(So fair warning, I’m gonna spoil the shit out of Pippin Barr’s “Eveline” as well as a bunch of James Joyce’s Dubliners. Play the first and come back–it’ll take you about five-ten minutes–and read the latter in your spare time if you want something draining and kind of depressing to read.)
Oh boy did I do the High Modernism thing in college: I’ve read every one of Virginia Woolf’s novels, I can speak fluently about Katherine Mansfield, and oh God, I’ve read Ulysses. I was that asshole. My advisor, itching for an excuse to reread it, offered to read Finnegans Wake with me and count it as my master’s thesis, and while I ultimately chickened out, I seriously considered and vaguely regret not taking her up on the offer.
So, oh hell yes was Pippin Barr’s “Eveline” Definitely My Jam. You’re cast as an aspiring writer who’s finally going to do it: You’re going to spend three hours every morning writing, and when you complete that short story that’s bursting to get out, you’re going to call a literary agent and start your career. And so you sit down at the typewriter, and you the player bang on the keys like an infinite number of monkeys and a story appears. You can distract yourself–looking out the window, reading a copy of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”, gazing at a plant–but the focus is on the story you’re typing up.
And I must admit that it took an embarrassingly long time to realize that the story you’re typing up is “Eveline” by James Joyce. I mean, it’s there in the title, right? What, at first glance, appeared to me, since I wasn’t really reading it, to be a hilariously laser-sharp parody of bad, self-conscious literary fiction turned out to be, you know, one of my favorites of Joyce’s stories.
“Eveline” comes to us from Dubliners, which is the first of Joyce’s four major works and his most accessible work. Instead of the ridiculous heights that his language eventually would achieve–making up words based on puns in four different languages, depicting thoughts in rambling, pages-long paragraphs, structuring chapters like catechisms–Dubliners is written in fairly straightforward prose. In many ways, its influence is so widespread that its innovations are taken as standard today. Writers like Joyce and Woolf, inspired in part by the advent of psychology, shifted the focus of their novels from descriptions of the external to portrayals of the interior self.
That focus on the inner worlds of characters was fairly revolutionary in the early part of the 20th century, but seems pretty natural, even slightly boring if you’re reading it today. Dubliners has one theme, hit over and over: Dublin is a city of losers, is a city that has beaten down these people so much that they don’t even realize that they’re losers. It’s, as you can imagine, a heartbreakingly sad work about broken people trapped in their situations and unable to take the steps necessary to get out, or even to imagine the ways in which they can.
My favorite, “A Painful Case”, is a perfect example: A lonely man meets a woman who’s in a loveless marriage–the kind where there isn’t even enough passion between them to have feelings of hostility. The two are kindred spirits: they bond over art and music and politics, and begin to spend a lot of time together, something her husband actively encourages. (Essentially, the romantic side of their relationship is so nonexistent that he’s simply happy that she’s found a friend.) When she indicates a desire to move their relationship to a deeper level, however, the man freaks out–over What People Will Think if he has an affair with a married woman, over his own morality, over his own stupid fears of what it might mean–and cuts off contact with her. Years later, he finds out that she reacted to that by turning to drink, and ultimately walked into the path of a train–and of course it’s ambiguous and irrelevant whether or not it was an accident or suicide. The man realizes what he did to her, and the happiness that both of them would have had had he been bold enough to pursue the relationship, and that he threw away the one person who ever loved him for the stupidest of reasons.
It’s that kind of book.
And so Joyce’s “Eveline”, the story you’re typing up in Pippin Barr’s game, is also about missing that chance, this time focusing on a young woman or not to run away with her sailor boyfriend and get on the boat that’s going to Take Her Away From All This–All This in her case being her sickly, alcoholic, abusive, asshole father, her rundown apartment, her crappy job. It’s a dramatic scene–the boat about to leave, her terror at leaving matched only by her terror at staying–and ultimately she decides not to go: She promised her dying mother she’d keep the family together, after all, and her father was nice to her once or twice, and she just can’t let him rot by himself, and who will take care of the little ones? She will be stuck in this life.
And yet Eveline is in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation, because, well, it doesn’t look that great for her and her boyfriend, really. “I know these sailor chaps,” her father says when he forbids the relationship–and there’s a strong implication that this is a case of a rotten husband smelling his own kind. Her boyfriend’s plan is to take her to his apartment in Buenos Aires, where they’ll live, but he’ll be off at sea and leave her alone to take care of the house and the inevitable children, and when the passion cools, there frankly isn’t that much to stop him from simply abandoning her when he’s done. That Eveline isn’t the only girl he’s done this with is certainly on the table.
In a way, it’s an odd choice for Barr to have as the centerpiece of his game. There is, perhaps, a bit of a fuck-you involved in it: Until a couple of years ago, Joyce material was under copyright and jealously maintained by his grandson Stephen, whose death legions of literature students will cheer. Joyce’s works are in the public domain now, however: Barr’s “Eveline” could technically not have been legally made a few years ago. Any use of Joyce in so extensive a fashion has a bit of that resonance.
But Barr’s writer protagonist–aren’t they kind of faced with a Joycean epiphanic challenge too? Here they are, ready to make the transition from amateur to Real Writer. A schedule: A goal: A plan. A lot is riding on this short story: It is the key to their future.
That the inevitable punchline is the literary agent telling you not to ever call again because you submitted a hundred-year-old James Joyce story as your own–well isn’t that a sign that this character’s unable to break out of their life? The desire is there, but the talent and creativity isn’t.
I’m getting to a point in my own writing where I’m beginning to make those first vague steps to cross the boundary from barista-with-a-journal to an actual honest-to-Goodness writer. Stephen King says that you become a successful writer when you send something in to someone, they give you money for it, and that money pays the light bill, and that literally started happening to me this year. I’ll still need a day job–I’ll probably always need a day job, because let’s be honest with ourselves, none of us are going to earn a real living on game development or criticism because the money ain’t there–but shit, it’s a nice boundary to have crossed.
But, like, I’ve been the character in Barr’s “Eveline” so many times myself. I think every writer gets to that point: You decide to set aside a time and schedule to write, you’re going to be serious, you bang out your story, and it turns out to be derivative and boring and unpublishable. No, I’m not a *hugely* successful writer–yet?–but I’ve bought myself food, pot, and a couple videogames from my writing, and that’s pretty nice.
See, what keeps Dubliners from being a whole total drain of a book–story after story about losers condemned to loserdom–is the final story, “The Dead”, which is usually considered not only one of Joyce’s finest moment but one of literature‘s. We follow a man named Gabriel as he attends his family’s Christmas party and silently judges everybody; in the end, his wife tells him a story about an old boyfriend that he never heard before and slowly begins to realize that he’s kind of a douchebag: He’s a pompous ass who’s detached from Ireland and family, whose visions of himself don’t match up to reality–but who’s still married to a loving woman, who has a healthy and alive family, and who just needs to pull his head out of his ass and be a better person. What happens to Gabriel Conroy isn’t nearly as dramatic as what happens to Ebeneezer Scrooge, but then again, his sins aren’t nearly as grandiose–he’s not cruel or heartless, he’s just kind of a self-involved buffoon. In general, the stories in Dubliners are structured with the characters representing various stages of life–early stories are about children, then progress to stories about teenagers and youth, then into adulthood and middle age. The affirmations of life at the end of The Dead certainly suggest that, as many people who are crushed and defeated by Dublin, there are those that it strengthens and who manage to transcend it.
And so, your wannabe writer protagonist in Barr’s “Eveline” will not be so easily dissuaded by one rejection. Why, maybe the problem was that you weren’t thinking big enough! Now that you’ve got a short story under your belt, a novel will be easy. And so you go back to the typewriter, and while I expected to bang out something about a moocow or stately plump Buck Mulligan or even the riverrun past Eve and Adam’s, what your writer protag decides to write, as the game fades to black: “Call me Ishamael.”
I doubt I need to point out the resonances in having “your” novel be about a man who destroys himself and nearly everybody around him in pursuit of an obsession.
I guess the note I want to end on is that–okay. Barr’s work gets kind of academic, very gamey, which is one of the reasons I love his stuff–generally there’s a lot of deconstruction of mechanics and all of this stuff I only vaguely understand, and there’s probably some of that going on here too. All of these themes I’m picking up on, the affinities with Joyce’s work–you know, that’s part of the point of the game. But, like so many of Barr’s other games, I can’t stress how fucking funny I found “Eveline”. You see its punchlines coming from a mile away, and yet Barr’s comic timing means that builds up anticipation for the joke. If the joke is built on a foundation of literary resonances, well, I think that just makes the joke better.
Like–Finnegans Wake, right? Most people consider it incomprehensible, and the papers written around it, like most academia, often represent a weird kind of pissing contest where people desperately want to prove to each other that they actually read the damn thing. Joyce himself joked that he put enough stuff in the novel to keep professors busy for “centuries”. There are people who consider the entire novel to be an elaborate prank, that it’s a meaningless pile of half-words, that the emperor has no clothes–an equal, death-of-the-authory school of thought that doesn’t care whether it’s a joke or not because there’s meaning to be gotten from it.
As for me? Finnegans Wake took ten years to write, and there’s a running gag in lit departments that it takes ten years to read. Certainly you’ve got to either get an advanced literature degree or do the equivalent amount of reading on your own to be able to have a hope in hell of making sense of its many allusions. It helps to know a shitload about Irish history and mythology. And if you’ve got a few languages under your belt, so much the better.
I mean, I don’t know about you, but that’s one of the funniest jokes I’ve ever heard.