The Making of Zombies and Elephants

ZOMGThere once was a short story called Elephants and Zombies. It was written in 2010 and didn’t have a very happy childhood, because the author (that would be me) was never quite happy with the first draft. She opened it up a couple of times, moved a few bits around, and then sort of forgot about it. And then a man named Richard Goodness came along…

That could be the story of how Zombies and Elephants happened, but it isn’t. It’s more like the second act of that story. Here’s the first act:

I once had a dream. In my dream I went to a small house in Cape Town (only it sort of looked a lot like Dover, which I’ve never really been to… never been to Cape Town either… ah… go figure). In the small house in Cape Town a very nice old man who used to direct plays at university was tending bar and I gave him a banjo. Might also have been a guitar, I’m not so sure anymore. The nice old man was happy and then some shit happened and at the end of the dream I was somehow up on a tree on the slope of a hill and before me a zombie elephant was eating someone’s brain.

And I thought: “Cool, I wonder how that might have happened.”

That’s how Zombies and Elephants got started.

So. Yes… fast forward to December 2013. That was when I first heard of Fear of Twine. And it sounded like a darn good opportunity to make my first game. Only I didn’t have a story. Which, if you consider that Twine games are exclusively text-based, was a little bit of a problem. But no worries… still plenty of time until the deadline.

Weeks and weeks pass, with every little spark of imagination scurrying for cover whenever I come near. I stalk the ideas, set traps, put out little bits of cheese… all to no avail.

Deadline week. Still no idea. Richard is nice enough to extend the deadline a little (not only for me; at that point I’m still not sure whether I will participate at all). Second deadline week arrives, stares at me angrily. I cower in fear.

And then while I’m talking to Jonas about his game, The Matter of the Great Red Dragon, I suddenly remember that old story. And I realize that it would really be much better as a Twine than as a short story.

Three to four hours of fruitless searching on at least five hard disks reveal that I must have at some point become so frustrated with the original story that I deleted it. Oops. But what’s there to worry about? It’s four days to the deadline for Fear of Twine. Piece of cake.

And I work. I learn all I can about Twine code, I read up on South Africa, Mozambique, Kruger National Park, Limpopo Transfrontier Park. I spend a great deal of time on the names, languages and other aspects of the near-future setting. And I write like mad, pulling two all-nighters. Somewhere in-between the kind, wonderful Richard Goodness extends the deadline by a couple of days (again not only for my own sake). I forge on.

My keyboard breaks. G, H and F only work if you ask them nicely. While I’m away at my day job (with 0 hours of sleep), Jonas spends a lot of time putting Gs, Hs and Fs back into the game. I also owe him many thanks for suggesting a few brilliant changes to the game; his background in postcolonial studies comes in handy as we discuss semi-satirical ideas like the Great Limpopo Special Economic Zone.

Friday, the 7th of February. Zombies and Elephants is finally finished. (It’s called Zombies and Elephants because Jonas has convinced me that it’s much easier to say. Elephantsnzombies…. see what I mean?)

I’ve finally made my first game. And people are apparently playing it. There are reviews, most of them quite favourable. Emily Short, a living legend of the interactive fiction scene, says that it was among her top three games in the exhibition. Other reviewers, while saying that zombies are getting really old (yeah, I know, but what was I supposed to do) say that at least the writing is rather nice – or even really frightening. (Since I primarily see myself at a writer, that’s what really makes me happy.)

So yeah, people seem to be enjoying the game. That’s so cool… I can’t even begin to say how happy it makes me. I made something, and people actually like it. After trying for so long to find some sort of recognition as a writer (as opposed to as a painter/graphics artist), that is the best thing that could possibly have happened. Moreover, it is something that I urgently needed, because I was halfway ready to just chuck the whole writing thing out the window.

So people like my game. Wonderful, but am I satisfied with my game?

Mhm… I do love the game. The experience of finally producing a game of my own was awesome. I mean, obviously I’ve been making games all this time, and I do love working on the Lands of Dream games… but making something yourself is something else entirely.  And mastering Twine (which in all honesty isn’t all that hard to do… go on, try it) gave me this cool “I’m-a-superhero-programer-girl” feeling.

The story manages to get the things done that I wanted it to do. Strong focus on character. Exploration of racism and class and exploitation, but without being preachy and turning the characters into mouthpieces. And I feel that the end is horrible and gory and pulpy in just the right way. So yeah, I’m happy with the story.

StructureBut the game is still terribly rushed. Currently I have seven different kinds of hell going on at work (the paying kind of work that keeps me from making games), but as soon as that is over I intend to give the game a much-needed update. It’s not only a lack of polish and some minor spelling mistakes that still bother me.

For example: a lot of people seem to think the game is terribly linear. Well, let me tell you something: Zombies and Elephants tracks over 40 different variables. Almost everything the player does has some sort of effect on the story, but this being my first Twine, I failed to realize that most of these things, like for example whether or not you get the chance to fix the car, wouldn’t be apparent to anyone playing the game. You never know that you just narrowly scraped by the other ending, the one where everyone decides to walk to the city. My bad. I would quite like to fix some of that, making the game less linear in the last third.

And then there’s a million other, smaller things that I wanted to put in. Character moments mostly, because I am ever so fond of some of the relationships that developed between some of the characters as I was writing them. (For example: I initially wanted to have only one doctor, with the second one dying either off-screen or fairly early in the beginning, but then I ended up liking the way they interacted way too much to lose them so quickly.)

I want to expand the (well-hidden, randomised and hard to get) cure ending quite a bit, because that was the last thing I put in, mostly frantically copy-pasting at six in the morning from existing bits of the game to have something, anything, in place there. And there’s an entire other ending that I always meant to put in but never had the time.

So… um… if you find the cure ending, which isn’t the easiest thing to do, don’t be disappointed please, it’s a work in progress.

A note on the endings: The cure ending isn’t only rushed, it’s also not what I consider to be “The End”. I was innocently researching (fictional) drugs that could be used against a zombie outbreak (preferably without landing me in jail for copyright infringement) when I stumbled across this article (and the real-world science article that it links to). Originally I was just going to name-drop a few drugs while you talk to the two doctors, but after I read this I thought “This is way too good to pass up.” And thus the cure ending, and just why it is so terribly rushed. Now the *real* ending for me….

(Avast! Here be spoilers!)

…the real ending for me is the one where you watch someone else as he is killed by the elephant. It isn’t easy to put into words why I think that this is the true ending. The obvious reason is because that was the ending of my dream. I know that this sounds air-headed and flimsy in a million different ways, but the image stayed with me; it just had that much power. The other reason, the one that is really hard to explain, is that the ending feels right. It seems like a fitting counterweight to the very wordy, sometimes philosophical main body of the game, which is all about slow, creeping horror and which always stays very close to the protagonist. I tried so hard to give a realistic account of how someone in this situation would feel and react that this ending, which leaves the player powerless and which suddenly seems to take a step back and look at the events from afar, feels like the only right way to end it. After all this waiting and talking, the extreme violence of the ending seems carthartic; it dissolves all the tension in one gory rush. And don’t tell me that it’s not realistic that an elephant would suck your brains out through its trunk… this is a game about zombies.

And here’s a final thing. This game never was about winning. I’ve had several bits of feedback in which players were telling me that the fact that the elephants get infected was very upsetting to them. And that’s not really a bad thing. It should be upsetting.

But it had to happen. The fact that the final death blow is delivered by animals that are usually thought of as gentle giants seems to me to only add to the general sense of helplessness that the ending is supposed to conjure. Think more Romero and less Shaun of the Dead… that is what I was aiming for.

(End spoilers)

I think this is more or less what I wanted to say about the game. I still don’t feel like I’ve adequately expressed what I wanted to achieve with the game and its ending(s), but then again I am always ever so uncomfortable with talking about my art. You can’t just separate the imagery from the meaning or reduce it to a “message.”

I am really glad that so many of you enjoyed the game and I promise that this won’t be my last solo game. And I’ll try to update Zombies and Elephants as soon as I can.

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The Art Of Selling Art

Preface: My eleventh to thirteenth grade art teacher, Mr. Ciolek, is a very talented, kind individual who has taught many a hopeless case how to paint and draw beyond their wildest expectations. Just thought I’d get that out before I start.

