You Can't Solve Life: Patrick Somerville on Puzzles, Games, and This Bright River

Patrick Somerville

Patrick Somerville is a writer of impressive range and skill. His previous book, the story collection The Universe in Miniature in Miniature (featherproof books), mined the boundary between literary- and science-fiction to produce stories that were inventive, playful, and moving—often at the same time. His latest novel, This Bright River (Reagan Arthur Books), follows two characters, a young man and a young woman, as each attempts to rebuild and move forward in life while also trying to better understand troubling experiences in their pasts. The novel also features a brief reference to the late-1970s computer game Zork, which pleased this interviewer so greatly that he asked Somerville more than one question about it, warping the conversation. Apologies to Mr. Somerville and to readers not interested in the most important text-based computer game ever invented. —Dan DeWeese

Propeller: I want first to acknowledge the ambition and (what seemed to me to be) fearlessness that I felt you brought as a writer to This Bright River. There are multiple strands to the story, a variety of voices, some very deft shifts of tone, and just an exciting sense of the novel operating in a big canvas kind of way. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to write a novel of this complexity, or did the nature of the thing reveal itself as you went along?

Patrick Somerville: I think somewhere in between. What I knew was that I wanted to move slowly, and that I wanted to do my best to get deep into the minds of several characters. It becomes almost logarithmic when you make those decisions, I found; it’s one thing to know one or two characters well, and another thing entirely to know four or five very well. My first novel, The Cradle, moved quickly and relied on images and sketches of moments to tell its story. I love that way of writing, but I think I just wanted to explore, and to see if I could make a novel about history, disappointment, and the free-floating problems of contemporary depression still be fun and still have enough dramatic energy to pull the reader through.
This Bright River by Patrick SomervillePropeller: This Bright River’s main character, Ben Hanson, is talented at crafting riddles and puzzles. Some of Ben’s puzzles appear in the novel, but there are also other aspects of the novel that are puzzle-ish. Reading it, I happily felt that you were moving the story into some terrain that is shared by puzzles, riddles, and fiction—there are moments where the distinctions between those things begin to feel very thin. Did working with puzzles within a piece of fiction lead you to further thoughts about the relationship between puzzles and fiction? Do you have thoughts on what distinguishes one from the other?

Patrick Somerville: I think that Ben ultimately decides that the problem with puzzles is that they have answers. Our ability to map solution-oriented thinking onto the emotional problems of life is very limited, and creates huge disharmonies in our hearts and souls if we rely on it too much. I’m not the first to say that this is a chronic conflict built into Western culture. Western, secular societies are always going to be haunted by depression, I think, because on the one hand we’re promised answers, but on the other, there are spiritual matters that simply don’t have answers. So I think puzzles are great entertainment and deeply satisfying in that they give us wonderful resolution after putting a lot of mental energy into something. But they’re illusions. (Which probably makes them even more fun.)

Propeller: Where do you see “the literary” on that continuum? In other words, if spiritual matters that don’t have answers are at one end, and puzzles with definitive answers are at the other, which is fiction closer to? Because it, too, uses the term “resolution,” and fiction is certainly an illusion—and yet I assume you feel the resolution of a narrative isn’t the same as the resolution of a puzzle, because the resolution of This Bright River isn’t the same as the resolution of any of the puzzles within it.

Patrick Somerville: When I think about resolution in fiction, I think of it in terms of emotion and energy—more akin to how we deal with our interpersonal relationship than with our crossword puzzles. Say you have a deteriorating relationship with an old friend, and it’s causing you more and more pain, and it’s starting to stress you out to even imagine seeing that person again, because it doesn’t work anymore. Then one day something definitive happens: no invitation to a wedding, or a clear confrontation, or a direct discussion how neither of you are feeling it any longer. And then it’s done, the relationship is severed. There is pain in that kind of resolution, but there is an abiding peace to it, too. You’ve been freed of something that’s been cumbersome, a weight you didn’t want to carry in your heart. It’s sloppy and smoky and chimeric, but it’s there, and something has changed. To me, that’s what resolution in fiction should be like for the reader: unburdenings of the heart and soul. So games and puzzles create a kind of false cartoon version of that experience, which is why I think we like them. And as Ben notes in the book, we also like them because they can be solved cleanly. But because of that cleanliness, they can’t have the same power.

