All entries written in March, 2007
Jeremy Heere wants to be Cool. Not cool, but Cool, with a capital “C.” Jeremy describes the distinction early in Ned Vizzini’s Be More Chill: Coolness is like a caste, and if he wants the finer things in life, he must find a way to gain admission. Fortunately, by bringing $500 to a shady man, Jeremy is able to purchase a squip, a tiny computer that enters his brain and acts as his constant social adviser. Surely this will make him “Cool,” even if the first thing it tells him to do is stop capitalizing the “c.”
Vizzini’s novel intrigued me before I even opened it. For one thing, Vizzini is barely two years older than I am, so I was interested to see how he would handle writing about students, being so close to their age. Also, our society is rapidly approaching the day when nanocomputers like the squip will be a reality. Vizzini must know this as well as I do, so I came eager to see his vision of the near future as played out through Jeremy’s personal, day-to-day experience.
Be More Chill’s most important strength is that it’s an involving story with an appropriate pace, which ensures that anyone who starts reading will want to finish. The form of the novel helps to set this pace: Be More Chill consists of 49 chapters, the longest of which is about 10 pages, so the reader is made to feel like he is tumbling through events with the same speed as Jeremy. Much of the humor in the book is similarly madcap. There is a hilarious series of scenes near the beginning involving Jeremy’s aunt, a long, metal pole, and some Beanie Babies.
Jeremy’s character, conveyed mostly by his first-person internal dialogue, has a unique tone that carries the novel and makes it compelling. The rest of the characters, such as his best friend and the girl he’s always trying to impress, are interesting primarily because of the way they interact with Jeremy. The entire cast is a curse-word loving, impulsive, sex-driven bunch, which is to say that Vizzini doesn’t shy away from depicting teens as they truly are. His own youth certainly helps to explain why he can capture these personalities so readily.
As I’ve described it, Be More Chill might sound like a formulaic date movie, but the novel’s true innovation is the squip. Vizzini writes it as a character all its own, no more or less flawed than Jeremy himself, and the story is fun whether or not Jeremy and his computer are getting along in any given scene. Be More Chill isn’t a social commentary on the potential risks and rewards of mind-altering technology, but for its own purposes, it does suggest that such technology carries no guarantee. Much of the story’s draw comes from seeing how Jeremy’s new sidekick changes his life and opens up new adventures for him without simply taking control. If the squip immediately made all his dreams come true, there would be no story.
If Be More Chill has one flaw, it’s the ending. It’s a certain type of clichéd ending each individual reader will either love or hate. I was in the “hate” camp at first, but I switched over to lukewarm when I reflected on the story as a whole. I’d been able to see where things were going pretty far in advance—farther than Jeremy, in fact, which reveals the degree to which he relies on the squip by the end of the novel. Vizzini doesn’t use smoke screens and trickery to obscure the direction of the plot, or use deus ex machina to create an implausible twist. For me, this helps to excuse the disappointing ending by showing the reader that it was inevitable. The book and its climax are what they are, and they must be judged as such.
Also, the penultimate scenes (along with a handful of others that come before) made me cringe on the characters' behalf, having sympathy pains for situations so
embarassing, they could only exist in the realm of fiction. And yet I identified with them. Vizzini has tapped something primal and universal in Be More Chill
, and that alone makes it deserving of its popularity, its movie option
, and your time.
Relevent link: nedvizzini.com
I’m telling you, there’s only one way to really enjoy this show, and that’s to treat it as a comedy. House is laugh-out-loud funny…well, except when someone is spewing blood all over the place or somebody else’s baby is on its way to the morgue. Those moments are serious (and often so graphic they border on the TMI range). But I’m sure that even some of the diagnostic scenes must be amusing to, say, actual doctors, they being the only viewers capable of noting how farfetched some of the medical mysteries’ solutions are without doing independent research. I often watch this show with a close relative—when she heard the phrase, “Infantile Alexander’s Disease,” uttered by an ailing woman, what had been a moment of quiet intensity shattered under the assault of her laughter.
“Whaaaat?!” she guffawed at me, doubling over in her chair. “Someone’s just sitting there with the Encyclopedia fucking Brittanica!”
