Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Not-Review of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

This is not a review.

I need to say that in no uncertain terms: this is not a review.

There's a fair amount of debate on the subject of whether it's necessary to finish a game before you "review" it. Both sides have good points and, this may surprise you, but I actually come down on the side of those that believe it's not essential. Since games are a combination of both art and product there has to be a different way of thinking about how to criticize them. If a game is broken control-wise, for example, or glitches out to a absurd degree, then one of the most inherent functions of the game is subpar and renders the entire thing, art side included, unusable.

I hesitate to apply this logic here, however, because Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is an excellent game by objective standards. By that I mean it controls well, plays beautiful, and keeps you on the edge of your seat for its entire duration. By most standards it is an excellent game. But I do not feel comfortable saying that I'm reviewing it for that one simple reason: despite its objectively high value, I did not finish the game.

So this is not a review. Rather its a somewhat randomized collection of thoughts on this game and the series canon of which it is ostensibly a part.

I. The Pretty Boy
PICTURED: Seriously. I mean...seriously.
Our friend Raiden's come quite a ways since Metal Gear Solid 2, hasn't he? Remember when he was this poncy long-haired loser that everyone hated because he dared usurp the playable character demigod of Solid Snake and took over the latter 90% of that game? Well, most people still think that way about him. But you have to hand it to Kojima: the guy can make one of the most disliked characters in the franchise into an effective threat.

The funny thing about Raiden's entire existence is that he basically performed his function in the story of Metal Gear Solid 2 to perfection: to make the player feel weak and practically worthless, and the fan outcry about his promotion to main character only served to legitimize Kojima's position. Kojima basically pulled one over on the whole gaming world, and unfortunately it wasn't until many years later that everyone started figuring it out. And by everyone I mean barely anyone. 

Kojima had been harried and harassed for years after Metal Gear Solid to make another game, and while I can't state this for certain I can't help but wonder if the man wasn't a bit appalled at the hero-worship for the broken, emotional damaged player character that he had meant to create, in the same way Alan Moore didn't intend for Rorschach to become a folk hero. When people bang on and on about how awesome Snake is and how they can't wait for the next game please, when is the next game - especially when Snake was specifically designed to be someone you did not want to be - well, it leads men to go off in postmodern directions.

Meaning fans that popped in Metal Gear Solid 2 were expecting two things: long cutscenes, and the ability to play as a broken, traumatized, emotionally stunted super-soldier whom they had come to idolize...whom they had come, as it were, to see as a projection of whom they wanted to be.

Instead, Kojima gave them something far more horrifying: a projection of themselves as they actually were.

Because let's face it, no matter whether you like Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2 or not, he's anything but a badass. Sure, he's got the child-soldier past. But that's mere lip service. Let's look at the game itself. He has vaguely effeminate features, looks like he's wearing eyeliner, sports the emo-est haircut seen this side of a secondary magnet school. He masturbates in women's restrooms. He's constantly pwned by his betters, slips down in bird crap, is treated with disdain by pretty much everyone he comes in contact short, he's a digital manifestation of the emasculation that many players who worship Snake feel. We're talking about a guy so rudimentarily "girly" that the President of the United States has to grab his crotch to make sure he's a guy. 

Raiden's a wuss. And people didn't play Metal Gear Solid 2 to play as a wuss. The came to play as a combat juggernaut, kicking butt and taking names and answering every question in a PTSD-laced growl. 

I might be reaching here, certainly, but anyone around at the time of the game's release could at least see the point; I just can't shake the notion that part of the Raiden-hate stems from the fact that the haters see something of themselves in him. Although I'm no psychologist. What can't be argued was Kojima's intentional design to subvert the player's expectations and put him not in the body of the wily veteran but in a young man completely out of his element, but who managed along the course of the narrative to become a fully realized person, despite efforts by the antagonists to turn him into their own creation, built for war and death.

Of course, most people missed this as well. But that's for the Metal Gear Solid 2 Retrospective.

Suffice it to say that Raiden's had a pretty unenviable existence since then. He rescues Olga's daughter from the Patriots, but is under the impression that Rose had a miscarriage and then is somehow outfitted by the Patriots with a cybernetic exoskeleton that fires lightnings and weeps a mysterious white liquid that is more than reminiscent of artificial beings a certain sci-fi film series:

PICTURED: God, the nightmares....
Now I'm still not sure how exactly this beast interfaces with Raiden:

Because at first glance it looks like it's more or less welded to him - you can see where the entirety of his lower jaw appears to be artificial. But then we see him at the end of MGS 4 and he still has regular human skin, although with odd little lines on it.

 They still haven't figured this out in Rising. Limbs are hacked off with nary a comment, but there's still bone and blood inside, so is the exoskeleton purely just that, and doesn't intercede on any of Raiden's internal fuctions? But if that's so then how in the name of science can you manage to get natural arms chopped off with the regularity he does and still have two of them if they're not entirely robotic or cybernetic?

I don't know. It doesn't really matter. The important issue here is that Raiden's character has come full circle. He is now the badass that you want to play as, and the only people that don't are those with residual sour tastes from twelve-odd years ago. The guy is a freaking superhero, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and cleaving cyborg schlubs into thirty pieces before they even had a chance to fall to the ground. It says quite a lot about Kojima, I think: he's a character almost universally panned upon his introduction in 2001, creating great rifts in a rabid fandom; it would tempt any creator to pull the plug or pretend the whole "Raiden fiasco" never occurred. Instead, while Kojima acknowledges the popular opinion of his bleach-blond protagonist - as seen in Metal Gear Solid 3 - he never crosses the line into participating in the mockery and disdain, managing to treat Raiden as a fully-fledged character and giving him a rather compelling arc over the course of games two and four. The Raiden we see in Metal Gear Solid 2 and the Raiden we play as in Metal Gear Rising looks the same, talk the same, even act the same - but one is a naive young boy playing a part at the whims of forces greater than he, while the other would just chop said forces into kibble. 

