In Sam Martone’s An Object You Cannot Lose, the reader becomes both gamer and player—their will caught somewhere in the strange place between the pixels, a process that creates a new reality. The reader travels through various levels of an interlocked reality the further they read into this piece. Beginning as soon as they click on the title, they are prompted to enter their name and create a quest log—an action which, in this context, immediately blurs the line between video game and text.
Once inside, the reader is thrown into “Open Water”—the first section—an apt image for the beginning of any game where “You should know this by now”—where every beginning is the same as any other. Martone’s gift for doublespeak shines light into the space between game and player—to allow the “You” of the piece to stand for both consciences, both wills. It is also in this section that the narrator introduces the dream of the game, suffused with personal real-world memories of “bug bites and muddy summers.” The implied connection between the game and the player seems to exist in this dream-space, and in the constant battle of the two wills throughout the piece.
As the game/story progresses, the reader becomes more and more integrated into the game’s life and memory, as a sort of programmed consciousness is dipped into in “The Village of Wheelbrook.” While the collective game seems to know you (the character), the only former “You” you can remember is locked in dreams, locked where “you crouch in the cellar for cover from tornadoes.” And while the game relies on the player as holder of memory, the player’s memory is affected by the experience of the game. Throughout, the game acts as a filter for the player to reflect on their own father as the character is forced to let go of his own.
Martone’s chapbook could be considered a study in game-awareness—an exploration of a hypothetical question: “What if the game character became slightly more aware of the frame within which it existed—if it looked down and saw the tracks running under its feet?” Through a series of mental exercises, the reader follows the narrator through the fog of worlds, of a slipping reality. At one point, the game “You” attempts to apply a dream-word to his own existence, but is unsure if he is “in the right region of the world for this.” And so the piece is permeated with this sense of not-quite-fitting, of something hardly aware. The variations of a girl, which flit through this piece like a ghost, serve as a tangible object for the game character to chase, and an object through which the will of the dream fights for firm footing in the game world. While through the will of the dream, “You want to reach in and touch her ankle, to have her crawl back out,” she is “too far away for your fingers, stretched to their very tips.” The possibilities of game/dream world interactions chase each other through the piece like half-memories, like scattered pixels.
The tension Martone creates between the will of the game and the will of the player ultimately crumbles in “Ruins,” among which the narrator tells us “time’s flow will only erode the way it wants to.” Through the death of the game character’s father, the reader is forced to give up control of the game and be carried along the game’s track into “a fight you cannot win.” And though the reader, inhabiting the space of the player in the game’s dream-world, is rendered helpless by the end, Martone seems to suggest that the events of the game world seep through into the reality of the player’s world and affect their perception.
Martone’s writing is hypnotic. Through a series of familiar images and flashing scenes, the reader sinks down into the game world, where their waking world becomes nothing but a dream. His use of the second person “You” allows the reader to inhabit the narrative much like a video game allows its player to inhabit the characters. Scrolling through this piece, one cannot help but feel shuttled along a track while the background slowly shifts into different frames. The magic of the piece lies in this interaction—of being aware of the track and its frame—of being both “controlled by something avian” and being the avian.
An Object You Cannot Lose, by Sam Martone. Cartridge Lit. Digital chapbook designed by Joel Hans, free.
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.