A quarter century ago, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly put out Raw— a highbrow mixture of underground cartoonists and French BDs where, in general, the id was fully on display.  In Vol. 2 No. 1 (1989) six pages were devoted to a little story called “Here”, by Richard McGuire, which looked a little too clean and cool for its surroundings.  It was also the most mind-bending piece in the whole 200-page issue.

McGuire-Here-1989-p-1

Every image of “Here” depicted the same scene, from the same viewpoint. But that wasn’t the clever bit. The clever bit was that not all the panels showed that scene in the same year. In fact, after a few establishing panels, windows within each panel showed different years. The entire six pages depicted– out of order– a story ranging from 5 billion BC to the year 2033.

Most of the story was concentrated around a single lifetime, from birth (1957) to death (2027). It was a fascinating look at a place, a lifetime, at how moments could be connected not just in linear sequence but by theme: similar events occurring in the same place; a woman’s complaint about cleaning repeated over the years; a tree growing; echoes of action or dialog.

Oh, here. Here’s “Here”. Just go read it. Six pages, light as a feather and dense like lead. It refrains from any sort of comment, and somehow seems to be about everything: time, space, life, humanity. It was just amazing that you could do this in comics.

Now, McGuire has produced Here, a version of the same idea, but 300 pages long, and in color.

Mcguire2014

Before you read the rest of this page, you should open a new tab, order the book, and read it. It expands the original idea, playing with the resonances of time and space, and the color version is spectacular. Plus the corner of the room is in the crease of the book, which is a neat iconic idea: the opened book echoes the shape of the room.

Better yet, get the iPad version, where reportedly you can view the book in multiple ways, or trace a particular thread chronologically.

OK, now that we’ve read it, I’m going to say: it’s neat and I like it, but the 300-page version doesn’t blow the mind at 50 times the rate of the 6-page story. A lot of what McGuire does here, he already did in the previous version. It’s a neat way to play with the medium, but it’s definitely in experimental mode, and in such things the emotional temperature tends to be low.

There’s a set of family pictures that look a lot like real family photographs, and from articles on the book, it turns out they are real photographs from McGuire’s family. Likewise, a bit that seems like rather a stretch– a connection to Ben Franklin– turns out to be literal truth: McGuire’s childhood home in New Jersey was across the street from Ben Franklin’s son’s house. Similarly, a visit from the local archeological society (they want to dig up the back yard for Indian bones) really happened.

The thing is, when you have to read news stories about the book to understand the connections, that’s probably a sign that the artistic method is a little too detached. The book plays delightfully with its concept, but it doesn’t cohere as a story. There are recurring characters but after two readings I couldn’t tell you who they all are.

Oops, I should learn to write these things with the positive stuff at the end.  The 6-pager did seem short– more like a proof of concept.  The book takes it slow, runs the idea through all its variations, is more careful about history (it’s a nice touch that the Native Americans speak an actual Algonquian language), it’s full of quirky juxtapositions, and it’s gorgeous to flip through.

I heard about Sunset long ago on RPS, and it sounded intriguing, so I picked it up in the Steam summer sale. I’m sad to hear that the developer, Tale of Tales, is going out of business due to poor sales. They’re probably best known for The Path, an exploration game featuring little girls and wolves, and Luxuria Superbia, which is about touching flowers and/or sex.

This is a very reflective game. Get it?

This is a very reflective game. Get it?

Sunset has a weird little setup: you are Angela Burnes, an American college grad working as a housekeeper in the fictional Latin American nation of Anchuria. Once a week you spend an hour (always the hour before sunset) doing various jobs in Gabriel Ortega’s penthouse apartment in the capital… during a time of civil war. As you come by week after week, the situation outside worsens, and you discover Ortega’s (and your country’s) involvement in Anchurian politics.

Let’s talk gameplay. You are limited to the penthouse itself (though it’s quite roomy, and two stories tall). You have a minimal task list, different each week; you go find the things to do, do them, and spend the rest of the time looking at things, finding little hidden notes and books, and writing a diary (i.e., you sit in a particular chair, and Angela writes about whatever occurs to her.)

All of this is optional. Each weekly session ends after a fixed period (half an hour in real time) whether you’ve done anything or not. I don’t think you’re ever punished for not doing your tasks. (I left a couple undone either because I ran out of time, or couldn’t find where to do them.) You don’t have to look around for things to interact or do the diary thing. Though if you did nothing, of course, not much would happen, outside some scripted events.

The game is longer than I expected: the weekly sessions last for a year. I spent 7 hours on it, but the exact time would depend heavily on how much wandering around and diary-reading you do.

With most tasks you have an option of doing them in two ways: flirty or businesslike. In effect you can pursue a long-distance seduction of Sr. Ortega. E.g. given the task to unpack his books, you can arrange them boringly by author, or playfully by color. He will leave you notes, and you can respond affectionately, or distantly, or not at all. These choices affect how the apartment looks, as well as how the story goes.