II. The Gameplay

Isn't it odd with video games how you can heap praise on one that you didn't even finish? Really, there's no other artistic medium where this is possible, and it once again comes down to the nature of games as a whole. They are both art and commodity. They can function perfectly and be emotionally underwhelming. We'll get to the underwhelming part in a second, but allow me to indulge what the game does right.

As is well-known in the Metal Gear fandom, Metal Gear Rising went under a tortuous publication history. I won't rehash the whole saga here, especially since any quick search on Wikipedia will bring up vast oceans of information on the subject, but suffice it to say that Kojima and Co. were unequipped to handle what the game was becoming, and thus farmed the mechanics out to Platinum Games, who apparently have a reputation for well-functioning, high velocity, over the top hack and slashers. That affinity is expressed well in Metal Gear Rising. Gameplay is fun, visceral, high-impact, heart-pounding, controller-throwing chaos. You run up collapsing buildings, parry blows from 200 ton battle tanks, and hack at a pair of legs that have detached themselves from a boss. 

The battle system is creative, the gore unceasing. The most lauded - and rightfully so - aspect of the combat is the "blade mode" system, wherein at the press of a button Raiden can slow down time (or, in game, your super-cyborg reflexes kick in) and hack and dice a foe into kindling in slow motion, or use the the right and left analog sticks to angle the blade to cut in the manner of your choosing. This really makes you feel like you have control of Raiden's sword and aren't just giving commands for him to execute, and most importantly, it doesn't feel like a gimmick: in an intelligent move on Platinum's part, the blade mode and the ability to direct your slices figures intrinsically into the combat: when an enemy is weakened enough, entering blade mode will allow you to slice at a targeted area on the body, revealing the cyborg's power supply...or something...that, if cut, will regenerate Raiden's health. So not only does the blade mode mechanic serve an important function, but you basically can't defeat a couple of the boss without mastering it. A really, really well executed move by Platinum.

Boss fights are creative and difficult without being overwhelming - although I did cry and beat the arms of the sofa on one of them. The battles remind me of  the arcade, especially shoot-em-ups like Metal Slug, except of course you have a blade instead of a gun.

On the flip side there are a variety of weapons to use, rocket launchers and the like. Their handling is clumsier and not near as fleshed out for obvious reasons, but they do come in handy more than once.

Basically, if you like a challenge Metal Gear Rising is the game for you. It ramps up the difficulty but never beats up the player, and the physics that go into slicing off the limbs of a cyborg while he stands there helplessly are glorious. On a pure gameplay side of things, Metal Gear Rising is nigh impeccable.

III. The Story, and a Bit about Canon

Wow, Mr. E! I hear the one social maladjust reading this blog say. You really heaped praise on the game in that last section, why on Earth didn't you finish it?

There are two times of game players in this world, my friends. People who play games for interactive feed back and people who play games for interactive narrative. The first kind of people rabidly foam at the mouth about Mass Effect 3's story mode. The second kind would almost rather be watching a movie anyway.

That's a gross exaggeration of course, but fact is I'm highly unlikely to play a game if the narrative doesn't sweep me up in it. That's not saying game play isn't important - it's very important - but I can forgive weak gameplay for a solid story, and while it'll be harder for me to play great gameplay with a story that doesn't involve me. 

That being said, I would have finished the game, if not for one reason: I rented it from Blockbuster (yes, they still exist), and if I didn't return it I would have had to pay a dollar more. That the prospect of paying a whole dollar more dissuaded me from finishing the game is a tidbit that, I think, speaks for itself.

So this game is supposedly set in the Metal Gear universe, a universe which now included cybernetic domestic police force, a cornucopia of robots in all manners, shapes, sizes and abilities, and (spoiler alert), the technology to remove the brains from kids and keep them alive until they can be made into mindless super soldiers in cybernetic bodies.


Let's burn the bridge behind us, people: Metal Gear Rising's story is completely ridiculous.

Now I know it's odd for someone to call out a Metal Gear game's story for being ridiculous. This is a series that regular features walking battle tanks, 100-year-old boss snipers, former Presidents with Doctor Octopus arms, psychics, vampires, nanomachines that might as well be magic potions, and a main character who has a fetish for cardboard boxes. 

PICTURED: There was also this.
And even with all that, even with all that, Metal Gear Rising makes the other Metal Gear Solid games look like hard-hitting war documentaries. 

See, there was always this level of self-irony in the Metal Gear games. But that irony, and even the impossibilities, somehow managed to seem realistic in the world. I honestly don't know how Kojima managed to do this. Take "The End," for instance - the 100-year-old expert sniper mentioned in the previous paragraph. The man is not alive - like he has to be pushed around in a wheelchair because he's literally sleeping to preserve his time left on Earth. Then you fight him and suddenly he's nailing you with pinpoint accuracy over two or three miles and skittering about like a hamster on caffeine (this, by the way, is one of the great boss fights in the history of the medium). Finally, at the end of the fight, like the rest of his comrades, he explodes into a million pieces. I mean he literally explodes.

