Review: The Elfish Gene, Mark Barrowcliffe

It takes a particular type of person to wallow in one’s misspent youth, to trot it out, warts and all, for all the world to see. Having escaped the embarrassments of adolescence, most people to some degree disavow their younger selves. This is usually accomplished through mere omission. Life goes on, we meet new people, and we conveniently forget to tell them about those horrid moments that define our adolescence. We recreate ourselves, we leave our pasts behind. Not so with Mark Barrowcliffe, author of The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange (Soho Press, 2008). Barrowcliffe’s memoir goes into excruciating–and comic–detail regarding his fantasy life as a Coventry lad growing up in the ’70s and ’80s.

The Elfish Gene, Mark Barrowcliffe

The Elfish Gene, Mark Barrowcliffe

Barrowcliffe was 11 years old when he discovered Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) one afternoon at his school’s wargaming club. (For those who don’t know, wargaming involves the recreation of historical battles using miniatures and lots and lots of rules.) D&D immediately changed his life. By his own admission, Barrowcliffe spent the next five years gaming, reading about gaming, talking about gaming, reading fantasy novels, or listening to music at least tangentially inspired by fantasy. He pursued this not as a hobby, but as an obsession, an addiction that twisted his perception of himself and his place in the world. If that seems like a harsh assessment, know that it is his own. His enthusiasm only begins to wane when, at the age of 16, and dressed in a cloak, a gang of soccer hooligans toss him into a fountain, to the amusement of other people in the area. Just as finding D&D was a transformative moment for Barrowcliffe, so too was that moment of public humiliation, an embarrassment that taught him to more circumspect in his enthusiasms.

Some reviewers have criticized Barrowcliffe for looking down on players of roleplaying games, and it’s true that he takes his shots at them. Some of this is sensitivity to Barrowcliffe’s sense of humor, which is sardonic and tends to the cruel, although, it should be noted, that he is himself the target of many of his barbs. I believe the English would refer to this as “taking the piss” out of his subjects of mockery. In other words, his jokes are pointed; they reveal an essential reality about their victims, most often himself. There is personal psychology at work here, too. It’s been said that people hate most in others that which they hate most in themselves. Given that Barrowcliffe fled D&D (quite literally after an attempt to play as an adult), it’s not unsafe to assume that he is projecting onto others his feelings about himself.

And Barrowcliffe is certainly conflicted. He borrows the title of his book from Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, which posits that altruism is an evolutionary adaptation by which individuals with similar DNA are more likely to help each other, thus preserving their DNA. In other words, selfishness is “good” for individuals. Perhaps Barrowcliffe intended his title to be merely a play on words, but it is better fitting than just that. Barrowcliffe’s wholesale absorption in his fantasy world is indicative of a level of selfishness beyond that of the average teenager. He relates with remarkable clarity, it must be said, that he was, to use his language, a “twat,” taking sides against his best friend in an argument merely in order to curry favor with another boy who despised him. He doesn’t see his friend again for 25 years.

The Elfish Gene, UK cover. The UK always has better covers.

The Elfish Gene, UK cover. The UK always has better covers.

Despite all the scorn Barrowcliffe heaps on the game, and himself, and his fellow gamers, though, it’s clear that he is nostalgic for his childhood. He considers playing the game as an adult, even tries, only to run back to “reality.” And even though most of his childhood friends sound like horrible human beings, it must be said that they were teenage males–a particular breed with a specific sense of humor. There are individuals, too, who stand out in a good way, for instance, the painfully shy Dave, whose only character is “a man in a cloak.” Oh, could he be a ranger? “No, just a man in a cloak.” Special attention is given to Billy, Barrowcliffe’s best friend for two years of his life. Barrowcliffe paints him as a figure larger than life, releasing a fountain of rakish wit when he wasn’t smoking or eating (which was often).

Barrowcliffe has a fine sense of humor, and if a reader wonders, “why would anyone publish a book about someone’s obsession with D&D,” it’s for the comedy. Barrowcliffe’s is a sense of humor that demonstrates genuine insight, whether it’s into England during the ’70s, the plight of “nerds,” or universal truths about teenage boys. There is a particularly funny chapter in which Billy and Barrowcliffe, bored, and at wit’s end, decide to create incendiary devices from balloons and lighter fluid. Just when you think the story can’t get any better–it does, with a joke about “wanking.” That the story includes a two paragraph interlude in which Barrowcliffe muses on the differences between genders when it comes to risk only indicates his insight and timing. I admit that I laughed, not something I do often when reading.

