Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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An early editor’s note in this ingenious and affective chapbook, which presents itself as a “strategy guide” modelled on a genre of video game literature, states “I strongly believe someone who calls their aunt a ‘Republican bastard’ on Christmas does not deserve a strategy guide.” There is an echo here, through recurring reference, including detailed engagement with the songs on the soundtrack, to the 2004 film Garden State, and, branching out via the associations of fiction, to Zach Braff (the director and star of that movie) and his role in the television show Scrubs, the focus of which, within the context of this strategy guide, is on how the producers didn’t know if the show’s main character would return for another season and never knew, moreover, when the show would have to end. We’re told, repeatedly, “television shows rarely earn the privilege of ending slowly,” which is another way of saying, or talking around, or refusing to clearly state or think about, the larger point, that, as the editor here puts it, “Your world does not know what to do when someone dies slowly.”
Death in Arkansas, but an Arkansas that isn’t ever really Arkansas: that’s what this game guide walks us through, inner, emotional life and the exterior shufflings through replaceable landscape imagined as a simulation, as a limited “world” of looping encounters, side-quests, and soundbites stored in an always-accessible inventory. There’s even a map, but while it shares a rough pixelated outline with the state of Arkansas, it plots only those locations described in the text: a Buffalo Wild Wings franchise, a porn theater, a hotel. In this world, “You are unable to visit the real Arkansas.... Your world is Buffalo Wild Wings and blonde haired boys. The game designers rushed to ship this thing by Christmas. There was no time for Arkansas.” Framing experience in one’s hometown, with one’s family—a Christmas morning confrontation with an aunt recurs in fragments of memory, anger interwoven with shame—as not only a game but a dream-like game, a drug-dulled hallucination of familiar locales, or modes of mediation—the screens of the cloned Buffalo Wild Wings, the screens of the porn theater, the half-promise of anonymity in both franchise bar and franchise hotel—Ardis here infuses “game play” with a sense of melancholy, claustrophobia, and a particular species of quiet anguish. The longing for something else, something real, is expressed in phrases that, on their surface, read absurd, their comedy quickly collapsing into tragic sadness: “You dream of waking in Little Rock like no one has dreamt of waking in Little Rock.”
As a character in a game, you, the reader, keep encountering the same objects—like the “Styrofoam cups used at your local porn theater” or your hotel room’s clock radio, leaking battery acid. You fall in and out of sleep—at the Buffalo Wild Wings, watching the Razorbacks play on ESPN, or in other places other than your hotel room, though, according to this guide, each time you do so “the game makes a duplicate of that location to resolve what the game sees as a contradiction. You will wake up in this duplicate,” a copy of a copy, further distanced from anything like the real. “Spend too many weekend nights at the girl you met at the porn theater’s house,” for instance, “and you’ll pass by duplicates of her house for miles.” As for the house where you grew up: pass it now, and you see it as “a static mesh. It does not have the properties necessary to contain you.” So you hit play on the “iPod classic preloaded with the soundtrack to Garden State and you never set it to shuffle because Coldplay’s ‘Don’t Panic’ must always bat leadoff” and contemplate people you know who have died. It doesn’t matter what you do in this world, “You will not gain or lose charisma.”
The Easter eggs and side quests hidden in locales merely serve to stitch together the narrative, told elliptically, simulating a sense of avoidance, denial. That aunt, for instance, twenty years after you called her a “Republican bastard” slipped on the iced-over parking lot of the Buffalo Wild Wings, losing “10 charisma and her ability to live independently.” The same Buffalo Wing Wings is staffed, on the weekend, by people who “have long, floppy pages from a hotel room notepad for tongues. They will keep their mouths open in constant fear of dissolving and swallowing their own tongue.” And that Buffalo Wild Wings, where you hang out with “your ONE AND ONLY CONFIDANT: that Blonde Haired Boy” contains, in back, buried somewhere in the crane machine, that boy’s “very dead” wife: “still available in plushee-form.”
This woman’s death repeats, always off-screen, always only via allusion or as a hint, a shadow, in the background of a scene. You chat up a Winston Cigarette salesman, handing out “10% off coupons for Winston Classics with the crush-proof box,” or you run off to Montreal for Nuru Massage from a Cuban girl picked because she displayed “the most exposed naval” of the workers there. You hide in the dark of the porn theater, the dark of the hotel room, the glare and flair of the Buffalo Wild Wings, wandering around in a world, much of which is static mesh, much of which is loss, regret, inauthenticity, and a sense of impending death, slow decline toward the end-game, which holds no victory, only the same sad looping experiences, empty of promise. “You will not gain or lose charisma.” Such a game, of course, has no need for a strategy guide in the traditional sense.
Instead, this strategy guide offers another level of mediation and remove, another avoidance device, serving the reader, then, as a way to mainline the feelings Ardis explores in this text. Ardis immerses us in a world in which immersion is resisted, mimics, through this original concept, a sense of sleepwalking through life. This remarkably successful “strategy guide” puts the reader into the head—the subjectivity—of a character in a way like no book I can remember.
Official James Ardis Web Site
Official Gauss PDF Web Site