25 Points: EarthBound by Ken Baumann

by Quincy Rhoads

 

EARTHBOUND-cover-roboto-nospine-shadow_1024x1024Earthbound
by Ken Baumann, Foreword by Marcus Lindblom
Boss Fight Books, 2014
191 pages / $14.95 Buy from Boss Fight Books

 

1. This past December found me at several Christmas parties and office get-togethers (mostly with my wife’s coworkers and friends). Because I’m kind of self-absorbed and, even if I wasn’t, I’ve been spending the past five months with my newborn son, I don’t have much to contribute by way of conversation, so I turned to talking about Earthbound.

2. My parents never bought me a Super Nintendo or any of the other 90’s child indulgences (although I was a member of the Burger King Kid’s Club  and was allowed to watch hour upon hour of Nickelodeon), so I had no point of reference for the cult-hit video game.

3. I had trouble finding anyone who knew what I was talking about. They had never heard of the game, and cared even less about Ken Baumann’s book.

4. The few times that I actually found someone who played Earthbound our conversations were hauntingly simple.

5. Me: Have you ever played Earthbound?

Partygoer: You need to go home tonight and play it right now. [End of conversation.]

6. I never got around to it. Blah-blah work. Blah-blah new parent. Blah-blah smartphone.

7. But the real reason why I didn’t play it was because of how purely pleasurable Baumann’s book is.

8. Ken Baumann’s Earthbound is a charming intermingling of videogame history, walkthrough, memoir, and philosophy. He serves as Virgil to the reader’s Dante as he guides us through the “total inverse of Dante’s Hell” that is Twoson, Threed, Summers, and the other locales of the game while drawing on everything from Straw Dogs and Jung to Gak’s role in 90’s gross-out culture and House.

9. Baumann depicts the “irretrievable beauty in video games…” as a Romantic would depict vernal wood. As sacred: “Ephemeral glitches that point to the sublime. Randomized variables that are made more poetic in their expression by their adjacency to the rote and the banal.”

10. The strongest of Baumann’s threads are the biographical ones. Earthbound [the book] is a study of how Earthbound [the game] impacts lives, especially the lives of little Kenny in Texas, his estranged brother Scott, and the support of Ms. Baumann, and the loving Aviva.

11. I really appreciate his honesty as he opens up about his career, his illness, and his relationships within the larger context of Earthbound, paralleling his story with Ness’s.

12. Ness is the main character of Earthbound, btw.

13. But the book is first and foremost about the game.

14. “I want you to play Earthbound,” Baumann says.

15. He urges us to play. “When we give ourselves over to someone or something … we do so out of the feeling that we’ve found a perfectly inevitable opportunity.”

16. I was rapt with this book. I never thought I would be. (I was even afraid to donate to the press’s Kickstarter because I didn’t think it would succeed.)

17. He makes a great case for playing the game, too, as he describes the, albeit harried, process of replaying the game as an adult while trying to recreate his childhood experience with the game. “As I slide further into this book, I slide further into the childlike desire to play.”

18. At the core of Earthbound is its creator Shigesato Itoi, an adman who rose to the height of Japanese fame and entrances a wide audience of fans. Baumann posits that it is perhaps Itoi’s use of relatable material such as absentee fathers, gangs, and power corrupt police that makeEarthbound such a success.

19. When Baumann announced that he was going to take a break from tumblr there was a flood of anonymous posts in his ask box lamenting his absence.

20. I thought that was kind of weird, but then I read Earthbound. Baumann has a knack for establishing rapport with his readers. I felt as if I knew him intimately after I read the book.

21. How does someone become so popular? Maybe the key to success is to be easily recognizable. That sense of being relatable. Shigesato Itoi did this with Earthbound. Ken Baumann does, too.

22. William Wordsworth says “We murder to dissect,” and Ken Baumann is deeply aware of this while writing this project. “Why risk irrevocably dissipating [Earthbound] with analysis,” he asks.