In The Elfish Gene, Barrowcliffe lovingly recreates the England of his youth, giving attention both to the setting, Coventry and Birmingham, but also to the “characters” who populated his life. Barrowcliffe is a gifted storyteller with an intuitive sense of character, dialog, and pacing. Dyed-in-the wool gamers may complain about Barrowcliffe’s superficial treatment of D&D, but, as a nongamer, I found it sufficient, and, it should be noted, the book is less about D&D than it is his need for an outlet for his adolescent fantasies. A well-told, amusing, and surprisingly affecting memoir hampered only by the author’s occasionally condescending attitude. Recommended.

Review: World of Trouble, Ben H. Winters

It is difficult to write a review of World of Trouble (Quirk, 2014) that is in no way spoilery. Fans of The Last Policeman series are keen to know what will happen to Detective Henry Palace, to his sister and friends, indeed, to the entire world, because Earth is only days away from being struck by an asteroid similar in size to the one that killed the dinosaurs. Did Henry find his sister? Is his sister really part of a plan to save the world? Will her group’s rogue plan work?

But I’m not going to tell you. I’m not even going to hint at what’s to come, because you deserve to learn it directly from Ben Winters, who, with World of Trouble, proves himself a master of suspense. Instead, I’m going to address you, one reader to another, to make plain to you just how affecting Winters’s novel is. That I’m writing in this in first person, a voice I normally eschew in reviews, is a testament the poignancy of the story.

World of Trouble, Ben H. Winters

World of Trouble, Ben H. Winters

A note for those of you who haven’t read The Last Policeman and Countdown CityWorld of Trouble is the final entry in a coherent trilogy. Although you may be able to follow the story without having read its predecessors, as Winters provides exposition on the events leading up to World of Trouble, I recommend that you read the novel as it’s intended, as the culmination of a series.

The plot is straightforward: Palace and the thief, Cortez, set out from Massachusetts, heading to Ohio, in search of Nico, Henry’s sister. Meanwhile, with the asteroid only a week away, civilization has reached its nadir. If The Last Policeman was really about what people do as they face death, and Countdown City an exploration of our relationships (“contracts”), then World of Trouble is a meditation on the narratives we construct, the meanings we create, as we navigate the world, en route to our final destinations. We cleave to religion, we cling to conspiracy theories, or, like Henry, we stubbornly insist on whatever “truth” is immediately in front of us. “I am a question mark pointed at a secret,” Henry says. “Cortez is a tool aimed at the stubborn places of the world.” Police work is not simply Henry’s job; it’s his raison d’être.

Countdown City, Ben H. Winters

Countdown City, Ben H. Winters

 

Of course, Winters veils these existential musings behind the procedural framework of a detective story. Here, Henry gives meaning to what may be his last week on Earth by seeking out his sister, who went missing in Countdown City. Nico insisted that she and her friends had access to a secret means of repelling the asteroid, and Henry last saw her departing in a helicopter for parts unknown. This is a missing persons, case, then, and Henry applies all the detective skills he’s learned–mostly from textbooks–to solve it.

Palace’s and Cortez’s journey to Ohio reveals the gamut of society’s decay as humanity faces its end. Palace and Cortez create a new taxonomy to describe the towns through which they pass: “Red” towns are troubled, dissolved into violence; “blue” towns are on edge, mainly peaceful, but apt to erupt; “green” towns have somehow achieved peace. The citizenry of one green town gathers on the commons to sing hymns. In another, all the lawns are mowed. Details such as these lend to World of Trouble a reality absent from many “apocalyptic” novels. We are trained to believe the worst, that everyone would turn on each other, and we’re right: The worst would happen. But Winters gently corrects us, noting that people are capable of better, too, and that good things can occur even in the worst of circumstances.

