Sunday, April 27, 2008

Notes on Notes from the new world

I have finally sat down to do the inevitable: write on Wagner James Au's book, The Making of Second Life. He has been very kind to me in his words, and I am one of his notes from the New World, so there is really no question of me writing a review, or pretending objectivity. Instead, this is something written as a writer who knows, in some strange sense that this place gives us, the writer.

Let me also say is that Hamlet, as I think of him, and Gwyneth Llewellyn were the two writers who got me looking at Second Life in the first place. If Gwyn ever writes a book, then it will have the same magic as reading Hamlet in print, but little else could. It is about the magic.

One part of that magic is that Hamlet's prose is invisible, and I mean that in the highest compliment you can pay to a non-fiction writer, in that your eyes just fall over it and through it, cascading downwards. This is noticeable in that it is not noticed. It is a hard magic to weave, because it means nothing is out of place, nothing sticks out and trips the eye. As my journalism professor said, it is the magic of having an unexpectedy expected word in the expectedly unexpected place. To write just like everyone else is to be banal; to write, as I am wont to do, with a cadence out of old books and old movies and old poems and many lands and languages, creates a hill and dale of rhythm that calls attention to its foreign origin. Hamlet is like the dancer whose foot is always where you think it will be while executing a move that you didn't think would happen.

This leads into the next gift of the book. I've heard people criticize Hamlet for his having too big an ego. It's not so. Just as his writing is conspicuous for its legerdemain-graceful pulling rabbits out of the air, so too is his personality conspicuous in not getting in the way of his story, but in what story he chose to tell. Every guy in my creative writing class wanted to write like Hemmingway; Hamlet writes in that same vein. Think on the title The Old Man and the Sea, and how it says everything about the writer, and yet is all about the story. That is the twist, to make the truth appear while everyone is looking for the trick.

Let me take an example from page 41:

Their offline reality, however, was quite different from the vision they had for themselves. At the time, Mandala was managing a gas station in the Midwest and floundering in college. Tyrell's leader (appointed after a coin toss) was a bald giant named BuBuhCuh Fairchild, in real life a student who signed up for SL's Beta program after realizing he was about to fail a class in quantum mechanics (even though it was his last requirement for graduating college with a double major in art and physics). "At which point," Fairchild remembers, "I was unemployed, applying for jobs at fast-food places, and not getting them because I was over qualified…basically maxing out my credit, doing some temp work. Starving, not able to afford my apartment." The perfect person, in other words, to lead the pioneering effort.

I almost typed that from memory, even though I had only read it once. No it isn't the best writing, or most cogent point, in the book. It isn't the killer tune in the show, it's just a bit on its way to another bit. But that's what makes it good reporting, like a good Second Life Build, it works even when you look under things. The end is both snark, and cogent observation on how the people who are perfect for a new world, are a bit too big to fit in the old one.

There are people who wanted a bigger, thicker book. I'm glad this book isn't bigger or thicker. There are people who wanted a book about the meaning of Second Life. But then, the answer to that is 84. I'm glad Hamlet didn't write that book either. There's no pontificating in the book, he's not running for Moses, or Buddha. He ends up being more like Lao-Tzu. The book is filled with the Tao of metaverse. It's points come and go, and take no notice of the academicization of the search for Second Meaning.

Over and over again there were moments which struck me as authentic, like the Tyrellian story just quoted from. Or the bit on page 97 where he talks about honey pots in Second Life ... I've gotten just that offer to be one. Or how he weaves references to the past, and points them to the future in the last chapter.

A friend of mine jokes that to pass as a woman in second life, all a man needs to do is wear prim shoes, and never talk about his graphics card. It's a matter of naturalness. This book is the same way, Hamlet never plays with the hardware, nor forgets to put on his shoes as he goes about exploring. It is a matter of naturalness that he talks about a resident who was paralyzed and typed with his feet as the gemlike observation that showed the iridescent ways that residents came to use this place.

My criticism is not really a criticism, but a description of the book I would write. In many places, I wanted prose that had the same feel to the eye that Second Life builds can have, or that the sense of motion can create. I wanted stores that wrenched and ripped, rather than described. But that's not this book, nor should it be this book. In the end, any thing I would say as criticism, is really a criticism of my not having finished a book on this place, not on the book that is in my hands. There are things missing, of course, because Second Life is too big and too sprawling. Like the moment in The English Patient when the mapmaker quips back that he has spent a very long time, and failed to know only a little bit of the vast Sahara. Better this bit so clearly mapped, than a mere box into which is shoved everything. I'm not sure I belong in this panopoly, but perhaps, it is best to see me there, as being as stand in for all the members of the sisterhood, who've come into this place, and done what we do, because of the exploding moment that entering into the willow world produces. That's best, it's not me there, really, but all of us, and it is good that he saw that too, in its place, among all the other things.

What that means is that Hamlet, and his book, tell you what it is like to be here, and there, in world, more than a more fluorescent prose style, florid thesis, or floorboard size would do. It gives way to those moments of pure recognition. This means this book is not some soon to be tossed aside bit of technovangelism, but is a more powerful testament, a kind of gospel of the founding of Second Life. It means that Hamlet is simply an evangelist, but for humanity projecting its way into a new world.

Other people wanted Dvorak's 9th Symphony, rather than this more slender song cycle. Or a Sistine Chapel that portrays the whole of Genesis, rather than this sketch in perfect hand. Or A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, rather than this, volume that will sit next to the tight travelogues. Hamlet has not written our Democracy in America. Not did he set out to do that.

He stares into a heaven, and down into a hell, and it stares back at him. We have met the future, and it has met us. Neither of them will be the same again.


1 comment:

  1. Now I will have to get the book. That transparency and not getting in the way of the story is an ideal I should strive for... though I hope that I can one day purchase and read your book as well.