Level End

By Brian Oliu

Origami Zoo Press
April 2012

Reviewed by Ian Denning


When I was a kid, I took the surrealism of video games for granted. In the eighties and early nineties, video games were full of fantasies that only made sense to those who hadn't figured out the real world. Bullets were slow enough to jump over. Grabbing a maple leaf would give you a raccoon tail and the power of flight. Caves were shaped like words and giant diamonds fell from the sky.

Brian Oliu's chapbook of lyrical essays, Level End, inspired by boss fights in old-school video games, deals in similar sparkling illogics. It is a book full of gold robots and butterflies, brothers who shoot lightning from their hands, and lost loves imagined as snake-necked guardians of scarlet rooms. His prose, like the labyrinths in the games that inspired it, twists and turns in on itself. You get the feeling a hand might rise out of the floor and take you back to the beginning. In "Boss Battle: The Thing That Burrows Up To Greet Us," Oliu writes:

Think of how light I must be, for once. Think about how the sand keeps me upright instead of pushing me downward to something that we cannot see through: that the room is filled with silt and yet the hair on top of our heads is not brushing against the ceiling, that before the wind blew the dust through the doors this place was larger than my heart gave it credit for; air above our bodies for miles, our knuckles will not scrape against the plaster if we raise our fists to fight or if we raise our hands to surrender.

Images of open spaces and rooms too small to enclose what they contain abound. Level End has a fascination with consumption and being consumed. Oliu's narrators, like the video game protagonists of yore, are constantly in danger of being swallowed by sand or dirt, water, mouths, or darkness. But Oliu's narrators are not video game protagonists, and this is what keeps Level End from becoming an exercise in fanboydom. Oliu uses the mechanic of the boss battle—a fight with a super-powered enemy, typically at the end of a long slog through a dungeon, cave, or enemy stronghold—as a way of talking about moments of personal crisis. A conversation with an angry brother. An encounter with an ex. The aftermath of bad, drunken decisions. In the collection's least veiled piece, "Save Point: Inn," a group of young people staying as guests in a European house decide to eat and drink everything they can lay their hands on. It ends with the imagined aftermath of the bender:

We have drunk all of the wine. We have drunk all of the wine and we are not sorry—we deserved it, it was there and it is ours. No one will miss it. No one will wonder. Some of us are trying to sleep—some try to ignore what is happening: our beds our alibis. We shout out advice from the floor: walk slower, be quieter, forget about the spoons. We know what will happen: we will wake up in the morning and someone did not throw the empty bottles into the sea. Someone has broken a glass and there is blood everywhere. Someone will walk with a limp. We will return to the ocean from where we once came—a different shore this time.

Oliu is one of a number of young writers who are interested in transmuting the raw material of video games into epiphany and lyricism. This transformation raises questions. We've had video games for forty years. The writers coming of age now grew up with Nintendos and Super Nintendos and Sega Geneses on dusty shelves under their TVs. How has growing up with these games rewired our creative consciousness? Why has it taken video games so long—much longer than other once-dubious pop cultural institutions like rock and roll and television—to integrate into literature? What methods of understanding the world have Bubble Bobble and Super Mario Brothers given us, if any?

Level End seems to poke around the edges of that last question. The games Oliu borrows from and pays homage to are almost always treated as emblems of nostalgia: nostalgia for the 80s, for retro technology, for childhood. It's inescapable, but they signify more than that. By repurposing the mechanics and aesthetics of the video games that we obsessed over and mapped out on graph paper, the video games whose surreal and iconic imagery leaked into our dreams, Oliu is tapping into nostalgia, yes, but also memory and systems of understanding and a unique way of looking at the world. "You have eaten all of the cake," he writes, "you have eaten all of the jewels, you have put your hands to the sides of every princess, and this is where it ends."