And how! I first became interested in House back when it premiered (though I never watched it until recently), and what hooked me was that Fox sold the premise of the show by proclaiming that Dr. House was a medical Sherlock Holmes. I’ve been a fan of the classic Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle since my freshman year in college, so this show sounded like something I would enjoy. Now that I think of it, I enjoy Doyle’s works for the same reason I enjoy House—they take themselves seriously, but are funny for how far-out they sometimes go with Holmes’ cases and powers of reasoning. The key is that Holmes’ cases and his world always come together within the framework of their internal, fictional logic, and the medical mysteries of House do the same thing.
Take an episode I saw recently, called “Spin” (I’m watching them out of order, whenever they happen to come on). I guess I should say SPOILER WARNING at this point, to make sure anybody who doesn’t want to know the solution to the mystery has a chance to hit the “back” button.
Anyway, “Spin” features a pro cyclist who suddenly develops respiratory problems and muscle weakness—he admits early on that he’s been secretly doping (injecting blood into himself) and sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber in order to enhance his performance on the circuit. Of course, this has nothing to do with the actual problem, because that would be too obvious. 38 minutes, a couple of deteriorating condition scares, and a boatload of staff drama later, House diagnoses the patient with some anemic condition or other that he’s actually had for a long time. He just didn’t know he had it, because the treatments for said disease are…blood transfusions and hyperbaria. Well, what do you know, all that time the guy thought he was cheating, he was actually self-medicating and probably barely breaking even in terms of his performance. I thought it was a pretty cool explanation…of course, my viewing companion laughed again at this point, and pointed out that “the chances must be one in a googala-boogala-foogala….” She continued making up numbers like that for almost a full 30 seconds. Meanwhile, House gave the cyclist an injection that cured his condition for all of two minutes, just so he could call himself God and then yell, “Cleanup in aisle 3!” when the drugs wore off and his patient collapsed on the floor.
Really, who cares about the chances when you’re having fun? The mysteries really are the core of the show, and they’re what keep me coming back, but it doesn’t hurt that House is a very interesting and well-portrayed character. Hugh Laurie plays him as a complex, brooding man who pops Vicoden several times an episode, and he supplies much of the show’s humor because he’s a total ass to everyone around him, in a myriad of creative and diverse ways. Everyone else on the show is pretty much defined with respect to him, from his lone and long-suffering friend Wilson (who everybody says is his “Watson,” but I really don’t see it), to his boss Cuddy, to his three fellowship doctors, Cameron, Chase, and Foreman. All of them bring out different sides of him at different times, and it’s through their interactions with him that we find out more about who they are, too.
So far, the most interesting character I’ve stumbled across is Stacy, House’s ex-wife—people make much of the fact that she’s played by Sela Ward, and I’m sure it speaks volumes about me that I have no idea who she is outside the context of this one show. Her part in the story of Dr. House is so interesting and so important that I don’t even want to write it here, despite the spoiler warning. This is one arc that deserves to be seen as it unfolds, and to be allowed to speak for itself. I will say that Stacy brings out the greatest depths of House’s character, and is one of very few people he encounters who can give him back as many snide remarks as he can dish out. I’m not sure if anyone is this quick on the draw in real life, but once again, who cares?
In spite of all I’ve said about how amusingly ridiculous and over-the-top House can be, the writers really do deserve a pat on the back for knowing how to be subtle when it counts. There’s an episode I saw called “Kids,” which features a 12-year-old high-diver brought into the hospital after a meningitis outbreak occurs at her swim meet. She has symptoms very similar to meningitis, but House senses that something’s a little different about her case. And, as usual, he’s right: she’s not sick, she’s pregnant! This is pretty unusual for a 12-year-old, though the episode makes much of the fact that she’s very mature for her age (and she acts like she believes her own hype in that regard). She says the guy responsible for impregnating her “turned out to be a jerk,” and we never learn any more about him than that. However, I think what we’re supposed to assume is that her creepy, traveling-companion swim coach might just be a pedophile, who convinced his young charge that she was adult enough to handle sleeping with him. The way the coach was portrayed made it easy enough for me to draw that conclusion, even though he barely had any lines. I’m pretty sure he only finally left the girl’s side during her ultimate, tearful confession to her parents, and since he was practically chained to her arm up until then, that says something. As I watched this story progress, it occurred to me that implying such a volatile detail in such an understated way required skill and restraint from the actors, the writers and the director. I was very impressed.