23. Because it’s worth it.

24. Ken Baumann writes that “some video games will outlive us. I hope Earthbound lives to be played after I’m gone.”

25. I hope this book lives to be read after we’re gone.

 

Quincy Rhoads lives in Clarksville, TN with his wife and their son. His writing has appeared inThought CatalogEveryday Genius, and Unicorn Knife Fight. He teaches English composition and introductory literature courses.

Because by Joseph Riippi

by Dennis James Sweeney

 

tumblr_inline_mx2eixgAb01r6esemBecause
by Joseph Riippi
Civil Coping Mechanisms, February 2014
175 pages / $13.95   Book page at CCM / Buy from Amazon

It only takes about seven pages to begin to feel pained—even offended—by Joseph Riippi’sBecause. This is primarily because every single sentence in the book (spoiler alert: except the last) begins with the words “I want.” A structure like this poses serious problems for a reader like me and like most of us, hyper-aware of the sins of heavy-handedness and bared authorial intention as we are. Because’s offenses against a readerly sensibility include:

1) Narcissism. It’s hard to like a book authored by someone who seems to speak only about himself.

Caveat: Riippi knows this. He says:

I want to feel less narcissistic for writing this.

I want to be honest in writing this, even if honesty means narcissistic feelings.

2) Melodrama/naïveté. The battle of the genuine vs. the ironic has been played out on many fields in the last few decades. I’m most acquainted with David Foster Wallace’s part in the battle for a post-postmodern literature that might be honest with the reader without being formally regressive. People mostly cite his “E Unibus Pluram” essay from A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again when referring to this tension.[1]

Caveat: Riippi also knows this, and he is willing to own it.

I want you to know I mean this completely and sentimentally but unabashedly and honestly and without shame.

3) The economics. What right does a white American male with the wherewithal to write a book have wanting so many things? It would be easy to tee up Because as a “typically American” book, so focused on personal desires that it fails to consider the actual hardships of the external world.

Caveat: I’m pretty sure Riippi knows this too. Not quite as explicitly, but his desires are so robust, so myriad, that such an acknowledgment often seems implicit in them. In this section, for example:

I want better cellular reception. I want an espresso machine. I want espresso to be good for me. I want health to be delicious. I want all that is delicious to be good for me and all that is disgusting to be good for me…I want a self-filling refrigerator and self-cleaning pans and pots that never stain.

All of which is to say that Because feels to me as if it is kind of supposed to be painful to read. I came in knowing the “I want” premise of the book, expecting Because to be an experimental novel that would be a little difficult to get through. And it is that, but not in the way you think of experimental—distant from the reader, difficult in terms of breaking the code of its linguistic tricks. Instead, it is so open, bleeding, and honest that it is almost impossible to stand. This is its own kind of experimentation, I think, and an extremely valuable one—both in making us examine our readerly biases and in urging us, time after time, to transcend them by sticking with the narrator on a project, he admits, he is so unsure about.

All that said, there’s more to Because than just “its simple mantra-like structure,” as Kevin Sampsell’s blurb calls it. The book is split up into segments that are usually between one and four pages long, titled with the first line of each section. The “wants” often shift dramatically within a given section, from college-ruled paper to grandmother’s grocery lists to bioluminescent flowers, for example. But the book really begins to stride when Riippi stays on a subject for the entirety of a section, or longer. In one segment, he speaks of his friend Jenns; how as the only freshmen on the high school football team he and Jenns had their heads shaved by a guy named Gator; how Jenns took the fall after the team TP’d a cheerleader’s house; how Jenns shot himself, later, leaving an indelible mark on the narrator’s life. The narrative continuity of sections like this is striking in a work that usually shifts desires and subjects rapidly. The Jenns thread and a few others like it almost constitute a sort of home, reminding us, suddenly, how welcome such a narrowed focus can be.

