Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Game of Life

One of the earliest forms of travel we partake in as children is playing board games. Candyland, for example, takes us on an adventure through a magical made-up kingdom with sugary characters. We tromp through the Molasses Swamp and the Peppermint Forest to reach King Kandy at his candy castle. As we grow older, we progress to games requiring more thought and strategy, such as Life and Monopoly. Life takes its players through an imaginary, but mostly plausible, life, from going to college to family vacations to the Grand Canyon to retirement cruises in the Caribbean. Through these games, we can experience things akin to those we might through travel; our game pieces travel to fantasy and real-life places, they physically move around the board, and we get to spend time with our loved ones, a major component of many kinds of travel. Playing a board game can be a relaxing mini vacation from everyday life.

In Albert Wendt's Black Rainbow, the main character plays a game too, but his is a far step from family game night. The Tribunal, the ruling power over a future New Zealand, has set him on a real-life game of Life, with scavenger hunt type clues and rewards for deciphering them correctly. The final prize at the end of this game is the whereabouts and permanent company of his family. With such high stakes involved, the ton of the Tribunal's clues seem a contrast; their insistence of the game-like quality trivialize the seriousness of the "game," and insert a tiny bit of humor in their ridiculousness. The first clue reads: "Read the contents of this carefully then proceed to your next stop and collect $1,000 to pay for the next stage of your journey. DO NOT DEVIATE FROM THE ENCLOSED INSTRUCTIONS OR YOU WILL FOREFEIT WHAT YOU HAVE WON ALREADY" (37). The word choice in this clue, specifically, "won," contribute to the sense that this is a sort of adventure game, not a possibly life and death search for a missing family. A later clue exclaims, "You have finally passed GO. The chase is on" (42).

The references to Monopoly and other such games are painfully obvious, and are lost neither on the reader nor Wendt's protagonist. Immediately following that first clue, he declares, "as a youngster I'd enjoyed Monopoly. I was enjoying this more because it was for real, full of risk. The Tribunal certainly knew how to give meaning to our lives" (37-8). In the New Zealand of Black Rainbow, the Tribunal takes control of so many aspects of daily life that the residents come to expect these "improvements." Wendt explains, "The Tribunal thought of everything" (23). The people of New Zealand are expecting and accepting, for as one of the Tribunal employees, John, assures, "there's nothing to be scared of. The Tribunal's our family, they're doing it for our good" (29). During childhood, a nice long game of Monopoly is enough to keep us entertained; as we become adults, however, regular Monopoly and regular life are not exciting enough to keep us happy. Therefore, the Tribunal must step in and up the ante, creating a melange of board game and real life, "to give meaning to our lives," which otherwise, we must assume, lack significance (38).

"The chase is on." In the novel, this refers to the Hunters who are literally chasing the main character. In the sense of life as the ultimate board game, however, once we reach the point where we "pass GO," we become free to run off and explore the world around us; no longer limited to Candyland, as grown up players we can travel wherever the clues in life take us. There is a catch, though; all games have rules. In the headquarters of the Tribunal, there is a literal "Book of Rules," presumably a glorified instruction manual for the games the Tribunal imposes on the citizens. Ultimately, someone controls exactly how we are able to play the game. Even once the Tribunal declare a person a "Free Citizen," like our protagonist, that citizen must continue to follow the rules set forth by that same Tribunal. In this case, if he deviates at all from the Tribunal's clues, he will never find his family, and quite probably never see them again.

In Black Rainbow, life is truly just a game, and so of course, we play along.

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