Wot I Think: The Novelist

The Heart says

The Novelist affected me, deeply and painfully. It’s a game about responsibilities, as a father and as a partner, and it finds me at a time in my life where I am wrestling daily with how to do the right thing for family without sacrificing too much of myself in the process. My child is a seven-month-old baby from the screamier end of the infant spectrum rather than a five-year-old with apparent learning difficulties, and while unlike The Novelist’s Linda my partner is not to the best of my knowledge harbouring latent painting ability, she is finding the effects of motherhood on her sense of purpose, career and self to be dramatic and painful. The Novelist asks whether its protagonist Dan should prioritise his writing career or being there for his family; daily, I face something similar, if smaller.

Increasingly I see my peers and colleagues pursuing opportunities that will take them to greater, more creatively and financially rewarding pastures new while I languish in the same (albeit enjoyable and I’m sure enviable) job I’ve been in for years; I could change that but to do so would mean downing tools on daddy duties more frequently than I’d like, and leaving my partner to shoulder the burden of raising a child that much more alone.

Why should her career be on hold so mine can continue, let alone go to new places? Why must she be lonely and unfulfilled while I strive for more, more, more instead of listening, helping, working out what I can give up so that she will not? Why should my child lose me to a keyboard at evenings and weekends as well as weekdays? Which matters most, tomorrow or today? And where do our social lives, our friends and families, fit into all this? It is, frequently, extremely painful, much as my partner and my child both regularly provide me with joy and comfort and excitement that I wouldn’t give up for all the world.

Arid appearance, banal mechanics and an excess of repetition or not, I frequently cried at the outcomes of the decisions I made for the Kaplan family in The Novelist. A child uplifted, but a father distraught; a mother lonely but a father giddy with dreams of his literary future; a mother off pursuing her burgeoning painting career but a child abandoned and a father drinking to incite his creative muse. Sometimes I found the combination of choices that seemed to benefit everyone, that might leave someone’s long-term goals no closer but which left all three feeling happier and closer in the now, and that’s when I sobbed most heavily. Something vital, bigger than anyone, was within reach. Can I have that?

Dan, especially, must be self-sacrificing in the extreme in order to bring happiness to Linda and Tommy, and across the course of the game my sympathies slowly shifted from understanding the pain and peril of constant interruption when one is trying to work and create, to realising that togetherness and harmony trumps all, that to be The Novelist, or The Journalist, or The Game Maker at the cost of family is selfish.

Yet I felt Dan’s pain, felt the emptiness where achievement should be but was not, felt the poignancy when he saw his family’s smiles but saw his own status and prospects declined. Felt empathy for, admittedly White Middle Class Problems, but a wound’s still a wound. I wonder what I’d feel if I was not, in reality, a Dan-analogue, but a Linda one? Would this be a game whose sympathies lie mostly with him, as its title suggests, or would it still prick at my conscience and hurts?

Bar a few sucker punches, and a couple of artificially Manichean dilemmas, The Novelist plays things understated rather than mawkish, consequences described rather than seen, still images of cheer and misery that say more than long monologues or lavish cutscenes ever could – photographs from a life that could, through a glass darkly, be my own. Be staying subtle throughout, the game toys constantly with open wounds, a far more effective torture than simply creating them would be.

I realised, after a time, that the choice to set the entirely of the game within the same, unchanging house might well be a creative one as well as a budgetary one. This was prison as much as home, but it was still a home, and nothing outside it mattered as much as the people within it. A world, of beautiful trees and tranquil clifftops, forever beckons from outside its windows, but as appealing as all that seems, as much as I yearned to go out into it, it would provide only the briefest enjoyment so long as the problems at my doorstep, inside my prison-home, remained unresolved.

The monotony and sameiness is part and parcel of what Dan, Linda and Tommy face, as they all yearn for more but have to give it up in order to help the others attain it instead, and for one, some or all of them, depending on the decisions Father makes, the world will forever be shut out, locked behind glass.

An Ouroboros circle of self-sacrifice, happiness at the expense of happiness, but eventually at least one of this trio has to break away, to pursue their own dreams at the expense of the others. Will that happen to me, to us, and when, and how? If there’s a way for this to happen without hurting anyone, without closing anyone’s doors, I want to find it. I have to find it.

It doesn’t matter as much as it might that there’s so little that we might call ‘game’ here, because the intended effect is achieved despite the rickety look and movement, the austerity and the repetition. The Novelist cuts to the bone, offers hope in one hand while snatching it away with the other. Some of its conclusions are pat, perhaps, and it’s certainly lost to that false Hollywood concept of the boundlessly creative family who can attain wondrous career and life outcomes if only they try hard enough, make the right decisions, love each other enough, but it still speaks in a voice that flays me with sorrow and swaddles me with solace.

I was deeply disappointed to find after all my worrying and all my sacrifice that The Novelist’s conclusions are suspiciously neat, too mechanical and too implausible in the family permanently cutting off one option in favour of another rather than pursuing compromise later in their lives – the destination is, sadly, not the measure of the journey. Some familial interactions ring hollow too, sound too scripted, too dramatic, too perfect. Nonetheless, it’s a journey I’m glad I made.

The Novelist is out now.