Leave Luck to Heaven, nonfiction essays by Brian Oliu, reviewed by Phil Spotswood


Born in 1991, I grew up watching my older brothers play original Nintendo games—living vicariously through them, who in turn were living vicariously through the heroes of the games. It was as if I grew up looking through a double-paned glass, and only when they had left for school could I step into that mysterious air space between the panes—to gain a closer look at the screen reflecting images of ourselves in 8-bit form. Reading through Oliu’s collection of lyric essays, then, was like re-living the experience all over again. At the beginning of each selection, I found myself first on YouTube, to watch the opening and ending credits of each game, to remind myself of the screen I was urged to peer through. The adventure through Leave Luck to Heaven, then, mirrored all of the past adventures we’d taken (my brothers and I, but really all children) with our video games—allowing them to shape our reality, to transform our burdens into pixels, and to express for us what we did not know then how to say.

One of the major strings running through his collection is the idea that the video game acts as a framework upon which we are able to build our reality. It is the most basic of frameworks, created only by “what is left.” As in the Gradius piece, we are presented with “sand not yet made into castles.” These video games then become a playground for the child—a space for him or her to see the world as building blocks (here, a man leaping chasms; here, a princess in need of a prince) and thus more simple to comprehend. Often, Oliu will take the logic of the game and apply it to the child’s mind—will explore how the child takes the rules of the game and uses them to try and grasp something they have yet to understand. This is most apparent and painful in “Tetris,” in which the speaker takes the spatial reasoning of the game and falls into a personal narrative of a cousin’s funeral, how the burial is “a new way to get even—to make all things horizontal and make all things disappear.” It is as if he taps into the game’s ability to double-talk, to say at once, “the princess is in another castle,” and there will always be the chase.

And if the simple 8-bit framework allows for basic comprehension, then the side-scrolling format of these games allows Oliu an extended metaphor of the hero’s journey filled with repetition broken by trials. “Simon’s Quest” alludes to the most basic arc of the hero’s journey—from city to forest—yet through double-talk, the speaker observes how, when revisiting past locations, “the town gains in magnitude while gone somehow.” Revisiting these games, then—regardless of the reader’s degree of separation—will always leave him changed, with information from a simple past and memory warping his present reality.

Just as the player goes through stages of development in and outside of the game world, so too must the reader traveling through this collection. Oliu’s “Boss Battle” pieces create the trials mentioned earlier which the hero/reader must pass through in order to proceed. Often, this is a trial steeped in loss, in leaving something behind—discarding all of our worldly burdens, allowing the game to transform them into something manageable (items to collect, treasures to unearth). With every boss battle, “the music changes” to signify something is different, some new stage of development has been reached. As the pieces progress throughout the collection, a new type of loss is signified, a new layer of the hero cast off until our battle with The Final Boss after which we find, finally here, “Something magic.” The magic of the game’s ability to double-talk, to say and not say, to fit into the gamer a knight, a dragon, a golden lantern and a purse full of rubies—invisible beings of the game world infiltrating our own.

Rejecting any idea of escapism, Oliu rather seems to argue that the characters in these video games allow us to project ourselves onto them only to create some new identity to bring back into real-time. With the Donkey Kong piece, the speaker identifies more with the villain of the game—“like an oaf, like an ape”—while reflecting on his personal failures; and while this may seem a stagnant projection, the Rampage piece argues against this notion of simplicity, of a black/white worldview. In it, the speaker/hero recalls that there was a “Before, when I was something other than what I am now,” yet how even in the now, “I would put them in my mouth to keep them warm.” Suggesting blurred lines between protagonists and antagonists, and how, by allowing the game to transform us, the experience shapes us in strange and unprecedented ways.

As with the magic, “At the end of everything there will be a heart.” Yet the heart of this collection seems to lie near the center, in a piece titled “Plants, Flowers, Vines.” In the piece, there is the idea of the necessity of return, to come back to “multiples of eight on days when we need them more than we would like to admit.” And within these multiples we find the familiar in the unfamiliar, we find “rings around rings around rings.” If our relationship with the game allows us to unravel the layers of our being and view ourselves at the most basic level, then this collection of essays takes us on just that journey. Oliu, like a game genie who knows all the codes, guides we the reader, we the gamer, through these labyrinths of self and memory behind the screen of the game world until its pixels blend into our own and we emerge radiant and clean—new game++.

Leave Luck to Heaven, by Brian Oliu. Uncanny Valley Press. $12.00, paper.

Phil Spotswood was born in Alabama into a Catholic family and turned out queer. He graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in English and Creative Writing, and currently lives in Louisiana. He is addicted to running in the dark. Recently he discovered that he shares his birthday with the formation of the polar vortex. He is in a committed relationship with the last scientist.

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