Abraham Josephine Reisman (member, board of directors): Thank HaShem for the death of the monoculture. Time was, there were certain TV shows you simply had to stay up on if you wanted to have a friendly chat at the water-cooler. Well, with water-coolers an artifact of civilizations past and American media consumption balkanized beyond recognition, there’s no longer an expectation that you’ll be watching the Show Everyone’s Watching, because no such show exists. I am therefore comfortable telling you all that I gave up on HBO’s TV adaptation of The Last of Us—whose source material is the zombie apocalypse video game by the same name—halfway through episode two. The opening portion of that episode, which traces the origin of the fungal pandemic that essentially ends the world, was thrilling. But I just knew it would be a one-off and that we’d be following the generic archetypes who’d already been set up as the protagonists in the game, which I also abandoned out of boredom and frustration (and because I am bad at games).
In the case of both game and show, I have never even gotten to the part with the zombies. The characters and the world they inhabit are just so palpably xeroxes of xeroxes of xeroxes. Game creator and show co-creator Neil Druckmann has said that Alfonso Cuarón’s masterwork, Children of Men (itself loosely based on a novel by P.D. James), was a significant aesthetic and narrative influence on The Last of Us, and that’s fine. But the influence is so great that, if I were to write a basic description of either work, you might have a hard time figuring out which I was describing. (I’ll try my hand at it here: A man vs. nature tale where a cynical lone wolf escorts a young girl—who might hold the secret to saving humanity!—through an apocalyptic hellscape, fights off both fascists and violent rebels along the way, and learns to believe in the power of love in spite of it all.) By porting the basic plot structure and themes of Children of Men back to the screen without any significant aesthetic additions or innovations, all Druckmann and company seem to have produced is some warmed-over eschatological leftovers. And if you’re going to depict a zombie apocalypse—hell, any apocalypse—in 2023, you have to bring something more thematically robust than societal-collapse porn. In a world currently experiencing shades of its own particular disintegration, a boilerplate Armageddon seems a bit gauche. But I dunno, maybe it gets better later. I heard there was a gay couple.
Anyway, I come not to bury Caesar, but to praise his predecessor. In the game of fungal zombie thrillers, there’s a clear winner when it comes to quality: the shamefully overlooked 2016 UK horror film The Girl With All the Gifts. Directed by TV-industry hand Colm McCarthy and written by Mike Carey (who adapted it from his own novel of the same name, and who comics fans may recognize as the guy who wrote Vertigo’s Lucifer series in its early glory days), the movie is one about which I will actually say . . . very little. I went in cold, knowing only that my spouse had recommended it after I tried to get her to watch the rest of The Last of Us episode two. She said I’d understand why; I did. Suffice it to say that it’s a story about fungal zombies, but one that has some profound things to say about what zombies actually mean in cultural consciousness—and what it will be like for all of us when nature inevitably wins. You can be the expert about this prescient film when everyone’s fighting over the planet’s last water-cooler.
Nathan Goldman (managing editor): Whenever I read a piece of criticism, I harbor a possibly unfair expectation: that it will not only help me think more interestingly about the work under consideration, but actually reconfigure my understanding of what art is. While that’s a lot to put on any particular piece of writing, I admire criticism that at least attempts it—if only partially, and almost always implicitly.
But critic Andrea Long Chu’s recent Vulture piece on HBO’s The Last of Us takes on this task directly. The review, which is ultimately less interested in the show than the video game from which it’s adapted, dismisses the still-common debate about whether games can be art at all, focusing instead on the question of “what kind of art they would be.” Chu delves into this inquiry through an exhilarating close reading of the zombie survival shooter—no less thrilling if, like me, you haven’t played it and don’t plan to. She argues convincingly that “in longform-narrative video games like The Last of Us, no predetermined relation exists between gameplay, as a real-time system of potential inputs and outputs, and traditional film elements like character, narration, or image,” and that The Last of Us exploits this gap (the technical term is “ludonarrative dissonance”) to produce “a compelling study in powerlessness.” She goes on to examine the game’s disturbing twist on the ubiquitous mechanic in which player characters endlessly die and regenerate, showing how it shapes the player’s relationship to the protagonists.
The review ultimately takes the idea that video games are distinguished from real art by their “interactivity”—a claim that makes a “breezy conflation of interactivity with control”—and turns it on its head, articulating a more precise and generative difference: “One may care about a character on television, but one must care for a character in a video game.” By setting aside preconceptions about the essence of art and instead attending to the aesthetic effect of this game—and the specific formal features that generate it—Chu’s piece gave me just what I always hope to find.
Dahlia Krutkovich (fellow): While I was freelancing in London last summer and feeling a bit alienated from my own work, I picked up a copy of Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell’s chronicle of working poverty in those two cities in the mid-1930s. It would be ridiculous to compare my situation to Orwell’s—I had just finished graduate school and felt adrift; he was alternately starving and working backbreaking hours—but his reflections on boredom and “largely stupid and unnecessary work” felt like salves between tedious hours spent chasing down invoices.
Down and Out is split between the two cities and features everything you’d want from a piece of literary nonfiction. In Paris, Orwell documents his trifles with the petty politics that govern life in the high- and lowbrow establishments where he works as a dishwasher, populating his world with cartoonish-but-believable composite characters (the mutually abusive dynamic between him and the Russian cook at Auberge de Jehan Cottart takes pride of place here). In London, he follows the city’s itinerant men as they look for work and pass through the “spikes,” or government-run lodgings; this section feels relentless in its descriptions of the physical distress the English winter brings without a coat, food, or a dependable place to sleep.
At certain moments in the book, you can see the beginnings of the clichés that dominate food and travel writing today (the abusive cook, the “portraits” of hard-up men). But unlike contemporary takes on these genres, which often feel solipsistic or fall flat in their supposedly political engagements, Orwell refuses to commit to a single telling of this period of his life. Down and Out, though an account of the type of day-to-day stress and insecurity that will grind your teeth to powder, doesn’t shy away from the humor that comes from the absurdity and indignity of working life.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Friday, June 22nd, 1962, was the day I lived the moment I would like to dwell in for eternity. I was ten and nothing mattered as much to me as my favorite baseball team, the Houston Colt .45s (now the Astros). That evening, they played a twi-night doubleheader against the Mets at the Polo Grounds, and my father took me and my brother to see the games. The moment we finished climbing the ramp and saw the field—and, more importantly, my beloved Colt .45s—is one I can conjure up at will. The color of the grass, the color of their uniform . . . never have I felt such pure joy. I’ve remained faithful to the team my entire life, and when they won the World Series in 2017, when I was 65, I sobbed—and when I finished sobbing, I wrote an emotional piece for Currents. Two years later we learned that the Astros had cheated throughout that season, stealing the signs the opposing catcher was giving by means of a camera in center field that transmitted the image to a screen behind the team’s dugout; the type of pitch was then relayed to the batter by banging on a garbage pail.
Evan Drellich, the journalist for The Athletic who broke the story, has now written a complete account of the scandal, Winning Fixes Everything. Though nothing can shake my love for the team—a love that is, like all true fandom, irrational—I found it to be a difficult and disturbing book. It is also essential reading for all baseball fans. Drellich’s portrayal of the Astros, which digs deep into the background of the scandal, and especially of their brilliant general manager, Jeff Luhnow, is a damning picture of the fruits, at all levels, of the willingness to do anything to win. Destroying the team’s reputation and tainting the championship are far from the only sins of Luhnow’s obsession with being a step ahead of everyone else. Human beings, both players and staff, were treated as things, tools to advance his project of building a great team. The widespread use of analytics, described in Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, is shown here to be a dehumanizing force, obviating the need for human judgment: The numbers, which cover everything from plays on the field to the rate at which a ball spins, are all you need. Those who once scouted ballplayers can be replaced by a series of numbers. So fire ’em! Managerial decisions can be made through use of a spreadsheet. The manager doesn’t agree? Can him! Luhnow and the Astros took what everyone else did in adopting the Moneyball way and pushed it further.
The same went for cheating: The Yankees and the Red Sox cheated by stealing signs. The Dodgers cheated. The Mariners and Indians likely cheated, too—but their cheating still required someone on second base to relay the sign to the batter. By 2017 it was baked into the Astros’ DNA to be open to anything. Luhnow didn’t participate in the cheating himself, but he established the setting for it. We should look at Winning Fixes Everything as a kind of anti-Moneyball, revealing the seedy underbelly of what was once a shiny new and thrilling tool.
Before you go!
We also wanted to let you know that the Tamizdat project is hosting a rare and signed book auction in support of undergraduate students who left Ukraine, Belarus, or Russia under duress. We donated a copy of the Soviet issue to the auction, and if you’re looking to donate to a good cause, you should check it out.
Also, Abraham Josephine Reisman, whose recommendation features above, has a new book out next month. It’s a biography of public relations and hype machine innovator, WWE commissioner Vince McMahon. You can pre-order it here!