Tag Archives: Essay

Things Haven’t Gotten Better: Moral Outrage and Eric LaRocca’s THINGS HAVE GOTTEN WORSE SINCE WE LAST SPOKE

The most important part of Eric LaRocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is the Author’s Note which opens the novel.

This Author’s Note is not, as far as I can tell, from LaRocca themself, because this is a diegetic author’s note, it is part-and-parcel of the novella itself. I have no idea if those who took such umbrage online with the work took the time to read this critical framing device and understand its purpose.

I. This book exploits queer women

Though it pains me to do so, let’s put aside the rampant anti-queer and non-binary-phobic nature of the rhetoric which equates LaRocca’s work with something written about queer people or lesbians who is also a cishet man. (And even then, the interest expressed would have to be exceedingly prurient for me to start really coming down on a cis heterosexual man for daring to engage the topic. Writing it isn’t the problem, how you write it is.)

One thing I saw a lot online was the accusation that while the work is presented as being a queer relationship between two women, given that the entire thing takes place online, and therefore we have no assurance that either of the protagonists (but especially the “Zoe” character) is who they say they are. People were very quick to suggest that “Zoe” could well be some man pretending to be something he isn’t (queer, a woman, honest, etc.).

[Actually, we do need to take a moment to talk about the exclusionary queer rhetoric and transphobic/non-binary-phobic tone of this criticism:
Intentionally misidentifying and excluding LaRocca from “Queerness,” including misgendering them, while accusing the novel of portraying a character who is not what they “claim” to be—specifically a queer person and female identified in Zoe’s case… You might be able to see where the intersection of these accusations begin to uncomfortably display an inherent prejudice on the part of the so-called “critic” making them.
These individuals are unwilling to recognize LaRocca as a member of the queer community (because of their background, identity, presentation, I don’t know and I don’t care), and justify that prejudice by sublimating it into their “analysis” of the work itself. The accusation that LaRocca is somehow an impostor or fraudulent queer person is transferred onto the narrative of the novella as a means of obfuscating its true purpose: to exclude LaRocca, and propagate personal prejudice.]

“Because the litigation surrounding Zoe Cross’s case remains open at the time of this publication, certain elements of their [Agnes and Zoe’s] communication have been redacted or censored at the behest of the Henley’s Edge Police Department.”

p. 9 (Things Have Gotten Worse… Weird Punk Books, 1st edition)

With this simple statement, LaRocca’s fictional author puts to rest (at the very beginning!) any possibility that Zoe Cross is not who she says she is. We can state, with some degree of confidence, that within the world of the novella, a person exists whose legal name is “Zoe Cross”. Now, it’s true that no personal pronouns are ever used within the Author’s Note to refer exclusively to Zoe Cross, so I cannot say that Zoe for sure uses “she/her” pronouns or would be recognized as a woman by the organs of the state.

At the same time, the whole novella (including the Author’s Note) hail from the turn of the millenium… That’s 2000-2001. For those too young to know or remember those years, it is unlikely that police and judicial records or press coverage of that time would willingly use an individual’s chosen name rather than their legal name (no, it’s not so different now, but it was worse then, I promise). We must, therefore, assume that if Zoe Cross is being identified by police and judicial records as such, that she is, in fact, a woman insofar as the stringent requirements of the legal framework of 20 years ago is concerned. (You want to accuse transwomen of being predators and violators of lesbian spaces, by all means please see yourself to your local TERF assembly and do let the door hit you on the way out.)

So, from a purely formal level, we can lay to rest accusations that somehow Zoe Cross is a mask for some abusive man online, taking advantage of a poor, lonely queer woman who couldn’t have known better.

II. This book is immoral, and LaRocca is a pervert for having written it

Very simply, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is not an im-moral book. It is an a-moral one. (And even that is a somewhat dubious contention, because I believe LaRocca to have plenty to say about abuse, irresponsibility, victimhood and victimization, violence, control via the medium of this work. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)

We are told from the outset that this is a case still under litigation, and is being covered in the media. As many high-profile cases have made exceptionally clear in the last few years, one of the stickier parts of the American legal process has to do with the selection of a jury. Juries need to be “impartial” (not influenced by information not presented in the courtroom), making any, even remotely, sensational case extremely difficult to handle.

