Novel of the week

The Houdini Girl

Martyn Bedford <em>Viking, 307pp, £15.99</em>

"There is no more individual thing," a rabbi once wrote, "than a broken heart." What breaks Fletcher Brandon's heart is the news that Rosa, the woman with whom he has been conducting a passionate, occasionally tortured love affair, has died. What gives his grief its unique shape and this gripping novel its trajectory is the manner of her death.

Rosa and "Red" (as Brandon is known) met in a pub in Oxford: he out with his friends, she with hers. Through a mutual acquaintance, the groups merge and Brandon, a professional magician, finds himself opposite Rosa, a vivaciously handsome young Irish woman. Towards the end of the evening, he performs a trick and she is cajoled into playing the role of his glamorous assistant. Two hours later they are in bed. The next day Rosa moves into his flat. Brandon congratulates himself on his beguiling charm.

One day, a year later, moments after successfully performing the Zig-Zag Girl illusion (a mock mutilation in which two apparently scalpel-sharp blades are driven through a cabinet containing a woman), Brandon receives the grim news. Rosa has fallen from a train and is dead. But his distress is mingled with confusion. He has no idea what she was doing on a train leaving town when she was supposed to be at work. Three days later an anonymous parcel arrives containing a few of Rosa's belongings. A few days after that, Red disturbs a burglar who is ransacking his flat but has stolen nothing. He sets out to discover the truth about his lover - and soon uncovers a shocking past, as events take him from Oxford into the solipsistic depravities of the Amsterdam skin trade. As he sinks, he confirms the truth of Nietzsche's observation: "When you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you."

In many ways, The Houdini Girl is a terrific achievement, even though it has flaws: its resolution lacks the finesse of the early parts and there are rather too many digressions on the general theme that confidence tricksters and magicians are hewn from the same rough stone, an observation which seems to me to be both obvious and wrong (wrong because Bedford never really acknowledges that magic is primarily an entertainment, a frame performance with cues to signal beginnings and endings).

Bedford has a marvellous ear for the textures of conversation and in Fletcher Brandon has created a narrator of almost Faulknerian proportions: a raconteur, hedonist and shrewd anatomist of human weakness whose account of events is, at once, amusing, moving, naive and bawdy. His search for the reality of Rosa's death begins "as a commitment to memory, a preservation" but soon "assumes the nature of a quest" in which nothing is as it seems. Indeed, Brandon himself is a professional dissimulator, a performer who manipulates people's perception in order to earn his living.

On first reading, the novel seems to be a stylish thriller (imagine Paul Auster meets Lynda La Plante), its metaphysics spiced with plenty of smoking and boozing and sex. But when Brandon reaches the Netherlands, the mood darkens and the cleverness of Bedford's own brand of magic becomes clear. The book seems to promise a rollercoaster of fun, philandering and dangerous thugs, but very quickly we are drawn further into a terrifying world in which the casual titillation of the mating game gives way to brutality and violation.

Although the novel meditates effectively on the discrepancies between pleasure and happiness, on the corrosive effects of betrayal and on the degree to which one is entitled to know about another's past, it also offers a sharp rebuke to the macho culture of the new lad. In the last analysis, The Houdini Girl powerfully lays bare the exploitation and degradation of women in pornography for a readership that cannot be expecting it.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers

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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture