GTA: Helping Our Messy Universe Make Sense

It’s 1986. I’m cruising down to Ocean Beach in my super car and it’s a pandemonium of bikini wrapped honies on the sidewalk and the sun is all superstellar orange above the still palms. Judas Priest is blasting out of my car’s massive sound system.

 It’s also 2003 and I’m ten years old and sitting on a boxy blue beanbag in front of the TV. I get out of the car and stick a chainsaw in a bloke walking his dog along the beach front just for the sheer hell of it.

 Those were the days. Those are probably my strongest early memories of video games, chasing wumpa fruit like a maniac in Crash Bandicoot aside. The world has completely changed since GTA: Vice City came out, since I sat on my beanbag all day hitting people with a golf club and then running away from the cops.

 We live in an invisible, non-linear universe with a galaxy sized attention deficit. It’s almost tediously pregnant with contradiction. Ease and speed of use makes the Internet one of man’s most impressive social lubricants and one of it’s most alienating. The whole thing is ostensibly transparent, almost platonically so and yet the network is controlled by shadowy security agencies and fantastically large private corporations, both following their own secret agendas.

 It makes a perverse kind of sense that the only product capable of gathering these broken shards of culture and forming a fearful symmetry out of them is a video game series.

 When the historians of America put pen to paper in a couple of hundred years (well not pen to paper probably but you know what I mean) they may ask who best satirized the hegemony. The novels of Philip Roth or Jonathan Franzen perhaps? Jon Stewart’s Daily Show? The life and times of Paris Hilton (an unknowing satire, that one)? The Simpsons?

 No.

 The most adroit skewering of life in the American empire is to be found in a Scottish video game series. One wonders if Alex Salmond realizes that the most valuable export his country has isn’t whisky or North Sea oil but a game that revolves around robbing banks and pimping out hoes.

 I don’t really ‘do’ games either. I would usually much rather slop around with a book or go and shout obscenities at overpaid footballers down in Shepherds Bush. I haven’t read anything about GTA V; I’ve ignored the trailers, the reviews and the accompanying moral outrage (I am going to assume it exists).

 Nevertheless I have ordered it. Of course I’ve ordered it. I am after all a male under the age of 45.

 Without knowing anything about it I know that this ‘game’ will not only meet but better my wildest expectations.  It will be like swimming through a kaleidoscopic dream demulcent poured out of the minds of Richard Nixon, Hunter S. Thompson and Tony Montana.

I use the future tense because my copy has not arrived. My current most hated phrase in the English language is ‘NOT YET DISPATCHED’. 

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Frankly Vulgar Introduces The 9 People You WILL Meet At University

1)  The Wierdo

The weirdo inhabits a tragic Quasimodo-ish world of social anxiety, unwanted reclusiveness and permanently bad hair. I can guarantee that one of the first people you meet will be a weirdo and they shouldn’t be as easy to identify as they are, because there is usually nothing that physically identifies them (admittedly they often smell pretty bad). But identify them you undoubtedly will. The real mark of the weirdo is their ability to kill conversation stone dead simply with their presence. You could have a room with four best friends enjoying some high level roistering until the sudden appearance of the weirdo dissipates all the joy in the room. Large parts of your first year will revolve avoiding roaming weirdo’s who will attempt to befriend you inappropriately.

Famous Example(s): Dementors, Uriah Heep

2)  The Wasteman

(via The Telegraph)

(via The Telegraph)

There is a strange paradox at the heart of the wasteman. Wastemen literally do nothing at all: they don’t do any work but they don’t go out and have a good time either. They are just sort of there like that unshiftable antique armoire in your great aunt’s house. This raises the paradoxical question: surely the absence of effort requires effort to maintain? It can’t be easy to do no work at all and get away with it can it? Plainly the vast web of lines constructed by the wasteman means that he might be less of a waster than he appears. If only he could use that energy for good eh?