Yet somehow this seems plausible. Like of course the Boss' team is going to be a bunch of freaks with literally impossible abilities. Of course the main bad guy is going to have a suit welded to his skin that gives him the power to control electricity. Of course the Boss' scar turns into a snake.

If I really had to pin this down, I'd say it's a couple of things: one, the ancillary stuff in Metal Gear was so in depth that it allowed us to accept the madness as part of the world. The names of the guns, the histories of the characters, the gritty feel of the locations, the role the politics play. No matter what happened, no matter how often Snake snuck around in a cardboard box, no matter how many boss fights involved a fat man on roller skates, there was this sense of grounded realism that pervaded the scenery. You knew simultaneously that you were playing a video game and participating in a sinuous political thriller. Heck, Metal Gear Solid 3 is almost fetishistic in its adherence to history. It maintains that grasp of a Cold War spy novel while having a character that can control bees. The very fact that Kojima's able to pull this off, no matter his other flaws, making him worthy of admiration. 

And Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance makes it clear that Kojima alone can do this. Or at the very least, Platinum Games cannot. There are a few moments of classic Metal Gear absurdity in the game - the fact that you gain a sidekick that's essentially a robot dog is one of them. There's also a bit where Raiden tries to blend in in Mexico by wearing a sarape and a sombrero, and that's it, giving everyone a full view of the rest of his metal exoskeleton. But the attempts are awkward, and forced, the very definition of unworthy imitation. Platinum Games are trying to put Kojima's affectations on the board and generally fail at it. 

Not to mention the question this brings up about the Metal Gear canon.

Now canon discussions can be frustrating, confusing, and unproductive. Just ask any consumer of comic books. Or ask a Star Wars fan that hates or loves the prequels. Parts of canon can be ignored by large parts of a consumer base, there are always disagreements even in the highest realms of literature - the "Westen Canon," for example, is constantly under fire about something, because it's too white, too Anglophone, what have you - so from that viewpoint, it'd be pretty easy to just ignore Revengeance's contributions to the canon of this series entirely.

That being said, let's look at this for a moment: the game makes it clear that these events are occurring in the Metal Gear universe, and that it's at some point after Metal Gear Solid 4. All right, now that we have that settled, apparently in that span of time humanity has created a virtual host of super-complex robotics complete with fully-functional artificial intelligences in the forms of wolves, dinosaurs, and freaking gorillas, of all things:

PICTURED: Yes. That is a gorilla.
Again, the Metal Gear series has always had these leaps in logic, but there was enough to ground it in realism that you accepted it as a function in the "realistic" world being created. The Gecko are a good example of this. Yes, they're automatons with an apparently rudimentary intelligence. But at the end of they day they're very basic machines. Bipedal robots with one or two functions. And their design is not complex in the slightest. Triangular head on abdomen where legs are attached. It just looked like something that could actual come about in the next few years or so.

But gorilla robots? No.

Let's get into, as well, the nature of cyborgs in the series. Okay, so we have Frank Jaegar. 

Brutally tortured and kept alive in stasis while cruel experiments were performed upon him before he was shoved into a metal exoskeleton that constantly pumps anti-psychotics and stabilizers into his bloodstream in a rather painful way, apparently. Also gets a samurai sword and a particle beam weapon. 

Ridiculous? Yeah, but injected with enough technobabble and emotion to make it feel not only real, but something rare and terrible that was done to this man against his will. That is, there's no indication that there a mass-production facility cranking out these suits, nor that being inside said suit is a particularly awesome thing.

Then we have Olga Gurlukovich. 

She barely counts since there's no real indication that what she's wearing isn't just simple body armor, but she's playing Jaegar roles in Metal Gear Solid 2, so we'll add her in. Basically, same situation. She's basically a pawn of the Patriots, so to play her role she's given a very rare, expensive exoskeleton to facilitate the S3 project. 

Then we have Raiden himself in Metal Gear Solid 4.  

Once more: painful surgeries, pawn of the patriots, in supreme agony, looks to be one of a kind. The uniqueness of the exoskeletons and the implied weeks of work it took to create a Frank or a Raiden grounded the absurdity of the plot point into a more believable stratum that the audience could buy as a factual occurrence. 

So believe me when I say that when Metal Gear Rising jumps off the rails, it jumps hard. Suddenly everyone and their mother is not only a cybernetic organism, but a cybernetic organism with completely insane abilities and weapons. Here's a guy that can control magnetism, whose physical body is chop suey, and who can detach portions of his arms and legs and torso and throw them at you. Here's a girl who has rather agonizing-looking implants her back and can control those damned annoying little three-legged gecko that just had to come over for the ride from Metal Gear Solid 4. Of all the things they had to bring over from the previous game, God help me. Here's another dude with metallic plates on robotic arms that he can control as extra limbs which can bash me against walls or form a shield I can't break. Here's the entire police force of Denver spewing electronics and having blue power cells implanted in their guts. Here's Raiden vaulting up skyscraper walls in complete defiance of gravity. On and on and on....

This would be awesome stuff in an other over-the-top hack n' slash bloodbath, but remember: this is a game in the Metal Gear canon. And it's not just tangentially related either. We have the main character of the series, we have constant nods to the other games - Soliton Radar, Codecs and requisite noise - as well as multiple mentions of SOP and at least one nod to Rose. This means we somehow have to contort our minds to figure out how a grounded-if-postmodern militaristic war series suddenly, in four years, advances to a context that wouldn't be out of place in a cyberpunk film. 