Also, the author of this publication requests that the reader be cognizant of the fact that the author is in no way affiliated with either Zoe Cross’s legal counsel or Agnes Petrella’s surviving family. The author remains a nonpartisan entity and instead patiently waits for the balances of justice to trip in favor of the truth.

p. 10 (Things Have Gotten Worse… Weird Punk Books, 1st edition)

The reader is, in this final paragraph of the Author’s Note, placed in the position of juror.

When I say that Things Have Gotten Worse… is an a-moral book, I do not mean that it is disinterested in evaluating the moral responsibilities and failures of the characters or the actions they have taken. I mean that it is not a book which will provide the audience with a pre-determined, tidy, pat moral conclusion to the narrative it presents.

The book demands, clearly and pointedly, at the outset, that the reader prepare themselves to decide if Zoe Cross is guilty, and if so… Of what, exactly?

This is not an easy task.

It is not meant to be.

The most discomfiting part of Things Have Gotten Worse… is that it doesn’t ask the reader to merely agree or disagree with its proposed thesis. It presents a complex, possibly intractable, situation and asks “What do you make of all this?”

The book does not presume guilt or innocence on the part of either of its protagonists. Indeed, the power of the narrative emerges from the several reversals which take place within it. We know something terrible is going to happen, and we know which of the two of our protagonists is going to die, and we know who is considered “responsible” in some manner or degree for that death. We begin the narrative inclined to sympathize with Agnes, and to be mistrustful of Zoe. As their relationship evolves, that mistrust seems justified. But it doesn’t stay that way.

Without getting into too many details for those who have yet to read the novella; assigning power and agency (or lack thereof) to either character quickly begins to feel like thrashing in a pit of quicksand, the more you try to find the answer, the deeper you sink into the quagmire. This sense of who is the “driving” force in their relationship undergoes at least 3 major reversals, each one pulling further and further away from the usual metrics by which these things are measured.

I try to avoid blaming any particular cultural movement or moment for what I perceive as failings in the critical or philosophical skills of those who were most impacted by it. Youth, especially, is idealistic, and that’s sweet. (I’m almost 30, so I’m basically ancient, you know. A walking corpse, really.) But I do believe we’ve ended up in a particularly simplistic and reactionary moment. Perhaps this is because the uncertainty which pervades every aspect of the current human experience (economic, political, social, environmental, occupational, physical, etc) makes it exhausting to deal with extra uncertainty for the purpose of intellectual stimulation. Sometimes it’s nice to say “these are the good guys, these are the bad guys” and leave it at that. (To quote a show by a now disgraced writer-producer: “The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.” To which, of course, the response is: “Liar.”)

Just because we’re hoping for to build a better and more beautiful world, and just because we need hope to do so, doesn’t mean that we can or should or will eradicate pain, suffering, harm, and hurt. These things do not arise merely out of “evil” or “bad” behaviors/actions/ideas… In many ways they are the foundational elements of human existence and while we can try to minimize their impact, and we can strive to act in ways which limit, avoid, or avert those outcomes… We also cannot control each other, ourselves, or reality. We can be better… But we’re never going to be perfect.

Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is a book in the grand tradition of horror writing which promises that no matter how hard we try, no matter how good we are, no matter how just or kind or true, no matter how deserving, no matter how careful we are, we will fail and bad things will happen. This is not a story everyone needs to hear, nor a lesson everyone needs to learn, all too many people know from hideous personal experience that these things are true. But I rarely see those people who already know trying to tell others not to tell these stories. In fact, my experience has often been that the people who know these lessons best of all are usually the ones who are writing these stories.

No one has to read a book that will hurt their feelings or cause them distress or harm. But, as LaRocca’s novella has the temerity to suggest, we retain a degree of personal responsibility for the things we do to ourselves, even when other people are involved.

To borrow from the introduction by the publisher to a different book which would undoubtedly also raise hackles and fists (Todd Keisling’s Scanlines): “Please, please leave the room if this will… if this will affect you.”