And now a few thoughts about that bane of society, that great misfortune which has befallen the 21st century, so-called “modern art”:

Meet my nemesis. Readers, say hello to Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack. Pretentious piece of crap, say hello to my readers. Bottle Rack is what is known as a readymade. The more observant ones among you may have noticed that it also happens to be, well, a bottle rack. Readymades are a great way for artists, and I use the term very loosely here, to make a fuckton of money. You take a piece of equipment –  lampshade, fork, bathtub, toothbrush, used condom, pretty much anything will do –  sign your name on it and then sell it for a truckload of money. The beauty is that you can go into a shop, buy more of the same item, and rinse and repeat until you are filthy rich. That’s pretty much what Marcel Duchamp seems to have thought when he came up with his idea for Bottle Rack, which is nowadays considered to be the first “purebred” readymade.

Here’s how it went: In 1915 Duchamp wrote a letter to his sister in which he gave her instructions on how to dispose of the inventory of his studio in Paris. He mentions the old bottle rack and tells her to sign it in his name and sell it. Marcel, really, too cheap to sign your own signature? But the trend was born. Bottle racks, bathtubs, chairs… you name it.

And that was the beginning of the end for 20th century art: the readymade. Suddenly it was no longer important if you could paint or draw or work stone. It was enough now to own a pencil and a few bucks (or buckets) and to know where the nearest home improvement store was. Born was a movement that would spawn Beuys’ Fat Chair and Man Ray’s Indestructible Object and ultimately also Damien Hirst’s Pickled Shark The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. (No, I’m not dismissing the damage done by the gradual movement from realism to abstract art that happened in painting and sculpture around the same time, but that’s a different story.)

Why have I got a problem with this? Mhm… let me see.

It all started in twelfth grade, in art class to be precise. We’re doing presentations on a selection of important styles, movements and works. And one of those is the readymade; to be more specific, Marcel Duchamp’s Bottle Rack. I knew it then, I know it now, it’s the day I meet my nemesis. A turning point in early 20th century art. I suffer through the presentation. All I want to do is shout: Why is this art? Why? I don’t get it. Didn’t then, don’t now.

Christoph Ciolek, our teacher, does. His eyes are glowing, he is truly riveted: Rembrandt, van Gogh, Picasso – they are all forgotten in the face of the glory and artistic talent residing in the person of Marcel Duchamp. After the presentation he announces – quite proudly, as if he expects us to burst into spontaneous applause – that our next art project will be to produce a readymade. The rules are simple: create a work of art based on an everyday object that you alter slightly. Find meaning in the mundane. Be artistic and deep, philosophical even. Be… artsy.

At this point I briefly consider killing myself. The urge deepens as I see how all my classmates actually do burst into spontaneous applause. (The reason for this becomes clear after class, when they discuss how to achieve the best results with the least amount of effort – buying and re-painting IKEA furniture is fairly high up on the list.)

Four weeks pass and the time of the project presentation draws neigh. Everyone is terribly busy being pleased with themselves.

And here they come:

1. A lamp (IKEA), its lampshade plastered with Subway napkins. It apparently symbolizes how fast food takes away our knowledge (enlightenment, get it?) of what’s healthy and what’s not.

2. A table (IKEA), with one leg sawed off, which is all about the instability of our upcoming student lives.

3. My own rather uninspired shoe that has a plaster copy of the sole of my foot stuck to it. I didn’t bother coming up with an explanation, so Mr. Ciolek does it for me. It is, apparently, about getting back in touch with nature after being coddled by technology for too long. Interesting, didn’t realize that.

4. A few teacups with plants in them. No idea what they were about, probably something to do with child labour in India.

5. The only good one, a toy gun manipulated to look like a flying dove… which is dismissed as too dreamy. I weep, despite the good grade that I got for my shoe.

What I take away from this class are two things: knowing how to approach an empty sheet of paper and that a true artist can sell anything, as long as he manages to keep a straight face. And that is after all what a lot of modern art is about. None of these people are good at anything. Many of them, just like Marcel Duchamp in 1915, don’t even touch their art personally, they pay other people to create art for them (yes, Damian, I’m talking to you, now put that skull down and be embarrassed like a good kid). Art is about doing the newest, most unthinkable things until these revolutionary ideas have actually become standard. Then you keep doing them and just pretend to be revolutionary. It’s all about keeping a straight face, love. When have you last seen a modern artist put effort into something? I can’t find the quote right now, but I believe it was Pablo Picasso who once said that in order to paint like a child one must first learn to paint like an adult. And you can see that he was good. There’s talent in all those abstract and cubist paintings. Some of his pencil drawings are spectacular. With a lot of his contemporaries and those who came after I’m not so sure of that. I’m not just talking about readymades anymore. I’m talking about how art just went down the drain in the 20th century. Just look at this guy, Alexej von Jawlensky, a particular favorite of mine. Notice how anything he made after 1919 looks kind of the same and… shit. The head to the left is one of about twenty virtually identical pictures that he did around 1930. Needless to say that they’re all considered timeless classics. One story among many. Here’s another one: Mark “fields-of-color” Rothko. An abstract expressionist. What was he trying to express, I wonder? Maybe that he really liked colored boxes. You know what Jonas calls these? Wallpaper. Ugly wallpaper. Where are the Rembrands and the Van Goghs and the da Vincis? Why can’t anyone just paint a landscape anymore? Because that would be boring, profane, old-school. Hell, it would almost be like actually dealing with the world that we live in. Can’t have that. Art has become afraid of saying anything other than: life is shit, nothing is certain and I’m not sure if the universe actually exists, what’s this “science” thing you speak of. Art isn’t dealing with life anymore. I don’t usually make political statements on this blog, but I assume that this decay in the meaning of art is also to a large part due to the fact that art has become nothing more than an investment opportunity, a toy, for the super-rich. Art sells for as much as never before. Art has become almost akin to stock options. To be sold and bartered and kept until it’s worth a few millions more. This gives us works such as this one: For the Love of God, by Damian Hirst. A platinum cast of a genuine 18th century human skull, encrusted with 8,601 diamonds. It sold for 50 million British pounds. I can’t even begin to say how wrong or pretentious this is. (Although, for some reason, the thing my minds keeps coming back to is this: Why an 18th-century skull?) And Damian Hirst didn’t even touch the bloody thing.

And that is what I realized that day in art class. If you can only keep a straight face and come up with a really, really good story, then you can sell anything. Or maybe an art critic will be nice enough to come up with a story for you. Like with my shoe. Or like Gertrude Stein did for an understandably baffled Picasso:

Those who attempt to explain a picture are on the wrong track most of the time. Gertrude Stein, overjoyed, told me some time ago that she had finally understood what my picture represented: three musicians. It was a still-life!

But that, I fear, is a story for another blog post. Critics, be it of paintings, movies, or literature, are a subject I’m also keen to write about. For now I merely ask: Whatever happened to works like this one? Or maybe the one below. That I’d put up in our living room.

Lynx

Stone Lion
Here are some cool things from around the net. Wouldn’t want you to get bored until I post the next proper article in a year or so.