It just doesn't mesh. Which forces you to divorce this game from the rest of the series anyway. Which makes one wonder why this wasn't an entirely different game to begin with. Now there are obvious answer to that, starting with name recognition, and the fact that the game, while sort of initiated by Kojima, eventually became Platinum Games' baby. What can't be denied, however, is that the game is in direct contradiction with everything else in the series whose name it - uh, at least partially - bears.

And that's what it comes down to, in the end. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is a well made, challenging, awesome game with a terrible, out-of-place, absurd, canon defiling story. What you take from that statement is proportional to how much you'll enjoy the game.

Until next time, 

Mr. E



Friday, March 15, 2013

I've Passed 10,000 Page Views!

Oh, what a long awaited day! 10,000 page views! I'd like to thank everyone who made this possible, including the few hundred spammers, the people who just come for the pretty pictures, and my biggest contributors, and Without your tireless searches somehow coming up on my blog, this moment would never have happened.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

King's Korner: Rage

I was going to do this really neat thing where I used strike through text on "King's" and put "Bachman's" Korner, but Blogger, being the nefarious twit that it is, decided this was too clever by half. Oh, the crosses we have to bear. Some men go hungry, some men fight in wars, some men must deal with high-maintenance title bars in Blog posts. But for reference, here's what it would have looked like:

King’s Bachman’s Korner: Rage

Now wouldn't that have been the most creative thing ever? Thanks Blogger!
Edition: The Bachman Books.

PICTURED: This one.
  I: The Pseudonym

Can you believe it's been almost three months since I did one of these? I was going under some serious King withdrawal, and so much was happening! He got a new miniseries on ABC that I'm slightly worried about--partially because its a gruesome story on censor-heavy network television, partly because of what it's adapting (Note: for those not in the know, it's Under the Dome. --E); in addition, we've gotten more and more news of Dr. Sleep, the surprisingly interesting sounding sequel to The Shining which I've enumerated elsewhere is my all-time favorite novel - depending on my mood. I'm...cautiously optimistic about that one. I can't shake the feeling that you're scraping the dregs of your idea bin when you start writing sequels to your own classic novels from thirty years ago.

But that's in the futuristic year of 2013, where we're still using gasoline powered cares. Some world of tomorrow. No, let's go back a ways, to a young buck with wheels burning in an unbound mind, and to the first novel by King in this series of reviews that I have not read.

If I recall correctly, I was put off by the whole Richard Bachman thing when I was a younger child, just engrossing my tender young mind into the warping cataclysm that is the Stephen King canon. I didn't "get" the idea of a pen name. I didn't think that Bachman was "real" Stephen King anymore than the Beatles tribute band playing at the civic center were the "real" Paul, John, Ringo and George. The young are not equipped to deal with such conceits.

In the edition I'm reading, King has a great introduction detailing why he decided to publish a group of novels under a pen name. It boils down to a couple of things: the material he chose to publish was written when he was younger, and therefore less polished - this is especially true of Rage and The Long Walk - or, more economically, that there was a feeling among his agent and publishers that King was "flooding the market" with his amount of output. This may surprise you, but I personally think there's some credence to this. Publishing under a pen name allowed King to "get his works out" without inundating the bookstores with yet another King novel and risking alienating or even just tiring out his main audience. 

From the beginning people were writing King asking if he was Bachman, to which, in King's words, he simply lied. But the jig was up when an enterprising young publisher got suspicious and tracked down the ISBN number to find the copyright forms and, by extension, King's name. Really, it was bound to happen. King comes from the pulp tradition, and the Bachman books were published in the glorious realms of the pulp. King himself, of course, says it best in the forward to the edition I'm reading, entitled "Why I was Bachman":

"Each month paperback houses issue three types of books: "leaders," which are heavily advertised, stocked in dump-bins (the trade term for thsoe show cardboard displays you see at the front of your local chain bookstore), and which usually feature fancy covers that have been either die-cut or stamped with foil; "sub-leaders," which are less heavily advertised, less apt to be awarded dump-bins, and less expected to sell millions of copies (two hundred thousand sold would be one hell of a good showing for a sub-leader); and just plain books. This third category is the paperback book publishing world's equivalent of trench warfare...or cannon fodder. "Just plain books" (the only other term I can think of is sub-sub-leaders, but that is really depressing) are rarely hardcover reprints; they are generally backlist books with new covers, genre novels...or series books...

The Bachman novels were "just plain books," paperbacks to fill the drugstore and bus-station racks of America. This was at my request...So in that since, the poor guy had the dice loaded against him from the start." 

If you need further burden of proof on what he's talking about, look at these covers:

Bargain bin tenets. Screaming their schlock from the highest rafters. Notice the pithy, histrionic tag lines. The watercolor covers by an art student desperately wishing he had chosen another major. This is the literary equivalent of the $5 DVD vats they have at Wal-Mart. That's the kind of quality merchandise the Bachman books were published as. The reason there were questions about their true author from the beginning was simple: the writing was just too good to fit in.

That might be a little fan-wanky on my part (omfgz Stepen Kingz is so awesome ppl no itz him!!!!1!), but I honestly believe that's the case. Why else would a random participant in the pulp bin sweepstakes be singled out for possibly being the pen name of a world famous writer? There's a regression to the mean in these things, and cream rises to the top. If you enjoy pulp novels, you go in with a certain expectation of what the writing style is going to be like. For the most part, rushed, even a bit harried, spare on details, big on set pieces, lots of repetition. Just the name of the game. Quantity, not quality. Cranking another book out to meet deadlines. Getting that paycheck so you can maybe keep your house one more month. It's not high art (whatever that means). There's a baseline level that you can expect the average pulp novel to sit at. 

