Will "Tolstoy Hero" ever sound like a good idea?

<em>The Great Gatsby</em> game has gone viral -- but we should be grateful that game developers aren

Forget about being a "boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past". How about experiencing The Great Gatsby as a digital Nick Carraway, fighting off hordes of Charleston enthusiasts with a weaponised trilby? Well, now you can. A retro shoot 'em-up version of this American literary classic, which you can play at Greatgatsbygame.com, has just gone viral. You can move your pixellated Nick around using the arrow keys and space bar, and press Z to deploy your hat against the massed ranks of the 1920s bourgeoisie.

The reason for the game's success is simple: there's something inherently amusing about the idea of a work as starchy and revered as Gatsby being given the pop-culture treatment. But is the idea of a crossover between literature and video games really such a silly one? After all, films -- which were once regarded with the same bemusement and suspicion as games are now -- regularly plunder the literary canon.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there were plenty such adaptations, from a Commodore 64 sequel to Fahrenheit 451 (approved by Ray Bradbury) to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein on the Super Nintendo.

As the cutting edge became more technically sophisticated -- and big publishers became more reliant on the action and fantasy genres to shift millions of units -- the idea got left behind. Who'd want to play a text adventure based on The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy when you could shoot aliens, drive racing cars or go on raiding parties with your fellow orcs?

A scan of the Guardian's Top 50 games of the 2000s reveals that none is explicitly based on a book -- although one of my favourites, Bio­shock, skilfully took elements from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Admittedly, outside the winners' paddock chosen by the critics, there looms EA's Dante's Inferno. Their Alighieri had swapped rhyming tercets for rippling triceps and, like some medieval Bruce Willis, was on a mission to hell to save the woman he loved.

Most reviewers agreed that it was fun to play but it had about as much relation to the 14th­century source material as the Pirates of the Caribbean films do to the theme park ride that "inspired" them. It could just as easily have been called HellpocalypseScytheKiller if EA hadn't wanted to exploit the brand recognition of an out-of-copyright cultural artefact. (Its research had found that 83 per cent of people had heard of The Divine Comedy, but only 20 per cent had any idea what it was about.)

Then again, perhaps we should be glad that most game developers aren't following the Hollywood model of adapting anything that doesn't run away fast enough. Very few books respond positively to the necessary compression and simplification of their storylines necessitated by the jump to film. So who would argue that games, whose narrative capacity is currently more limited still, would prove a better medium for literary adaptations?

The Great Gatsby Game might be a tongue-in-cheek tribute that raises a quick smile; but we're a long way from the day when Tolstoy Hero sounds like a good idea.

 

This piece appears in this week's New Statesman.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism