Book Review: ‘Lucky Wander Boy’ by D.B. Weiss

Lucky Wander Boy is a novel about connections, about the invisible threads that bind together the seemingly unrelated ideas and objects that make up modern life. For the novel’s protagonist, Adam Pennyman, classic video games represent the most tangible connection he has between his inner-self and the external world, and, in many ways, the book is simply an account of this facet of Adam’s personality. But in just as many ways it is so much more — the novel itself an important thread connecting the reader back not to just the world around him, but to himself.

At the beginning of the book, Pennyman is an intelligent but largely directionless man adrift in his own life. A chance encounter with MAME, the multiple arcade machine emulator, rekindles his memories of classic games and, more over, the importance of games like Frogger to his youth. As he plays more and more of these emulated games, he casually embarks on the creation of the Catalogue of Obsolete Entertainments, a sort of encyclopedia of classic gaming. Half the novel is Pennyman’s first person account of his experiences; interspersed among these chapters are excerpts from the Catalogue itself.

The Catalogue contains more than just mere fact, of course. It also contains Pennyman’s philosophical and academic musings on the games and their meaning. One may never have even considered early games to have any meaning at all, but after reading Pennyman’s (or is it Weiss’s?) deft entry on Donkey Kong as a Christ metaphor, an entire world of possible new perspectives has been opened up for the reader.

The novel takes its title from a classic arcade game of the same name, a largely unsuccessful but entirely unique game that is unemulatable and entirely lost to the ages. It is this game and the riddle of its meaning with which Pennyman slowly becomes obsessed. Because of his job as a copywriter (which he sees as a game called Copywriter!) at an internet company which owns the film rights to Lucky Wander Boy, Pennyman is able to have contact with the game’s creator, but she is almost as enigmatic as Lucky Wander Boy itself, and this contact only sends Pennyman deeper into postmodern dissassociation and surrealistic notions about reality.

The novel is cleverly structured. Aside from the aforementioned interludes from Pennyman’s Catalogue (which are often the most stimulating part of the entire package), the narrative often shifts to screenplay or stage play format for a nice change of pace. The novel is also designed to mimic the three-part structure of the Lucky Wander Boy game, and, as the game’s creator stresses in mock Engrish “Remember three acts, and middle being longest, and also being the WANDER stage.” Indeed, the second act of the novel is also the longest, with emphasis on WANDER. It is also in this part of the novel when Pennyman’s world becomes a lucid series of connections, like a psychotic’s awareness of the metaphysical design of everything, that the reader finds the same sort of connections running between the various and oft-repeated elements of the novel, but also between Pennyman and the reader himself.

The journey toward Stage III of the Lucky Wander Boy game is described as running after a floating mirror warping to the infinity of the horizon line, as the sand of the desert rises up like great waves, only merging and forming an endless tunnel of sand, into which you dive deeper and deeper until you are in the mirror. At this point reality becomes disconnected, and you are no longer playing a game, but you are in the world of the game. The face staring back from the mirror is your own.

Indeed, as I read of Pennyman’s own journey into stage three, and felt the sands of the novel swirling out from the pages like great waves, I felt as if Pennyman’s face was my own. I felt as if the novel was about my experience reading it, as if I expected at any moment to turn the page to find “I can see you reading this, Ray” in the same way that a Lucky Wander Boy machine spoke to Pennyman in his youth.

Act III ventures so far into the surrealistic that I am still trying to grasp its meaning. I will say no more other than to say that, just as Pennyman’s own Lucky Wander Boy script diverges entirely from narrative cohesion, so too does Act III. It is more than a mystery to be unraveled, it is a conundrum to be understood. It’s a zen riddle on heroin.

It is at this point when I would normally reference Scott McCloud’s sublime masterpiece Understanding Comics, but Pennyman beats me to it by referencing McCloud in the Catalogue. Clearly Weiss has been influenced by McCloud’s highly philosophical musings on media — Weiss’s tone shits all over McCloud’s pyramid of expressiveness, representation, and abstraction. The fact that Pennyman specifically brings up McCloud’s observations about mechanisms through which the comics reader can find himself represented by the characters suggests that my own experience with Part II is at least partially intentional on the author’s part, though I conceit that there are many elements of Pennyman’s character that I found reflected my own. My reaction is certainly influenced by my perceived similarity to the character.

For the most part, the novel is extremely well written, particularly given the difficult task of bending the form of a linear prose fiction novel that Weiss set for himself. At times, the novel is a virtuoso performance; several passages stick out as miniature masterpieces of their own — particularly the New Mexico scene which finds the threads of classic video games, space aliens, the space program, and nuclear weaponry coming together to lead Pennyman to Stage Three, Pennyman’s imaginary battle against his boss over who was more instrumental to the development of golden age gaming, Bushnell or the venture capitalists who backed him, or Pennyman’s essay “On Geeks.” And, although Pennyman is mostly emotionally empty, referring to intimate contact with women only as a means to “fulfil basic animal needs”, there are certain passages that are heartbreaking, plain observations about love and relationships. Although certain passages reflect a kind of dreamer’s naivety about the world, a great deal of the novel is staggeringly brilliant.

In short, Lucky Wander Boy is exactly the sort of novel I wish I could write. As I read it, I kept thinking it would make a great movie in the vein of Fight Club or Adaptation, but, as the novel grew more surrealistic, more experimental and less linear and less narrative, I found myself echoing the words that Lucky Wander Boy’s creator, Araki Itachi, may or may not have said to Pennyman upon the presentation of his experimental, surrealistic, and nonlinear Lucky Wander Boy movie script, “This is not a movie. No one would go see it.”