You don’t get to shoot anyone, but along the way you do have to make some choices that affect not only your relationship with Ortega, but the progress of the revolution.

The visuals are quite beautiful; they’ve obviously spent a lot of time on lighting, bathing the apartment in changing purple light as the sun sets. The apartment is filled with art objects, all carefully modeled; from the windows you get a vista of the capital. Helicopters and planes buzz overhead; occasionally a building is set on fire or bombs drop nearby, with a big orange flash. The story is set in 1972-3, and the 70s aesthetic is lovingly recreated. The view is 1st person, but Angela can see herself in the windows and other reflective surfaces.

The apartment changes week to week, first because Ortega is moving in, then because of the complications of the political crisis.  The doors to some areas are sometimes closed, so you can’t always access the whole apartment.  Twice when you come, the power is out.  A couple of times you find that the secret police have preceded you.

(Despite the relative simplicity of the setting and models, the game would sometimes get unresponsive for me– just moving around became difficult. I didn’t attempt to turn down the graphics to see if that would help. The gameplay is simple enough that I just played through it, but it was frustrating at times.)

The story goes some places we don’t normally see in games. The backstory (which you only get if you are fairly interactive with things) is that Anchuria had a communist government, but recently was taken over in a coup by the very conservative General Miraflores. Ortega is a member of the elite, with his own company, who seems to be close to the General. Angela’s brother David is a leader of the rebels. The Miraflores regime is aided by the Americans, and there is a threat of US intervention. Angela herself is black (as is the story’s co-creator Auriea Harvey; her partner Michaël Samyn is Belgian), and her diary entries reflect on racism in the US and her feelings about being trapped in a Latin American country in wartime.

How does all this work as a game? I think, well enough. Or maybe much better than it sounds. I think the idea of the game is very strong, and I like to see people experimenting with and deepening the medium, so I’m inclined to cut the developers a lot of slack.

I’d respond to the most likely complaints thus:

  • It’s not interactive enough. Your interaction is largely limited to looking at things and clicking on them.  Well, yes, and that’s also true of Sam & Max, or your favorite Telltale game. (I’m playing a Telltale game right now, and though it’s clever, it’s often pretty much click-to-advance-the-story.)
  • The story is more experienced than created. You can affect the story, but it’s Angela’s story and words– there’s no room for roleplaying.  Yeah, but that’s true of Arkham City or Mirror’s Edge too: you are not a freeform character there, you are Batman or Faith and really you are just following their story and can’t change their character.
  • It’s too heavy. We just want to relax with a game!  Well, be honest: if you play (say) League of Legends, don’t you swear like a sailor whenever you’re killed? Gaming inherently involves a suprising amount of frustration. As for heavy themes, what about nuclear devastation (Fallout), complicity in a corrupt system (Dishonored), or the dangers of libertarianism (Bioshock)? The political setup of Sunset— corruption, occupation, resistance– is not terribly different from that of Beyond Good and Evil.

The story could have been told as a novel or a movie.  But I think it works as a video game. Wandering around Ortega’s apartment, doing little tasks (or not), deciding how nicely to do them, deciding how much time she spends just messing around, make us at least complicit in Angela’s story.  The developers do better at balancing game and story than (say) Dreamfall did, with its endless cutscenes at the end.

Now, I’d like this sort of thing to work. I think games are mostly about shooting because shooting is a mechanic that developers and gamers understand, and we just haven’t fully understood how to make other kinds of games. Haven’t you spent hours just messing around in Skyrim or Saints Row?  There’s a huge swath of stories that would be interesting to tell, but aren’t getting told because people thinking they’re not game-y enough.  I’m glad some developers are trying out other ideas, and I can forgive some awkwardness.

All that said, it’s not the game I wish it was.  A few complaints:

  • You don’t see Angela doing her tasks.  You hear her hum and get a cityscape for a few seconds.  I absolutely understand this: it saves money.  Tale of Tales is a tiny studio and can’t afford the extra modeling and animation it would require.  But the price paid is a great reduction in immersion. We don’t feel that we’re really there, or participating.
  • I really wanted more interactions.  Dumb interactions are fun, and make an environment feel real.  You can turn on lights, leave the water running, sit on chairs, look through a telescope, comment on the art.  All that is good, but why couldn’t I take a  bath, make a sandwich, drink coffee, dance to the music, read the titles on the bookcase, wear Ortega’s slippers? You can’t even re-examine the art for a second opinion, and though you can play a record when the game lets you, you can’t replay it.
  • The diary mechanic is a little cheap. You see a line at a time and can’t do anything else.  If they couldn’t afford more voice work, they could have either sped it up, or allowed you to move around while the subtitles continue.  I skipped a bunch of entries as they didn’t always repay the time spent.
  • The game has its longeurs. The game is about as long as Portal (1)– but that was a puzzle game and we were learning and using skills.  The devs vary the task list, as well as the appearance of the apartment, and I don’t mind the ordinariness of your tasks– it fits the theme. But it’s also true that a movie could have told this story in two hours, not 7.  I think I’d like to have seen half the sessions, but more interaction within each one.