  • Before this degenerates into a stupendously long list of entirely silly things that caught my attention randomly, here is one important thing: Four of Jonas’s games from 2012 are nominated in this year’s Best of Casual Gameplay awards over at Jay is Games. (Arcadia: A Pastoral Tale and The Fabulous Screech are under Interactive Art or Experimental, Traitor is under Shooter and The Sea Will Claim Everything is under Narrative. But feel free to vote in the other categories as well.) The polls are open until the 23rd of January.
  • And while we’re on both the topic of Jonas and of important things: here is one of his articles. It’s saying some very important things about games, gender and privilege. I suggest you have a look at it. And here is a follow-up article, which should clear up any confusion on the subject of identity politics that you may or may not be experiencing.
  • And now for some silly things: It's a caterpillar, but it's also a wig!(Image courtesy of icanhascheezburger)
  • This must be the most geek-tastic invention since the wheel. Or sliced bread. I’m a bit late with this, they had a lot of publicity and a kickstarter-esque opening sale around Christmas, but as far as I can see you can still order these little beauties. I’m still going to if I ever get to have a bicycle again.
  • Here’s a comic by the Oatmeal about going to the cinema. After seeing Cloud Atlas being subtly enhanced by the soft rustling of popcorn and low whispers of “is that Tom Hanks too?” I couldn’t agree more with the Oatmeal.
  • The Oatmeal has also done another comic about being creative, but that’s gone a bit viral, so linking to it is probably futile, right? Oh… what the heck. He’s so very, very right.
  • Having a link to my Flickr account somewhere in here is a contractual thing… don’t mind it, I haven’t put up anything new in the last century or so. What do you mean you’ve never ever looked at it?!? Go, stand in a corner… and look at it.
  • I’m on Twitter now! Follow me!
  • I made these for our new year’s party. Before you ask: Yes, they do come out just as gorgeous as they are on the photos. I highly recommend this recipe.
  • And while I’m promoting other people’s cooking blogs/videos… here’s something that I accidentally found while researching gnocchi sauces the other day. It starts slow, but trust me, this is one of the best cooking videos you’ll ever see.
  • More videos: I read Alex & Me by Irene Pepperberg just before Christmas. (After ignoring it for almost two years just because sampling the first page turned me into a weeping wreck for the rest of the day. I’m silly that way). I absolutely recommend the book, it is both sciency (I feel so eloquent today) and deeply moving. So here’s Alex with Alan Alda and here’s an African Grey Parrot on a buggy. And do buy that book, really.
  • Boing Boing already linked to this list of words that don’t have an English equivalent, but I still loved the list and maybe you’ve not seen it yet. My favourite might be kaelling, but I really don’t have much use for it in everyday life. (Tonight we’re having dinner with friends, so I’m thinking I’ll try out most of the food/drink related ones… mhm…shemomedjamo.)
  • And for those of you hipsters who can’t stand using lorem ipsum because it’s just been done a million times before here’s Riker Ipsum! (Although I think someone should really do a Lore Ipsum generator…)
  • Incidentally, here’s The Captain’s Summit, which is worth watching in full just to find out what Data’s three settings are. (Part one is sadly missing, but I’ve linked to part two and trust that you’ll be able to take it from here.)

And that, as they say, is it. I’m currently still in shock from having recently read a book that pretty much slaughters my all-time favourite short story and then shits all over its bleeding carcass… so yes, expect a review of The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard as soon as I feel up to it.

What Happend in 2012 and What Will Happen in 2013

As Jonas has said over on his blog, 2012 has been a turbulent year. Difficult, but also hugely rewarding.

This post was supposed to be about what we did in 2012 and, more importantly, which creative projects lie before us in 2013, but as I sit here and try writing that post I become aware of something that needs to be written first.

I had an accident in May 2012. I haven’t written about the incident on this blog, but this will come as no surprise to those of you who read Jonas’s blog regularly.

The accident itself has left little in the way of permanent physical scars. I have a patch of pink skin on my shoulder that will probably never tan again and a smallish scar above my right eyebrow. It will remain visible for the rest of my life, but as the months pass I’ve more of less gotten used to the sight.

What’s more shocking are the psychological scars. I’ve always been someone who just got back on the horse after falling off. I believe, firmly, that since the past happens to be unchangeable it’s no bloody use lamenting it. What’s done is done. The accident was maybe the first time in my life where I played the “what if”-game to exhaustion. What if I’d gotten out of the house earlier that day? What if I hadn’t ironed the blouse that I wore? What if it had rained? What if I had stopped at the bakery for a bun? And all it did was depress me, deeply, because “what if” could never happen.

Depression didn’t end there. Self-pity aside, and there was a lot of self-pity in those early weeks, there was also the enormous injustice of it all to deal with. Not only is the German legal system heavily weighed against the poor (doubly so against the non-motorized poor), I was also faced with a more criminal kind of injustice. There was, suddenly, a witness to the accident that was willing to testify against me. I was supposed to have crossed the intersection in the red. This wasn’t only infuriating because it is a lie, but also because walking/driving across a red light is a personal pet peeve of mine. In my life I’ve maybe crossed a handful of intersections in the red. All as a pedestrian, which doesn’t make it any less wrong, this is just to illustrate that I remember these incidents because they bother me. The latest one, ironically, was just two weeks after the accident, when I was so distraught over the whole wittness-appears-out-of-nowhere-thing that I crossed a street without looking. To make matters worse, the first police officer that I spoke to seemed to be convinced that I was guilty. He, a life-long car-driver, seemed actually convinced that cyclists should be shot on sight. Would you like a helping of injustice with your injustice? My mother once told me that she feels ashamed, bordering on angry, when she goes grocery shopping and the cashier asks her to lift her shopping basket from the cart to see if there’s stuff hidden underneath – I fear I’ve inherited the same impulse. Only the cashier from the story is probably only following orders whereas what I was experiencing was downright malice.