III. Not enough build-up, just violence (Do you have Sade?)

This is a special mention for an unexpected conversation I had about Eric LaRocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke.

Someone came into my job asking for the book, because they “need it to make fun of it online”. Points for honesty, I guess? I couldn’t let it slide, because I love making fun of books as much as the next person, but I try not to get my hot takes directly from tumblr posts or twitter discourse. They hadn’t read the book, so I asked them what they thought was going to be wrong with it. I’d actually read it, I pointed out, and therefore my suggestion that it packs a lot into a small number of pages might actually have real merit. (I’ve also read, you know, other stuff. Which might also help.)

We covered the bits that I mentioned above. But then this person said they’d heard that it just… Went too far, and didn’t have enough philosophical complexity or what-have-you to justify the violence within its pages. Shocking for its own sake.

I pointed out that it’s not a Carlton Mellick III novella and therefore, we might have to make sure we’re using the same scale of “shock value” to measure the violence-to-philosophy ratio. I’m not really a fan of splatterpunk, the more outre elements of bizarro fiction, or even mundane horror (which is usually rooted in some kind of physical violence).

Ultimately, my description of Mellick’s The Exercise Bike was dismissed as unappealing, because I couldn’t confirm how much of the book actually dealt with the surgical process of transforming a human being into a stationary bike. In my defense, most of my attention had been eaten up on the bit where a woman is forced to ride the willingly-transformed bike-man for his sexual gratification; that’s where the real horror lay for me.

Ultimately, the discussion came around to the Marquis De Sade.

I felt somewhat offended on LaRocca’s behalf that they were coming up short in comparison to Justine. Sure, 200 Days of Sodom has some moral-philosophical-political criticism embedded in it, because it’s ostensibly a take down of the bishops and other unelected leadership of 18th century France. It’s also a book whose primary goal is to come up with the most depraved acts it can think of… Just because.

LaRocca’s novella is not a celebration of depravity. It’s not a joyful study in perversion. It’s not a titillating narrative of physical degradation and debasement. It’s a book about desire, about obsession, about power—over others, over ourselves, over our experiences—and it’s about the things we think we are, and the things we think we love, and what we think we need to be happy.

It is a book of questions, and it whispers in your ear that maybe, just maybe, the answers will be a bit harder to find than we might like.

Zelda, Calamity, and Living Beyond The End

I have a much longer, much more theory oriented post which I imagine no one will read in the works, but instead I want to take some time today to talk to you about playing video games under quarantine.

While Animal Crossing: New Horizons dropped four days ago and I’ve already sunk almost 19 hours into the game (sorry, Mama), the game I bought to keep me company on the plane and fill some of the downtime while I am here is Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I played it on the plane and in the airport and during my unexpected seven hour layover in Munich (I also took a nap), and I’ve played it while trying not to completely lose my mind cooped up in a house by myself except for my several hundred tiny wingèd roommates whose demise I plot with increasing vigor with every passing day.

AC:NH has been a pleasant way to remain connected to the idea of Outside –– it has bugs and sunshine and weather and fishing and running around and changing outfits (with the exception of the first one I have almost none of those things) –– but BotW has been the most philosophically and narratively poignant choice.

A rough outline of the game’s plot/setting for those who might be unfamiliar:

In BotW you play a newly awakened swordsman, Link, who has been in some kind of mago-technical suspended animation for the last 100 years. He was mortally wounded in battle against a malignant magical entity named Calamity Ganon while defending the princess Zelda of Hyrule as she attempted to banish Calamity Ganon with magic. You take your unclothed self out of the stasis chamber, acquire some pants and another mago-technical device (which, somehow, reminds one of a Nintendo Switch) and go out into the world to discover your fate. (Spoiler alert: Your fate seems to be saving the world from the increasingly powerful, though still contained, Calamity Ganon.)

More importantly, for this moment in time, you step out into a world in ruins. Literally, the first thing you encounter is the Temple of Time, which is in shambles. It’s falling down and falling apart, and you pick through its crumbling bones for arrows and small arms. As you come down off the plateau where the temple sits, you are met with ever more evidence of a civilization, and empire, which did not survive that which befell it.