Famous Example: Nick Clegg

3)  The Northerner

It's cold 'oop North (via www.fanpop.com)

It’s cold ‘oop North (via http://www.fanpop.com)

As a Londoner, pretty much anyone who hails from north of Watford is both a strange and fascinating creature. Imagine my delight then, when the first person I met at Uni came from the barren post-apocalyptic wastelands that surround Leeds. Seriously though, northerners are great and by far the best kind of people on this list. Raised on a diet of glassing each other, wearing shorts in winter and pronouncing bastard as basss-ted. Northerners are not only generators of pure mirth but also make handy bodyguards when you start a fight in the local takeaway. Keep them close at hand because they are destined to eventually die in one of Blair’s oil wars.

Famous Example(s): The 9th Doctor, John Snow and DCI Gene Hunt.

4)  The Gym Guy

The reason you go to the gym is to do this one day.

The reason you go to the gym is to do this one day.

One of the more boring brute facts about the slow Americanization of our culture is that everybody has to look like a fucking Californian nowadays. The only way to do this is to sweat it out at the gym, which used to be the sole preserve of those fat public school boys whose latent homoeroticism leads them to beat each other up ‘playing’ rugby. Now we’re all in there, although beyond being relatively healthy I’m not sure I understand why. All gym guys seem to want to be, in Clive James’ imperishable phrase, ‘brown condoms stuffed with walnuts’. The paranoia and lack of basic satisfaction with life that the gym guy has is all a little bit sad really.

Famous Example: James Haskell

5)  The Toff

Draco finds out that Daddy just lost his job. (via harrypotter.wikia.com)

Draco finds out that Daddy just lost his job. (via harrypotter.wikia.com)

Toffs are incredibly defensive nowadays. Speak to any of them (they’re easily identifiable by their large jowls and un-ironic presence in the VIP areas of the worst clubs) and they will reveal this. It’s not fair whines the toff: Not fair that my parents have more money than yours! Not fair that people hear my accent and shout ‘rich nob’ and ‘wanker’ at me! Not fair that nobody takes my subscription to the New Statesman seriously! It’s just so tough for them. I guess the toffs will have to console themselves with all their money, their country hunting lodges (hurrah for killing small animals!) and their inevitable invitation to Prince Harry’s wedding to whatever Tattler-fodder he ends up knocking up.

Famous Example: Draco Malfoy

6)  The Private Schoolboy

The most slappable face in show business. (via www.mirror.co.uk)

The most slappable face in show business. (via http://www.mirror.co.uk)

Social status, shit loads of money and the far-reaching benefits of nepotism aside, all private schoolboys know that they are basically fucked. They are doomed to one day wake up aged 50, look glumly into the mirror and see Nigel Farage staring back at them. Unlike the toff who welcomes this fact (and has a hard on just thinking about it) the private schoolboy spends his time at university trying to hide from the inevitability that their career will involve fixing the stock market and fucking over ‘povo’s’. All the retro 90’s gear, the ‘Urban Renewal Trucker Mesh Snapback Hat’s’ and the pointless drug habit can’t obfuscate the bottom line here: privately educated men are c***s (trust me I’m one of them). Most private schoolboys have supported Chelsea since 2007.

Famous Example(s): Chris Martin, David Cameron, Michael McIntyre

7)  The Poser

Arguably the most dangerous character on this entire list and not just because they are the hardest to spot. The poser is that person who comes to university to finally be a proper ‘grown-up’. This results in a slew of tawdry certainties: drinking shit white wine makes you better than people who drink lager, incense is brilliant and anything French is the height of sophistication (I reckon this is how the poser justifies serial infidelity). Slightly less knowing than hipsters, the poser is mired so deep in self-parody that his/her life is nothing more than an unceasing satire, like the violence in a Paul Verhoeven movie. The poser usually studies languages or the humanities because those are the subjects with the most space to emit their special emulsion of bullshit and self-delusion. As comfortable in their own skin as a miniskirt salesman is in Tehran.

Famous Example: The guy with shit hair in the clip above who gets his ass whooped by Matt Damon.

8)  The Alternative Sports Guy

A classic case of a guy who enjoys alternative sports.

A classic case of a guy who enjoys alternative sports.

Before I arrived at University I thought that the only people who actually played darts were born before the start of the First World War but apparently this isn’t the case. You’re highly likely to meet alternative sports guy, a man who can only be dubbed ‘insane’ at pointlessly shite pseudo-sports like pool, table tennis and squash. Alternative sports guy’s ability in any given sport is in direct proportion to just how unpopular said sport is – the more shunned it is, the better he is at it.

