Imitation of Life
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Look, the flower has escaped from its trellis,
the bear goes down into the lake.*
My neighbour, whom I’ve been speaking with more frequently, found a DVD of Spiderman 3 buried under three feet of dirt in his garden. He shows this to me one morning from the steps of his back door.
We share a view out from our windows of his apple tree. For the first few weeks of speaking more to each other, this tree was the focal point of our conversations. It hosted an unusual abundance of animals, mostly blackbirds and squirrels, which flashed between its boughs as we noticed them to each other.
Around this time I was increasingly experiencing life as a series of click and point computer games I played as a child. I had not played these games for thirty years, but their iconographies and music began to impose themselves on my day to day activities with sudden vividness.
In entering a store to buy food, or crossing the street to avoid an oncoming pedestrian, my life took on the characteristic of a quest narrative. I accrued points or gems as I fulfilled my tasks. My dog’s bark as I came home was the triumphant trumpet parp of a completed level.
I understood that computer games imitated to some degree real life, modelled on commonplace motivations and populated by objects and creatures comparable to those in my world. So it seemed illogical, though not unprecedented, that I came to perceive the world as a simulacrum of a game, like comparing the night sky to a planetarium.
I began to see my neighbour as an innkeeper figure. There was a certain rationale: I only saw him in the context of his house (standing in the frame of his backdoor), and he had a taciturn but friendly manner characteristic of the trope. As my neighbour had lived on our street since the 1970s, he had a long memory of the area. Game innkeepers are often well versed in the terrain and affairs of the land.
I did not yet know what my quest was, and the role of the innkeeper in it. I acknowledged that my neighbour may have cast me as a stock character in his own game.
Sometimes when you look at smoothly joining at least two different-sized pieces of flat but pliable material so that these pieces might correctly encase an eternally irregular, perspiring and breathing three-dimensional object that cannot cease its motion you think that there is no way ever that this could happen, yet sometimes it does.†
In computer games of the early 1990s, the player was limited to a handful of actions, such as Walk, Look, Ask, Talk, Pick Up, Open/Close, Operate, and Move. There was an inventory, often styled as a medieval knapsack, to which you could add objects. Some games allowed you to carry out any number of action + object combinations: Pick Up an Apple, Move the Boulder. Walk to the Riverbank and Talk to the Ferryman.
Inventory items could also be used as cursors, which means that you could ‘apply’ any object in your possession to another object. Apply Gnarlybark to Boulder. Apply Apple to Ferryman. There was no telling what would result from the application, nor what event would be initiated. Applying an object could lead to any number of actions, from showing, eating, trading, and destroying the object.
There is an inherent yet delicious risk of straying outside the boundaries of conventional object application. Applying a feather to a character might result in tickling, but equally the character could take it in their possession to write (they are Shakespeare), fly (they are Icarus), or reminisce (they are knowledgeable about the TV sitcom Birds of a Feather). A hard-won scroll might be relished by a dog.
Yet for all the apparent freedom allotted to me, I found myself operating within the confines of my customary habits. The world of the computer game awarded those learned behaviours, and set up further events and encounters with characters to build my knowledge and resilience. I also learned, with dismay then resignation, the consequences of digressing from the laws placed upon me, and later, the randomness of loss.
I recognised in my neighbour a kindly and patient disposition to my efforts of application. At first, I chose items in relation to subjects he had broached, or to interests that I inferred he may have. More often than not, I was wildly off the mark in judging what objects garnered his attention. He was never displeased by the objects I showed him, but once in a while an object made him exceptionally animated, which brought to my mind the words master stroke.
My neighbour turned his hand at applying objects. It seemed apposite that some of the objects he showed me were computer equipment from the 1990s which he had assiduously collected. I began to expand my repertoire of objects. I would look for them (in the attic, in the woods) with the express purpose of showing my neighbour later.
It struck me that our interchange was not unlike the show-and-tell sessions of primary school, where children share items and describe them to their classmates. I remembered a boy who bought his Basenji, a barkless dog, to class. It sat shyly in its steel cage, peering out at the baffled children.
I wondered what it would be like to be a girl, to be a native speaker of another language, to be Einstein, to be a dog, to be an eagle, even to be a mosquito.‡
The Risset Rhythm is an audio illusion that tricks the ear into believing that a tempo being heard is accelerating. In fact the sound you hear is a loop, made up of two superimposed beats, one at half speed of the other. There is no progression, only an impression of one.
I recall the looped, synthesised music of my childhood computer games with fondness. Like the Risset Rhythm, they created a sense of movement in a suspended world where trees and plants never swayed in the wind. The music was a familiar: it accompanied me on tasks and changed character to alert me to an unseen but nearby danger.
Did the music possess inherent qualities which created a mood for the scene or encounter? Or had I come to associate both music and encounter with my own irrevocable atmosphere?
Today my neighbour is in a bad mood, and is more brusque than usual. He is frustrated by his increasing forgetfulness. I have noticed that he often makes the same observations and tells the same story. He cannot leave his house because of his health. Today my neighbour says: the apples are out and the squirrels are eating them in a frenzy, even though they are infested with moth larvae.
The resemblance of one day to another is security for some and agony for others. To counter this reality, for variety or for consolation, we look for objects that arrest us, which can take the form of a hundred cats-eye marbles scattered on the road.
* John Ashbery, ‘Palindrome of Evening’, Wakefulness (Manchester: Carcanet, 1998), p.6.
† Anne Boyer, ‘Sewing’, Garments Against Women (London: Penguin, 2019), pp.33-41.
‡ Douglas Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop (New York: Basic Books, 2007), p.xi
Lila Matsumoto 2020