Palace encounters a variety of responses to the world’s end. He’s fed by a hedonistic couple living in an RV in a parking lot. They spend their days listening to rock, getting drunk, and having sex. A convoy of Midwestern-types stops at a Target-style store to scavenge. Palace marvels at their organization, at the way one guard stares at the sky, bored, whereas, just a few months earlier, she would have played with her phone. An Amish family in Ohio exists in an oasis of peace and plenty. Palace’s response is to move ever forward, eyes on the prize: Find Nico. Each encounter, good and otherwise, becomes a step on this quest, a problem to be solved. It’s not the asteroid that troubles Palace, it’s the need for answers.

The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters

As with The Last Policeman and Countdown CityWorld of Trouble is told from Henry’s perspective, ensuring that the reader is deeply embedded in the mystery until the very end. Winters’s prose is at its best here, revealing not only Henry’s character, but also the world in which he operates (as befits a detective). The story beckons us forward, faster now, faster, desperate to know what twist will next befall Palace as he searches for Nico. We’re urged on, too, of course, by our need to know if her conspiracy is real, if the asteroid might be stopped, if it will really hit–and, if so, what happens then.

But that’s something you can only find out by reading the book.

As I read World of Trouble, I was reminded of lyrics from a song (by Tim O’Brien) of the same title: “It’s a world of trouble, it’s a world of pain / The clouds, they see me comin’, and they know it’s time to rain.” And that’s what it’s like for Henry Palace, though he faces it with a grace, I imagine, far superior to that most of us are capable of.

We’re just over halfway through 2014 and, over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a number of lists of “best books of the year so far.” World of Trouble, out on July 15, didn’t make any of those lists. I predict its inclusion on the “best of” lists that will be composed later this year. It’s that good. Highly recommended.

Inbox/Outbox: July 6-July 12

There is a story, apocryphal, I suppose, in which an Englishman has a theological discussion with an Indian. (Presumably a “Hindoo,” as they were known in those less culturally sensitive days.) The Indian tells the Englishman that the world rests upon the back of an elephant. “But what does the elephant stand on?” the Englishman asks. “Why, on the back of a tortoise,” the Indian replies. “And what about that tortoise? On what does it stand.” The Indian smiles. “Ah, sahib,” he says, “after that, it is turtles all the way down.”

That is sometimes how I imagine the world, only with books in place of turtles. It’s books, books all the way down. The elephant’s still there, though. And he’s angry.

Inbox

A not entirely unreasonable week. I kept acquisitions to a minimum and costs low. The Book Guilt is still there, though, niggling at the corners of my mind.

The Elfish Gene, Mark Barrowcliffe

The Elfish Gene, Mark Barrowcliffe

The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange, Mark Barrowcliffe (Macmillan, 2007). I’ve been wanting to read The Elfish Gene for a while, despite never having played D&D. (I do have some familiarity with the game, though; see my reviews of Of Dice and Men and Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Dungeons & Dragons.) I don’t disdain D&D the way most people seem to; I admire it for what it is, a form of collaborative storytelling. I enjoy these memoir-ish style of books in which the author describes his or her encounter with the fantasy genre. There’s an inspiring and voyeuristic thrill to be had when adults share their thoughts on make believe.

Sidebar: I acquired The Elfish Gene via PaperBackSwap. I highly recommend you check out PBS.

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie (Orbit, 2013). Have you heard of this one? Probably not, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal. Really, though, given the buzz, and since it won the Nebula Award for Best Novel and is up for a Hugo, this was a no-brainer. My friend Megan at From Couch to Moon wrote a great review of it.

The Mongoliad, Book One, multiple authors (47North, 2012). An interesting premise, about Europeans resisting the Mongol invasion of Europe in the thirteenth century, but refracted through the efforts of Sir Richard Burton in the nineteenth century and present-day archaeologists. The selling point for me was Neal Stephenson’s involvement. The Cryptonomicon remains the only Stephenson I’ve read to date, but I hold it in such high regard that I pick his books up whenever I see them.

Outbox

This was the week of The Last Policeman–the entire series.

The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters

I finished The Last Policeman earlier this week. I found the pace a bit slow, but, ultimately, I really enjoyed it. You can read my review here.