I don’t know if I’d actually call it an “influence,” but as far as raw knowledge and experience go, House has been pretty good for me so far. There are some tidbits of real medical information you can pick up from the show that I didn’t know coming in, such as what an angiogram is, or why a spinal nerve biopsy is dangerous. I’ve never been big on doctor shows because I’m too squeamish, but coming back to see Dr. House slam the door in somebody’s face or awkwardly bring a corsage on a dinner date has forced me to deal with the more graphic parts of the show, and I think I’m gradually getting used to sights like twitching intestines and sawed-open brains. Gradually. In the end, though, I don’t watch House as an inspiring work or even as a serious medical drama—I watch it because I think it’s hilarious that the good doctor likes to watch The L Word on mute.
Seriously, though, what king of a name is “Greg House,” anyway? Nobody has a name like that! As a writer, I do have moments where a perfect name or title or line comes at me completely out of the blue, and in those moments, I say to myself, “I have to use that at some point.” House sounds like that kind of a name—somebody’s brainstorm that gave birth to a limping curmudgeon and the universe he inhabits. We should be happy the writer decided to go with his gut. Otherwise, we might have missed out on one of the more worthwhile characters currently on television.
Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow for the Nintendo DS opens with a full anime cutscene (hang out on the title screen for a minute to see it), which showcases right off the bat just how far handheld gaming technology has come in the last few years. Something else the intro should tell you, from the moment you see the white-haired protagonist toss off a hooded cloak and start absorbing souls, is that this isn’t going to be a traditional whip-slinging Castlevania title. In fact, Dawn of Sorrow is the sequel to the GBA title Aria of Sorrow, and it continues a plotline that feels like an anime or a movie based on Castlevania. I had no problem with this—in fact, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself more immersed than I might have been otherwise.
White-hair boy is the character you play, Soma Cruz, and we know from the ending of Aria of Sorrow that he is different from most Castlevania heroes because he doesn’t fight Dracula…he is Dracula. Or a reluctant reincarnation thereof. We know this from the ending of Aria of Sorrow whether or not we actually played it, because Dawn of Sorrow tells us the ending of the previous title on the back of its own box, before we even buy it. Oh, well. I guess some spoilers come with a statute of limitations.
The plot of Dawn of Sorrow revolves around a cult that wishes to create a new Dark Lord; there are already two candidates in the running for this prestigious position. As someone who came perilously close to turning into the Dark Lord himself, Soma feels that it’s his responsibility to go out and dismantle this cult himself (especially after they try to kill him in the game’s opening scene).
Soma begins his journey alongside characters such as Julius Belmont and Yoko Belnades (descendents of famous vampire hunters from the NES-era Castlevania games), and as the game progresses, he learns to use a wide variety of weapons and techniques, and he treks through a dozen increasingly weird and horror-filled regions of the cult’s castle. Yes, the cult got itself an entire castle, and a very large one at that. The level design is first-rate, from the snowy ghost town at the start (complete with modern-looking cars that shed blankets of white when you jump on them), to the overgrown garden in the center of the castle, to the general creepiness of the Demon Guest House. There are some really cool artistic choices throughout; the attention to detail is amazing and, from a player’s perspective, very satisfying, because this world feels and behaves like we think it should. The “candles” you always break to get items in Castlevania games, for instance, vary in appearance to match their surroundings, even taking the form of electric lampposts outside.
You’ll need to have a good memory by the time you’ve seen most of the levels, to keep track of all the cleverly-presented puzzles and realize which new abilities will help you overcome them. But don’t despair! The final level is well worth what you have to do to reach it, and though it may not feature the classic stairs to Dracula’s room, I found Soma’s ultimate destination very satisfying. I think any Castlevania fan hungry for originality and surprises will be satisfied, too…horror fans in general should like it as well.
I mentioned the weapons earlier—there are lots of them. Soma uses knives, swords, claymores, maces, a handful of awkward-looking spears, and even a gun or two. You can buy these and other supplies in Hammer’s shop, or find them lying around in some cases. Soma also fights with souls he can capture from every single enemy he defeats, including bosses. I’m not the sort of person who has the patience to try collecting all of them, especially since it’s random whether a minor enemy will release a soul at all (some, as you might expect, are more likely to than others), but that sort of person will get a lot of replay value out of the challenge. There are even three hidden souls you can discover by following a series of in-game hints; the ways you receive them are ingenious (and in some cases pretty funny). Hell, you can even combine your souls and weapons at Yoko’s shop to produce more powerful armaments…I didn’t find myself doing this too often. The price for creating something really worthwhile was often a soul it took me forever to find in the first place, and I was never eager to give those up.