I’ve read some reviews, and it seems many people are itching to redesign the game. And I don’t think it needs much. You can actually make a game that’s about menial tasks– e.g. Viscera Cleanup Detail. But it really could have used a lot more feeling that we’re actually doing them.

I also have to say, I don’t think it would be replayable.  I’m curious about the “cool” option– what happens if you carefully avoid both romance and involvement in the politics?  But I don’t intend to spend more hours on it.

I chose the wallpaper and made the sculpture. Ortega will be so pleased

I chose the wallpaper and made the sculpture. Ortega will be so pleased

How does it work as a story?  Oh, pretty well, on both the romance and the political sides. The idea of getting to know someone through their living space is clever, and the game does a pretty good job of suggesting dictatorship and revolution through an unusual fixed viewpoint.  The usual storytelling choice might be to show us the soldiers in the streets or have us fight through the presidential palace– but those on the sidelines have interesting stories as well, and their limited options are part of the point.

If you look at the story baldly, it’s the story of a housekeeper falling in love with her boss.  Not impossible, but not highly likely, and not exactly a recipe for happiness, either.  Still, Angela is presented as highly educated, trapped in the city more or less by accident, so you could see her as underachieving, and more of a match for Ortega than her job indicates.

The story does get into all the ironies of being rich in a poor country, and makes you wonder how complicit Ortega is in the Miraflores regime.  However, I’m not sure it fully groks the surreal dissociation of Latin American elites from the common people.  Imagine a class of Mitt Romneys who have been in power for five hundred years and view even bourgeois liberalism as a terrible threat worth killing people to head off.

(If you do follow through with the romance, the story ends with you sleeping in Ortega’s bed.  You finally see Ortega… though he’s asleep and won’t get up!  It’s kind of a sweet ending though.)

I’m not quite satisfied with the Latin American setting though. The story seems to have, let us say, a concerned First Worlder’s knowledge about the politics of elites and revolutionaries in ’70s Latin America, and the spectre of US intervention, but little of the specifics of any Latin American country.  (Making up a country was a bit of a copout.)  Angela describes the previous ‘communist’ regime as earnest and utopian, and talks about the lack of racial discrimination– these, I’m afraid, are complete absurdities.  (Maybe Angela is naïve, but I’m not sure she’s supposed be be that naïve.)  There’s never any hint that the revolutionaries are less than perfect– unlike real-world ones who admired Maoist terrorism, or turned into drug dealers, or simply petered out in pointless infighting. Plus there’s very little actual Latin American flavor to the game.  A few references to Catholicism and tango don’t really cut it.

I appreciate the conceit of using a single setting.   But I think they missed some opportunities to open up the game here and there.  I guess a street scene would have required too much work.  But it would have been nice to (say) see where Angela lives, or be sent on an errand to a shop, or perhaps have to climb a bunch of stairs when the power is out.

At a deeper level, I like the way the game ruminates on power.  Angela talks about it explicitly; it’s played out around us by Miraflores, the rebels, the US, and Ortega. But where most games are a power fantasy, this is almost a lack-of-power fantasy.  Angela is a woman, out of her own country, in a menial job, in the middle of a revolution.  Ortega is rich, but that’s no sure protection either. Both can influence the larger situation, but maybe part of the point is that the dishes still have to be cleaned, and there’s always the possibility of love.

The normal price of the game is $20, and I wouldn’t blame you for blinking at that.  But then I’m poor and bargain-conscious.  Don’t be one of those people who think that $1 is a generous price for an indie game.  Or who never buy indie games.

More book overflow. I already have a poem by 杜甫 Dù Fǔ in the book, but I like this one too. It’s a perfect example of the cinematic technique of Chinese poetry: a montage of images, quickly piled up without comment, without viewpoint. As Wai-lim Yip says, translation into English often ruins the effect, simply because it imposes times and pronouns. Reading the glosses alone will help communicate the extreme brevity of poetic Classical Chinese, and the number of additions needed to make it readable in English. (Old Chinese had its own particles and pronouns, which we see in prose; the poem below manages to avoid all but one, ‘not’.)

夜宴左氏庄
Yè yàn Zuǒ shì zhuāng
night banquet (name) honorific manor
“An evening banquet at Mr. Zuǒ’s house”

风林纤月落
fēng lín xiān yuè luò
wind forest slender moon fall
Wind in the woods. A crescent moon sets

衣露净琴张
yī lù jìng qín zhāng
cloth dew untouched guqin lay.out
Cloth wet with dew; lute laid out unused

暗水流花径
àn shuǐ liú huā jìng
dark water flow flower path
Dark water flows among flowered paths

春星带草堂
chūn xīng dài cǎo táng
spring star gird thatch house
Spring stars surround the thatched house

检书烧烛短
jiǎn shū shāo zhú duǎn
examine book burn candle short
Examining books— candles burn short.