Countdown City, Ben H. Winters

Countdown City, Ben H. Winters

I finished the second book in the trilogy, Countdown City, on Wednesday. I haven’t reviewed it. I haven’t had time. I immediately moved on to World of Trouble.

World of Trouble, Ben H. Winters

World of Trouble, Ben H. Winters

Quirk Books, publisher of the series, was kind enough to provide me an ARC of the final book in the trilogy, World of Trouble, out July 15. World of Trouble isn’t just a good book and a satisfying conclusion to the series; it’s a truly affecting novel, and I say that as a jaded reader, desensitized to the plots and characters authors trot past us so often. I’ll work on my review this weekend, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say: I predict that this will be on “best of” lists at the end of the year.

Not a Writer Wednesday: Talent and Skill

Nope, nope, nope.

Nope, nope, nope.

I am not a writer.

But I enjoy writing. Indeed, it’s safe to say that I’m at my happiest when I’m putting words on a page. Or a screen, if you will. I enjoyed writing term papers in college, probably more than I enjoyed the process of performing research and constructing an argument. I remember pacing around the campus basketball court during the fall of my senior year, conceiving the structure of my senior thesis. The cool air, the gray skies, the rasp of dead leaves on concrete; it was all fitting inspiration for a paper about Puritanism. We’re talking classic American history, here, humorless men and women garbed in black steeple hats with Satan’s tricks on their mind. Even then, I didn’t see that it wasn’t the data to which I was attracted, but the atmosphere: A telling sign.

My “writing life,” if it might be called that, may be said to exist in two phases. In the first, before I attended university, I imagined that I would be a writer, and spent a lot of time thinking about words and stories. I didn’t write very often, only when inspiration struck, but I analyzed my life as I imagine a writer might, plumbing it for stories and characters and ideas.

Then I went to college, and I learned critical thinking and analysis. I soaked it up. By the time I was a sophomore, I had been so thoroughly socialized in academic practice that I was like a new person. I no longer thought in terms of stories, not strictly, anyway. If ever a person was made to be brainwashed, it was I.

So now I find myself in a curious position: I want to write. I want to create. But I feel like I have no stories to tell. I don’t have writer’s block, I have writer’s constipation. I suspect that this is due, in part, to my undergraduate training, the notion that I am not trained, I am not an expert, and, thus, I am not qualified to speak. Who am I? I’m that weird dude who sits in the back of the classroom and, when the prof says he’ll dismiss class if there are no questions, raises his hand. “Um, yes, concerning Cronon’s discussion of Native American and English conceptions of property…”

What I find myself wondering, then, is if creativity, particularly in terms of writing, is a talent or a skill. Let me be clear. For purposes of this discussion, I consider a “talent” to be part of one’s nature; given this definition, someone with a natural affinity for music might be said to be talented at it. But a skill can be acquired: Someone who is not talented at music might become skilled at it through dedication, hard work, and so on. A talent is native, natural; a skill can be learned. And they aren’t mutually exclusive. Someone who is talented at basketball may also become skilled at it, just as a talented chess player may never develop her skill.

In other words: Can being a writer be learned? Certainly, talent plays a role; a person with low verbal intelligence is unlikely to become a great writer or storyteller. But is it also a skill? And what of the creativity involved in writer a story? Is that at least partly a skill, too?

Easier, far easier, to say that one is not a writer.

Review: The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters

Certain phenomena contribute to crime rates. Full moons. Sporting events. Or, say, a giant asteroid on a collision course with Earth, threatening to snuff out all life.

Wait, what?

Thus is the premise of Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman (Quirk Books, 2012).

The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters

Henry Palace is a newly minted detective on the Concord (New Hampshire) Police Department. A beat cop for just over a year, Henry was promoted a few months ago due to the unusual circumstances; scientists calculated with 100% certainty that an asteroid with a seven kilometer radius would soon strike Earth. In the wake of this catastrophic knowledge, the global economy has collapsed, society has disintegrated, and people are “going bucket list,” using what time they have left to do all the things they’ve always wanted. Meanwhile, Detective Palace is in a McDonald’s restroom in the middle of the night, the scene of a another “hanger.” Palace isn’t sure that Peter Zell’s was a straightforward suicide. But who’s solving crimes with the apocalypse coming?