Dawn of Sorrow showcases the capabilities of the DS quite nicely, using its stereo speakers to create an excellent and catchy soundtrack that greatly enhances the atmosphere of the game, especially during the boss battles. That’s really where visuals and music meet most creatively in this game…I just keep coming back to the artistry. Wait until you get up to the battle with Paranoia, or maybe Gergoth, who seems to be everyone’s favorite. About my only complaint with how the hardware is applied toward the overall game experience is that the Balore soul, which lets you draw on the touch screen to actually edit the level mid-play, is barely used at all after the stage in which you acquire it. Then again, it’s not like there aren’t other uses of the stylus—I hear the familiars you can learn to summon can be guided with by touch to some degree. Also, you have to draw a magic seal pattern to end every boss battle (except the last one, curiously). This creates both a sense of panic that adds to the reality of the experience, and a threat that some of the harder bosses might actually outlast you if you aren’t good at seal-drawing. Fortunately, you can practice off the subscreen whenever you want.
There’s an awful lot of polish to this game, including warp points (which you can access either by scanning between them with the d-pad or touching the screen), the ability to toggle between two sets of equipment, two “trap” endings you have to be smart to avoid, and a whole second mode of playthrough that leads from one of the bad endings. The way that last one is done shows a lot of respect for the audience (because really, if you get that ending, you expect what happens next to happen next…and you want to be able to play through it!) Amazingly, the second mode actually makes it worth seeing the whole game again, even if you’ve just finished it. The strategy changes a great deal, and a harder learning curve makes you feel like a tactical genius for accomplishing the feats of Soma’s game without his powers or items. Plus there’s a spectacularly cool final boss who even takes the circumstances under which you approach him into account and reacts accordingly (I know that sounds weird…I’m trying not to spoil it).
But I mean, by now I’ve either convinced you or I lost you six paragraphs ago. Dawn of Sorrow really hooked me (even with Zelda: Twilight Princess next on my list), and it manages to succeed as both a Castlevania game and a futuristic action RPG. If anything in this review caught your interest, then you should play it. Just be prepared that Castlevania games are known for their difficulty…I might be weird in that I didn’t have much trouble with this one, but then I’ve never had anyone to measure myself against. Seriously, though, it’s worth your time, and you’ll be surprised how fast the goes, not because it’s too short or anything, but because you’re playing it too much.
And I thought my suburban high school was bad.
Jeremy Iversen, however, seems like he managed to have fun at Mirador Senior High School in southern California, despite all the drama, conflict, and outright horror that swirled around him there. How did he accomplish this? In his own words: “I knew my core competency…utter and total fearlessness. I was twenty-four years old, and my self-esteem did not depend on what anybody there thought of me…I could handle all situations and people with the perfect ease of knowing it didn’t really matter.” This is far more than most teens in high school can say, and in case you didn’t already do a double-take when you got to Mr. Iversen’s age, let me make it clear that he is no teenager. During his stay at Mirador, he was in fact a reporter in disguise, working on a close-up behavioral and situational study of today’s high school kids we now know as High School Confidential: Secrets of an Undercover Student.
It’s not just the “what” of this project that’s intriguing, but also the “why,” and it’s the latter that should be of greatest interest to young twentysomethings like Iversen, who have just graduated college and are finding the real world to be a little different than they expected. In the early chapters of High School Confidential, Iversen speaks of the Track (always with a capital T), the life plan of the grind student. You work hard to get into a top prep school, then work harder there to get into a top college, then work still harder there to land a job at a top company. And so on throughout the ranks of said company, I would assume—Iversen tells us that the theory behind this Track is that when you follow it, each phase of your life is an improvement upon the one that preceded it. Only when he reaches the end of college does he realize that entering the workforce is not an improvement over campus life, no matter what company he signs on with, and in the midst of this epiphany, he begins to question everything he knows and every decision he’s ever made.
That’s when he decides to go back to high school, both to see what he missed by toiling away his teenage years and to follow in the footsteps of Fast Times at Ridgemont High creator Cameron Crowe. Using the pseudonym Jeremy Hughes, Iversen receives permission to enter Mirador Senior High School as a transfer in the second semester of his senior year, and then proceeds to infiltrate a wide variety of social situations, chronicling all he sees.