看剑引杯长
kàn jiàn yǐn bēi cháng
see sword hold cup long
Look at swords. Always holding cups.

诗罢闻吴咏
shī bà wén wú yǒng
poem finish hear Wú sing.songs
Poems finished. Hearing songs of Wú.

扁舟意不忘
biǎn zhōu yì bù wàng
flat boat idea not forget
A flat boat— don’t forget that idea.

Here’s Yip’s translation:

Windblown forest: the slender moon has fallen.
Cloth dew-dabbled, the lute stands there untouched.
Dark water flows among flower-paths.
Spring stars belt the thatched house.
We leaf over books, to find candles short-burnt.
We show off swords: drink cups and cups of wine.
Poems done: hear the accent of Wu:
Go a-boating is the idea never to forget.

An irreverent aside: “General Tso’s chicken” refers to a 19C Chinese general named Zuǒ Zōngtáng. His surname 左 happens to be the same as the gentleman Dù Fǔ was visiting.

The 吴 Wú region is the Yangtze delta, now the site of Shànghǎi, and still the focus of a non-Mandarin dialect. (The city didn’t exist in Dù Fǔ’s time.) Dù Fǔ wasn’t from there, but perhaps Zuǒ was. Yip says the final line is a reference to the Warring States (-5C) minister Fàn Lǐ, who helped his state Yuè defeat the state of Wú (for which the region is named). Afterward he gave up his post to live on a fishing boat. The imperial Chinese scholar longed to find an official post— but there was always a counter-ideal of living in seclusion, far away from the capital, occasionally nerding out with a fellow scholar, as described in the poem.

The line “Dark water flows among flowered paths” could be a description of the ideal Chinese garden, which was supposed to be a Dàoist evocation of wild nature— twisted paths, interesting rocks, little waterways.  (The water is dark because it’s night, of course.)  Houses, by contrast, were rectilinear, following a severe Confucian aesthetic.

If you like this poem, and musings on translating Chinese, I recommend Yip’s book Chinese Poetry: An anthology of major modes and genres.  It’s a very fast read for an English speaker, if you only read the English translations. :) I like Yip’s approach to translation, which prefers to stretch and fragment the English in an attempt to convey the openness and fluidity of the original.  (The sound and rhyme are lost, alas— he doesn’t give transliterations.)  He obviously loves Táng poems the best, and most of the book is from that period.

While we’re on the book, one amusing bit is some Confucian commentary on the 诗经 Shījīng (Classic of Poetry), a collection of songs from the -11C to the -7C. Confucius loved these songs and is said to have edited the collection. He claimed that they were all edifying and moral.  However, many of the songs were simply popular love songs.  For instance, this one, as translated by Yip:

In the wilds, a dead doe. White reeds to wrap it.
A girl, spring-touched: A fine man to seduce her.
In the woods, bushes. In the wilds, a dead deer.
White reeds in bundles. A girl like jade.
Slowly. Take it easy.
Don’t feel my sash! Don’t make the dog bark!

And (only part of) the traditional commentary:

“The Dead Doe” shows abhorrence of the failure to observe the rites. The kingdom was in a state of great disorder (at the end of the Yin dynasty). Ruffianism prevailed and manners became demoralized. When the civilizing influence of King Wén made itself felt although the period was still one of disorder; yet the absence of rites was deplored.

…Cheng is of the opinion that the second month of spring was the recognized time for the completion of marriages. The girl thinks of the time when, in accordance with the rites, it will be permissible for her to unite with the boy. It was necessary for the boy first of all to send an intermediary to ask for her hand.

Owing to its whiteness and its strength, jade is symbolic of the girl’s virtue.

(In fact jade was a common metaphor for a girl’s color. It’s often used that way in Golden Lotus. We think of jade as green, but the most highly prized jade in China was white.)

Remember The Golden Lotus Vol. 1? I just read the sequel. It’s called Volume 2.

glotus2
For 50 chapters and 640 pages, the author had built up a portrait of Ximen Qing, rich man of the fictional city of Qinghe, and his five wives— lovingly detailing his family life, his meals and entertainments, his rising career, his business dealings, and his occasional mockeries of justice. In volume 2 all of that is slowly and methodically shot to hell.

Actually for half the book, Ximen continues his rise.  There’s an intimation of disaster in chapter 59, when Ximen’s son dies— after being given a fright by a cat attacking him.  (Wife #4 Pan Jinlian is blamed for having trained the cat to attack him… in revenge Ximen dashes the cat’s brains out.)  His mother Li Ping’er sickens and dies, and there’s an elaborate description of her funeral.  But then Ximen takes a trip to the capital, Kāifēng, and is rewarded by a promotion to full magistrate. He moves in ever more influential circles and seems richer than ever.  There’s a big fight between Pan Jinlian and the Great Lady, i.e. his first and chief wife, Wu Yueniang, but it’s smoothed over.

