“I Sold My Soul for a Quarter”

Lucky Wander Boy

D. B. Weiss

Plume, 2003, ISBN 0452283949; 288 Pages, Paperback $13.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Review by Andrew F. Duncan

If there is one facet of American culture that can be said to curse and/or plague the generation now navigating their late 20s and 30s, it is nostalgia. And not the fleeting, “warm reminder of sunny childhood days spent in the smiling embrace of friends and family” nostalgia – this is the past served up painfully earnest and sincere. This is serious. This is ponderous. This is religion. This is a graduate thesis on the Smurf village as communist paradise. This is a grown man outfitting his apartment with thousands of dollars worth of vintage Transformer paraphernalia. This is an obsession with pop and pulp far beyond irony. Perhaps most troublesome, this kind of nostalgia is the comforting embrace of the familiar. It’s looking back without looking forward.
But, as D.B. Weiss seems to be asking – albeit somewhat half-jokingly – in his very strange, largely plotless, hysterically pretentious, and altogether wonderful Lucky Wander Boy: if this old cultural detritus that our society at large perceives to be trivial means so much to so many people, then maybe it’s actually more important than we think?
It’s the late 1990s, and Weiss’ protagonist, the Palahniuk-esque Adam Pennyman, is an aimless, selfish, romantically hopeless, and blithely disengaged individual with only one vague goal in mind: finishing his academic and philosophical examination of classic video games, the Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments. The Catalogue is Pennyman’s bid for greatness and recognition, and also his prescient acknowledgement of video games as an art form. Pennyman’s contributions to the ambitious encyclopedia are full of the kind of hilariously over-analytical statements typical of nostalgia obsessives. For example: he sees Pac-Man as the embodiment of Darwinian theory: “The Pac-Man’s insatiable hunger for dots and Power Pills...suggests weighty parallels, such as the ravenous hunger for More Life that Darwin saw in all species,” and calls it “the world’s first metaphysical video game.” To Pennyman, Mario – the hapless plumber of Donkey Kong fame – is a Christ figure, his fruitless attempts to reunite with his captive love a Gnostic quest for redemption in a fallen world.
It may sound ridiculous, but that’s half the point. Pennyman’s Catalogue is written with such conviction that it seems believable, and his precise, well-rounded intelligence offers more than a few genuine insights. (As in the above “Mario Illusion,” where he realizes that the girl and the ape have been in collusion all along.) Weiss pulls the neat trick of making fun of Pennyman’s mentality while celebrating the innocence and weird genius of the games themselves. It makes video games like Frogger, Double Dragon, and Microsurgeon sound important – and perhaps they are. They certainly are special to Pennyman within the context of his life, and that’s about as important as one can get.
Work on the Catalogue leads Pennyman to thoughts of a distinctly mysterious and rarely played video game from his youth called Lucky Wander Boy. A surreal and metaphysical adventure seemingly culled from the combined influence of Buñuel, Borges, and the Old Testament, Lucky Wander Boy’s first stage is an ordinary enough “platformer.” For three consecutive screens, each one more random and arbitrarily nasty then the last, the hero, Lucky Wander Boy, has to jump around and avoid the attacks of nefarious creatures called “sebiros.” After getting past the third level’s “boss,” the dread Photo-Sebiro, Stage II opens up, and it’s here that things get interesting. On this stage, the player as Lucky Wander Boy roams a vast, seemingly endless desert. Every so often, one of seven random objects appears – a shovel, a briefcase, a hand mirror, a red dress, an axe, a screwdriver, or a baseball cap. Although none of these objects seems to have any practical use, they may be picked up and stored in an inventory. Occasionally strange little characters called “mekus” bump into Lucky Wander Boy, sometimes stealing an item, sometimes adding one to his collection. Meanwhile, the player continues to wander the desert, which slowly cycles from a calming beige color to a featureless white. Sometimes you fall off the edge of the world, and sometimes not. Although the purpose and point of Lucky Wander Boy are elusive, its overall symbolism is blatantly obvious, and it comes as no surprise to discover that Stage III is something of an unattainable goal, a level more discussed than ever achieved. Sadly, Pennyman has only succeeded in reaching the legendary third stage a single time – but before it could be revealed in its entirety, the game was unceremoniously unplugged by an arcade owner tired of its poor financial performance.
A relentless, self-aware inscrutability and seemingly limitless
possibility are what most intrigue Pennyman about Lucky Wander Boy. Indeed, the fact that the game on the surface appears to have no meaning whatsoever draws him in deeper, and only enhances his already vast, enveloping sense of wonder with the game. At one point, Pennyman describes how he felt when seeing his friend Nixon frustrated by the games enigmatic – and uncommonly frustrating to the less intellectually patient – aesthetics:

I felt a glee akin to what I would feel the first time I saw Duck Soup and realized that this movie knew it was a movie, or saw page twelve of issue #19 of Animal Man, where the title character gawked at me wide-eyed from a splash page and said, “I CAN SEE YOU!” – but the joy of Lucky Wander Boy was more pristine, because it came first. Back then, I harbored an inchoate version of a suspicion I still harbor today: that the intrinsic value of a thing is directly proportional to its initial incomprehensibility, and that things worth knowing often cloak themselves in hall-of-mirrors absurdity to scare off dabblers and those seeking choice small-talk nuggets. What Nixon saw as cheating, I saw as an invitation to confront, to decode a game that did not progress but unfolded, brimming with occult details, promising a revelation for which Pac-Man’s mysterious off-screen tunnels were just a coming attraction.