But perhaps the most interesting strand that comes out of Because is a certain kind of “want” peppered across the book, especially in its later pages: the desire to live fully and dangerously in a world where our lives can often feel sanitized and certain.

I want to narrowly escape an explosion. I want to hear the sounds of falling bombs. I want to drop for cover and pray, to dig inside my helmet for a rosary or talisman, to hear over the cataclysm the prayers of all my brothers who surround me.

I want to tie tourniquets and grasp bloody hands. I want to learn the Last Rites by heart.

Passages like these feel odious at first, wildly privileged. They seem to make tragedy into a tourist attraction, commodify suffering instead of rejecting it as those who have experienced it would urge anyone to do. But upon encountering this sentiment again and again, the reader has no choice but to begin to understand it. Riippi’s speaker wants to live—and so might you, if you’re warm and safe somewhere now. It is only that Riippi is not afraid to say so.

This is a sensation that occurs more and more as you enter the book’s later pages: Riippi simplyhas no fear of how he will be perceived.  Perhaps the most recurring image in Because is the narrator’s grandfather pounding a nail into a cedar tree with his bare hand. It is a fitting metaphor for the work Joseph Riippi has done with this book. It hurts, a lot, to read something so raw, composed with few tools besides human desire. But once you have finished—once the proverbial nail is in the tree—it is even more difficult to get it back out, to forget a book as open and rending as this.

***

[1] In another example from 1997, Wallace called David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress “a magical book, not because it alternates between incredible intellectual stunt-pilotry and pathos but because it manages to marry the two in a way that—I mean, that’s what my dream is, to someday be able to do something like that.” KCRW Bookworm interview, 1997. ~20:30.

***
Dennis James Sweeney is the author of What They Took Away, winner of the 2013 CutBank Chapbook Contest. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon. Find him here.

Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits by Robert Vaughan

by David S. Atkinson

 

Diptychs-Triptychs-Lipsticks-Dipshits-Robert-VaughanDiptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits 
by Robert Vaughan
Deadly Chaps, Dec 2013
60 pages / $9  Buy from Amazon or Deadly Chaps

 

Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits by Robert Vaughan was a bit of a puzzle for me at first. I’ve read a couple short pieces by Vaughan before, but I’m still fairly new to his work. Those who know him well as a senior flash fiction editor at JMWW or Lost in Thought and/or as the author of the chapbook Microtones (his first full length book, Addicts and Basements, is forthcoming in February 2014) might be slightly more prepared to know what they were holding in their hands. As for me, I just felt my way along and pondered.

I heard some people describe Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits as micro fiction, though others described it as a mixture of micro fiction and poetry. I’m hesitant to go with either description because I just don’t think it’s that clear.

I’m not the most familiar with micros, but if that’s what these are then Vaughan seems to pioneer his own version of the form, if not his own form entirely. Let’s consider “MOVING TO LOS ANGELES: A SCREENPLAY IN THREE ACTS.” In a section labeled “First Act” we are introduced to a character going to L.A. to complete a screenplay about JOE and LIS, “lovers who eat each other, part by part until there is no ‘other’ left.” In the “Second Act,” we find out that JOE is:

a perfect fuckhead. He’s seeing three other women (all named for European cities, like Sofia) and lies to them all. He’s also a sodomizer, and fronts a band that gets five or ten people to a gig. So, he’s getting fucked, too. JOE figures we all are.

Rounding things out, the “Third Act” tells us that “JOE uses the restroom, never returns” and “LIS catches a Cubs pop fly in her gaping mouth,” causing her suffocate. This is a drastic simplification of the piece, but what it shows certainly doesn’t have the same feel or proceed about things in the same way that I’ve seen in the usual micro fiction I know.