Famous Example(s): Jesus Quintana, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ronnie O’Sullivan

9)  The Stoner

Arnie loves a spliff. (via marc.perkel.com)

Arnie loves a spliff. (via marc.perkel.com)

Christ stoners can be boring if they want to be. Seriously only when gym guy starts banging on about his dietary plan and how ‘whey protein isn’t what it’s cracked up to be’, does shit get as boring as when stoner’s tell you about how the hemp industry will change the world one day. Fuck off. And I don’t want to discuss the hidden symbolism of ‘Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle’ either because there is no symbolism in it. The best argument for the legalization of cannabis is that it will stop these guys from droning on about it sub specie aeternitatis.

Famous Example(s): Stone Cold Steve Austin, Steve Stone, Oliver Stone, Sharon Stone, Emma Stone

About Reading

It’s a strange condition of the world we live in that art requires almost constant justification. Especially the humanities.

“Reading doesn’t prevent genocide bro. Reading won’t stop the climate from changing, you know what I’m saying? The humanities are useless mate, they don’t teach you anything important do they? What kind of job are you going to get with a history degree?”

Blah. Blah. Blah.

Film director Steven Soderbergh gives a far more eloquent defence of art in general than I:

Art is simply inevitable. It was on the wall of a cave in France 30,000 years ago, and it’s because we are a species that’s driven by narrative. Art is storytelling, and we need to tell stories to pass along ideas and information, and to try and make sense out of all this chaos. And sometimes when you get a really good artist and a compelling story, you can almost achieve that thing that’s impossible which is entering the consciousness of another human being – literally seeing the world the way they see it. Then, if you have a really good piece of art and a really good artist, you are altered in some way, and so the experience is transformative and in the minute you’re experiencing that piece of art, you’re not alone. You’re connected to the arts.

The reason we need the humanities is because we are human. That ought to be enough.

Yet the art of reading is under a seemingly inexhaustible attack, like the Roman Empire it is overwhelmed; fighting a Sisyphean battle against everything electronic. A National Literary Trust study in 2012 surveyed 21,000 children and teenagers and found that they read less of everything. Comics, books, and magazines – all crowded out by the increasing pressure that the voltaic world is putting on the physical reality of young people. 17% said they would be embarrassed if a friend saw them reading a book. Three in every ten said they choose to read every day in their spare time. A third of UK households don’t have any books in them.

There is a magnificent paradox here however. The ‘Millennial’ generation is far from illiterate. In fact it may be the first generation in history that is entirely composed of authors, albeit not particularly skilled ones. For what are Facebook and Twitter and Reddit and Tumblr if not a form of publication, a forum for micro-fiction, instant information exchange and a kind of personal open wound style storytelling? Every precious thought or observation or opinion (especially opinion) is broadcast for consumption within the infinite milieu. Every email, tweet and post is validation of our existence, we need to be seen and we need to be heard – all the time.

To write well obviously requires literacy. It requires the ability to read and to have read well and yet Samuel Johnson’s aphorism that ‘what is written without effort is in general read without pleasure’ has never been more relevant. Tweets and posts are generally stacked like so many rusting cars in an endless scrapyard because they are instantaneous, utterly ephemeral and often just bursts of emotive flatulence. As the sender of nearly 12,000 tweets in the space of around 18 months I can vouch for how entirely pointless the vast majority of my little leakages are.

Some people refuse to see this. Within the Internet lies a utopian future. They almost always point to the Arab Spring and the ‘Twitter Revolution” in Iran circa 2009 as examples of the first flexing of the teeming sinews of a profound new Net-centric power that is a ‘Good Thing’ for literacy and truth and liberty. Many historians of the printing press strike similar notes. Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, the historian who has done the most to trump up the ‘profound’ effects of the advent of printing in the 15th century, often does her utmost to downplay the invention’s use for ignoble purposes.

It goes without saying that the press soon reflected the worst of human nature. Almost as soon as it was invented it was used to publish superstitious nonsense like the Malleus Maleficarum, a text found in the libraries of good 16th century witch hunters everywhere. More often that not radical technological innovation will be used to support the ossifying structures of orthodoxy – not to bring them down. Filippo di Strata wryly observed that whilst the pen is a virgin, the printing press is a whore.