That's not to say pulp is bad, or that remarkable writers didn't come out of the tradition. Finding one, though, is akin to finding a diamond in a bed of coal. They shine just a bit more, and are remembered for it. Richard Matheson, Theodore Sturgeon, Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick, among others. But they're exceptions, not rules - the Quentin Tarantinos of the style, if you will - and pulp, for all its wonderfulness, remains known more for being rushed and generally being of lower quality than its other literary brethren. 

What I'm trying to say is when you pick up a Richard Bachman novel and turn the pages with a certain set of expectations, and then are beset with this entirely unanticipated breadth of style, your suspicion alarm goes off. What amazes me is that people were so well-versed in King's style that they immediately suspected that Rage was actually written by him. Either that or they were incredibly lucky guessers. 

Published in 1977, Rage was the first of the Bachman books, and quite possibly the first book King ever wrote. The novel, originally titled Getting It On, was "begun in 1966, when I was a senior in high school" and rediscovered yellowing in a cellar. King himself thinks that Rage is decent, but obviously written by someone just learning the craft, and I'm inclined to agree. The book itself is merely okay. If it were another art form, say a sculpture, I'd remark that they eyes are off-center, the contours are detailed enough, and the perspective is off - but you can see the potential. For something written in high school - and, I'm sure, well brushed up and polished - Rage shows a remarkable consistency and demonstrates many of the techniques King is known for in a rawer, more inchoate way. The use of communiques to foster a sense of detached, systematic horror (i.e., memos and letters), a penchant for what I would call grotesque poetry (the whole circumstance and explanation of the "Cherokee Nose Job" - bleak stuff, people), and King's ear for realistic dialogue and his oft-underrated ability to take children or adolescents seriously and speak in their voices without deprecating them. 

At the same time, there are cracks. Rage has pacing issues, namely in the middle, where the "let's examine the following psychological aspect" affectation starts to get stale. The flow of the narrative is jerky as well, again, mostly because it's like we're in some kind of "The More You Know" self-help special: all right kids, we've examined Charlie Decker's relationship with his father, now let's look at his relationship with his mother! All in all, it has the tone of the kind of thing a fresh, young and talented writer in high school would put to paper and think was deep. At certain points, said depth is reached. At others, the depth is a reach. Despite this, it's a fascinating insight into early King, and a rare glimpse into a writer's mind in the formative years of high school and college. I mean, how often do we get published books from an author that were written at eighteen, nineteen years old? Carrie may be the first published King novel, but for any aspiring King biographer, Rage would be the place to begin.

II. The Mind

"Freudian" is a term that's sort of lost its meaning. Nowadays anyone with any type of neuroses is described as a Freudian nightmare. The word's become a shorthand for any personality quirk, diagnosable or otherwise, but in the case of this novel we're going back to the beginning. Charlie Decker's psychological issues are centered around his mother, his father, and his sexuality. They, in turn, drive him to become a murderer, prone to violent rages and sympathetic vomiting. He is the embodiment of a true Freudian nightmare.

After taking control of the classroom in an indifferent bout of double homicide that would make Hannibal Lector proud, Decker holds his classmates ostensibly hostage while the authorities work outside to try and calm the situation. Where it gets interesting is when the reader becomes unsure of who exactly is holding whom hostage. At first its seems stupidly apparent. Decker's got the gun and the power. But as the novel progresses, you start to wonder who exactly is keeping whom from leaving.

What this creates is a feedback loop, wherein the class and Decker take turns being analyzer and analyzed. Secrets come to the surface, repressed feeling bubble up, and the class watches as Decker takes them through a trip of his mind.

In fitting with the theme of Freudian psychology, Decker's first words about his father pretty much sum up the Oedipal Complex: "My dad has hated me for as long as I can remember" (43). It would have been very easy for young Stephen King to make said father a Villain, capital V included. Like Decker's father would have been an irredeemable douchebag that locked his son in a basement and ate them out of house and home, beat the wife and harangued the neighbors, that sort of thing. In fact, many of King's Villains with capital Vs have been this way. But that type of character has a time and a place, and King fortunately understood this dynamic even in high school and early college, which is more than what can be said for yours truly, and a lot of other bright young mind in university creative writing classes. I'm not certain how much King revised the novel before he released it after discovering it the cellar, but if  Decker's relationship with his father was in place at the novel's conception, it indicates exactly what kind of potential the man possessed.

Decker's father is a complicated man, as all human villains tend to be. He is profoundly screwed up, but we're not entirely sure what that means.

Let's first look at the Cherokee Nose Job scene. Charlie is forced to go hunting and camping out with his father and his buddies, two of the most stereotypical masculine activities you could drudge up. And he hates it. He doesn't say so, as it is a blatant attempt by his father to masculinize him. At night, while awake, he overhears his father and said buddies talking about women in a bro-to-bro, dehumanizing fashion:

"Thass what I wanna know. What do you do about a woman who less--lets--someone in the back door? Huh?"

The hunting knife that had turned into a spear moved slowly back and forth. My father said, "The Cherokees used to slit their noses. "The idea was to put a cunt right up on their faces so everyone in the tribe could see what part of them got them in trouble."
"Slit their noses, huh?" Randy said. "That's pretty goddamn good. If they still did that, half the woman in Placerville would have a snatch at both ends."

"Not my wife," my father said very quietly, and now the slur in his voice was gone, and the laughter at Randy's joke stopped in mid-roar.

