First up in our Kickin’ It Old School is Open Letters Monthly,
a literary ezine dedicated to the arts. Before you start nodding off,
dreading another article about some musty, dry publication written by
a bunch of self-important geezers, let me tell you a little bit about
the guy who edits this thing. His name is Steve Donoghue, he works in a
bookstore, and he likes to read. How do I know this? Last year, he did
a reading project for OLM titled “A Year with the Tudors.”
Each month, he wrote an essay about the Tudors as they’ve appeared in
books, television, and movies. While discussing the proliferation of
Tudor material, he wrote:
Consider me, for instance. I read roughly 120 pages an hour, and I devote roughly six hours a day to reading. That’s 700 pages a day.
Discounting for the slightly disproportionate percentage of re-reading
I do (I enjoy it a great deal), and allowing for the not-infrequent
days when I devote seven, eight, or even ten hours to reading , we can
round this tally off to about 500 books a year. That’s a fairly healthy—not to say inadvisable!—total, especially since most recent polls show the average American reads one, maybe two books a year. But it’s still the merest whisper, the faintest peck on the cheek, compared to the oncoming tide of books published in America and the UK every year,
a considerable portion of which is Tudor fiction. Somewhere in the
world, a new Tudor novel is being written every 1.3 minutes. I could
read a thousand books a year and still not cover the ground. No one
could. 500 books a year won’t even cover the 2008 Tudor novels written
in the southwestern neighborhoods of Liverpool. On the latest laptop
models, ‘milord’ is a separate key on the keyboard. You can’t read it
This would be eye-rolling braggadocio coming from anyone else, but one
soon learns that coming from Steve, it’s merely a simple, wondrous
truth. The man loves to read, and his tastes are disarmingly eclectic.
He can expertly deconstruct a translation from ancient Greek (because,
you see, he reads and writes it), spin a list of intriguing books about
pets (he loves dogs), exhibit a bottomless amount of knowledge about
graphic novels, critique magazine writers with surgical and merciless
precision (he has a special, dark place in his heart for men’s
magazines), and he can go on endlessly, and fascinatingly, about historical fiction. While OLM is a collaborative effort of the highest order, it is very much Steve’s baby.
His 2009 project is “A Year with the Romans,” and every essay is a reader’s delight not to be missed. Each piece
is given historical background—Steve’s version, that is, which you
just know is vastly more entertaining than any author’s could be—sharp
criticism, and just the perfect amount of snark. Steve has a particular
talent with snark. It’s never juvenile, mean-spirited, nor over-used.
You get the feeling, no, the certainty, that it’s only ever invoked
when the subject deserves it. Most importantly, you will never finish a
piece by Steve without being richer for the experience. He also keeps
a personal blog at stevereads.com, but do not putter around his archives unless you have hours and hours of extra time on your hands.
All of OLM contributors are talented writers, yet none of them
are household names. Few are even academics. Most appear to be
freelancers with a strong affinity for their subject matter. I don’t
know if it’s Steve’s model, or just our luck, but every one of them
writes with a distinct, carefree spirit. They don’t come off as
ambitious writers, or scholarly showoffs. It’s genuinely difficult to
shut your computer off before reading an issue from start to finish.
They are remarkably diverse. For instance, here’s examples of what
you’ll find: an article about the Prince Valiant comic strip, a review
of two books about The Global War on Terror, a New York tour with Colm
Tóibín, Colum McCann, and E. L. Doctorow, a photography lesson, a piece
about Icelandic pop music, an essay about Miles Davis, music
soundtracks for video games, Irish folk music of the Faeroe Islands,
the state of internet radio, southern fiction, Guillermo del Toro’s
zombie fiction, a review of a WWII thriller, books related to the
Julia Child craze, and a sprinkling of poetry. And that’s just
September’s issue. October’s is The Bestseller Issue,
where regular contributors are assigned and then variously rip apart,
snark about, give the benefit of the doubt to, or are surprised by
bestseller fiction, a genre which few of them usually read.
The themed issues are great, but it’s the individual essays which keep me glued to my screen. I ask you, where else could you read prose like this (by Phillip A. Lobo), which takes Michael Dirda to task, about a video game?
BioShock is experienced from behind the eyes of a man named Jack who,
at the game’s onset, is reflecting on his parents and their assurances
that he is special, that he was born to do great things. It is 1960 and
a cigarette smolders between Jack’s fingers as we sit with him (as him)
in the aircraft that will, in moments, plummet out of the sky and into
the Mid-Atlantic. Screams, fading lights, and then darkness. Next, Jack
and the player are submerged. A propeller whirs lethally by, a purse
slides past our field of vision, and a locket drifts, ghostly, from its
confines. Jack struggles to the surface, the refracted firelight
creating a deadly corona around the patch of sea he swims towards. He
breaks the surface, gasps for breath, and then you are in control.