This gleeful, invitation-to-confront and reverence for the immediately incomprehensible informs much of Weiss book, which references postmodern classics in a playful swirl of allusions, from Finnegans Wake to Gravitys Rainbow. While Weiss own writing style remains highly readable, he takes obvious delight in occult details and Borgesian tricks, including literary in-jokes, alternate story branches, and the deadpan inclusion of a fictional book-within-a-book penned by a Chinese torturer.
After moving in with Anya, his beautiful but somewhat bemused and concerned Polish girlfriend, Pennyman gets a copywriting job at Portal Entertainment. Built on the wild success of the Eviscerator video game/film franchise, Portal is a “network of celebrity fan sites, movie fan sites, online games and Flash-animated Web shows”; meaning, any sort of property or Web trend that Portal’s young, energetic, megalomaniacal founder, Kurt Krickstein, can get his hands on and exploit through the use of “synergy.” Like a hungover sequel to Douglas Coupland's Microserfs, Portal – not to mention Pennyman’s experiences there – comes as one of Lucky Wander Boy’s most welcome surprises: a cynical, satirical, and sadly accurate encapsulation of the dot-com industry during the mid to late 90s. A Web company run on investment and empty promises, led by a charismatic but largely irresponsible huckster, Portal painfully captures the heady world of the dot-com era, with all its enthusiasm, potential, ambition, greed, futility, uselessness, and inevitable disillusionment.
Serendipitously for Pennyman, one of the properties Portal has licensed the rights to is Lucky Wander Boy, and through some not-so-sly persuasion, Pennyman gets assigned the task of developing the script for the Lucky Wander Boy feature film. A draft already exists, but it’s an uproarious amalgam of unimaginative and ham-fisted Hollywood clichés. Typically for Tinseltown, it’s as far away from the spirit of the game as one can get. Through his sporadic work on the license, Pennyman comes into contact with Araki Itachi (Japanese for “weasel”), the beautiful and enigmatic mind behind Lucky Wander Boy. Unfortunately for the imperious Krickstein, Itachi has Meaningful Consultation Rights, and must approve of anything to do with the property before it moves forward. Much to the chagrin of the increasingly distant Anya – and to the increasing fascination of Pennyman’s like-minded video game addict, co-worker, and lover, Clio – his unnatural preoccupation with Lucky Wander Boy, and its creator, is growing. How does one access Lucky Wander Boy’s third stage? What really happens when you get there? And what exactly does the game mean? The quest to answer these questions becomes Pennyman’s reason for living, and constitutes much of Lucky Wander Boy, the book.
As Weiss’ narrative meanders along, it becomes clear that yes, he is commenting on a range of topics such as the dot-com era and the role of nostalgia. But perhaps just as importantly, in Pennyman Weiss astutely shows the beginnings of the Japanese pop culture invasion now holding America’s youth in its shrill, bug-eyed, energetic grip. Starting with a smattering of marginally watched television shows in the 1960s and 70s (Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Star Blazers, Battle of the Planets, etc.), and continuing slowly to grow in notoriety throughout the 80s and 90s (Nintendo, Transformers, Akira, Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh), it’s arguable that Japanese pop culture – as expressed in manga, anime, and video games, in particular – is the most popular and influential form of entertainment in the United States right now. In some ways, Pennyman (and perhaps Weiss himself) may be seen as an early version of the otaku. Although otaku is usually translated as “geek,” in the West it denotes a species of geek overwhelmingly obsessed with Japanese pop culture, especially anime and manga. In Japan, it has more negative and creepy connotations. Derived from the word for “home,” the Japanese otaku is an obsessive, a fanatic who lives nearly in a state of self-imposed exile from society, and to a certain extent, reality. Although Pennyman's obsession with Lucky Wander Boy never quite isolates him as a shut-in, and he rarely makes direct references to anime, his obsession is certainly otaku in nature, and his Catalogue entry “On Geeks” is one of the funniest, most insightful diatribes on the subject I’ve seen. (A clue to his obsession is provided by Weiss himself, who names Itachi’s fictional company Uzumaki. Japanese for spiral, its also the title of a manga and subsequent film about obsession and the annihilation of the self.) Aside from video games – which Japan has cornered the global market on – Pennyman frequently references Japanese history, language, philosophy (Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai), literature (Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe, Kobo Abé), film (Takeshi Kitano, Takashi Miike, Kwaidan), and eventually, perhaps inevitably, develops an unhealthy erotic fixation on a Japanese woman, Araki Itachi. Imagining her as the source and very embodiment of Lucky Wander Boy’s elusive mysteries, he soon becomes convinced that he’s her lone champion. Rewriting the Hollywood script as a Beckettian parable, an increasingly unstable Pennyman embarks on a quest to meet the creator face to face, convinced that Stage III is almost at hand: “I am waiting for you, Lucky Wander Boy!”
Of course, at the core of the book's goofball main character and mad rush of American and Japanese culture isn’t twenty/thirty-something angst, dot-com trauma, or even I’m-so-bored-with-the-U.S.A. sentiment, but something more distinctly and resoundingly human: the search for identity. And it’s to Weiss’ credit that he explores this age-old, psychological journey with sharp intelligence, wry cynicism, and surprising poignancy.

I remember them: the machines. Their mysterious names and beautiful, garish illustrations promise fun, adventure, escape. They stand many feet above my tousled head, but I can still see the screen. I can still use the controls. I can still play. The quarter slides into the slot with a distinct, rattling, “ka-chunk.” The spare but melodic electronic music starts. The machine bursts into life. Colorful graphics light up my eyes, and it’s magic.

–Andrew F. Duncan
28 April 2003

Additional Information

Lucky Wander Boy Homepage – The official site for the novel.

LWB Review – By The Modern Words Bob Williams. On The Compulsive Reader.

Contact

Email Andrew F. Duncan at: andrew@orangeyouglad.com

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.