What It Means that HBO’s The Last of Us Is Good

Book-to-film adaptations can be hit or miss, but it seems like a rule that video-game-to-film adaptations are always bad. Good and bad in any artform are, of course, matters of taste, but there’s a persistent, nagging sentiment in popular media that, when filmmakers consider a video game adaptation, they take its success and built-in fan adoration for granted. Producers wield more power than actual talented filmmakers and writers, and the whole affair leans further into entertainment for entertainment’s sake, because the popular sentiment of video games is still driven by people who think Mario and Luigi saving Princess Peach from Bowser’s clutches is the standard in video game storytelling. 

(Relevant note: The plot of the forthcoming Mario adaptation is that Mario and Peach are trying to save Luigi from Bowser this time.)

I consider myself a little weird as a fiction writer with some academic decoration, because I am a life-long gamer. We’re not as weird as you’d think, it turns out, but in many literary circles, video games are still considered anathema to good storytelling. I think, considering some of the truly great writing and storytelling I’ve experienced through video games in my life, that’s tragic. The literary world is warming up to TV and films as legitimate mediums for good writing, but video games are still viewed as a medium for children despite the average age of a gamer being 33, and their artistic validity beyond their use of art as resources is still questioned

(Sure, this is an old post, and Ebert is a bit of a punching bag on the subject, but it’s illustrative of the argument, which I’d argue is flawed because the distinctions he made aren’t independently exclusive, but that’s not what this post is about.)

This year, HBO released a series adapting a video game called The Last of Us, which was developed by video game studio Naughty Dog. I played that game in 2013, and it not only redefined for me what good storytelling is in video games, but it also demonstrated a new potential for immersive storytelling experiences that only video games can provide: in this way, I felt The Last of Us offered new justification not only for the validity of video games as art but that we should consider video games a new artform in their own right.

I can’t overstate the profound effect this game had on me as a storyteller, and it isn’t a game that made me want to make games. It’s a game that made me want to tell better stories, and I think that’s important: the influence The Last of Us had on me transcends the medium.

I can’t think of a better definition for art.

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Review: The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab

This one wasn’t for me, so I had to put it down. It’s very well written, a joy to read, and easy to sink into. For readers looking to escape into a book with allure, this one might scratch that itch.

Where it fell short for me was in the very justification for why I was reading it. I generally don’t like books that appear to take my interest for granted, and one of the ways a writer can avoid tripping that particular wire is to pay heed to the inciting incident. In other words, answer the question, “why does this story begin today?” While this one is a braided structure with dueling narratives of Addie in 2014 New York and 1700s France, the former is seemingly a way for us to tour the city and the latter is a decent origin story that then mirrors the 2014 story in its wandering. I understood why Schwab told me the story of Addie first being cursed, and that arm of the braid was compelling to me until it wasn’t. I grew too frustrated with the other arm of the braid (2014), which seemed hyperfocused on demonstrating how Addie survives in contemporary New York. That isn’t enough story for me, personally, though others may find it fascinating to ponder.

The other, perhaps more substantial, trouble for me was I felt Addie was little more than the product of her curse. It’s interesting to look at her in each braid and see how she’s changed over the centuries, but from our point of view, it is only the curse that has done that to her, not the decisions she’s had to make and the external pressures applied to her, which are generally more interesting in a character development sense. Moreover, two-hundred-year-old Addie isn’t really all that surprising. She’s about what you’d expect of a person afflicted with such a curse. Though the first hundred pages make a point of mentioning some kind of defining, traumatic event that shaped her, I felt the author’s hand here, holding me at bay, denying me something compelling for reasons that weren’t clear to me. If that traumatic was so character-defining, why not tell me that story instead of the literary equivalent of a tour through New York City? If the book does contain that story, I didn’t understand why I was being taken through the mundane instead. An argument could be made that the boredom and monotony was precisely what Schwab intended me to feel, but here’s the thing: we humans already get enough of that, so if that is, indeed, the point, it shouldn’t take 100+ pages to get a reader there.

I just wasn’t convinced Schwab knew, herself, why she was telling me this story, and I felt her trying to figure that out. At this point in my life, I just don’t have the patience for that anymore. There are too many compelling books out there, and I feel my time here growing shorter. It’s okay to put down books that just aren’t doing it for you.

The silver lining here is I’d never read Schwab before and her prose was enough to intrigue me to read more of her work. I didn’t like this one but hope to pick one up with more apparent narrative purpose. If you like books you can sink into and wander without too much narrative drive, you might like it. It’s clear from the ratings on Goodreads that many others have enjoyed the book quite a bit.

