As my summer reading-for-pleasure run continues, I’m in the midst of Cline’s Ready Player One. I’m enjoying it – certainly more than my last half dozen reads or so – and this bodes well. There is, however, one (fairly large) aspect of the book that I’m not enjoying half as much as I feel I should, and I kinda want to talk about that. It has to do with the 1980s.
Now, I’m a bit younger than Cline, but not by a lot. I remember the 1980s well – they were my childhood. So far, I’m picking up just about every 1980s reference the book is laying down (which is a LOT) with the possible exception of Zork, which was a bit before my time. I’m getting the impression (and have picked up from others) that this incessant river of 80s nostalgia is part of the book’s appeal. But, like, it isn’t really doing anything for me. I mean, I nod my head every so often and think to myself “oh, right – WarGames. I should watch that again,” but I do not, myself, feel anything upon the reference to WarGames. Reciting dialogue from the movie does not have the same feel or magic as actually watching the movie.
And this is where I think the book is failing to grab me: I love the 1980s, but I don’t especially love a non-stop discussion about how much I love the 1980s. That kind of nostalgia-based story doesn’t grab me, because it does not, in and of itself, actually do anything but reference the existence of some other story I liked. It’s like watching a clip show of your favorite show in lieu of an entirely new episode.
Now, to its credit, Ready Player One does have its own story and its own characters and plot and so on, and the aspects of the book I’m really enjoying are entirely in those parts. The problem develops when we have a five paragraph explanation of a movie I’ve seen dozens of times and then I have to be led through it all again, scene by scene. Cline does his best to get through these things with efficiency, but the fact is that I’m not so much getting a new story as a re-shoot of a classic thing I’ve known since childhood. I don’t really want to play through the Tomb of Terror again, since I’ve already done that before.
What I’d really prefer is a story that takes the elements of the movies and stories common to the 1980s that I enjoy and see those elements used to make a new story in the same loose genre. Ready Player One is, on some level, telling a “1980s” story in a number of ways (the love interest, the down-on-his-luck kid, the evil rich guys, etc.), but it isn’t doing it as well as I feel Stranger Things does, and that’s because too much of Ready Player One expects me to cheer when they reference Joust or Back to the Future without actually replicating the emotional content or importance of either of those properties.
Now, in Stranger Things, I felt real, actual nostalgia. The film looks, feels, and sounds like the movies and books I watched and read as a kid. However, it does all of this without constantly bashing us over the head with “ain’t the 80s cool” stuff. Yes, yes, many of the camera shots are direct homages to Spielberg and Zemekis and others. Yes, a lot of the elements are things we’ve seen in Stephen King novels or Richard Donner films. However, the show is not actually about any of those things. They are incidental – they’re establishing a mood, but the mood is not the main course. Even if you don’t pick up any of those references, the story is, in and of itself, emotionally compelling and interesting. This is in large part because it is telling the kind of story that is emotionally compelling in a similar way to its forebears. It is not, however, a simple retelling of any one story, nor is it a ripoff or shallow imitation. It is a new, legitimate entry into a genre of film that has been somehow forgotten.
The same, unfortunately, can’t be said about Ready Player One. If you don’t get any of the references, a significant aspect of the plot and action is going to be lost on you. Yes, Cline does a pretty good job of trying to get you up to speed, but if there is no actual preexisting emotional attachment to the things referenced, the book isn’t going to work half as well as it should.
Here’s another way to look at it: we are currently as far away from the 1980s as the 1980s were from the 1950s. So, let me ask you this question: does Back to the Future still hold together as an interesting, emotionally compelling film even if you don’t know jack about the 1950s? Of course it does! Because, even if you don’t get the “Marvin Berry” joke, more or less everything of significant import in that film is relatable to anybody. Now, if, on the other hand, the movie asked us to follow along as Marty went through an incessant primer on 1950s scifi from his father, all the way to the point where he began summarizing Asimov’s Foundation and Marty started quoting passages, you’d lose the audience. Because at that point you are more interested in making references than you are in telling your own story, and story always has to come first.
I realize that I’m coming down a bit hard on Cline here, and I don’t really mean to say that Ready Player One isn’t a good book – as mentioned, I’m enjoying it a good deal – but I think the things it does best are not the things everybody seems to pay attention to and the things it struggles the most with are the things everybody assumes are the draw.
I just finished Stranger Things last night. Loved it – it’s magnificent television, some of the best I’ve seen in years, and you need to get your ass on Netflix and watch it yesterday. It’s Goonies meets the X-Files if written by Stephen King and no, that is not even remotely an exaggeration. It’s glorious. Not perfect, granted (there were a couple places it might have been *better,* but really I’d be quibbling), but crazy good.
Spoilers Below, by the way…
There are probably dozens of things I could write about this series and about the reaction to this series. Like, why the obsession with Barb? Why doesn’t anybody ever use the buddy system ever? Even when they do use the buddy system, why does nobody ever say “hey, look at this thing!” before wandering off, thereby defeating the purpose of the buddy system? Also: Does Matthew Modine live at the lab? Does everyone? If so, where the hell were they all when Hop broke in? If not, where do they all live, if not in the exact same small town as everyone else? Where do they commute from? I could also go on and on about Dungeons and Dragons, about that special kid-friendship that we have when we’re twelve but that melts away as we get older. I could even talk about the Acrobat and the Flea for a bit. About bullying (again), and on and on and on. But no – the topic I choose today is the tale of two moms, Joyce Byers and Karen Wheeler.