This section is the real meat of the book, and as the semester progresses, Iversen largely disappears from the narrative, allowing it to focus mainly on the real students of Mirador High who are, after all, its subjects. Iversen only really breaks in through the endnotes—I read High School Confidential with two bookmarks, one to hold my place in the story and one to do the same in the endnotes section, and I highly recommend this approach. Iversen has included more than 100 endnotes, which provide everything from translations of teen slang to explanations of relevant California laws and educational standards, and it is through this section that we see just how much research went into this project. More importantly, this wealth of information helps make sure that every detail of the book proper will be clear to anyone who reads it, be they a high school senior or a senior-level superintendent.
But it’s the story that will captivate readers, and the fact that all of High School Confidential is true only enhances its power. Iversen says early on that he didn’t expect Mirador to be like the fictional high school in Fast Times, but that expectation was one of the first things to go once he actually began his study. Mirador is populated by catfighting girls, steroid-abusing jocks and the shady drug dealers who supply them, hardcore Christians, struggling photographers, alumni who won’t (or can’t) move on…I could continue all day. The faculty at Mirador is just as diverse, and their various idiosyncrasies range from infuriating to frightening to laugh-out-loud funny. When the principal gets on the P.A. system to rap information the students need to memorize, telling somebody on the other end of the mike to “drop a beat,” you can feel the awed silence through Iversen’s narration. An hilarious account of a homemade slideshow in history class stands out as one of the most memorable vignettes of the entire book.
It’s not all laughs, though—High School Confidential may hook you with its unique premise and moments of comedy, but it keeps you with the more complex, moving, shocking and sometimes reprehensible events Iversen covers. I’m not just talking about accounts of drug and alcohol abuse, which shouldn’t be news to anyone in the year 2007. Your jaw will hit the floor when you meet a student identified only as “the redneck,” who claims the south will rise again and says Hitler was “a good German.” At least one other teen has the racist Iron Cross emblem on her clothing and the bumper of her car, and many more engage in bullying and disrespect governed by various kinds of discrimination. The teachers fare no better under the lens of truth: the way they treat the special education students is appalling, and the way they justify it is even worse for its banality. The vice-principal’s cold-hearted manipulation of one student in particular and his offhanded treatment of the student body in general makes it all but impossible not to loathe him.
With all the inter-faculty pranks and blatant sexual harassment, you begin to wonder when any education occurs in this building at all. Of course, most of the student body hardly seems receptive to learning anyway. The most they participate is during discussions of current events, and even that dialogue can basically be summed up in three words: “bomb them all.” When the kids need to make the grade, they often either cheat or simply slide by because their teachers play favorites with them, which is the source of endless frustration for the lone conscientious student. Take the right snippets out of this book, and it would be easy to hate every single person at Mirador.
Yet as the narrative explores the lives of these characters, delving deeply into the home lives that created them and the various situations which test and reveal who they really are, miraculously, we begin to feel sympathy for them. Even the nastiest member of the Mirador community has a heart, a goal, a set of problems and issues, and at least a small amount of internal conflict. In short, even though Iversen’s account of Mirador sometimes reads like fiction, the characters are real people, and High School Confidential never lets us forget that for long. As we watch its complexity unfold, the boy or girl we thought of as evil in one chapter may be a victim in the next; the entire cast settles into a gray zone, their identities and their roles with respect to one another in constant flux. We, like Iversen, are observers, and the more we know, the harder it becomes to judge. “I bet if you really enter enough viewpoints, the whole of creation makes sense,” Iversen says toward the end of the book. “To understand all is to forgive all.” More remarkable than these words is the fact that we will have thought them ourselves before Iversen tells us we should.
I’ve never strived for realism in School Kids SG, but in creating the world that Mark Daley and his friends inhabit, I did begin from a foundation of real-world experience in my own suburban high school. Knowing and remembering that experience as well as I do, I can testify without hesitation that Jeremy Iversen has Got It. Owing partly to what he saw and partly to how he relates it, his High School Confidential is an accurate, surprising, and engrossing look at the actual reality of typical suburban high schools in the 21st century. Read this book and try to tell me that it’s not just one step off from a warring states situation. But mainly, read this book because you will enjoy it as a story. Iversen has achieved a monumental accomplishment in High School Confidential, and what he says is compelling enough to be interesting and relevant enough that it deserves to be heard and heeded.
(click image to view full-size)
A map of Mark's school. The Gauntlet
visits almost every single hallway on here, so this is a handy reference to have around when you're reading that story.
It may seem strange that each of the halls has a grandiose-sounding name, but that's what happens when you have 30 years' worth of vigilante warfare--people start getting territorial. I can pretty much guarantee you that it was a vigilante who first drafted this version of the map, hallway names and all.