The Black Country, by Kerry Hadley-Pryce

Fact is, if we chose to live the way she does, in that kind of Hell, it would change us. It just would.

There are two kinds of ways to write a book that is genuinely startling: you can do it with the plot, or you can do it with the style. (You can, of course, do it with both, but the vast majority of authors, in my experience, pick one or the other. Those who do both tend to be absolute knockouts, though.) Kerry Hadley-Pryce, in The Black Country, mostly does it with the style. The plot is basically something we’ve seen before: Maddie and Harry, a couple who have been together since they were too young, now hate each other. They relate to each other mostly through silence and lies. They attend a memorial service for the university tutor who introduced them; at the party afterwards, Maddie meets someone else, a man named Jonathan Cotard, and fucks him. On the way home, in the icy darkness of a West Midlands winter night, they run someone over by accident. It’s Jonathan. They leave him there in a panic and drive home. When they return in the morning, he’s not there. From here, the plot descends into a whole mess of infidelity, underage sex, and further developments which are even more tabloidesque. (Spoilers later.) So in some ways, it’s not a surprising or innovative book. But in other ways, it’s disturbing and haunting and queasy-making in a manner that suggests there’s more to it than a bare summary makes it seem.

Hadley-Pryce’s world is nasty, and its nastiness is tactile. People have “bluish” skin; their hair is greasy; kitchens are cold and dirty and have little bits of grit underfoot. Smell is omnipresent, usually bodily–people’s breath, their hair–and always faintly repellent: “cat-food and chemicals”, “halitosis-like”, “metallic”, “sour”. Landscape gets the same treatment; urban or rural, there is something chilly and corrupted about it:

And Maddie kept walking, away from the city, out, past the edges of disused factories, beyond the metropolitan blocks and buildings. Not far really. It isn’t far before the city limits quite suddenly become an abandoned, unimproved no-man’s-land. Here, black weeds and oily mud line the water’s edge, and that day, puddles of gradually icing mud had breached the earth to offer up dim reflections of overhead power lines.

It is land that could be beautiful, or at least dignified, in another novel, but the significance of landscape is a matter of perception–in the eye of the beholder, as it were–and no one in this novel is in any fit state to see beauty anywhere.

Which brings me to the next curious thing about The Black Country: its narrator. Someone who occasionally refers to themselves in the first person is telling us this story, but it is neither Maddie nor Harry. It appears to be someone to whom they’ve both confessed; most events are mediated through “he says” or “she would have”. This has the effect both of being slightly jarring and of making everything contingent:

And then, quite suddenly, the traffic moved. Jerked forward. Harry would have driven forward with the flow, and Maddie ran her hand across her own flat belly and says she thought something about orders of bliss, or some such philosophical nonsense, and she felt her face crimp with the worry of it.

Harry spoke.

“Jesus”, he said, or something like it. And Maddie knew exactly what he meant.

The implication is that the details aren’t really important; we can get a good enough sense of what’s going on even with the imperfections of memory. Whether we’re meant to agree with the narrator on this isn’t clear. There aren’t really any major events whose interpretations are contested, though; the only things we’re given to doubt are relatively small, like the order in which people spoke, or the precise things that they said. The big picture is never all that controversial. I’m still not certain whether this is clever, deterministic, or accidental.

That narrative style, with its short declaratives, its fragmentation, its sentences starting with “And” or “But”, and its frequent repetition, is the backbone of the book. The Black Country is fortunate in being short (under 200 pages); any longer and that style would start to grate severely. As it stands, though, it’s a clever way of building the narrator’s personality without actually telling us who he is. The insistence behind phrases like “It would. It really would”, or “She does. She really does” grows ever more revealing. What kind of person needs to repeat these things? What kind of person needs to convince themselves so constantly of reality?