(The “witness”, incidentally, only contacted the police via the phone and could never be reached again. It’s no longer a problem.)

I apologize for rambling. I suspect that I could keep talking and writing about the accident, adding detail upon detail, and I still wouldn’t have recounted all the things that made me depressed in the weeks and months that followed. What of my bicycle, for example? I loved that bike. It was old and worn, but if I could save one object from our burning house (cats and husbands are not objects!) I would have picked that bike. (It’s a thought experiment I sometimes make… don’t ask.) The bike is trash now. The fork burst in the impact, the frame has micro-fractures. It’s very uncertain if I’ll ever see any money for that. What of the taxi driver? I never thought I was vengeful, but if he never gets behind the wheel of a car again… well, that would be something, wouldn’t it? Won’t happen though. All praise the German legal system.

Rambling. Again. Sorry. The point is that I was very depressed. So depressed that at times I would do nothing but weep for hours. I lost my creativity. Everything seemed pointless. If something like that can happen, what point is there in attempting to create something? Jonas did his best to help. And he did. He was my rock. He was relentlessly positive. Wouldn’t let me depressed, no matter what. He took care of me when I felt too miserable to leave the house. He was, maybe the biggest balm of all, outraged and fuming at each new, horrible turn that the whole affair took. His own creativity suffered, and for him being uncreative is intolerable, but he wouldn’t give up. But sometimes it wasn’t enough. And so, for months and months on end, I vegetated. I only left the house to go to work, avoided meeting friends and family whenever I could.

It improved when we went to Greece in September, but my creativity still was AWOL.

The funny thing is that I don’t quite know how it came back. I know when, though. One week in late November we were talking about making a new Lands of Dream game, maybe in time for Christmas (haha) and there it was. Suddenly I was drawing again. It was as if something inside me suddenly said “now, now, young lady, that’s enough moping, let’s do something.”

Not writing, not yet. The thing that really stopped me from blogging, besides the fact that everything seemed just too much effort in post-accident-life, was that I knew that I would have to write about the scars at some point. I started writing that article a dozen times, and never finished. Not only did it depress me, I also was never happy with what I said. I’m not happy with this post either, but I think I’ve finally understood that it just needs to get out. Capturing the accident in writing seems to rob the beast of some of its strength.

When I started this was supposed to be a post about what a great creative year 2013 was going to be and this is now how I’ll end this post. Jonas recently wrote a short overview of what he is going to be doing in 2013 and I’ll be involved in some of these projects, so you might want to have a look at that.

Besides that I will try to focus on getting back on top of writing things. Not only blogging, that goes without saying, but also short stories and my novel (which is still, sadly, in need of editing). Maybe even a screenplay or two. I always, foremost of all, wanted to be a writer. Drawing, painting and cooking is all very well, but writing is what I need to do.

Speaking of drawing… there will be at least one Lands of Dream game in 2013, maybe even more than one. And painting. Lots of painting. We’ll re-open the Compendium soon, and I’ll also try to get some sort of exhibition space for my acrylic-on-canvas Lands of Dream paintings. Or a way of selling them. Or both. But definitely something.

And finally there will also be lots of cooking in 2013. I have dozens of recipes that I want to share and a dozen more that I want to try out. This obviously also involves doing more episodes of The Starving Artists Kitchen.

So yes, 2013 is going to be great.

No Bears But Lots of Beaver

So I’m reading A Son of the Circus by John Irving right now. I used to love Irving, but as I grow older (and have more Irving reading experience) my opinion of his books has shifted from “wow, this is some crazy imaginative shit” to “oh bother… another story about bears, midgets, rape and weird sexual disorders.” Irving is the Joseph Beuys of the writing world, and his fat and honey are bears and prostitutes. I suspect a lot of people feel that way. The rest probably haven’t been paying attention.

I have, at this point, read 30 pages of A Son of the Circus, and although the story hasn’t even properly begun yet, the book is already worthy of review.

The circus referred to in the title is an Indian circus, so this book’s ursine content is probably relatively low. As a matter of fact that’s the reason why I chose this novel over the other Irvings that are still loitering in our bookshelf, a low bear quota is always a plus. It’s got midgets, though. Let’s see how Irving will manage to annoy me with those.

For now I have two other bones to pick with this novel. One of them, the smaller bone, is that the book is set in India (a country in which Irving has spent under a month in his entire life) and has an Indian protagonist who was schooled in Austria (another Irving favourite) and lives in Canada. And like all good transcultural protagonists he’s uncomfortable in Canada, feels alienated in India, and is generally at odds with where he belongs and who he is. And while I’m sure that there are plenty of similar people out there, people who for one reason or another have left their country of origin and now have trouble settling down and adjusting to a foreign culture, I think that this has become such a cliché of modern writing that it should be outlawed. Ask anyone who’s studied English Lit with a focus on transcultural studies. If they’re clever they’ll tell you that you can’t poke a stick at a writers’ conference without hitting someone who’s written extensively and stereotypically about this subject. If they’re less clever they’ll tell you that Mr. Irving is writing the shocking truth about these poor, uprooted people.

But that’s a minor complaint. Here’s the bigger one:

The 30 pages of A Son of the Circus that I’ve read make up three chapters. The first one concerns itself with how wonderfully quirky and eccentric (with just the right dash of melancholic) our protagonist, Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla, is. And that’s okay. The second one briefly tells the story of Farrokh’s best friend, a dwarf, and how they met. Then, somewhat less briefly, it relates the story of how Farrokh once broke his nose on his best friend’s wife’s vagina while in a trapeze safety net. See what’s wrong with that? A lot, seems to be what comes to mind. And it gets better. Chapter three is all about Farrokh being at a private golf club and contemplating an image of the founder’s wife, Mrs. Duckworth. Mrs. D., now long deceased, apparently had a slight problem with exhibitionism. And Farrokh, his imagination now sufficiently fueled by this titillating bit of information, spends about five pages musing about the feel, bounciness and general aerodynamics of Mrs. Duckworth’s breasts. Now… see what’s wrong with that?

I’ll tell you. Why, for the love of all that’s good, do modern writers need to obsess about sex like that? I’m not a prude, really, but I find this fixation somewhat disturbing. What happened to good old “plot”? Rhetorical question, I fear. Plot’s out of fashion, because plot means talking about the world, and civilisation, and meaning. Maybe even politics (gasp!). So instead sex has become the written equivalent of what in theatre is “naked man and a projection”. It’s what once was new and daring, something to shock the elderly out of their stupor, and what’s now so commonplace that it has become the new establishment. Absurdly, sex has become safe, and plot has become something uncomfortable. This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed this, Solar by Ian McEwan had similar problems, but this morning while talking to Jonas I suddenly happened across the explanation. And I was astounded. It’s nothing but fear of plot. A story allergy. A postmodern disease, if you will. It permeates modern literature and sucks all meaning out of novels. I wonder what Freud would make of this.

Now, I’m not saying that A Son of the Circus isn’t still going to get around to having a little bit of plot, if there’s time between Farrokh thinking randy thoughts and all the embarrassing accidents that are bound to ensue, but I still think the absolute vacuum of meaning generated by these opening chapters is worth noting. I’ll continue reading, if only because I hate not finishing a book. Check back in a week or so to see how it went.

Death

My grandmother died today. Just like that. She wasn’t sick, not that anyone knew of anyhow. It just happened. One minute I’m calling my mom about meeting up later, the next minute mom calls me back to tell me that my gran just died.

I really don’t want to write anything about how it happened. Or when. Or who showed up to express their condolences and what they said. It really doesn’t matter. All that is family business and it doesn’t contribute anything to what kind of person she was. What I want to say, what matters to me now, is the following:

We weren’t close, to claim so would be hypocrisy. To say that I am grief-stricken would be false. I’m in mild shock. I still say “my grandparents” not “my granddad”. My brain hasn’t quite caught up with the present. But, at the end of the day, she was kind and she genuinely cared for her family. And the most surprising thing, given just how German she could be, was that she had a real sense of humour. She could make me laugh.