‘Fairy Tale’ by Stephen King, A Review With a Long, Self-Serving Preamble

Stephen King was fundamental to my formative years in storytelling, and I know I’m far from alone in that. His writing has touched millions, and his reputation has preceded him for many more than that. You know all of this.

(If you really just want the review, scroll down to the subheading. You can’t miss it.)

When I was discovering fiction writing as a central part of my life, I found myself connecting with and inspired by his stories more than many other writers’. Like the literary elite, who might still puzzle over what it is about King’s work that people like so much, I’ve spent much of my studies thinking about why his work resonates with me. Is it the fascination with the dark and macabre? Is it some deep-seated psychological need for me to gaze into the unknown? Do I ironically find delight in terror? Wait, is there something wrong with me? I think if it were any of these things, any horror author would do, and that’s at least not how I work. 

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Re-Reading The Handmaid’s Tale, a Review

At the end of 2018, I re-read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. After 15 years (and this time picking it up because I wanted to, not because I needed to for a class), I found it extraordinarily powerful and prescient. I then wrote this review but never posted it. Oops. I figured I’d post it now with some edits because these thoughts weren’t doing anyone any good sitting on my hard drive.

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Review: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

It seems A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole is a love-it-or-hate-it book, but I feel mixed. My visceral reaction was pretty strongly negative, but there are some things worth appreciating, such as an I-am-very-smart character portrayal that was 50 years ahead of its time. Ignatius can be read as the embodiment of everything that is awful about intellectuals and literary types, and he is relevant today to the extent that many of us could probably benefit from some self awareness and humility when we find ourselves pulling out that soap box. There’s also an undeniable eloquence to Toole’s writing, especially with regard to the often cartoonishly grandiose dialogue.

However, counterpoints: A Confederacy of Dunces would be a far more heartbreaking story if the main character (any of the characters, really) were at all sympathetic. Ignatius J. Reilly is kind of like J. Wellington Wimpy from Popeye if he were a villain. What makes Wimpy endearing is he’s harmless to our hero. However, time after time, Ignatius legitimately hurts people, and his only true motivation seems to be he delights in asserting his intellectual dominance.

Instead of taking Ignatius through a journey toward growth and change, Toole tries to convince the reader Ignatius is a victim, but I just couldn’t buy it. He’s a bad person because he makes bad choices, not because his mom was a bad mom and people made fun of him for being fat. Toole also tries to convince the reader he’s some kind of hero because, as it happens, his lies and cowardice yield solutions to the problems his lies and cowardice create. There is no property by which Ignatius’ actions or behavior are dismissed or forgivable. He’s awful, and it’s hard to spend 400 pages with him and feel anything but repulsion and maybe a touch of pity.

As the dialogue goes, it often reads like stage actors delivering monologues, a treatment that just doesn’t age well. Ignatius’ speeches often aren’t too far removed from Shakespeare, but they’re of the hateful variety. There’s no beauty in the character at all.

A Confederacy of Dunces is billed as a comedy, but I just didn’t find it funny. Ignatius clearly has some undiagnosed mental conditions, a point the novel is disturbingly casual with. I found much of the intended comedy to be offensive, cultural progression after the times notwithstanding. Considering the eccentricity of the characters, I might describe it as Arrested Development 50 years too soon, but the situational comedy just isn’t laughable at even the base level. Strangely for a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, there are many attempts to elicit laughs with Ignatius’ gastric distress, but the book is shy about it. Ignatius burps all over the place and at really unfortunate times, but he never once farts. I guess that would have been crossing a line into obscenity?

What I’m saying is it’s basically fart jokes, which is strange to see in such a highly regarded novel. The novel also attempts to make light of other taboo-at-the-time, dirty-humor topics, such as masturbation. Again, it’s just not funny.

Furthermore, the novel showcases a bunch of technical deficiencies, which would be fine in a novel that didn’t win a Pulitzer. For instance, perspective changes are abrupt and jarring. Dialogue runs on for pages without any kind of break from the talking heads. Nobody really changes by the end, and throughout, nobody really makes any kind of decision to affect the outcome of the story. There isn’t really a discernible point to the narrative.

I think part of my problem with this book is it’s just not my thing, but I also think it has very significant problems. It certainly offers some value, but I can’t understand why it’s so highly regarded. There’s nothing very meaningful, it wasn’t funny, and I didn’t enjoy it. However, many people clearly find meaning, comedy, and enjoyment. I just found too many liabilities to regard it as anything more than mediocre.