We eventually find out, of course, and this is where the plot starts to get tabloid-y. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Sure, all of this has been set up from the beginning: the hints that Maddie left Harry for a year, fifteen years ago; the revelation that Harry has had an affair with a schoolgirl; the fact that that schoolgirl has recently disappeared; the slow reveal that the narrator is someone whom Maddie keeps going to see. But the sudden Josef Fritzl turn that the plot takes is pretty unexpected, and I couldn’t help wondering whether it was entirely necessary. We’ve already got two people who hate and hurt each other, paedophilia, prostitution, paedophilic prostitution (which I haven’t even discussed here), self-harm, and corrosive guilt and shame. Even though the man-crazed-with-jealousy-kidnaps-people-and-hides-them-in-basement device ties up the plot neatly, I couldn’t help wishing that Hadley-Pryce had stuck with the more banal evils.

Unlike most novels with crimes in them, though, this one ends on a deeply ambiguous note, and that resonates strongly with a major preoccupation of the book: consequences, or the lack of them. The way we deal with the fallout of our actions reveals, in large part, who we are; people are vulnerable when stressed because often stress makes us our worst selves, and those worst selves are parts of us that we need other people not to see. Maddie and Harry are terrified they’ll be arrested for hitting Jonathan, so they flee; then they’re terrified they’ll be in even more trouble for fleeing. When they return and see that he’s not there, their relief makes them physically weak. When Maddie sees Jonathan’s watch under the hedge–a proof that it really did happen–she starts to cry:

Not for Jonathan, she’s perfectly honest about that. No, she was crying for herself. She was crying for the hope that had been snatched away. She says she was crying because she lost faith.

They don’t, as it turns out, need to worry, because nothing ever comes of it. Jonathan’s body turns up a few days later, but it wasn’t them who killed him; he’s suffered twenty-four stab wounds, after which no policeman would think to look for signs of having been bounced off a car bumper. Harry, who’s a teacher, is several times called into the office of the headmaster. Each time he thinks they’ve discovered his affair with a teenager, but it’s always about something else. Official repercussions don’t exist in this book, or at least they don’t catch up in time.

But unofficial repercussions very much exist, as exemplified not only by the aforementioned Fritzl plot twist, but by the weary horror of Maddie and Harry’s lives. They’re helpless, pathetic, mean, controlling people caught up in a nightmare of their own making, and they can’t escape. The ending only literalizes the trapped nature of their lives. It’s an unsettling, odd book, and I can’t quite figure out whether it works entirely as it’s meant to, but if you take one thing away from it, it should be this: be a person who can change. Otherwise, you’re on a path to your own private hell, and it won’t be fun when you get there.

Thanks very much to Salt Publishing for the review copy!


September Superlatives

A better gender balance this month, and less unswervingly miserable! I’ve been much more thoughtful about choosing what I want to read and when, paying attention to my moods and trying not to overwhelm myself with one genre or tone. I’ve been terrible at reviewing, though, again. This is a shame, because it’s not like I don’t have tons of ideas about these books; I just convince myself I haven’t got the time to do them justice. I should just write some stuff, instead, and see what happens.

most unabashedly comforting: Without a doubt, the month’s first selection, Winifred Watson’s 1930s novel Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. I desperately needed something that wasn’t crazy violent/dark/misogynistic/sorrowful/bittersweet, since almost everything that I read in August was at least one of those things. Miss Pettigrew was a perfect solution. The story of a poor spinster who finally blossoms when her temp agency accidentally gives her an assignment with a flighty nightclub singer named Delysia LaFosse, it’s got enough wit and sauce not to be blandly boring (there’s cocaine and premarital sex!), but nothing is actually, you know, upsetting, and everything ends well. There are also some really affecting, poignant pieces of interior dialogue, as Miss Pettigrew talks herself into enjoying life for once. I loved it.

most unexpectedly profound: “Unexpectedly” is a bit of a fudge here, because you can expect sly profundity in anything Terry Pratchett ever wrote. Nonetheless, Going Postal, which features an ex-con man glorying in the birth name of Moist von Lipwig being made to take over the running of the Ankh Morpork Post Office, pushes quite a few buttons, and pushes them with hilarity and wit. As always, the existence of golems—creatures to whom words are supremely important, because without them they wouldn’t function, although it’s also by words that they’re enslaved—threw up a good deal of moral conundrum, as did the revelation that the battle to be waged isn’t between old ways and new tech, but between giving a shit about people and giving a shit about money. It’s not as dark as some of the late City Watch books, but it’s seriously fun.

