Very exciting news for me: I got to do a guest episode of 301: Permanently Moved. I’ve been listening to Jay’s show for quite some time now, and have grown fond of his thinking through both that and his blog. So it was cool to get the opportunity to try my hand at this format: a five-minute monologue on anything I wanted to talk about.
Here is the transcript for the episode. It’s a bit different from what ended up in the episode, with a little extra that I had to trim. Enjoy.
Well well well, it’s Friday, June the 11, 2021. It’s episode 2123 of 301 permanently moved dot online, a personal podcast 301 seconds in length, written, recorded, and edited by me, J David Osborne.
The creator of the Dark Souls franchise, Hidetaka Miyazaki, tells a story of his childhood. Growing up poor in a small town in Japan, Miyazaki would entertain himself by going to the local library and reading science fiction and fantasy books. Some of those books were in English, which the young Miyazaki had only a rudimentary grasp of. He therefore pieced together a narrative in the gaps. He found this experience so pleasurable that it informed his design of Dark Souls, in which the story, what little there is of it, is handed to you through item descriptions, cryptic, fragmented dialogue, and the act of playing the game itself.
Petscop is Youtube series released between 2017-19 by Tony Domenico. Using the Let’s Play style of video popularized by the platform, it follows the narrator, Paul, as he takes the viewers on a walkthrough of a mysterious game demo for a Playstation 1 title that doesn’t exist. The first episode has Paul’s weird little avatar running around a nursery for Pokemon-like creatures until he has exhausted all the puzzles. After entering a cheat code written in the liner notes, he is taken to a dark, empty field, where he finds a door in the ground that only opens after he leaves the console for several hours. What follows is Lynchian (the creator lists Inland Empire as an inspiration) descent into an obtuse story of child abuse and family secrets. Domenico crafted a bible for the series as it went along, and toyed with the idea of having an “explainer” episode to smooth out all of the gaps. He ultimately threw it away. A wise choice.
Neither Dark Souls nor Petscop are for everyone. The former has a notoriously difficult barrier to entry, and the latter is at times aggressively boring. But they are my two favorite works of art that I’ve experienced in recent memory.
What’s going on here? Why is it so difficult for me to sit through a movie, or finish reading a book? Is it as simple as an annihilated attention span from too many hours spent doom scrolling Twitter? Yeah, that’s probably part of it. But I had this issue well before I finished my first novel ten years ago.
That novel tells the story of escapees from a Siberian gulag who have to convince another prisoner to come along with them, so that he can become the food when they run out in the middle of the icy tundra. I pored through the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia vols. 2&3, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, and Anne Applebaum’s Pulitzer-winning GULAG, leaving sticky notes throughout. I felt like some sort of vulture, digging for the bits of human misery to include in my weird book. After running into several blocks, I decided to explain absolutely nothing in the book. Scenes are presented as disjointed, fragmented, little vignettes. It feels like there’s some authority there, but it’s not an essay.
I only really started having fun with the book once I took out all the pieces that explained what was happening. I got really into crafting a puzzle within the book that is so frustratingly opaque that it can’t really be solved (though two people have). This yielded mostly positive results, although I’d invite you to check out all the one-star reviews I have on Goodreads for a slightly angrier opinion.
Jane Alison wrote this fantastic book called Meander, Spiral, Explode, in which she suggests three alternatives to the common (and she notes, “masculine”) way of telling a story, in which the action rises and rises to an eventual climax, with a short epilogue afterwards. The three alternatives, as you might have guessed, are “meandering, spiraling, and exploding,” which I won’t get into here, but the book is highly recommended.
I would suggest another alternative, which is what I’m calling for lack of imagination and because it sounds cool, the “Dark Souls structure.” I suppose it could alternatively be called “Petscopian” or even “Lynchian” (although that term is getting worn out to the point it’s synonymous with “weird.” So it goes.) I’m suggesting that a sense of not-knowing is a fundamental aesthetic mode that some readers (myself included) prefer. It’s different from mysteries, in that mysteries are meant to be solved for you. They’re puzzles with an answer key. It’s not full-on surrealism either, as that tends to be impressionistic and intentionally inconsistent and absurd. A mode of not-knowing, however, drops a reader or a viewer or a gamer into a world that is tightly controlled, internally consistent, yet completely unavailable. Not cold, per se, but closed off.
The thing is, we’re not sure what Miyazaki meant in some instances. It’s up to interpretation. But he meant something. And for some people, the best thing art can do is open up that space in your mind that lets you fill in the blanks, a place that was there in childhood before you became weighed down with the burden of knowing things.
Before I go, I want to thank Jay for allowing me the space here on 301, one of my favorite podcasts. If you like this, I write a daily mini-blog over at brokenriverbooks.com, which also has links to my books and podcast, No Country. Have a good one.