‘Poetry is the one thing that isn’t contaminated, the one thing that isn’t part of the game.’ Roberto Bolano
Years ago, I knew someone with ambitions to be a writer. Like many of us, this friend – let’s call him Felix – brimmed with curiosity and youthful ambition, and, as Fitzgerald writes of a novelist character in Tender is The Night, ‘Fine dives have been made from flimsier spring-boards’. We both worked night jobs, and during the week we would hang out around his flat, drink beer, play computer games, talk about books. Real life might have been calling to us from the street outside, but we could ignore it quite easily. Real life was at work.
The trouble with ambition and ideas comes when they get thwarted by irredeemable fact. And the trouble with writing is that, well, it’s actually hard. You can try to cheat your way into the castle, but the guards always track you down. Sooner or later you get the tiny inkling that you’re not even half as clever as you think you are, and Samuel Johnson starts kicking your skull like a rock.
Felix struggled to get anything done. He told himself that he had a good armory in terms of language and ideas- ideas were never really his problem- but he was missing characters. During his adolescence, he’d been a keen player of role-playing games, and he still had some of those many-sided dice. He decided to score personality traits from dice rolls and draw up characters for his novel. You know the kind of thing: Anger 20, Obsession 15. Capacity for Love 5. I’m not really sure how these cards would have been used in practice, but for Felix, this represented an experimental solution to his problem. William S. Burroughs and B.S. Johnson had attempted similar things. J.G. Ballard would surely have approved. This would be Felix’s contribution to the avant-garde.
Writing is hard. But sometimes, for whatever reason, we make it harder than it ought to be. For most writers, it’s enough to keep an eye out for the people who cross their paths, to create characters from the composite sketches from that intersection of memory, insight and imagination. Sometimes, though, some of us want a bit of magic. Tricks become fascinating: those conjurings and deceptions, those games. Felix’s character compositions came back to me when I read ‘Enrique Martin Arturo’, Roberto Bolano’s short story about warring poets, which includes a mysterious folder of writing left to the narrator by the eponymous character. Bolano knew all about games. His novel The Third Reich tells the story of a professional war gamer struggling with the demands of romantic love. Any time he had away from writing (what time?) Bolano would spend playing world conquest games on a Playstation. Salman Rushdie came out of his years of hiding with a nasty Mario addiction. Georges Perec played pinball machines in his favourite cafe, and became a member of Oulipo, the group which aimed to advance the potential of writing by forcing it into inventive constraints. After all, if a game is defined by anything it’s the rules. When it comes down to it, writing is a game. Both depend on compulsion and delusion. Both make you believe in things which have no substance. Both are ways of spinning away your life. The real world? That’s at work. And we want to play.
I sometimes wonder what happened to Felix’s character sketches. I imagine them as the kind of arcane text-a Book of Thoth, a testament of Caspar Hauser- the kind of thing that might have been pasted onto the back of one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes. I like to think of them being unearthed in a hundred years or so, poured over for significance. Perhaps those rolls of the dice tore something loose in reality. Perhaps one of those characters is about to walk through the door of this café, where I’m writing this, on a rather grey day in early February. Perhaps I’m actually one of those characters, writing a story about Felix, who all this time has been writing a story about me.
Five or so years ago, I started taking my daughter to swimming lessons. In between watching her work through the lengths of the pool, I would write poems on my phone. It’s never far way, that secret voice, however much you try to suppress it. One of my neighbours would sit a few rows down from me. Doubtless he thought me rude at the time, but later, he found out I’d written a novel, and I told him about spending those lessons writing poetry on my phone.
‘It’s funny,’ he said. ‘I always thought you were playing games.’