But then, rather suddenly, things go south. Back in chapter 49, Ximen had been given powerful aphrodisiacs by a monk from India. He was told to use them sparingly. But Pan Jinlian, wanting to make love to him when he was already spent, gives him three pills at once.  He succeeds in her immediate purpose, but too much so: his ejaculation turns into “an unceasing flow of blood.” Doctors are sent for; everyone runs all around, but his fate is sealed.  In ten pages he’s dead, and yet we have 21 chapters to go.  These the author spends in sending the remaining characters through the meat grinder.

Ximen’s end is almost comically apt: he’s been dissolute with women, so he succumbs to an illness that chiefly attacks his penis. I wonder if this is intended to be syphilis, which is out of period for the Sòng of Ximen’s time, but appropriate for the Míng author. Or of course it could be a different venereal disease, or an invented one. Or we could blame the immediate cause of the illness: that dangerous aphrodisiac. Physicians and alchemists often used concoctions of antimony, which was believed to be linked to immortality— and in premodern times antimony was often confused with arsenic. So both professions regularly poisoned their clients (and themselves).

The author is as hard on their characters as any Iain Banks novel:

  • 2nd wife Li Jiao’er: goes back to the bawdy house
  • 4th wife Sun Xue’e: elopes with robber servant; servant caught and imprisoned; Xue’e sold to a vindictive enemy, then to a brothel; briefly rescued, only to have her husband killed; hangs herself
  • 5th wife Pan Jinlian: brutally murdered
  • 6th wife Li Ping’er: died of heartbreak after son’s death, as mentioned above
  • Son in law Chen Jingji: kicked out after dallying with Pan Jinlian; defrauds the family; reduced to begging and sodomy; later joins Chunmei’s household; plots against a servant, who murders him
  • Daughter Ximen Dajie: lives unhappily with Chen Jingji, who favors a new wife over her; hangs herself
  • Servant Chunmei: briefly rises to a high position by marrying a general, who however is killed resisting the Jurchen invasion; carries on with one of his relatives (as well as Jingji); dies young of a wasting sickness

Though everyone gets some page time, the central figure of the book is Pan Jinlian— exquisitely pretty, intelligent, literate, charming, and decidedly evil.  She murders her first husband back in chapter 5 to be with Ximen Qing. She is always seeking to raise her position, beats her servants, quarrels with everyone, hates Ximen’s son, trains her Evil Attack Cat, cheats on Ximen with his own son-in-law, and administers that fatal dose of aphrodisiac. She’s finally driven out of the house, and offered for sale for 100 taels.  Chen Jingji (her lover) wants to buy her, and goes to Kāifēng to get the money. But another finds her first, with cash in hand. He turns out to be the brother of her murdered husband, and he extracts a confession out of her, then murders her.  He goes off to join the bandits— the heroes of The Water Margin. His story would have been familiar to Míng readers— he fights alongside the bandits, defeats a band of rebels, and retires as a Buddhist monk.

The only characters who are spared terrible fates are the two virtuous wives.  Wu Yueniang— though she has a temper— is depicted as a kindly, level-headed woman, devoted to Buddhism. She bears a son to Ximen posthumously, but in the chaos of the Jurchen invasion she gives him up as an acolyte to a Buddhist monk. By modern standards she treats her own daughter badly— she forces her to go live with Chen Jingji, who’s already been revealed to be a womanizer and ne’er-do-well. But having married, she was part of Chen’s family— to the contemporary reader, she was their problem now.

Wife #3, Meng Yulou, is perhaps the nicest character in the book.  She is Pan Jinlian’s best friend in the house, but she gets along with everyone and never causes trouble.   When a magistrate catches a glimpse of her on a rare outing and falls in love with her, she takes the opportunity to remarry.  She is happy with her new husband and outwits a scheme of Chen Jingji to cause her trouble— though she does have to go with her new husband into exile.  Still, the last page of the book assures her that she lived long and happily.

The other surprising winner is the servant Daian, who has appeared throughout the book from a young age, trailing behind Ximen Qing, accompanying him on his escapades. When he grows up he takes up with one of the servants— but by this time Wu Yueniang takes a pragmatic approach and simply marries the two to each other.  And when her son becomes a monk, she adopts Daian and makes him her heir.

Whew! Sorry for all the names and bursts of plot, but if you haven’t gathered, the pace of the story quickens in this volume.  Instead of languid days of lovemaking punctuated by fine meals, singing girls, and the exchange of gifts, this volume is a rush of events. It goes fast, and racks up an impressive body count. Here and there are bits of moralizing, but for the most part the author lets the events speak for themselves.