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What does that make the Internet? Iran had just twenty thousand Twitter subscribers in 2009 – there was no revolution there. The elite will tolerate limited dissent as long as it remains profitable and limited in its effects – exactly what cyber dissent is. Note that a far larger percentage of all posts on Twitter discuss association football than politics. Marx told us that the philosophers had just interpreted the world; the real purpose of our lives was to change it. This will not happen on the web, a realm of the emotionally incontinent and a place for entertainment not activism. The internet is a province of stupefaction beyond Aldous Huxley’s wildest nightmares. The digital utopians who place their faith in the ‘transformative’ aspects of the web are the new historicists, trying to find a laws and trends and generalizations where only singular and specific events exist.

Within Twitter and Facebook and all the other networked dives and virtual saloons that are beamed around the world a problem is revealed. People can’t actually write anything that will last longer than five minutes.

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It seems like a lingering truism to suggest that one cannot simply put pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard and create something worthy of consumption without first reading widely and diligently. In a recent article for the Los Angeles Review of Books William Giraldi discusses the writer as reader with specific reference to Herman Melville the author of Moby Dick. He quotes Hershel Parker (author of a vast two-volume biography of Melville):

“Melville was not reading in order to acquire knowledge for its own sake, his evident purpose in reading the epics of Western Civilization was to learn how to write.”

Melville’s vigorous reading of the epics, especially Milton’s Paradise Lost, is according to Giraldi, what injects such compelling potency into Captain Ahab, “the most compelling quester in the American canon”. The tradition of ‘proper’ reading retains its importance across literary culture. Just as there could be no Ahab without Milton’s Satan, without Ahab there could be no Judge Holden (arguably the single greatest evil imagined in 20th century literature) in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. McCarthy both acknowledges and rejects a comparison between his own creation and Milton’s Satan or Melville’s Ahab within his own work by saying of the Judge:

“Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there a system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go.”

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McCarthy is doffing his cap at readers familiar with both Moby Dick and Paradise Lost; in a rare interview for The New York Times given in 1992, McCarthy baldly acknowledges a truth that is disturbing for both undergraduates and academics who live cowering in fear plagiarism:

“The ugly fact is books are made out of other books.”

Without reading and the conversation that has existed since the first story was told around a fire in some dismal encampment or daubed on a primordial rock face, there is no writing. Reading must happen so that we too may participate in this authorial dialogue. We must struggle against the limits of our life span and perception in order to perceive this ceaseless, ever varying and overlapping emulsion that can carry us to the shores of the past and the future.

There ought to be shame and handwringing about the failure of publishers and educators to inspire the next generation of readers. It is not just a case of the Millennials consuming ‘trash’ entertainment either. We have noted the pitfalls of the Internet but that does not mean that the literary world is an exclusive and privileged ghetto where the best stories reside.

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People increasingly turn to television for the best stories; Game of Thrones (that rare beast that supersedes and improves its source material), Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men and The Wire have initiated a halcyon era of programming where storytelling and complex characterization is key. The appetite for great stories exists. What are the literary phenomena of the past decade? Unctuous and turgid tales like Fifty Shades of Grey and Harry Potter.

Henry Miller observed that ‘nothing is proposed that can last more than twenty-four hours,’ and ‘we are living a million lives in the space of a generation.’ Miller was writing in the 1930’s, before the present era of instant gratification and communication. Somehow in a world where we can live a million lives in a week and nothing that is proposed can last more than an hour before it lies dissected and cold, our l’angoisse de la mort is heightened and amplified. With each added demand on cheapened time it becomes more precious. It is not a question of why we read then, but why should we continue to read?

John Williams gives a lyrical answer in his novel Stoner by evoking the mysterious gestation of a true reader, that magical process shaped by both circumstance and that spark of the imagination each of us holds, in a truly mesmeric way:

“The past gathered out of the darkness where it stayed, and the dead raised themselves to live before him; and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive, so that he had for an intense instant a vision of denseness into which he was compacted and from which he could not escape and had no wish to escape.”

That is the transformation that occurs in all who learn to love literature and it is why those that do will always read.