For one thing, there is some of the poem about “MOVING TO LOS ANGELES: A SCREENPLAY IN THREE ACTS.”  The three acts, the symmetry in the portions and the way they play off each other and morph elements as the piece progresses, bear a great deal of resemblance to sections of a poem. Many of the pieces have a poetic structure, the “Diptychs” and “Triptychs” portion of the title being descriptive of some of the contents though quite a few pieces are neither. By way of example, “COMMON PASSWORD PROFILE USERS: GOD, LOVE, LUST, MONEY AND PRIVATE” has portions that jump off from each of the five most commonly used passwords:

Lust:

What the hell kind of a name is Penfield? She wonders while he takes a leak off the back porch. She leans to se fresh bruises in the dawn’s early light. She rolls too far, ends up on the bamboo-planked floor, giggling. Creepy-crawls under the bed to dial 911 on her mobile phone.

However, though having poetic elements, the works in Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshitsalso don’t exactly remind me that much of most poetry I’ve seen. I’m certainly not a poetry expert by any means. I read somewhere around twenty or thirty books of poetry a year, which I think is more than average but not as much as a serious devotee. Regardless, consider “PART OF LIFE: TWO WAYS.” Sections of this work contrast a child’s view of her dad when her teacher releases a “deformed creature” with that of her mother’s view of the same event. In “Dad” we have: “Part of life, I heard Dad say for the millionth time. Just like mom’s lymphoma.” However, “Mom” relates: “The creature didn’t stir, not a peep. I started to salivate. Would it taste better with cumin or cardamom?” Poem? I’m not sure.

I mean, “Dad” is structured in lines perhaps like a poem, but “Mom” is a solid paragraph. Is it a poem mixing stanzas and prose poetry? Is “Mom” just a single long stanza asymmetrical to the pretty much one-line stanzas of “Dad?” As I mentioned, I’m not a poetry expert. Regardless, it seems to me to have an interesting structure when I look at it as a poem.

To me, it almost seems like Vaughan applies poetic techniques to micro fiction writing, resulting in prose that feels a little more on the fiction side but has a fundamental underlying approach that smacks more of poetry. Still, it isn’t something I can completely pin down. Frankly, the word “Stories” on the cover is really the best description, as each definitely conveys a full story via what seems like brush stoke suggestions (this example from “BLACK & WHITE/COLOR”):

I got stuck in a cul-de-sac. The first thing I lost was my glasses, so everything was a smudge, blurred together like rotten trash. In the first house on the circle, a woman was playing Chopin. Her left hand crossed over her right during the allegro section and she nodded with her head to sit down. But I chose her kitchen hoping to find some butterscotcheroos or chex mix, or a ripe avocado at the very least. Came up empty. The next house was topsy turvey: too messy; the third I shipped because if you can’t leave your lights on for wayfarers, then you deserve to be ignored. The fourth house, a Colonial, had a nice built-in pool around back, so I took a quick dip, swam a few laps before I’d realized I’d swam under the foundation and was in a basement dungeon. I fled up the stairs but the door was locked. It took me forever to get out of that place with my bare hands.

I realize that I’ve spent the vast majority of this review just trying to pin down exactly whatDiptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits is. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter as long as one digs the pieces, which I do. However, when writing is this adventurous in form, I don’t think you can adequately consider it without looking a great deal at the form. I can’t help it; the form of the pieces fascinates.

Personally, I would classify Diptychs + Triptychs + Lipsticks + Dipshits as something that is challenging to define but gratifying to experience. There are certainly leaps and turns that by themselves make the book worth looking at for their wildness. It may not take a long time to sit down and read, but that one sitting is by no means the end of a reader’s engagement. Echoes linger long after the actual sound that caused them is gone.

*****

David S. Atkinson is the author of “Bones Buried in the Dirt and the forthcoming “The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes” (EAB Publishing, spring 2014). His writing appears in “Bartleby Snopes,” “Grey Sparrow Journal,” “Interrobang?! Magazine,” “Atticus Review,” and others. His writing website is http://davidsatkinsonwriting.com/ and he spends his non-literary time working as a patent attorney in Denver.