The other book that fits this description from this month is Bernardine Evaristo’s novel Mr Loverman, about an eighty-four-year-old Anglo-Caribbean grandfather who decides to finally come out as gay, ending his hopeless, loveless marriage of fifty years. Evaristo is a novelist I’d heard of, but never read, and this novel won one of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prizes in 2014. It’s full of humour, and Barry, her protagonist, is certainly no victim; his attitudes are decidedly un-PC and he’s as judgmental as they come. Yet he’s also sympathetic, as we discover what gets sacrificed when you spend your whole life living an untruth. There’s a gravitas to this book that’s belied by its transparent prose; you can read it in a day, but it certainly won’t leave you for a while longer.

most disturbing: Penelope Mortimer (wife of John Mortimer, who gave the world the Rumpole novels) wrote a semi-autobiographical book called The Pumpkin Eater, about the breakdown of a marriage. Her protagonist, Mrs Armitage (we never learn her first name), is married four times by the age of thirty and mother of an ever-growing brood of children. The subtexts of infidelity, control, power dynamics and obsession made me think of it as a cross between James Salter’s Light Years and Ellen Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Certainly the most singular fictional woman I’ve encountered for some time.

most thoroughly engrossing world: Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon hooked me without mercy. From a submarine in the North Atlantic to the jungles of Luzon to the Quonset huts of Bletchley Park, not once in over nine hundred pages do you feel as though you’re not fully immersed in everything that’s going on. A dazzlingly intelligent book by a writer who can really, really write (and who is often laugh-out-loud-in-the-queue-for-the-bus funny, which is the true litmus test of literary hilarity.) I plan to read the entirety of his backlist, an honour heretofore reserved in my mind for AS Byatt and Sarah Hall only.

most thought-provoking: China Miéville’s novel Embassytown, about an alien populace, the two-mouthed Ariekei, whose language—or Language—has no referents. There is no way to lie in Language; words don’t represent things, they are the things. From this premise, Miéville spins a world and a plot that follow the implications of that worldview all the way to their conclusions. There are human similes, people who have acted out certain tableaux for the Ariekei in order to enable them to talk about something; there are cloned Ambassadors born and bred to speak Language (it can only be done with two mouths and one consciousness). There is addiction, war, and semiotics. It is one of the most intellectually complex novels I’ve ever read, and Miéville carries it off with very little apparent effort.

oldest friend: Bill Bryson’s majestically funny A Walk In the Woods, a travelogue about attempting to hike the Appalachian Trail with his alcoholic hometown buddy Stephen Katz. It’s partly set in the area I’m from (the Blue Ridge Mountains), and I’ve read it so many times that I know all the jokes, but that’s part of the joy. It’s recently been made into a film, which could be either wonderful or not so.

most topical: After having a guided tour through Mary King’s Close, a sunken medieval alley in Edinburgh, I read Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin, one of his famous detective novels starring DI John Rebus and the city of Edinburgh. Set in the early 1990s, some of the discussions about Scots-Irish religious sectarianism were convoluted and left me rather wishing for an executive summary of some kind, but it was exciting that the murder in the novel takes place in Mary King’s Close and that many of the locations Rankin name-checks were places I had been.

up next: I have about a thousand books which I have promised I will formally review, starting with Kerry Hadley-Pryce’s The Black Country, which I’m halfway through: a poisonous little gem of a novel about a marriage gone badly wrong. I also managed to leave Scotland having acquired six new books, so those are going to have to fit in somewhere…

Fall (P)reviews

Recently I stepped down from my position on the editorial team at Quadrapheme. I’d had a great time there, learned a lot and been given incredible opportunities, but it was time that I moved on. Now that I’m just working on Elle Thinks, I have a lot more room to expand and to accept books for review from publishers that fit my own interests. The following are all books that I’ll be covering here in the fall months, some of them very soon!

The Black Country, by Kerry Hadley-Pryce (Salt Publishing). This was sold to me as a variant on Gone Girl, and although I generally roll my eyes at such comparisons, that’s because I think Gone Girl is a real work of genius, and it’s too facile to say that every thriller with an unreliable female narrator is on the same level. The recommendation, however, came from Salt’s publicist Tabitha Pelly, who’s been reliably funneling incredible books my way for over a year, and whose judgment I trust. As far as I can tell, it’s about a married couple whose relationship is toxic, who make terrible (criminal?) decisions together and separately, and who spend a lot of energy deluding the reader as well as themselves and each other. Yum yum.

Landfalls, by Naomi J. Williams (Little, Brown). A fictionalization of the Laperouse expedition that sought to circumnavigate the globe in the eighteenth century; each chapter is told by a different character. Ships’ captains, scientists, and sailors all tell their story. I’m hoping it’s going to be a cross between Patrick O’Brian and William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth trilogy. It certainly has the most beautiful cover of the season.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, by Soji Shimada (Pushkin Press). Pushkin’s new crime imprint, Vertigo, seeks to bring into English translation some of the best crime and thriller writing from around the world. I’ve never read any Japanese murder mysteries before, but  this tale of an eccentric, murdered man whose plans to kill the seven women he lives with are carried out to the letter after his death struck me as particularly fiendish. This cover is absolutely ace, as well.

Katherine Carlyle, by Rupert Thomson (Corsair). Created by IVF in the ’80s, Katherine Carlyle is born eight years later. By the time she is an adolescent, her mother has died of cancer and her father is emotionally distant. Partly out of an immature desire to punish him, partly out of impulses she doesn’t really understand herself, Katherine decides to disappear… This looks like it could be extraordinary, and Rupert Thomson has a good reputation. I’m excited for it.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, by Max Porter (Faber and Faber). Two young boys lose their mother; their father loses his wife. Into a household shattered and inarticulate with grief comes Crow, a version of Ted Hughes’s famous bird. He brings solace, warmth, and wildness. He promises not to leave until they are ready for him to leave. This is one of Faber’s biggest fiction releases this season and it looks utterly amazing. The fact that I have a Bit Of A Thing for Hughes, Plath, and their respective poetry certainly doesn’t hurt.

I’ve also been promised a copy of Virago’s gorgeous new version of The Birds and other short stories by Daphne du Maurier, which I’m very excited about. See how pretty/scary it is!

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

Like a pipe organ, a Digital Computer is not so much a machine as a meta-machine that can be made into any number of different machines…

As an eight-year-old, I suffered the indignity of having my parents rung up by my math teacher. This was not the last time my parents were rung up to discuss my behaviour—there was the time when I wrote rude notes about a teacher in my notebook, and the time when I hit a boy in the hallway and was recommended for child psychotherapy; I was a bit of a trial as a kid—but it was, in retrospect, the most depressing. My peccadillo, it turned out, was to have written, in darkly pressed graphite capitals, I HATE MATH in the top margin of every page of my math workbook. Every single one.

Things didn’t get any better after that. At nine, I memorized multiplication tables, but, oddly, didn’t learn long division. At ten, I went to middle school and was immediately placed into the bottom set for maths. At twelve, I was taught for a year by the redoubtable Amy Brudin, in whose classes I tried to read novels under the table. At fourteen, I went into freshman geometry, where I set the pace for the rest of my high school maths career by sitting silently near the back of the classroom, copying the answers out of the back of the textbook and being hit by intermittent waves of despair. At seventeen, I got into Oxford and told my AP Statistics teacher, as politely as I could, that her class was going to be the bottom of my priority list until I sat my AP English exam. She nodded, appeared to understand, and gave me full marks for the end-of-year project, which I’m fairly certain I didn’t even turn in.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying that if you had told me, fifteen or ten or five or even two years ago, that I would one day spend a good portion of my morning commute engrossed by a multi-page breakdown of modular arithmetic, and come out of the experience possessed of significant understanding, I would have laughed in your face. But this is exactly what happened in the course of reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, a book so erudite, so fascinating and so unexpectedly funny that I really think Stephenson could write about nearly anything and achieve much the same results.

There are three main plot strands, set in two different time periods. Beginning in the Second World War, we’re introduced to Bobby Shaftoe, a US Marine stationed in the Pacific whose raw intelligence is channeled into being an exceptional soldier and tactician, and Lawrence Waterhouse, whose mathematical genius is apparent from a very young age. Waterhouse spends a year of his university career at Princeton, where he meets Alan Turing, with whom he is friends for the rest of his life (one of the great joys of the book is the dialogue that Stephenson gives these two). He finishes university and joins the US Navy, and is in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bomb it and the war, for the Americans, begins. Sixty years into the future, Waterhouse’s grandson Randy gets involved in a company that wants to establish a data haven in a small Southeast Asian country, and needs the help of Shaftoe’s descendants to do it. Throw a pile of Nazi war gold into the mix, and we’re deep in techno-thriller territory.

Stephenson’s virtues as a novelist are essentially twofold. The first of these is his ability to explain mathematical and computing concepts thoroughly, comprehensibly, and without being patronizing. This is an unspeakably difficult combination, but if you want the very definition of “writing for the intelligent layperson”, that’s what he does. The narrative voice at these points is patient, methodical, reasoned, and conversational. Here, for instance, is the beginning of a three-page exposition on a technique known as Van Eck phreaking:

The way that the computer talks to you is not by controlling the screen directly but rather by manipulating the bits contained in the buffer, secure in the knowledge that other subsystems inside the machine handle the drudge work of pipelining that information onto the actual, physical screen. Sixty to eighty times a second, the video system says shit! time to refresh the screen again, and goes to the beginning of the screen buffer—which is just a particular hunk of memory, remember—and it reads the first few bytes, which dictate what color the pixel in the upper left-hand corner is supposed to be. This information is sent on down the line to whatever is actually refreshing the screen, whether it’s a scanning electron beam or some laptop-style system for directly controlling the pixels. Then the next few bytes are read, typically for the pixel just to the right of that first one, and so on all the way to the right edge of the screen.

It’s impossible to read this and not be nodding your head, going, “Uh huh, okay, that all makes sense,” and then before you know it the man has gotten onto square waves and you’re like “Gosh, this makes sense too!” Ordinarily I am deeply anti-info-dumping in novels,  but I loved it in Cryptonomicon; the book sounds like this because a lot of its characters do, too, or at least you get the impression that they would, if you asked them to sit down and explain these things.

Stephenson’s other major novelistic gift, which you may have gathered a bit of from the above passage, is that he is very funny. It’s a dry, witty sort of humour, but it’s constant, and it makes the act of reading the book a continual pleasure. It’s about serious things and clever people, and part of the delight of that is recognizing how much of cleverness is the ability to play, to pretend, to be un-serious. The narration also maintains a lightly knowing touch on the way that nerds relate to each other: their emotional peculiarities and their ability to focus intensely. Here, for instance, Turing and Waterhouse in the early days of their friendship:

One day a couple of weeks later, as the two of them sat by a running stream in the woods above the Delaware Gap, Alan made some kind of an outlandish proposal to Lawrence involving penises. It required a great deal of methodical explanation, which Alan delivered with lots of blushing and stuttering. He was ever so polite, and several times emphasized that he was acutely aware that not everyone in the world was interested in this sort of thing.

Lawrence decided that he was probably one of those people.

Alan seemed vastly impressed that Lawrence had paused to think about it at all and apologized for putting him out. They went directly back to a discussion of computing machines, and their friendship continued unchanged.

Or, for another fine example of nerdy objectivism made humorous simply by being observed:

Later, he was to decide that Andrew’s life had been fractally weird. That is, you could take any small piece of it and examine it in detail and it, in and of itself, would turn out to be just as complicated and weird as the whole thing in its entirety.

“Fractally weird”! Who doesn’t know someone who is fractally weird, eh? What a brilliant idea, and what a way of expressing it.

It’s not all fun and games, however. Bobby Shaftoe’s plotline, in particular, becomes more and more fraught with violence and horror; he’s a Marine in the South Pacific just as the war with Germany ends and the war with Japan steps up. General MacArthur makes an appearance, and is sketched with more nuance than you might think; he’s clearly a lunatic, but a lunatic whose own internal logic is coherent. The sack of Manila, on the other hand, is unrelentingly horrible, and reading descriptions of it was sickening. Stephenson is to be commended for his clear-eyedness; just because he’s writing a novel that, in some sections, qualifies as picaresque, doesn’t mean he’s flippant about the horror or the trauma of war.

At over nine hundred pages, there are inevitable lapses in control; particularly near the end, it was difficult to keep all of the connections across the decades clear in my head, and some of the coincidences involved in connecting characters do seem a bit…well…strained, if you think about them too hard. But you don’t, because the book is galloping ahead at full speed the entire time, throwing off quips and asides, and you’re too busy having fun gathering those. After Cryptonomicon, Stephenson wrote three books which are collectively known as the Baroque Cycle and which feature Shaftoes and Waterhouses of yore, in the feverish atmosphere of political and technological acceleration which characterized eighteenth-century Europe. This happens to be my literary period of choice, so I am definitely going to find and read them; I’d read Stephenson’s shopping list, if I knew that it would give me another fix of that warm, ironic, sharply observant, utterly humane voice.

Man Booker Shortlist Feelings

Image from the Guardian

This is totally brilliant–the two Man Booker longlisted books that I’ve managed so far are also on the shortlist! That’s nearly half my work already done (although I doubt that I will actually be able to manage the entire shortlist by the date of the announcement, I’ll give it a try)!

A quick rundown:

A Brief History of Seven Killings (link to review) was one of the best books I’ll read all year. I said I didn’t think it would win, but I’m now having to reconsider–obviously the judges have some sense of taste and discretion. It’s a magisterial exercise in controlling a sprawling plot and maintaining two dozen-odd separate voices; the only thing that I thought might challenge its place on the shortlist would have been a judicial tendency to prefer the contemporary-realism on offer from most of the white/Anglo writers. With most of them out of the way, the most plausible challenger to this book’s ultimate victory is A Little Life.

The Fishermen (link also to review), by Chigozie Obioma, is impressive too, albeit in a totally different sort of way. Control of voice is still the key to its success; having a child narrator who isn’t obnoxious and still gives the reader the information she needs is hard, and Obioma does it. He also integrates themes of classical tragedy and postcolonial trauma in a way that never feels forced or showy. I doubt this will win, though, pitted against the other big beasts on the list.

A Spool of Blue Thread has now made it onto both the Man Booker and Baileys Prize shortlists, which means there has got to be something to it, but I still can’t bring myself to be more than marginally interested in it, given a plot blurb. If it wins, I’ll read it and get some sense of what this is all about; if not, I won’t seek it out. I’ve never read any Anne Tyler before; maybe if I had, I’d be more keen.

A Little Life is the least surprising presence on the shortlist. Pretty sure it was Yanagihara’s contest to lose from the get-go; now it’ll be interesting to see if her book has a different effect in the context of a smaller, more focused list. This is the one I most want to have read by the time of the announcement.

Satin Island‘s inclusion surprises me. As I think I said before, the premise seems entirely slick and heartless, a bit cynical and ironic and po-mo, a sort of dying gesture towards the cult of David Foster Wallace. I’m still not about to back it for the win, but perhaps there’s more to it than its summary would make it seem.

Finally, we have The Year of the Runaways, which I expect will stand or fall as a book based on its ability to make us care about a very current-events sort of premise, and as a contestant based on its ability, again, to measure up to James and Yanagihara’s books. I know next to nothing about it, but it might be the feel-good entry. Or it might be brilliant! Anything is possible.

I’m genuinely shocked to see that Lila isn’t on the list. Marilynne Robinson writes beautiful prose that conveys humane, complex ideas; if there’s a better description of what a good novelist does, let me know, but I rather think she fits that one. If anything was almost guaranteed to be on the shortlist, it was Lila. I wonder whether that’s the very reason the judges left it off. You’d like to think not, but there are all sorts of behind-the-scenes decisions being made…

Anyone have any other feelings about the shortlist? Anyone read some, most or all of the books? Anyone think they can confidently predict a winner?!

Of Games and Books: Now Play This at Somerset House

I don’t generally write about things that aren’t books, or book-related, here. That is, after all, my wheelhouse, and this has been an explicitly book-review-and-literary-chat site since the spring. Surprising as it may seem, however, I do other things too, and quite often they relate back in some form to literary concerns: narrative, story structure, style and elegance, determining the truth of a situation.

One of the things I have started to do is try and learn how to code, which can be deeply frustrating, but also deeply rewarding. Oddly, although my brain was engaged throughout my three-year degree, it was not engaged in at all the same way as coding forces it to engage. I wasn’t not thinking as an undergraduate, but I was not thinking like this. This kind of thinking is something I can almost feel. You know when people talk about being able to see the cogs turning in someone’s head? I expect if you looked at me while I was working through the basics of binary, or while I was trying to get the syntax of a regular expression right, that’s sort of what you’d see.

Relevant to coding, amongst other things, is the whole idea of games, playing, exploration. The beauty of games is that you don’t need to have spent a childhood glued to an Xbox, or even a particularly deep knowledge of mathematics or logic, to be able to appreciate them and to get some idea of the systems behind them. This weekend, Somerset House  was hosting a three-day exhibition called Now Play This, which was entirely devoted to games of all descriptions. The Chaos and I got a half-day pass (in actuality we spent about an hour and a half there, but at £5 I would say it was entirely worth it) and, on Saturday, went.

As far as I can tell, there are basically two types of games: the type where you can win, and want to, and the type where winning is incidental, if not impossible. Traditional board games fall into the former category—Monopoly, for instance, and chess, and so on—as do parlour games like Charades. (I would also argue that a subset I like to call Teenage Party Games—Spin the Bottle, Truth or Dare, Never Have I Ever—falls into this category, although in some of these, winning is losing.) There were plenty of traditional, winnable games on offer at Now Play This: a whole room was devoted to board games, while in another there was an enormous table maze and a set-up involving a strip of LED lights and a control toggle, which you could bounce back and forth in order to advance your little green light and defeat the oncoming enemy red lights. There were also a couple of traditional, winnable video games, including one called Sagittarius which involved trying to use the gravitational pull exerted by planets to propel your weapon and shoot your opponent. If we’re honest, though, I’ve always had a bit of an uneasy relationship with traditional games. This is partly because I’m both very competitive and very impatient. I wish I were a natural chess player, but I can’t think five moves ahead. I want to just win already. The only game I ever really enjoy, come Christmas time, is Charades, and mostly that’s because I’m good at guessing. (Being forced to act in Charades, by contrast, is hellish.)

What’s really fascinating, then, is the second type of game, the type that you’re not necessarily trying to win, and where winning might not be the purpose of the exercise at all. Now Play This excelled in demonstrating these sorts of games. Many of them are designed in order to force you (or rather, encourage you) to explore an environment, whether it be the one you’re currently in or the one that the game places you in. In the first room we entered, for instance, there was a set of headphones and a small Nintendo handheld control. Depending on how you moved the control—speed, direction, and so on—different soundscapes would emanate from the headphones. The game itself, I think, was flawed in its implementation: the sounds weren’t easily differentiable, there didn’t seem to be very many of them, and the connection between your movements and the sounds being produced was unclear in practice. In theory, though, it’s obviously fascinating: you get to explore the geography of a place that doesn’t exist in the realm of the visual. It’s a completely different take on how we occupy space.

In another room, there was a two-person tent, with a projector inside that was throwing lights onto the tent’s ceiling. We crawled in, after waiting for the two people currently occupying it to crawl out, and found a MIDI controller. Using its sliders and buttons, it transpired, changed the pattern, orientation, and speed of the light designs being projected onto the ceiling. It’s a terribly simple idea, but it has almost infinite possibilities in terms of variation. It doesn’t look like a game in the traditional sense of the word, but what it does is get you to learn some basic behaviours—slide this slider up and the colour changes; slide this one down and you alter the design—and then use that creatively to alter your environment. You have the potential to alter your environment radically, if you choose. I didn’t realize this fully until a young man with a lip ring crawled into the tent between us, apparently undeterred by the limited space (this is one of the other great things about Now Play This: you make quite a few temporary friends). While I had been content with the sliders, assuming that the other buttons would have been disabled, he hit the controller’s Record button, then Pause, then begin twirling a few dials. Instantly, more interesting things began to happen. You learn as you play, then, not to assume that you know the parameters of a game before you’ve tried them.

One of the best aspects of the exhibition was a room with small index cards, on which was printed the challenge “Can you design a game that you can explain in 128 characters?”* There were pens scattered about the table. People had taken up the challenge with alacrity, both in person and online; there were printouts of tweeted responses to this question pinned to the wall. Games, I discovered while looking at them, don’t have to be complicated. It seems as though the opposite is primarily true: the simpler something is, at least to begin with, the more you can do with it. (The best instance of this is the glorious invention of Calvinball, from the late and lamented comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Calvinball is distinguished by having no rules, or rather, by having rules which you make up on the spot and alter at will. There is a ball involved; other than that, anything goes.) It is also evident that games are sometimes not easily distinguishable from behaviours more readily associated with pathological instability. One of the suggested games, for instance, involved determining which cardinal direction—north, south, east, or west—was the most dangerous, and then spending an entire day endeavouring to keep at least one object between you and your chosen horizon. “A window doesn’t count,” the designer noted. I spent a moment imagining this game, and concluded that, for the right player, it could quickly become an all-out obsession.

11947862_10204876154039610_5556384717864210513_oThis explains, I suppose, why people who think about maths and infinity and game environments do often become a little unhinged. (Either that, or they already are.) Games can be a kind of controlled experiment in altering your state of mind; a mental illness, in some senses, is a game that you can’t stop playing. I am thinking in particular of what happened to me when I lived alone for two months in Oxford; in order to keep some level of structure, I began to obsessively plan out a daily schedule, including strict times of day at which I was permitted to eat, read, shower, and go to sleep. If I deviated from this schedule by more than about five minutes at a time, I became anxious and stressed. To begin with, it looked very much like a game; by the end, it was driving me mad.

Since I am still, of course, a book person, my immediate response to this has been to read around it. I already have James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games; I’d also like to read more around Alan Turing, one of whose major papers I read a few months ago (understood about 30% of it, which means there’s nowhere to go but up), and while we’re on the subject of play, codes, and code breaking, I bought Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon today. (I was in Hatchards. I was, sadly, escorted out before I could throw all of my money over the counter.)

Oh, and I’ll keep you all up to date on the progress of my quest to code. You may be pleased to know that I sorted out the regular expression, in the end.

*The Chaos, in grand style, responded to this by writing, “Can you design a game that you can implement in 128 characters?”