Review: Delusions of the Dead by T. C. Armstrong

When I read Notes From a Necrophobe, I discovered a story that was gruesome and dark yet engaging and fun. I found a book that was surprisingly fresh in well-trodden territory. Many writers sit down at the computer and hope to create a unique zombie apocalypse story. T.C. Armstrong did that with her first one. This one turns all the right screws, becomes something different, and manages to be even better.

Those aren’t empty reviewer words you expect to read from someone hoping to get a blurb on a banner ad somewhere. I really mean it, and I’ll prove it.

There’s an interesting dismantling in the first act of this story. In a sense, the book deconstructs much of what the first book established and reinvents itself. The product is an adventurous romp that’s something like the Goonies meets Zombieland.

At its core, this is a story about the ingenuity and resourcefulness of kids, and I feel like it’s the story the author wanted to tell with the first book but couldn’t quite get there because she had to do all of the world building and rule establishing and conflict setting and yada yada yada that goes with beginning a series. Delusions of the Dead dispenses with the burdens of having to set things up and just dives right in. And rather than falling into the trap so many storytellers do of using a sequel to just continue a story or give us more of the same, I feel like this one immediately glared at me, slapped me across the face, and said, “nah, I don’t wanna do that. I wanna do something else.”

The result is a bit jarring at first, but it’s for the reader’s own good.

Now I get it. If you hear a sequel is different, you get a bit cagey. When you like something, some part of you that likes satisfaction wants the same thing again but this time a little different. But the same. You want it both nostalgic and fresh. You want it both familiar and new. You want the chicken stew your mom used to make in the dead of winter, but also you’re an adult now and it would be nice if she could spice it up a bit, k? Thanks.

This is why writers shy away from sequels.

Yes, things are a bit different now, but much of what I liked about the first book hasn’t changed. There’s still a sense of glee and infatuation with morbidity in the storytelling. There are still hilarious jokes from snarky characters, many of which are returning from the first book. There’s still a sense of disillusionment with the world and wonderful allusions and references to pop culture.

It’s the same storyteller, but the story is refined, and she’s playing with some new ideas, which all means Delusions of the Dead stands on its own but also is a must-read if you enjoyed Notes From a Necrophobe like I did.

The Hyperion Cantos by Dan Simmons

(Update: I mention below that I recommend the first two books in this series, but I no longer feel that way, since I discovered Dan Simons is a terrible human being and I believe we not only can’t separate the artist from the art but that we shouldn’t. Maybe that’s a blog for another time, but suffice it to say I can’t endorse the work of anyone who distorts American ideals and espouses beliefs that hurt innocent people simply trying to live happy, fulfilling lives the best way they can.)

I acknowledge it’s unfair of me to review Dan Simmons’ entire Hyperion Cantos together because it’s a long, complex journey with highs and lows in terms of both narrative drama and writing quality. In many ways, it’s less a four-book series, and more a duology of duologies. Unfortunately, the first two books are far superior than the latter two, which mainly serve to button up the universe. If these books interest you at all, I might recommend reading only the first two; however, the Endymion books might compel you, and you might find yourself beginning to resent them and questioning whether it was worth beginning the series in the first place.

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Thor: Ragnarok, A Review In Questions

I grew up reading comic books and was firmly in the Marvel camp, more specifically with the X-Men.

For the last couple years, I haven’t watched any Marvel movies (save for the X-Men movies, but they’re in their own bubble universe). It wasn’t for lack of desire. I just missed them at the theater, and then I missed them at home, and before I knew it, I was like seven movies behind. I wasn’t going to jump back in with the latest at that point, and the new ones kept coming out.

So the lady and I have been catching up, and we finally got to Thor: Ragnarok. I liked it. It was fun. Trouble is I feel like the filmmakers did everything they could to not make a Thor movie while making a Thor movie. I don’t think they were subtle about this (there is no other reason for them to cut Thor’s hair than for it to be symbolic).

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Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Before I picked up Neverwhere, I’d never read any Neil Gaiman. I know. I couldn’t believe it either.

I went for Neverwhere because American Gods seemed like too much of a commitment (but I’ll get to it), and it intrigued me as an archetypal urban fantasy novel, a genre I’m trying to get more into.

Everyone seems to love Neverwhere. It seems to occupy a space of underground reverence (no, that’s not a pun). All of my friends on Goodreads have given it five stars, and nobody will dare utter a bad word about it.

So I will. I’m sorry to say I thought Neverwhere was just okay.

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