What does it amount to? On the surface, a tale of a dissolute man and woman (that would be Ximen Qing and Pan Jinlian) who get exactly what they deserve.  But where the story was brief and lurid in Water Margin, here it’s drawn out, quotidianized, deepened.  Ximen is no hero, but he’s also not a great villain.  He starts out as an idle rich man, but once he has an office he seems devoted enough to his work. He’s genuinely distraught over the death of his son and his sixth wife. He seems good at keeping his businesses in the black.  He’s generous with his friends. Given the breakup of his household after his death, he was certainly the glue holding it together.  Though the book is certainly a criticism of the corruption of a late Imperial Chinese dynasty, it’s more in the style of Trollope than Dickens.

As for Pan Jinlian, she certainly has a bad character; at the same time she seems to have a capacity for friendship and love.  There is of course no defense for her murder of her first husband (nor for Ximen’s help in it), but 85 chapters later, her own murder is still shocking and pathetic.   Her murderer, Wu Song— a righter of wrongs in Water Margin— here seems no more than a brutal killer.

Like Raise the Red Lantern, the institution the book most demolishes is polygamy. Ximen’s six wives are all elite women, raised far above most people in their society, dressed in rich silks with ornaments of gold, silver, jade, and pearl, eating rich foods, with their own servants to lord it over. They are not mistreated by Ximen, and can speak their mind to him.  Yet, obviously, the very fact that there half a dozen of them (to say nothing of Ximen’s mistresses) makes them inherently inferior, and is an incitement to jealousy and loneliness.  There are references to their lovely little feet— i.e., to feet horribly disfigured by foot-binding. And to make it worse, the social convention is that they are required to be in the house— in the inner rooms of the house— all day, almost every day of the year, with no Internet access. It had to be horribly dull. Perhaps that’s why wife #2, Li Jiao’er, preferred to go back to being a singing girl once Ximen died.

Modern readers may also blanch at the book’s language— the women are always being called, and call each other, strumpets, slaves, and whores. (Men can be called dogs, slaves, and turtles, rarely anything more biting.)

At the same time, I’m still amazed at the woman-centeredness of the book. Contrast Three Kingdoms or Journey to the West, where women barely exist. This is a book where the chief male character leaves for the office— and the narrative camera stays in his house and follows what his wives and servants are doing. Pan Jinlian’s servant Chunmei does earn her 1/3 representation in the name of the book (Jīn Píng Méi) here; when she leaves the house she marries a rich official.  But her husband barely appears onstage; the story focuses on her new life.  I wonder when a similarly female-centered book first appeared in the West.

One curious bit: though there are some virtuous monks, the author normally presents them as licentious, greedy, and fraudulent.  This is almost exactly as we see them in Chaucer— not too distant in time, but 5000 miles away and with the monks belonging to a different religion.

The last chapters show the fall of the Northern Sòng dynasty: Kāifēng is conquered by the Jurchens, the emperor and his father are sent off in exile to Manchuria, and a prince escapes below the Yangtze to hold southern China as the Southern Sòng. It occupies only a few pages, but the momentousness of these events would not be lost on Chinese readers, and would color the entire narrative.  It’s like tales of the European high life set in 1913, just before everything was destroyed by the World War. The book also references the actual corrupt ministers of the late Northern Sòng.

So, should you read it?  Yes, certainly! You can read a bunch of volumes on Chinese history and even everyday life— as I’ve been doing— but Golden Lotus really makes them come alive. By the end you feel you know exactly how an elite household was run and what it would be like to spend the day inside it.  There are a few spots where, maybe, the author includes one too many parties.  But as we’ve seen in recent years, comparing two-hour movies to 60-episode TV series, length allows situations and characters to be explored with leisure and depth.  If you simply read about Pan Jinlian’s murder, it would be a cheap horror story. Built up over two long volumes, it becomes an epic story touching on a multitude of emotions.

Though there are occasional references to characters’ thoughts and dreams, their nature is mostly revealed by an accumulation of actions and dialog. Though undoubtedly translation softens and distorts the effect, it’s apparent that the author was an excellent mimic.  From bandits to imperial counselors, from singing girls to marriage brokers to Buddhist clerics, everyone speaks in a distinctive, convincing way.  An example of the authors technique is Ximen’s friend Ying Bojue, also known as Beggar Ying.  He shows up once a chapter or so, generally making jokes and teasing his friend, occasionally offering advice or an investment opportunity.  Though of minimal importance to the plot, he’s highly memorable.

And again, if you’ve heard about the book as an erotic novel, it absolutely isn’t. It’s a novel of manners which— exactly like modern Western novels— is frank about sexuality. Besides, the author tends to move to flowery language, and even poetry, in describing sex, and that may not translate well. For instance, Pan Jinlian’s “fragrant blossom” is described as having “all the fragrance and tenderness of fresh-made pastry”, which… well, Proust had his madeleines, but they apparently weren’t as powerful as Chinese pastries.

I haven’t written a game review in awhile. This isn’t because I don’t play games any more. It’s because of League of Legends. I’ve been playing it for a few hours a night for over nine months, with little room for other games.  (There have been a few other games, but they rarely grab me enough to finish. Arkham Knight is coming soon, though…)

Careful, we can still lose this... oh, kaboom

Careful, we can still lose this

So how’s it going? Eh, up and down. You can easily play this game for nine months and not be very good at it. I mostly play ARAM, which is good practice on all the champions and far more low-key.  I’m still kind of terrified of Summoner’s Rift (SR), the normal game mode.  I have over 400 ARAM wins and haven’t quite got to 100 in SR.

Occasionally there’s a game that makes it all worth while, such as this one (I was on the red team, in SR):

We win

We got this

LOL players will grok this immediately: it’s the story of a remarkable comeback in the last 3 minutes of a nearly hour-long game. What’s remarkable is that the other team (Blue) threw it away. They had aced us, and were in our base killin’ our dudes. They could have easily taken the Nexus. Then they all recalled home. Maybe they figured they had only three players up, they’d better come back later. Maybe they wanted to rack up kill counts. I dunno, but we got our act together and blasted right through them.

I was also happy because, unusually, playing an ADC went the way it was supposed to. I was Caitlyn, and had a slow early game, but got better and better as the game went on, ending up 13/7/9. I like Caitlyn because a) she has a very long range, longer than other ADCs, so you can be a little more aggressive, and b) her ult isn’t a skillshot, so it’s rarely wasted. Also c) it’s long range so you can totally killsteal from your pals.

(If you don’t know LOL: ADCs are Attack Damage Carries. Damage is of two types, magic (AP) and normal (AD).  Caitlyn’s gun is almost entirely AD. “Carry” is what’s supposed to happen: by the end of the game, the ADC is doing immense damage and carries the team. But in the early game you’re very squishy and you need a support character just to stay alive.)

The downside of SR is that it’s frigging difficult to learn. You start out with bots, but the highest-level bots are barely a preparation for humans. And the worst feature of humans is that they can get toxic, or give up, when they’re losing.  I’d really like to get good at ADCs, but so far as I can see, the matchmaking almost always gives enemies above my level.  (It’s safer to play supports– supports are always needed– but as with medics in TF2, sometimes players will blame their own bad play on their support.)

Honoring my LOL stoner pals. Srsly the game is full of them.

Honoring my LOL stoner pals. Srsly the game is full of them.

Playing with friends greatly reduces the toxicity and increases teamwork… though I’ve had to defriend more than one person who lost it when a game didn’t go well. But if the friends are higher level, then the matchmaking finds higher-level enemies too. And your pals may or may not be able to carry you.  More reasons, unfortunately, to hang out in ARAM where strategy is limited and people are more out to have fun.

Frustrating in another way: another recent game I went 12/7/20 as Varus… that’s good as it means I’m landing his skillshots more and learning how to play him… the problem being, I had the best score on the team… so we lost.  The tackiest thing people do in LOL is to abuse their teammates, and I’m not doing that… to be honest, I concentrate so much on what I’m doing that I rarely notice patterns in what other folks are doing wrong.  (Except for, like, going 2×5.  Group up, people!)

But then sometimes, like tonight, I get a frustrating game with an exhilarating comeback.  I was Ashe, another ADC, still one of my favorite characters.  This was an ARAM game, nearly an hour long.  We had Ashe, Sona, Ekko, Teemo, and Azir, against Viktor, Katarina, Karthus, Nunu, and Nautilus.  It was even for awhile, then they seemed to be crushing us.  They were at our Nexus twice, but couldn’t quite get it. Looking at the postgame stats, I’m a bit surprised to see that their standout was Viktor. More than once I got nabbed by a nasty Katarina + Karthus combo. None of us were tanky, but they let us get to level 18, when all of us could be effective.  We started to connect while fighting back, pushed through to their inhibitor, and next push got to their Nexus.

(Another comeback story.  Well, that’s because a comeback is a story. A roll isn’t a story; it’s barely a game.)

When a LOL game goes well, it’s like a ballet of microsecond-long attacks and repositions.  A teamfight may depend on landing a skillshot here, taking advantage of a stun there, barely escaping a counterattack yonder.  It’s unlike TF2 where skills and players are more predictable, and any one player doesn’t make quite so much of a difference.  Of course, the lows are lower, too: in plenty of games everyone kind of sucks and can’t seem to figure out why.

I didn’t think the next update would be quite this soon. My Dad died this morning, at about 9:30 a.m.

In front of his first house, in 1950

In front of his first house, in 1950

The last few weeks he had been declining fast. He was having trouble walking; the last time we went out to eat he needed to be in the wheelchair, and even then it was a terrible hassle getting him in and out of the car. The week before this, I made him crepes instead of taking him out. This week, he wasn’t able to eat by himself– his caregiver had to feed him. He was unresponsive at times; other times he’d talk, but be hard to understand. I saw him Friday and he seemed agitated but couldn’t quite explain what was wrong. Still, he just seemed to run out of steam rather than suffer much.

For anyone planning to live 95 years, as he did, here’s one life lesson: take pictures of yourself. One of today’s tasks was to assemble pictures for a display at the funeral. I looked through the ~ 2700 slides I’ve scanned, and found perhaps a dozen of him. He was the photographer, so we have oodles of pictures of Mom, the kids, friends, touristic destinations, etc., but not many of him. (Until the 1980s, when my Mom got her own camera.)

I will probably post about him some more when we start sorting through the house. My brother in law found a WWII story I’m eager to set down…

I got Vol. 2 of Golden Lotus, but before disappearing into that I finished up 彷徨 Fǎnghuáng (Wandering), a set of short stories by 鲁迅 Lǔ Xùn. Lǔ, who died in 1936, is considered one of China’s greatest modern writers. He was sympathetic to Marxism but never a CCP member. After reading the book I’m not surprised; an enthusiastic ideology was not his sort of thing.

lu-xunBefore getting to Wandering let’s look at one of his best-known stories:
阿Q正传 “Ā Q Zhèngzhuàn (The True Story of Ah Q)”. You can read it in English here.

You may have noticed the Q in the Chinese title. In his pseudo-scholarly introduction, Lǔ explains that his protagonist was named Guì (pronounced quei), but he could never learn if this was the character 桂 ‘cassia’ or 贵 ‘nobility’, so he used Q instead. (Lǔ actually uses this technique several times in Wandering— e.g. naming towns by giving their first letter in the Roman alphabet— and even mentions that some readers complained about it.)

“Ah Q” is a strange story. The title character is a handyman, someone who does odd jobs; he has no home but a temple lets him sleep in a back room. He’s depicted as a complete loser, ignorant and ugly, bigoted and sexist, and yet possessed of exceptional self-esteem. He thinks he’s a powerful and witty fellow, better than even the local nobles, and though his daily life is a series of losses and humiliations, he manages to turn them into victories in his mind. He comes to a tragicomic end— put to death for someone else’s crime during the turmoil of the 1911 revolution.  Contemplating death, his chief preoccupations are the difficult task of drawing a circle to represent his name (the Chinese equivalent of an illiterate’s X), and the even greater one of singing a mocking song as he’s paraded around town. He can’t think of anything.

The story makes more sense if it’s understood as an acerbic portrait of China itself. Ah Q’s combination of backwardness and arrogance, startling in a mere human, works as a despairing picture of the Chinese as a whole in its time (the story was written in 1921). Curiously the story was well received— presumably everyone took it as a savage, recognizable depiction of someone else.

The stories in Wandering, all written in the mid-1920s, are not as satirical (or funny); on the whole they’re somber and sad. Most of them deal with young people attempting, without notable success, to make their way forward in a changing, depressing situation. Many of the characters, like Lǔ, are writers or teachers— though they are never depicted as being good at either profession. Some are ruined by public complaints, others by their own incompetence. A few of the stories don’t seem to go anywhere, but that’s Modern Leetrachoor for you. There are probably closer comparisons, but he most reminds me of Dorothy Parker’s short stories.  (Not her comic pieces, which are a different animal entirely.  When she wrote short stories her predominant mode was pathos.)

The wittiest is “A Happy Family”, about a writer who’s trying to produce an article for a wholesome family magazine— an article about a happy family— that is, one entirely unlike the ones in the book. He’s completely unable to do it— he can imagine a happy couple but it has no connection to his life. Also mostly comic is “Soap”, where a man sends his son to look up a word the “foreign devils” had called him, and also buys a bar of foreign soap for his wife.

A number of the stories could be called feminist fables— influenced by Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, name-checked here. One, “Regret for the Past”, is the story of a marriage that goes bad once the author loses his job; the narrator devolves from optimistic devoted husband into a depressed failure who drives his wife away. Fun stuff. There’s a flash of the Ah Q wit in “The Divorce”, about a woman who wants to cause as much trouble as possible when getting a divorce. She pleads her case eloquently, but becomes terrified when the judge whispers something to a servant— she is afraid that something terrible is about to happen, and quickly accepts the offered settlement. It turns out the judge was just calling for a pinch of snuff. “The New Year Sacrifice” is another story of a woman whose only escape from patriarchal roles is getting sick and dying.

Should you run out and read it? Hard to say. It’s a fascinating evocation of Lǔ’s epoch– the quiet couple of decades between the Revolution and the Japanese invasion. What comes across most clearly is that people had grand aspirations but no real clue on how to achieve them, either nationally or personally. It’s hard to do your part in modernizing China when it’s a struggle just to get or keep a job.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 173 other followers