"No, 'course not, Carl," Randy said uncomfortably. "Hey, shit. Have a drink." (15)

It's a case of masculine demonstration, maleness having to assert itself in front of other males to validate and affirm dominance. By removing the agency of the females, the group of good ol' boys around the fireplace suddenly feel better, thereby quelling their deep-seated insecurities. Decker's father appears to us as your typical misogynistic hyper-masculine American man (for that era, anyway). He speaks almost deliciously of punishing and "slut-shaming" infidelity with a visible demonstration that, by his behavior with the knife, he seems very keen on doing. Yet at the same time, he will broach no conversation that even implies his wife is cheating on him. It's a contradiction, but a fairly logical one, at least in the realms of this type of dynamic: that is, Carl Decker's posturing. A show to the boys to, again, affirm Carl Decker's masculinity - he has control over his wife, of course. She wouldn't sleep around on him. At the same time, he has the fix for her if she did. But she won't. But if she did. The insecurities and fear within Carl - that he, as the male in the family, doesn't have complete dominance over the unit that society demands he must possess, nags at him.

Usually, the above scene would confirm that Carl Decker's an irredeemable monster that's going to, later in the novel, commit a slew of heinous, vile acts. Heck, if you're familiar at all with King's work you just might assume this was what was going to occur. But it doesn't. The next time we see Decker's father, we get a hint at the interactions we have with Decker's mother:

After at long, long, long time, I can remember my mother's voice, out of breath and irritable, and a little afraid: "Stop now, Carl." Again, the creaking, furtive. "Stop it!"

A mutter from my father.

From my mother: "I don't care! I don't care if you didn't! Stop it and let me sleep!"

So I knew. I went to sleep but I knew. The Creaking Thing was my father (41, emphasis King's).

There's an attitude that's faded  a good bit from the mainstream Americana, but still finds traction in many parts of the country, and in the backs of people's minds when they're not in public, and that is the "wifely duty" of being available to the husband whenever he wants sex. Again, you dig deep enough and you'll discover that this opinion is still fairly widespread, and has changed form over the years. But in the time period we're discussing, for the most part it was a fact. Men were animals that got these desires every now and again, and as women you just had to deal with it whether you wanted to or not.

Going off from the last scene, it would have been perfectly logical to read this and think it would progress to Carl Decker raping the mother. Not only because of what we've seen, but because that's the story for a lot of women during this era, especially in small towns.

But something rather, well, odd happens. The mother dissuades him. She shuts down his advances, with apparently no repercussions, physical or verbal. The mother rebukes the father, and that's the end of it, and the subtle insecurity that Carl Decker demonstrated around the campfire starts to make a little more sense (for his time and place, in any case. I'm NOT saying that he should be insecure because his wife doesn't allow him to have her anytime he wishes. I am saying that in this culture at this time, with the masculine-feminine gender dynamic as rigid as it ever could be, it would make a man like Decker insecure).

This is further supported by the third time we see the father, after Charlie has gone around a broken all the storm windows:

"You shouldn't have broken those windows," he said. Anger was replacing dismay. "Now shut up. Be a man, for God's sake.

Then he was over to her, not minding her slip anymore, or Sam and his wife. He grabbed her shoulder and pointed to the jagged kitchen storm window. "Look! Look! He did that, and now you want to give him chocolate! He's no baby anymore, Rita, it's time for you to start giving him the tit!"

I cringed against her hip, and she wrenched her shoulder away...

"Go inside," she said calmly. "You're being quite foolish, Carl."

"I'm going to - "

"Don't tell me what you'll do!" she shouted suddenly, advancing on him. He flinched away instinctively. "Go inside! You've done enough damage! Go inside! Go find some of your friends and have drinks! Go anywhere! But...get out of my sight!" (45-46, emphasis King's)

It thus becomes clear that all Carl Decker's masculine assertiveness is simply a cover for his feelings of guilt and shame and confusion about why he does not run the family. Where men are supposed to be men, he is found wanting. Where men are supposed to decide how the family unit functions, he is stomped under his wife's heel. Where men are supposed to discipline and lead the child firmly and unequivocally, he is countered by the feminine. Where he's supposed to be dominate, he is dominated. His role in the culture as he understands it has been subverted, and the only recourse left for him is to posture in front of his other male friends, wave phallic knives about and dream of days when he's going to put the feminine in her place.

We can see, then, why Decker's focal point returns to the conversation, where his father threatens subliminally to slit his mother's nose open. Decker is, to be quite frank, the definition of a momma's boy: she rules his life with an iron grip draped in velvet. She decides what he wears, when he's going to get punished, how his life is going to go. 

And Decker himself is okay with this - perhaps not on a conscious level, but he makes no real effort to combat it. He argues with his mother about the corduroy suit, but he wears it anyway. To bring it back to a pure Freudian level, Decker identifes with his mother since she is not a masculine threat to him. At its fullest extent (and this is a novel of extremes, so why not?), it contributes to his feelings of sexual inadequacy. 

Remember, the three discussions Decker has with the class are about his mother, father, and sex.  The great triarch of Freudian interpretation. Decker's first attempt to have sex is a resounding failure. He simply cannot regain the erection he had at the outset. While waiting for the girl to whom he would (he's hoping) lose his virginity, he loses it and cannot get it back. Would it be a stretch to say he could not regain it because he had his mother on the brain? I, for one, don't think so: "I don't know how long it was before she came...And after a little while, unease began to creep in. Something about the shadow of trees on the wet, packed sand, and the sound of the wind. Maybe the ocean itself, a big thing, a mean mother-humper full of unseen life and all those little pricks of light...But by the time she put her hand on my shoulder, I had lost my erection" (105, emphasis mine). And a little later, when trying to get it up: "...and then, of all things to come cruising out of my imagination, I saw my father with his hunting knife, talking about the Cherokee Nose Job" (105).

Make no mistake: mother's on the brain here. You might be tempted to say I'm stretching that  little - to which I would say, yes, but I'm an English major, it's what I do. At the same time, however, there's evidence to back me up. Notice how in the former quote we have two instance of sexual belittling: mother-humper, and little pricks. Both are emasculating in their own ways. 

Now you got to really think about this for an minute:

Why would Charlie Decker say mother-humper, a weaker euphemism for a curse work that he has no trouble using?  Not one page later he says the word "fuck," so that can't be it. No, the term is used precisely because it's a subconscious expression of Charlie's attraction to his mother. His mother, who not only runs the family, inverting the normal social structure in the culture Charlie's grown up in, but who also coos, diminishes, and yes, emasculates Charlie with her coddling and her words. His father wants to (masculine) punish Charlie for breaking the windows. His mother wants to fawn over him and give him chocolate, and when she does exert control over him, she does it in the softest, most delicate, most "feminine" of manners:

"Just shut up about it, she said, very soft, and I did. When my mother says "shut up," she was really mad (77, emphasis mine). 

While losing his erection, Charlie thinks of a softer version of a slander involving sexual congress with his mother, as well as unintentionally belittling his own sexual capabilities - little pricks, indeed. 

Finally, while desperately trying to reinvest himself in the sexual act, he thinks of the Cherokee Nose Job, the last thing he needed to think about, but the thing that centers around his life the most. The biggest threat to the relationship to his mother is a reaffirming of what her supposed role is. Decker, like his father, understands what the Nose Job is actually for: it visibly demonstrates what the woman is - that is, female - and is therefore substantiates her automatic diminution in the eyes of society. Decker cannot bear the thought of his mother being the "lesser." It is a notion of the greatest horror to him, and any hope of sexual congress with a female that is not his mother is lost. 

To sum up this intricate and convoluted dirigible of thought: while waiting to lose his virginity, Decker's emasculating experiences with his mother bubble up to his subconscious. He thinks of humping, an animalistic word whose submissive desperateness lacks the masculine aggressiveness and control of "fucking," and of little pricks. He thinks of his mother being irrevocably damaged, and her role in society revealed, and he loses all ability to get it up. He cannot have sex with the girl because he is willingly emasculated by his mother. Yes, ladies and gentleman: the only woman Charlie Decker wants to sleep with is his mom. 

Like I said, Freudian nightmare. 

II - (Subsection a): An Unplanned Sidebar on Literary Criticism

I wasn't planning on doing this, but seeing as the two people reading this in Suriname might have been understandably freaked out by the above section, I thought it prudent to explain a bit about literary criticism.

Literary criticism has many forms and periods and styles, some of them insane, all of them inadequate to fully explicate the work. Criticism, by necessity after all, requires taking language to fit into the thesis. For example: taking mother-humper and little pricks above, and extrapolating them into something that King probably did not intend. But whether King intended it doesn't really matter, because mother-humper and little pricks do in fact carry the connotations I used  - that gets into a whole Post-Modern, deconstructionist treatise that I desperately do not want to go into here, but take my word for it: little pricks means tiny bits, undoubtedly. But it's also indubitable that a little prick is a humiliating term for male genitalia. Since both these things are true, I can use - in literary criticism - the former of the latter as I require. 

What this does, however, is eliminate other possibilities. I could look at Rage through a new critical standpoint, or a Queer standpoint, or a psychoanalytical standpoint, or a structuralist standpoint or a reader-response standpoint. The beautiful thing about literature, though, is that while all these standpoints are valid, not of them would ever be able to fully encapsulate the work. The work in always changing, and can never but put fully in a box with a label. I think that's rather interesting.

Also true about literary criticism: there's overlap of periods. 

In the above breakdown, I'm subscribing to a "new critical" mode of thought: that is, I've completely removed the author from the piece. I'm not looking into King's past to find out about his relationships to mother and father, nor am I implying that King is anyway interested in sleeping with his mother. "New Criticism" (though by this point it's rather old) abolishes such considerations in favor of looking at the work as an end in itself. There are pros and cons to this, but I thought it prudent for this piece (Note: for those of you who haven't heard of New Crit before, you might have heard of one of its earliest and by far most famous progenitors, "Death of the Author." --E).

As for the criticism itself, I chose to look at it through the lens of standard Freudian psychoanalysis, for one real reason: it's just so flipping obvious. Again, I have no interest in breaking down for the criticism portion whether King "meant" to put the Freudmeister in there - although, to be quite frank, I believe it was intentional. Freudian criticism is such a tempting thing to write about when you first learn of its ins and outs; it's only when you learn a bit more about how psychology has evolved that you learn most of it is bunk. But a King writing this in late high school-early college might have believed it was indescribably profound to have a character exemplifying Freudian psych.

But no, the real reason I looked at it through this lens is that, intentional or not, its so obvious. Again, most literary critics peer through one particular viewpoint when writing criticism. It's the only way to write a cohesive piece. I could write about Rage from a Freudian psychoanalytical perspective, or I could write about it from a, oh, I don't know, a gendered perspective. These two by nature have some of the same elements, but trying to hammer two differing criticisms into one pieces is either a) going to make your piece overlong and rambling, or b) going to unfocus it and undermine your own points. So since I decided that was going to analyze the novel through the perspective I did, I came to some uncomfortable conclusions that are still completely logical in the world of the novel, again, intentional or not.

