Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Dungeon Master

Today's entry will be less of a traditional review, and more of a personal recommendation. During this summer, The New Yorker is keeping their Archives section open, granting access to a true treasure trove of great content. I am a longtime fan of The New Yorker, especially their fiction section. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you head over there and check some of these tales out, but this one especially hit home for me.

The Dungeon Master, by Sam Lipsyte, first appeared in the October 4th, 2010 issue. It is, at its heart, the coming-of-age story of an unnamed teenage protagonist, and it centers around the Dungeons & Dragons campaign he and his friends participate in.

Word association time. Quick! What comes to mind when you think of a group of teens in the 80's playing D&D? Weirdos? Nerds? Virginal types? Got to love stereotypes. And yet, stereotypes cannot endure without some track record of accuracy. The DM fully acknowledges the fact that the game attracts a good deal of the fringe types, but instead of writing them off as losers, it dares you to look at what makes them tick.

Lipsyte has crafted quite an intriguing group here. Our nameless protagonist is not so much weird as unmotivated and directionless. There is one glum kid, and another with a seething undercurrent of bitterness under his skin. There is the DM's younger brother Marco, trapped in that fruitless quest for acceptance that all younger siblings must walk.

And then there is the titular Dungeon Master. Like the narrator, he remains unnamed, and is only referred to by title. The Dungeon Master is a true mess; he is nasty, vindictive, and unabashedly cruel. He does "really weird" things; some in truth, some simply the fruit of rumor. But when you study him closely, you see his strong qualities; he is intelligent, and imaginative.

The problem that plagues the Dungeon Master is that he is must assuredly emotionally disturbed. And he's playing the best he can with a losing deck.

There is sadness abound in this story, and it plucks every emotional heartstring. But at its core, it is also a celebration of the outlet the D&D provided for kids like these. A happy escape. A sense of control, of actual influence in world and life events for people that had the capacity for neither. It was the greatest refuge of all.

Lipsyte paints a vibrant picture with short strokes, fully optimizing an economical word allotment. Visual cues tap into the wells of childhood memory; a troubled boy's gait, the pungent aromas of orange or raspberry soda. In six words, he describe's one of the boys' sisters: "all phone calls and baggy sweaters". And from those few words you can draw a vivid image. The parent in the other room portrayed as weird, and rightfully so; for nothing could break the continuity of a good campaign like a parent poking their head in.

Where The Dungeon Master veers a little into ham-handedness is when it tries for commentary. In last year's Hobgoblin review I touched a bit on the fears of parent's in the 80's based off of urban legends, James Dallas Egbert, and that decade's fear of Satan in everything. Don't get me wrong; Lipsyte perfectly captures the concerned dialogue of the parents of the time. It's just that the tale would have worked better as a "who is really more messed up, me or my parents?" parable.

There's the crux of the matter regarding D&D hysteria. It was more than convenient to pin the frustrations surrounding emotionally disturbed children on a game. Perhaps the scariest thing for a parent to do is to assess themselves before pointing fingers at their children.

Within this circle we have broken families as well as broken children. We have the Dungeon Master's father; whose romantic inclinations could not hold on to his wife, and whose pedigree as a child psychiatrist cannot save his older son. We have Cherninsky's parents, who stopped raising him when their younger daughter died. And we have the narrator's family; a mother who is failing as a small business owner and a father stuck in a middle-management job. Two parents stuck in a middling life that demand excellence from their children. For the teens, this is the ultimate hypocrisy. For the parents, it is an attempt to provide an egress from a lifelong consignment to mediocrity. I've visited both sides of the fence now, and understand how each side feels.

When I first started reading this story, I almost wanted to stop myself. I didn't want to get sucked into what was promising to be a trip back in time. I didn't want the story to end, just like I never wanted to leave the fantasy safety net D&D offered. Maybe this story hits a little hard for me because I knew a lot of these guys, and maybe it's a little harder because to certain degrees I was some of those guys.

And in the end, it's all the same. The fantasy ends, and the world tries to rend you to pieces. Some make it, and some don't. That's what happens to the boys here; some try to "fit in", with predictable results. They find that they can't keep evading whatever is on their heels forever. Then, like the curtain being moved in "Oz", life knocks down the laminated Dungeon Master's screen, and all refuge from broken families, broken social structures, and broken souls is gone forever.

It takes a lot of skill to write a story so emotionally devastating. I highly recommend this story to all readers, and especially to those who grew up with the game. Check it out while The New Yorker's Archives are still open.

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