Motivation–in police jargon, “motive”–is a concern of Winters’. Of course, given the scenario he constructs, Winters is interested in how people face the threat of imminent death. Winters portrays a world tottering forward despite the promise of its certain demise. Many people, including the suicide, Zell, an actuary, continue to go to work, the end of the world notwithstanding. It’s as if routine is an opiate, making bearable the knowledge of the coming cataclysm, or perhaps an instinct, a behavior coded so deeply into our beings that we’re powerless to do otherwise. Palace, mysteriously, almost supernaturally, remains calm and focused on the events immediately before him, the little pieces that seem so inconsequential compared to the larger story. Palace is the kind of quiet, workaday person who would be unremarkable in normal circumstances, but who, in his stolid acceptance of the hopeless future, and his defiance of it, by doing his job the best that he can, achieves heroic status.

Really, when you get down to it, The Last Policeman is less a detective story–although it is that–than it is an existential mystery. When Palace begins considering the “motive” of Zell’s murderer, he inadvertently raises the question of his motive, of why he continues to care in a world gone mad. Palace’s fellow detectives retreat into their own consolations, whether it’s conspiracy theory, or gluttony, or smoking marijuana (which has been legalized). Palace plods onward, applying to the case the lessons he learned from textbooks on police work.

Ultimately, Winters’ asteroid might be read as a metaphor. Aren’t we all dying, whether or not a giant rock plows into Earth? There are fleeting moments when we’re aware of “the human endeavor,” the “connectedness” of all things, if you will, but our individual wants and needs crowd out that awareness. (There is a scene in the sequel, Countdown City, in which a college student forlornly caresses his dead iPhone, as if it’s still operational, that expertly captures our tendency toward solipsism.) On that level, the individual, personal level, we’re all facing down our own doom; when we die, we’re dead and gone, whether by asteroid, hanging, or getting hit by a bus. Like Winters’ characters, we carry on knowing that we will die. How we do so, and why, is the real mystery at the heart of Winters’ novel.

That’s not to say that Winters doesn’t deliver a satisfying “whodunnit.” Zell’s death and the circumstances surrounding it are well crafted, and Winters introduces us to a variety of characters, from Zell’s family, to his former best friend, drug dealer Toussaint, to Palace’s love interest, Naomi Eddes. The latter is particularly welcome, as she serves to humanize Palace, who is sometimes so literal and intense as to border on being alien, a notion supported by his appearance (very tall, and, I imagine, quite thin).

lastPolicemanA

Indeed, if there is a weakness in The Last Policeman, it is the character of Palace, who, despite being the narrator, remains frustratingly opaque for much of the early portion of the novel. The first person narrative device, of course, limits readers’ knowledge to only that which Palace himself knows, serving an important function in terms of the mystery. Likewise, first person permits Winters to describe events as they’re being experienced by a character living through them. Still, it is not until the story is well underway that readers first begin to catch glimpses of Palace’s character–of his motives and motivations. Humorless, intense, Palace responds to his colleagues’ jokes dismissively, with “Okay,” and, “Sure.” He doesn’t have time for the niceties that permit people to function in normal society, especially when the world’s about to end and time is short. Palace’s back story informs his present, and readers will welcome the revelations as they’re shared. The character of Palace’s younger sister, “Nico,” not only serves to further humanize him, but also advances a subplot that carries into, and plays a larger role in, Countdown City.

Winters received the Edgar Award for The Last Policeman, an honor of which readers are likely to approve. Winters uses a compelling, plausible end of the world scenario to establish a fatalistic atmosphere that lends itself both to a detective story and to the larger philosophical questions in which he’s interested. The sense of doom Winters creates, his vision of collapse, renders the story poignant; readers will find themselves drawn in. The characters are well drawn and recognizable; Winters manages to humanize Palace and invest readers in his fate. The Last Policeman will appeal to lovers of mysteries and speculative fiction, but fantasists should beware: This novel remains firmly in the real world, and Detective Palace wouldn’t have it any other way. Highly recommended.

The follow up to The Last PolicemanCountdown City, was published in July 2013. The last novel in the trilogy, World of Trouble, will be published on July 15, 2014.