This Week's Reads

Edmund White and Shanna Compton.

Arts and Letters

By Edmund White (Cleis Press, $24.95) Even though popular culture often encourages us to read novels as biography in drag, few serious fiction writers enjoy having one-to-one connections being made between their art and life. That is, except for Edmund White. Ever since he published his 1982 novel about growing up gay in the 1950s, A Boy's Own Story, White has openly discussed the autobiographical roots of his fiction. He is not a public exhibitionist, just one of the few writers working in America today for whom Proust is a model. It makes sense then that as a critic, White reads his way into a writer's work through his or her life, too. This approach, albeit unpopular in academia, makes for lively and engaging essays, as is apparent in White's latest collection of 37 profiles, Arts and Letters, which addresses the work of writers from Paul Bowles to George Eliot, artists from Duchamp to Jasper Johns, and divas like Elton John and Catherine Deneuve. Sprinkled with choice personal observations, such as how Johns now resembles a Zen Buddhist abbot or how White himself became the beneficiary of Allen Ginsberg's ability to attract young men, his essays feel more like naughty dinner party asides than capital-C Criticism. Elevated gossip aside, read closely and you realize White isn't being indiscrete but is cleverly finding a back door to art. In this regard, what he writes about Mapplethorpe's photography's relationship to sex applies to his own criticism and the biographical instinct: "He made the two so interchangeable that neither he nor we need to choose between them." JOHN FREEEMAN Gamers: Writers, Artists, and Programmers on the Pleasures of Pixels

Edited by Shanna Compton (Soft Skull Press, $14.95) Pinball is like fucking, as anyone knows who saw boys going at it back in the day: tossing their Jackson Brown bangs and getting their tight-ass Levis into it; stroking the ball by turns brutally and gently; stimulating the machines' delicate innards with ever-increasing skill. Video games, on the other hand—boys' fantasies played on creepily self-contained boxes—are like masturbation, and their rise in the late '70s and early '80s has proven to be a catastrophe for American manhood. Just look at the kids lethargically slouching at any bus stop in town. What do you think they've been doing all night? To gain skill in video and computer games is to gain only skill in servicing yourself. There will never be a great rock anthem about a video-game wizard. (No, don't send those letters, I'm sure there probably is a song about being good at video games by some dorky indie band, but my point is this: whatever.) The worst essays in this ragged but entertaining anthology of 24 works by and about gamers try to make the case for the cultural significance of Xbox and PS2 games with hilariously solemn footnotes and grad-school bloviation ("The style of representation in the games is unburdened by the constraints of realistic mimesis"). But the best ones bravely face the hairy palms and failing eyesight of the addicted gamer's world. Marc Nesbitt, for instance, writes of being a chronically hungover game tester for a bottom-shelf developer, eventually fired for turning in bug reports like this: "The goddamn sparkle balloons keep drifting too high for the little bitch to jump." On balance, though, there are at least three too many quirky tales of '80s childhoods spent at the arcade or hunched over the Nintendo. And actually, there's no need for nostalgia when you can head down to Shorty's in Belltown, where it is as it was, with Asteroids, Space Invaders, and all the rest. Of course the real action is in the back room, with the pinball machines. DAVID STOESZ

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