“What’s Missing?”: Benjamin Kinney on the Quest for Identity in Shawn Rubenfeld’s THE EGGPLANT CURSE AND THE WARP ZONE

Joshua Schulman is a modern-day Pac-Man: powering his way through a path he cannot predict, all while being haunted by ghosts of his past. At the beginning of Shawn Rubenfeld’s The Eggplant Curse and the Warp Zone, Joshua is collecting more retro video games than he will ever be able to play; thinking about his ex-wife Heloise; mourning the absence of his recently dead mother; dwelling on having dropped out of his PhD program. Following an ominous incident with a wizard cosplayer at a gaming convention, Joshua gets an unexpected email with a job offer. He accepts the offer and leaves his withering existence in New York City for a job teaching at Fairbury Academy in the small, quirky town of Roll, Iowa. Joshua initially regards it as an extra life, an opportunity to make a new start. But he quickly discovers that no matter where you go, you take yourself with you.

One strength of the book that is evident from the first paragraph is the compelling voice of the narrator. Joshua Schulman is self-deprecating, neurotic, sincere in his desires (even if those include adding to a room full of retro video games), and prone to selecting bad options when they appear in front of him. These traits may not constitute an efficient person, but they make for a great narrator, and we can enjoy the time we spend in Joshua’s head. Early in the story, he critiques a therapist’s misspelling of karaoke, striving to preserve some of his self-worth by judging somebody who has been assigned to judge him. He often finds his desires at odds with what others expect of him. Despite being Jewish (and having worked on a now-abandoned dissertation on Jewish dialectology), he cannot bring himself to perform keriah and rend his garments as his father requests after his mother passes away. Joshua is conflicted and complex and, of course, a bit of a nerd, but he possesses something scrappy and admirable that makes him a character we want to root for.

Even though Joshua often finds himself in stressful, fraught situations, the book is a joy to read. Rubenfeld manages to infuse the settings and characters with a noticeable but not distracting amount of dark humor. Dialogue is a particular strength of Rubenfeld’s, and every scene featuring one of Joshua’s new colleagues at Fairbury Academy adeptly uses conversation to develop these characters. One coworker, Glen Gill, is effusive with praise upon finding out Joshua is Jewish: “It’s my favorite religion. By far … You’ll have to excuse me. This is really exciting. Like finding a unicorn in the wild.” In the dialogue, Joshua’s strength as a character shines as well; he seems to have a retort for every passive-aggressive comment that comes his way. The book has a relatively large number of characters, but nobody seems bland or stereotypical. Even Dr. Kirkland, the Head of School, has a layer of complexity lurking underneath his gregarious headmaster exterior. 

The book in general has a subtle and attractive element of mystery, a sense that not everything is as it seems. Fairbury Academy and the town of Roll are like the villages in RPGs—seemingly quiet, but with unexpected secrets lurking in the corners. On the sentence level, the writing is clear and vibrant. Although I found it to be frequently straightforward, it dips into lyricism and metaphor expertly; for example, in one scene where Joshua is lamenting his lack of progress, he compares life to gaming: “The problem is you need years of living to clear a single life. Because only then can you learn where the next wave of pirates are, the bullet patterns, the artificially changing environment.” These ruminations never became so frequent as to impede the story.

For a book about a person’s experience at a school, The Eggplant Curse and the Warp Zone could have easily fallen into a predictable structure based on the school year, but it does not. Chapter length varies widely. At times, the plot (and Joshua) seem to zigzag rather than move directly forward. This somewhat unorthodox structure prevented me from easily predicting where the story was headed or what would happen next. Despite this, it is always clear that Rubenfeld is building to something, and no scene was extraneous or out of place.

As a collector of retro games myself (and somebody prone to the same nostalgia pitfalls as Joshua), I was surprised that despite the ubiquity of video games throughout the story, they often seemed to merely add texture to the story rather than take center stage. We get plenty of images from the NES classic Kid Icarus (from which the titular eggplant comes) and some hilarious dissection of the mechanics of certain games, but there are not the extended descriptions of Sonic the Hedgehog or Final Fantasy VII that a gaming-obsessed reader might expect. In some scenes, Rubenfeld seems to presume the audience’s familiarity with certain games such as the Crash Bandicoot series, which is probably not a bad bet to make for we millennials. However, I think this book would be an enjoyable read even for an audience unfamiliar with video games, and this treatment of the material also assists in conveying that the video games are just one part of Joshua’s journey.

Another deftly handled subject of the book is that of Jewish identity. In one of my favorite passages, Joshua recalls a memory from freshly learning about the horrors of the Holocaust: “I asked my father, presently in the throes of rediscovery, why the Jews didn’t just pretend they weren’t Jews. You couldn’t just pretend, he said. You wore it on your face like an albatross. It never left you.” In many ways, this book seeks to figure out what does and does not leave you—who you are, inevitably, versus who you try to be.

How will Joshua navigate this new job in a strange, mysterious town? Can he make amends with his past, with himself? I wasn’t far into the book when I needed to know the answers to these questions—and that is a testament to the writing. The Eggplant Curse and the Warp Zone is a wonderful book, and I look forward to reading what Shawn Rubenfeld writes next.

The Eggplant Curse and the Warp Zone, by Shawn Rubenfeld. Brooklyn Heights, New York: 7.13 Books, May 2021. 224 pages. $19.99, paper.

Benjamin Kinney lives and writes in Tampa, Florida. He earned an MA in English from Northern Michigan University and is currently in an MFA program at the University of South Florida. He has published fiction in Cartridge Lit, Cheap Pop, and Blue Fifth, and nonfiction in Walloon Writers Review and f(r)iction, where he was a finalist in the Creative Nonfiction Contest. His obsessions include David Lynch, Survivor, and Reese’s peanut butter cups. He has an infrequently updated blog at benjaminkinney.com.

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