There are big open fields of grass, dotted with trees, and moss covered, tumble down walls. Wooden structures poke out of the hills like they’ve forgotten they aren’t overgrown stalks of grass. Tattered cloths with faded heralds hang dirtied and limp amongst the ruins.

At the same time, the world teems with life. The plains of Hyrule are largely devoid of humanoid habitation, given over to monsters and history, but wild horses cavort, and everywhere you walk you are serenaded by a million tiny insect orchestras. The natural resources are bountiful and you learn to cook what you can find to restore Link to the picture of health and to aid him on his journeys. Once you get beyond the area given over to a state of nature, overshadowed, as it is, by the swirling malignancy of Calamity Ganon where he-it teems around Hyrule Castle, you quickly realize that you are far from alone.

Beyond that immediate desolation and its ghosts, the rest of the world is populated with entrepreneurial spirits, adventurers, travelers, inventors, villagers, and fanatics. They tell you how their communities and their peoples suffered as a result of the Calamity, 100 years ago (a little less than the average lifespan of the people of this world), but how things have returned to a slightly uneasy peace since then. Every village has children, it has young and old people and they all have stories to tell and little problems for you to solve.

In short, though they live in proximity to ruins, they nevertheless live.

A part of me quickly pulled up the simplistic explanation; I’m sure you’ll think of it – it’s an easy one for American liberal guilt and uncritical, cookie cutter analyses of Japanese culture. All of Japanese popular media can be condensed into the atomic bomb if only the West tries hard enough. And maybe the generational gap between the young adults and the elders who remember the calamity can be paralleled by the generational gap between those who remember the war and those, like me, who make up the main part of gaming’s target market.

But it seems unfair, not only to the Japanese who have surmounted any number of calamitous events both before and since the U.S. dropped its bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but to the rich world which has so carefully and painstakingly been built and rolled out in the game. Given that BotW is also another installment in an already extensive (though famously convoluted) narrative universe, and the names repeat (Zelda, Link, and Ganon are staples of every game in the series), one gets the impression that by this point the lessons and metaphors can be allowed to function within their own, self-made space.

There is, from a player perspective, a Sisyphean quality to Link’s existence. He has been carried through time on multiple occasions for the purpose of saving Hyrule from Ganon and yet every time a new game comes out, Ganon returns in some new and horrible form. In BotW in particular the veneer of humanity has been eradicated from Calamity Ganon, transmuting him into a magical infection which poisons the land, bubbling up in places where his control is strongest, creating glowing, pulsating growths that injure you when you touch them. He’s no longer the dark wizard who might be familiar from Super Smash Bros. but instead he is a disease, a pollutant, something which has embedded itself into and become a part of the environment rendering the natural world hostile.

Perhaps it whispers of the reactor meltdown in Fukushima. But again, the one-to-one analogy is bitter and unfulfilling after this sumptuous feast of a game.

To put it another way, this is a game where if you sneak up closely enough, you can ride a deer. The detail and care put into it, the number of hours of coding and sound mixing and rendering and writing and translating and acting, makes it impossible to simplify into historical analogy. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take something from it. (And I don’t just mean the soothing lullaby of the sound design.) I think what we should do our best as we face our own calamitous times to remember the villagers and the travelers. Far from being populated exclusively by those who would see Calamity Ganon freed and bring an annihilating waste to what’s left of life in the territories surrounding Hyrule (though there are always some), there are people who did more than survive. They built towns and families and lives. They planted trees and loved each other and their children and recognized that for all the chaos and uncertainty of calamity, it’s not really that much more uncertain than life itself.

So, be cautious, for now. Wash your hands well and often, avoid touching your face, cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze and try to keep a healthy physical distance from others. But don’t forget to love one another, don’t forget to plan for the future, don’t forget to lean out your window and breath in the fresh air, listen to the night sounds, and remember that uncertainty is just another facet of living. It is no different from trying new foods, telling someone you love them for the first time, or unexpectedly hearing a beautiful song.