This show deliberately and consciously poses for us a pair of mothers who are, for all intents and purposes, opposites of one another. On the one hand, we have Joyce – a harried single mother, barely able to manage her life and her finances. She’s a terrible cook, has a bad relationship with her ex-husband, works a crappy retail job, and looks like she hasn’t seen a hairbrush in years, let alone used one. On the other hand, we’ve got Karen Wheeler – sensibly dressed, classy, well-to-do. She makes beautiful turkeys, sits her family down to dinner on time, maintains a beautiful home, and seems to have this mom game all sewn up. On the surface of things (and, indeed, in the eyes of Hawkins, Indiana), Karen is the “good” mother, and Joyce is the failure. I mean, hell, Joyce has her kid kidnapped right from under her nose, right?
But that isn’t the case. In fact, I’d like to argue that Joyce is the very best kind of mother and that Karen is, frankly, a pretty slack performer. Here’s why: Joyce trusts and believes and is engaged in her children and their lives. Karen just has small people that live in her house.
Let’s start with Karen Wheeler, shall we? First of all, Karen seems to have absolutely no idea where her children are at any time. Granted, neither does Joyce, but she’s busy fighting nether-demons and one of her kids is on an alternate plane of existence, so she should be given a pass on that one. Meanwhile, Nancy sneaks not one but two boys into her room while her mother is home. At the same time, Mike is hiding a psychic wunderkind with a shaved head in the basement and Karen has no goddamned idea at all.
But, okay, kids at a certain age acquire a life of their own, sure – Karen isn’t going to keep them in the Panopticon, right? Consider this, though: Karen doesn’t knock on Nancy’s door, she just comes in. Because she doesn’t trust her or because she is unwilling to grant Nancy the right to privacy, in either case it doesn’t speak well of her. Jonathan, who’s got a whole different kind of mother, is surprised at this.
And further: When Nancy learns that Barb has disappeared and suspects that something terrible has happened to her best friend, what is the thing Karen wants to talk about when they get home? That’s right – did you sleep with that boy. Not “how are you doing with all this scary stuff going down,” no, instead it’s “you LIED to me!” Classy move, Karen. Now, should she discuss the fact that Nancy has embarked upon an active sex life? Yeah, sure – obviously a serious discussion has to be had – but maybe approaching the topic right then and in that way isn’t the wisest plan, lady. Look, we’re all upset that she decided to sleep with that douchebag, but maybe the disappearance and possible death of her best friend takes precedence. Maybe you shouldn’t make her feel like a villain in her own home if you want her to talk to you?
And here, here’s the final straw: When her son runs out the door in a panic saying “if anybody looks for me, I’ve left the country” and then creepy government agents start rifling through her house and start taking her kid’s stuff, she gets upset, sure. But when Creepy Scientist Guy sits down and says “trust me – tell me where your son is,” what does she do? She gives him up. Just like that. It’s only fortunate that she is so disconnected from her kids lives that she is unable to give him up effectively. She has no idea where Mike might be.
Now, I don’t think Karen is a bad person and yes, she obviously cares about her kids, but she also has no idea what caring ought to entail. She is focused on keeping her kids clothed and clean and well fed (all admirable) while totally failing to appreciate or even like the fact that they have independent lives and are actual people worthy of her respect.
Which brings us to Joyce.
Yeah, Joyce can’t be home all the time (she’s a single mom in 1983 – cut her some slack, guys!) and she had some pretty terrible taste in men, but think of all the interactions we see between Joyce and her kids. She encourages Will’s creativity. She is engaged in the emotional well-being of Jonathan. She does more than love her kids – she admires them, she is proud of them, and she has their back no matter what.
When her kid talks to her from another dimension and everybody else thinks she’s completely nuts, you know who she trusts? Her. Kid.
When they show her a solid mock-up of her son’s body through a double glass pane from ten feet away, does she fall for it? Not for a second.
When an otherworldly monster rips a hole in fucking space-time right in front of her eyes and chases her from her house, you know what she does? Do you know what Joyce Byers does? SHE GOES BACK IN THAT FUCKING HOUSE AND SITS THERE WITH A GODDAMNED AXE ACROSS HER KNEES.
Why? Because her kid’s in trouble, she knows it, and even if the rest of the universe thinks she’s nuts, she is going to find him. Come Hell or High Water, she will be there for him. That – that – is true, pure, powerful motherhood. Not the birthday parties or the pretty house or the nice clothes. Not the quality of her mashed potatoes, but because of who she is to her kids: not a jailer or a disciplinary officer, but a lioness. Proud bearer of her children’s standard. Guardian of their potential.
All parents (God, don’t even get me started on the fathers in this show – a whole other post) should learn from her example. Believe in your kids, trust them, admire them, be there for them when they need you most, and they will return the favor.
The paperback version of No Good Deed comes out next week! On August 9th, be certain to pick up your copy in cold, hard paper! It’s a limited release, so don’t expect to see tons of them in bookstores – order online, from Amazon, B&N, and anybody else selling real, actual books.
Related to this, I will be doing a reading and book signing at Pandemonium Books and Games in Cambridge, MA, on the evening September 8th, so mark your calendars if you want to meet me/get a book signed!