Monday, November 15, 2010

Short-a-Day: Sam Lipsyte's "The Dungeon Master"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Oct. 4, 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 87.

What's the deal with pen-and-paper role-playing games? Well, in Lipsyte's tale of "The Dungeon Master," it's a means of taking back some meager control of the world around you. Hence our "hero" uses "a secret language that we don't quite understand" (note the clever first-person-plural that Lipsyte sneaks in to an otherwise straight first-person story; a temporary strengthening, the power stemming from a union of unlikely friends), but to everyone else, "They say he's been treated for it." Picture the world of this angry, rebellious child: newly divorced parents, an overwhelmingly inept New Age doctor of a father ("Play nice, my beautiful puppies"), his sniveling younger brother. Is it any wonder we meet the Dungeon Master like in a snarling spray of spit? "'Eat your fate,' he said. 'Your thread just got the snippo!'"

The snarky tone is a coping method, and it's one that allows Lipsyte to humorously cram a lot of serious social and existential issues into his story. For instance, the game begins with Cherninsky, who plays a thief named Olaf, preparing to roll for his character's life. But first, we're informed of the unusual desperation in his tone (given what is otherwise a regular series of in-game deaths): "Maybe he’s thinking of people who really have died, like his baby sister. She drowned in the ocean. Nobody ever mentions it." It's the first of many things that aren't talked about, cannot be talked about; instead, it's boiled into a game. Likewise, there's this clever exchange:

“Don’t kill me in a bakery,” Cherninsky says.
“Don’t steal bread.”
“What do you want? I’m a thief.”
Cherninsky rolls, dies, hops out of his chair.
By boiling choices down to simple characters--"What do you want? I'm a thief"--and actions down to the outcome of chance--"rolls, dies, hops out of his chair"--the world becomes an oddly manageable sort of place. Especially when the real world, which quickly begins to invade the story, is so seemingly hopeless. Our hero, at home with his ordinary family, senses something is wrong and, pressing his father, learns that their finances are not doing as well as they'd hoped, suggests that he might think about getting a summer job soon, something more constructive than this "game" of his. Except:
I don’t really have better things to do. I could do what I did before I started going to the Varellis’. I could come home and eat too much peanut butter and hide in my room. I could lie in bed and think about Lucy Mantooth, stroke a batch off, nap until dinnertime. I could watch TV and fake doing my homework. But I’m not sure that those are better things.
And, as we'll find out, this is sort of true. Our "hero" may want to slay a dragon in the game, but in the real world, he doesn't do all that much--and as a result, he's doomed for, at best, being the Burger Castle employee of the month. His fantasies have taken the shape of the world around him, and while they have acclimated him to the world, they've also drastically reduced his expectations, so much so that when he joins a new game--a more professionally run D&D campaign--he finds something missing. Perhaps that's cruelty, or perhaps, more realistically, it was the honesty of that Dungeon-Master delivered cruelty: “[Death]’s not bullshit. It’s probability. What, you gonna kwy? You gonna kwy like my little brutha? Life is nasty, brutish, and, more to the point, it sucks."

Ambitious story, and while it's not as multifaceted as an actual twenty-sided die, it's an enjoyably bleak look at one teenage wasteland.

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