If there is one thing that distinguishes video games from other
audio visual media, it is interactivity. We’ve long since accepted film
as a legitimate form of artistic expression, even if its roots were
relatively Vaudevillian. Why, then, if the most important formal
difference between the film and the game is the active engagement of
the viewer (who is renamed ‘player’), are games excluded from the realm
of art? I think it may be that old ghost of the author, who returns
despite Roland Barthes’ celebrated exorcism, taking revenge upon a
reader who has grown too bold, trespassing into his semi-divine domain.
Great art has almost invariably been created by a terrifically
dedicated auteur, be it a Michelangelo, a Joyce, or a Hitchcock. Games
give the player considerably greater control over the way the narrative
plays out. Interactivity is the unique value of games. It provides a
potential for immersion that can, if well employed, more than make up
for what it loses in thematic unity.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the explicit and
intentional philosophical jab of BioShock. Within the history of the
game, shortly after World War II, a cabal of talented engineers and
scientists retreated under the Atlantic and created a city named
Rapture, designed to be free of religious authorities, politicians,
bureaucrats and societies other ‘parasites’. ‘A city where the great
would not be constrained by the small’, to quote the cabal’s leader,
one Andrew Ryan. This city of Rapture, which Jack explores, is designed
as a Randian Objectivist u-turned-dystopia, and the game itself
constitutes an extensive critique of Objectivism, positing the kinds of
internal failures that would cause such a society to collapse into a
brutal mix of autocracy and anarchy. The former splendor of unchecked
brilliance and capitalist motivation has turned into vicious, life or
death competition between the genetically twisted survivors through
which Jack must carve a bloody path, desperately seeking some means of
escape. And Ryan sits over the ruinous result of his ideals, refusing
to admit defeat, an embodiment of the excesses of ideology we hoped
World War II had cured. His grand rhetoric and unflinching belief in
his clear simulacrum of the objectivist system serves as a bitter
contrast to the gutted former beauty of his city. He’s easy to hate,
about as easy as the character of Atlas is to love.
Did I not mention Atlas? Your sole friend and companion, via
shortwave radio, the charming Irishman is Ryan’s opposite:
compassionate, mildly religious, fiercely anti-ideological. His gentle
requests, ‘would you kindly’, juxtapose sharply with Ryan’s nearly Old
Testament affect. He is well written and well acted: as I fought my way
through Rapture, I dreamed that Jack and Atlas would eventually escape
the hellish city, open up a little tavern together on the surface, and
share a lifelong friendship, forged in adversity.
What follows is most definitely a spoiler. I would rather you play
the game in a state of innocence, and thus experience the effective
power of the narrative first-hand; the telling can never recreate the
climax of the piece represents the crux of my argument, and the height
of BioShock’s artistic endeavor. So here goes:
Atlas is a liar. And Jack has no free will.
confrontation with Andrew Ryan, a terrible revelation is made. Jack was
born and bred in Rapture; bred is the best word to use: he was grown as
a genetic experiment. And worse, he was brainwashed, you were
brainwashed, to obey any command accompanied by the phrase ‘would you
kindly’. Atlas is really the alias of one Frank Fontaine, gangster and
con artist, a man who has no ideology whatsoever and is just as
monstrous as Ryan. It is a shock; you are suddenly desperately alone,
and the character that was so charming, so reassuring, becomes an
obscene enemy, and you his unwitting tool.
This is the tragedy I point to, the tragedy that, had he
experienced it, might have made Michael Dirda reconsider his
assessment. And it is not the only game with such sadness in it.
Honestly, I’d never had the slightest inclination to play a video game. Until I read that.
Open Letters is truly a rare bird. It’s full of quality
content that’s both educational and entertaining, it has plenty of
attitude, and it’s free. Did you get that? Let me repeat it. It’s free. It’s a relatively young publication: its archives only go back two years, but OLM
is quickly making a name for itself. As is so often the case with great
internet material, it’s not without its financial problems. Steve
briefly refers to a time, not too long ago, when things were looking
bleak for the monthly. He never panders for donations, although if you
scroll all the way down, and look in the right-hand menu, you’ll see a
small PayPal button that you could click (and should). It takes a lot
of time and effort to consistently put out an ezine of this quality.
That’s probably why we don’t see as many of them anymore. Don’t let
this one die. Check it out. I mean, go deep into back issues, and
you’ll see just how old school this new ‘zine is. But don’t do it for
Steve, or for me. Do it for you.
A Year with the Romans Series: