for an escort NPC, she’s surprisingly good at keeping up (she runs out ahead of you), and holding her own in a firefight.

But having Elizabeth at your side breaks the pacing and feel of what made BioShock, Deus Ex and System Shock great. No longer are you uncovering a decaying world at your leisure. You’re running an escort mission, racing through zones and enemies and plotlines. The game suddenly feels linear, as stuck to the rails as the skyline.

From a technical standpoint, BioShock Infinite is impressive. The graphical style is reminiscent of Dishonored (neo-Victorian, Steampunkish, World’s Fair 1910s). But the game suffers from Call of Duty syndrome – in the places of the most impressive action, the player’s utility is reduced and you simply see your avatar execute some animated acrobatics. The first time you jump on the skyline, or escape a crumbling statue: the game becomes a cut scene.

This is probably the biggest sin in my mind, aside from all the pretentious moralizing over turn of the century racism, or religious cults, or American mythology.

A few other annoyances: the game is so bright and colorful that the actual gameplay element (enemies, pickups, etc) are hard to discern. So you end up staring at the indicators (press X) to determine what can be interacted with. This leads to a sort of tunnel vision. In addition, the HUD clutter is horrendous (flaming hands, personal shield, checkpoint popups, press X) and fills the screen, almost to distraction. So you’re caught between a glorious world without and then all the video game clutter in the foreground. It’s claustrophobic.

BioShock Infinite is getting rave reviews from tons of game journalists, thinking that it pushes the boundaries games as art. But I was left feeling a bit nauseous, like I’d eaten too much cotton candy and ridden too many roller coasters at the fair.

Cart Life

I hadn’t heard of Cart Life until it won the IGF this year, which goes to show that awards shows have some utility.

It’s constructed with the darling elements of indie gamedev (chiptunes, pixel art), but brings enough of its own style to stand out. The palette is as monochrome as newsprint, the PCs are right out of a gritty 80s urban novel. The premise: sell newspapers or coffee for a week to try to eke out a living. There’s some backstory for each of the three playable characters that’s nuanced and compelling. I played as an Ukranian immigrant who’s trying to start his life over in America, selling newspapers. He translates poetry, is addicted to cigarettes, and takes care of a mangy cat.

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The actual gameplay sits somewhere between old school Sierra adventure and modern Sims. You walk around the city and visit different neighborhoods, talking with various people, buying food, cigarettes, equipment.

Running the stand is actually stressful work. To sell newspapers, for instance, you have to type “Folding Newspapers. Stocking Newspapers” exactly. Mistype a word and you lose a paper. Then you have to mentally calculate change, pulling out dollars and quarters from the till to break a 20.

A full day takes about 30 minutes, and then you go home to feed your cat, brush your teeth and fall asleep to troubled dreams. A screen tabulates your profits. All that hard work and you made $4.50.

Most video games give the player agency in order to instill a feeling of power. Defeating a difficult boss, solving a challenging puzzle, landing a tricky jump: all of these actions are balanced to push the player to the edge of their skill, and then reward them when they succeed. This creates a positive feedback loop.

Cart Life does the opposite. It gives the players video game-esque challenges, and even if they succeed, it doles out paltry rewards (a few dollars) and tidbits of depressing narrative. There’s a feeling that the game is unwinnable.

Modern games give players everything. You can sleepwalk to the ending, and the most exciting narrative events are essentially cut scenes.

But unwinnable games were actually pretty prevalent in the past. Most of my fond memories were of games I never actually “beat”. Super Mario Bros, Legend of Zelda, Nethack, even something like Oregon Trail. Everyone remembers fording a river or shooting a bear, but who actually made it to Oregon?

Cart Life is that same sort of game – endlessly replayable, difficult, perhaps unwinnable.

Deeper meanings are there too: life without a safety net, the false optimism of capitalism, immigrant stories, addiction. But these aren’t hammered home as they are in other “art” games, and they’re communicated via gameplay elements, instead of just window dressing.

Cart Life isn’t fun to play. It’s frustrating and depressing. But it’s innovative, visually original, and well deserving of its accolades. And it makes you think.

Link Roundup

Haven’t done one of these in a while, but today was one of those classic episodes of procrastination where I fish through Google Reader waiting for Outlook to ping with my next distraction. Fortunately, hooked a few worthwhile reads:

My Bright Abyss – I’ve thought for a while on ways to define my faith, since I don’t really fit into a neat little denominational box. This article isn’t exactly it, but hits on some interesting things that I identify with, especially the poetic comparisons between art and faith.

The Books Remain Closed – Arthur Krystal (an Author I’ve actually never heard of) talks about how his passion and zeal for new literature has waned, throws out the theory that literature as an art form is dead because it no longer influences the age in which it resides. Very interesting in light of the Kundera I was reading the other day.

Blamin the Burbs – I saw the movie Revolutionary Road over this past weekend. While this article focuses on the 1961 novel, I think we reach the same conclusion. Road is a study of marriage, and the suburbs simply act as the setting and metaphor. If you think otherwise, would the trip of Paris have healed all their wounds? I think not.

The Things He Carried – As I’ve known and thought for quite some time, airport security is nothing more than a Kafkaesque joke – “security theater”. Jeffrey Goldberg proves it, by smuggling knives, terrorist paraphernalia, yes, even 3oz of liquid through TSA, on fake papers.

New Reads, Sights, Sounds

Over the last month, it feels like all I do is consume art. Gobble, gobble. It’s a pretty standard pastime, be it television, video games, internet sites, mp3s. But good art requires a response, acknowledgement by the receiver.

If we consume in a vacuum, art will just become mindless content that fills our empty hours with useful diversions. We’ll invest in the pretty spectacles that incite direct emotional appeal, but do not require introspection or critical thinking.

So this is my exercise. Perhaps it’s a penance – it feels like work. But it’s necessary to glean more than passing amusement from the reads, sights and sounds that have filled my time.