Propeller: You mention the old text-based computer game Zork in the novel. “Zork” is essentially a magic word to me—it returns me immediately to childhood evenings spent in front of my dad’s computer, excitedly typing “get ax” onto a computer screen. What was your experience with Zork? Do you feel that having had that experience taught you anything about narrative, or informs your writing in any way? Also: are we the only generation that will ever get the Zork experience? Has anything taken its place, or was a vaguely-interactive text-based narrative that could end at any time but always with the sense that you didn't quite “find the full story” a historical one-off limited to the window of the late 1970s/early 1980s?

the opening of the text-based adventure game Zork

Patrick Somerville: My experience with Zork was exactly your experience with Zork. Nothing has taken its place since then, but throughout the 80s, I transitioned into all of the Sierra games: King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, Gold Rush. I loved them all and was obsessive, and with the earlier iterations of each of those games, I had to become a better writer and thinker in order to play them. Everything went icon-based for actions somewhere in the late 80s, but for a while, you could only control your character by entering text, and so there was a clear connection to Zork and text adventures.

There are clubs and groups that love text adventures still, and storytellers constantly experiment with story models that draw from that original gaming experience, but I actually don’t think it will ever come back to the mainstream. People don’t like to look at words if they can do something else. That is an absurdly broad statement, I know, but games are most fun when they are new, cool, and awe-inspiring. I can’t envision a version of text-adventures that can create that experience anymore. But then again, my friend Jami Attenberg has told me on a number of occasions that she thinks Twitter itself is a kind of video game, so maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way?

Propeller: Even if Twitter is a video game, I still say Ms. Pac-Man is better. But I want to keep Zork in mind—probably only out of a perverse desire to keep talking about Zork—when asking you a bit about the structure of This Bright River. You said earlier that you think you “just wanted to explore” more while writing This Bright River, and the novel definitely opens more and more rooms as it goes along—we follow more than one character, read memories from one point of view and then wander into some of the same memories later from different characters’ points of view, discover withheld information, etc. The story expands laterally, I would say, though you also maintain a forward momentum to the whole thing. A game like Zork had a similar effect—you could maybe get a bit further in “the story” by playing, but you did so by exploring and expanding your experience of the game’s world. Did writing a novel that operated differently from The Cradle lead you to any new thoughts about ways dramatic energy (or “forward momentum”?) can be maintained in fiction?

Patrick Somerville: Yes, absolutely. And maybe there was a reversal of that going on as well: I think I decided, before I even started writing the book, that I would embrace something formally unusual and push back hard against the notion that drama could only be dramatic action, or that people doing things constituted the most crystalline, intense kind of energy a story could deliver. Why did I push back against that? Because I kept finding myself saying it as a teacher, over and over again, and one night I got home after class and I thought to myself, “Maybe that’s just complete horseshit.” I am always uncomfortable with declarations about fiction, and I like to challenge myself to find new ways to get to weird, complicated feelings. And so in this case I think the form took on the shape of Ben’s problem; namely, that you can’t solve life. 

So the next question is, “Why not?” And I wanted the book to be the answer. My short version is just that “life” is an infinite system of infinite knowledges and experiences, and it’s a web so complicated that no pen or fence or structure can ultimately be put around it and contain it properly. We try: we give ourselves names, we talk about things called families, we make the facts of our existence into stories, and we know the people close to us better than the people far away from us. But if you go up to a high enough level, it’s all a garble of noise and information. And that is terrifying. A personality is a thing we build to manage that terror, and it largely works. However, when people experience trauma, or depression (Lauren and Ben), the personality begins to fall apart, and we get exposed to that terrible noise. This Bright River is about rebuilding in the face of a crumbling identity.

In addition to his books, Patrick Somerville’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, One Story, Epoch, GQ, Good Magazine, Esquire, Guernica, and Best American Nonrequired Reading. He is a MacDowell Fellow and the winner of the 2009 21st Century Award, given annually by the Chicago Public Library.