I have spent the past few weeks thinking about storylines, particularly, how many of them we each have going on in our lives at any one time. This is probably because I am involved in two really complex storylines at the moment: Dragon Age: Origins and Infinite Jest.
I started Infinite Jest first, so I’ll talk about it first. It’s a 1,000+ page novel written by David Foster Wallace. I first came across Wallace in a commencement speech he gave (not to my school; I found the speech online somewhere). This was several years ago; 2004-2005-ish. I read the speech and thought it was impressive; I may have forwarded it to a few people. I didn’t come across his name again until many years later, browsing through Garden Books in Shanghai, at which time I found a copy of his book Consider the Lobster and bought it on impulse. It’s a collection of some of his essays, including the hilarious and awesome Up, Simba, an account of his time on the campaign trail with John McCain in 2000. I really enjoyed the book, which gave more than a passing impression as to his cosmically-large and dense intellect. I mean, who reviews a freaking dictionary of modern American word usage? And who writes page-long footnotes (aside from this guy)? I was hooked. So it was with great sadness that I learned he committed suicide just a few months later.
I had heard that DFW’s seminal work was Infinite Jest, but I’d never read it. Then in late 2009, a film adaptation of his book Brief Interviews with Hideous Men came out. I think that reminded me, a little bell went off, that I’d not read Infinite Jest. So I wandered down to my favorite bookstore and picked up a copy. Oh my gosh – the thing is huge. The story itself is over 1000 pages and to that is appended dozens more pages of tiny-type footnotes (bucking the trend in Consider the Lobster where the footnotes were displayed at the bottom of the page on which they are referenced). So I have two bookmarks inserted: one for the story and one for the footnotes, some of which indeed go on for pages (but since the font is so tiny, they are much denser than the main text).
The “main” arc is, ostensibly, the story of a pro-Quebec separatist group that is attempting to locate the people close to the director of a certain film, a film that causes people to go into a rictus death-mask (Joker-like, I assume) of pleasure when they view it, and a film whose director (aforementioned) is dead. To elaborate on the world, the story is told mainly from the POVs of two people: the youngest son of the director who attends an upper-class tennis academy, and a newly-sober resident of a halfway house located just down the hill from said academy. The story goes off into the POVs of other characters, such as one of the assassins attempting to locate the rest of the director’s family, the ex girlfriend of one of the youngest son’s brothers, various people in AA and/or NA as a result of being in the halfway house, and it is these POVs that take up a significant portion of the text and, by extension, the storyline.
The book is good. It’s engrossing to the point where I can read for an hour or two at a stretch. Wallace creates a real, living, breathing world inhabited by people from all walks of life. Given his two main characters, his two most frequent settings are the tennis academy and the halfway house, and he does not skimp on the detail in any of these settings. Wallace himself was a nationally-ranked junior tennis player, so the tennis detail makes sense. I also get the idea he was deep into the world of NA, either by himself or via some crazy-intensive research. I have never been to NA/AA or lived in a halfway house but the detail in which he describes these places, the people who inhabit them, and the situations they get into is just so meticulous it makes me curious.
The book’s not without its flaws. Wallace can’t seem to write a character that doesn’t sound like himself. The “main” plot drags on endlessly and (I fear) given the length of the book vs. what I have read, will all be resolved in some hasty, unmanaged fashion. Most of the text (like Neal Stephenson’s work) is given over to elucidating the detail of the world, the characters and their feelings and their interactions and the consequences of those interactions – even for minor characters, even for bit characters.
But the scope of the work is immense. It reminds me a lot of another hefty tome I plowed through, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which took me nearly two months to read. In that series as in this book (and again w/Neal Stephenson’s Anathem) the focus is not on the plot but on the world that surrounds the plot. Hence the authors digress into infinity which leads to an inordinate number of words that surround a flimsy plot.
Oh well. I don’t mind. I might not ready Infinite Jest (or the Baroque Cycle or Anathem) again, but they certainly are/were worth the trip the first time through. And they look nice and impressive on my bookshelf.
I am not finished with Infinite Jest yet. I suspect it’ll be at least another 2-3 weeks before I am, which means the book will have taken me almost three months to complete. I look forward to moving on to other books that have piled up in its wake, but I’ll be sad when it’s over because I’ve spent so much freaking time with it.
The second storyline of which I speak is the role-playing game (RPG) Dragon Age: Origins. Here is where I would delve into a history of my own experience w/RPGs, from Final Fantasy 4J (2 US) all the way through Diablo, Fallout, Morrowind, Knights of the Old Republic, many other Final Fantasy games, Baldur’s Gate, and up through this current game – but I fear losing not only you (reader) but also myself! It’s been a long strange trip with these types of games, and Dragon Age is but the latest leg of the journey.
Again – it’s a great game, one well worth playing even though the mechanics and underlying fundamentals are the same as they ever were – hit monster, do damage, kill monster, gain experience + gold, use that to upgrade your characters’ abilities and equipment (respectively), repeat, keep progressing, uncover plot to destroy world, save world, etc. Nothing much is new here. You’ve got your humans, elves, and dwarves; your magic, swords, and armor; your kings, wraiths, and dragons. But the window-dressing that Bioware (a damn fine RPG developer if I’ve ever met one, and I have) put on the game is immaculate. Every single line of dialog in the game is spoken. The characters are very well-developed. The ones who follow you, in particular, each have their own motives for doing so and will ask favors from you in return for their sword (or bow, or staff, etc.) The characters get into (scripted, but still fascinating) arguments with each other on random occasions. They react to one another. The choices you make have consequences. The world feels alive and dynamic, which is quite an achievement for a computer game that has to have every eventuality programmed into it. The graphics and sound are great. And there is so much to do. I’m not finished, but I must have completed over 60 quests already. There have been times when I shouted in celebration after killing a particularly tough opponent. Several areas in the game (the Dead Trenches in particular) do an amazing job of giving you the creepy sense that something incredibly fucked-up is going on here. I love that. The challenge level is perfect, too. The game’s not too easy but it’s not impossible, either. I die and re-load about as much as I expect to. And the AI never cheats (not that I can see anyway).
Anyway – it’s a lot to keep track of. Like I said, at least 60 quests, and many of them with sub-quests. Tons of monsters to kill. People to meet and talk to. A full history of an entire world to keep in order – rise and fall of civilizations, political movements, histories of certain races, backstories on all types of flora and fauna you encounter, etc. The game does a great job of keeping you on track by organizing your current quests, completed quests, and general/misc. information about the world into an easy-to-browse format. You always know where you’re supposed to go and generally what to do in order to get there. No part of it is new – it’s all been done before — but it’s a gestalt, something that is more than its constituent parts.
I find that I have to limit my playing sessions, though. I find that I devolve into this weird state of lizard-brain torpor when I play for more than an hour (I blazed through five straight hours the other night). My eyes hurt from looking at the TV. My brain hurts from trying to hold all this information in it. And when I shut the game console off, I feel … floaty. Like “Oh … life?” Like I’ve been on vacation. I don’t really like that feeling, so in the future I’m going to (try and!) limit myself to only an hour or two at a time. (That’s one reason I like playing baseball – it rarely lasts more than 45 minutes to an hour, so you can be in and out in a relatively quick amount of time).
It is not lost on me that these two works are similar in both depth and scope. It is no wonder that I’ve been caught up in both at the same time. Both works feature dozens of characters and intertwining plotlines. Both feature a fully fleshed-out world, detailed down to the nitty-gritty idiosyncrasies, dreams, hopes, and fears of its inhabitants, both center-stage stars and bit players; a complete canon of historical events; and world-changing plotlines. Infinite Jest is like Dragon Age on rails (sans any choice in the direction the narrative goes); Dragon Age is like Infinite Jest set 500 years ago (and with magical potions instead of narcotics). Okay, maybe not – but you get the idea.
If the world of Infinite Jest was anything except what it is (read: hopeless and a bit depressing) I’m sure it would make a fantastic RPG, though many would just about lose their lunches at the thought of sullying such a shining star in the world of literature. Hey: if anyone could do it right, freakin’ Bioware could!
Anyone up for it?