Just didn't want you to think I was a freak. Oh, and if you're considering becoming an English major, get used to a lot more talks like the one above. Or just don't become an English major and get a well-paying job. Either or. 

III. The Controversy

People change as they grow. The become less rowdy, less daring, more introspective and aware of how their actions affect others. It leads them to make Han shoot first so that he's not a murderer, and Indiana Jones to suddenly feel reluctant to brutally dispatch people. And it leads them to pull back the force of their younger writerly selves.

Rage has become almost a bogeyman for King. Not that he truly regrets it, I don't think. And not that he wakes up in the middle of the night haunted by Ted Jones and black ink. But - let me put it this way. If Cthulhu rose from his watery depths, took King hostage, and told him that he had to sacrifice one of his novels from ever existing in order to save the world, King would say Rage with no hesitation.

His attitude towards the work is clear. In his recent revival of Bachman, Blaze, King writes of his first and most juvenile foray into the mind of the pseudonym: "Now out of print, and a good thing." And very recently, the book's popped up again in his Kindle Singles essay entitled "Guns." 

The book was associated, in varying degrees, with a number of school shootings over a fifteen year period. Sometimes said associations were a bit forced: in one of the shootings, the perpetrator merely possessed the novel. Other times, the relationship was undeniable, including once where the shooter outright stated he was inspired by the events of the book. 

The final nail in the coffin for King was the "Carneal incident," where a student named Michael Carneal shot three other students at a prayer meeting. The book was discovered in the the kid's locker as part of the Bachman omnibus (shoot, maybe the same edition that I used), and it was the point where King said "enough." He let it go out of print and while I, again, wouldn't say he's ashamed of the novel, he's certainly not losing any sleep about the decision.

I've never been sure what to think of this, to be frank. You'll never, ever hear me say that an author doesn't have a right to decide what to do with his own work, and that includes censorship. But at the same time: it's still censorship. If an outside forum decided on blacklisting Rage, people would be screaming to high heavens about free speech. But since the author does it, it's okay. And it is okay, in the simplest terms. But...

You have to understand that there is little more important to me than free speech. The first idea censored is the first mote of devolution in our species and civilization. And as such, while I think it's okay that King chose to censor his own work, it does leave this bad taste in my mouth. Fact is, the last of these incidents occurred in 1996. Three years later, Columbine happened. Eleven years later, the tragedy at Virginia Tech. And sixteen years later, Sandy Hook. None of these events had anything to do with Rage. And even if they did...

Even if they did...

I don't know. There is a price to freedom, and whether or not we're willing to pay it depends on how much we're willing to take. Video games especially are embroiled in this fight right now, more than any other medium; the right to say and publish what we want, when we want, without needing approval from the government is a right that always teeters on the knife's edge, and to see a work censored, even when the author himself initiates said censorship, is a tacit agreement with those that decry video games and movies, insisting that they "cause" these tragedies, and that therefore it's perfectly okay for them to be suppressed.

I guess that's my biggest problem with it, because whether he intended to or not, King threw his hat in the rings with the censors - that the shootings weren't a cause of troubled minds, but that the book itself led them to commit these acts, and thus to save the children, said work must be suppressed, must be put out of print. 

Did it solve anything to do so? Doesn't look like it. Shootings, specifically school shootings happen on a frightfully regular basis. Does it help King sleep at night? I would wager yes. And you know what? 

That's completely fine.

IV. Conclusion

Now, to answer the question everybody wants to know: is Rage any good? My answer? Meeeeh....

I'll state again that I've never read a bad Stephen King book. Rage by no means breaks that streak. At the end of the day, even with probably extensive revision, it's still a novel by a young writer, evolving his craft. Moments of horror are counterbalanced by clunkiness and overly-simplistic psychological drama. I never really bought, for example, Decker's so-called outwitting of the authority figures...Sheriff, school shrink, et al. Making them cry and fly off into rages and what not. It came off like a really, really, really poor man's - or rather a high-school student's - Hannibal Lector, and to my mind it's a case of King reaching beyond the experience of his age. Why do I think that? Because I did the same thing. Psychological horror is a tough thing to describe convincingly, and while King would have mastered the art by the end of 1977, as an 18-year-old there are kinks. Rage comes off as a story by a young author who believes he's saying something no one's said before: hey, I've got a character (who happens to me my age) that epitomizes the same Freudian-based psych issues that we discussed in English class the other day, how original! (Note: this assumption has nothing to do with possible Dunning-Kruger attitudes by blog's author towards stories he wrote in college. Nothing. --E). 

That being said, the book does contain its own charm. And by charm, I mean horrifically disturbing sequences. You ever go to the ocean and see a dolphin suddenly pop out of nowhere and dive back beneath the surface? That encapsulates certain pieces of the novel: a burst of visible talent surfacing from latency. And of course King apparently has always been able to freak people out with the "missing" horrors. The "nothing" horrors. I'm still wondering what the class did to Ted to induce such a break from reality. But even at this age, King understands that an answer to that question would only lessen the impact. The horror comes from not knowing. The horror comes from the emptiness.

We have studied four novels in this traipse through the bibliography of one of America's greatest living writers. By this time King has become a master of the horror novel. But even his prodigious gifts in that form pale in comparison to his skill with the campfire tale: the short story. Next time we're tackling Night Shift, ladies and gentleman, where true terror resides.

Until next time,

Mr. E

PICTURED: This is definitely not from high school, but give me a break okay? It's not like I have access to his family photo albums!