Monday, April 20, 2015

"Guy in Real Life," by Steve Brezenoff

Okay, so I'm going to start this review with two warnings:

Warning the First: I had no interest in reading this book, no desire to pick it up at all, and the only reason I did was because it's FYA Book Club's April pick. So I may have gone into it with a bit of resentment at being "forced" to read it.

Warning the Second: I ended up skimming this novel sometime after the halfway mark.

But guys, this book sucked.

It starts out with an interesting idea - after black-clad metalhead Lesh gets grounded by his parents for coming home drunk from a concert, he gets suckered into signing up for a World of Warcraft-style MMO by his nerd friend, Greg.

Lesh initially signs up as a meathead orc warrior at Greg's behest, but is soon bored - until he decides to create a female elf healer because the avatar reminds him of a new girl at school that he can't get off his mind. Of course, it's not long before Lesh realizes that other players treat him differently when they think he's a girl. But for some reason, he really enjoys embodying a female character on a vast fantasy adventure.

Meanwhile, the girl he's crushing on, Svetlana, is an anti-social artist who's heavily invested in tabletop, Dungeons and Dragons gaming. She starts hanging out with him when she realizes he can help her shake an infuriatingly persistent (and unwanted) suitor, but starts realizing there's more to him than meets the eye.

Doesn't this sound good? Nope. I decided to make a list of the things that annoyed me - and it's a long one.

1. This book isn't finished. It throws out a bunch of ideas like so much spaghetti at a refrigerator, but it doesn't stick around to clean any of it up or explore it in any depth. Lesh's adventures as a female character, Svetlana's attempts to keep her D and D club at school from being disbanded, Lesh's fracturing relationship with his truly hateful "friend" Greg, and Svetlana's increasing disgust and frustration with unwanted male attention - none of it gets resolved in a meaningful way. Maybe the real ending will come out in a future DLC?

2. Svetlana is primarily treated as Obsession!Bait. Almost every major male character in the novel is obsessed with her. There's family friend Fry, who becomes increasingly violent and bullying towards her (and her friends!) when she refuses his advances. There's Abraham, who quits the D and D club because ... she dates someone else, thereby refusing his advances. There's a Creepy Online Stalker who targets her and sends her weird gifts because he confuses her for the character Lesh plays online (for reals). Her storyline is focused almost entirely on how all these dudes are obsessed with her and make decisions of varying levels of inappropriateness because she turns them down. I forgetting someone? Oh right - LESH, who's SO obsessed with her from the very first minute that he creates a lookalike avatar of her so he can pretend to be close to her. HOW IS THAT OKAY? The novel never explains this theme - if all these men are irrationally fixated on this one girl, what makes Lesh the "good" one? His plot line is like the G-rated online version of that Buffalo Bill dude from Silence of the Lambs.

Long story short - the most important female character is reduced to a damsel who's constantly beating off hordes of angry thwarted males with her 12-sided die.

3. The actual gamer characters in this book are almost uniformly awful, cliched, shallow, bigoted turds - and the book never explores or deals with it. Yes, some of them need to be turds. This novel's main (if poorly-handled) theme is on sexism in gaming. It's about a tough-looking rocker dude who enjoys playing as a delicate lady elf, but discovers that playing a female character inspires other gamers to behave like total asshats.

Except - Lesh never explores deeper than, "Man, that sucks." Take his "friendship" with Greg - a venomous douchenerd who spits homophobic slurs like a malfunctioning sprinkler. I would have liked to see Lesh actually internalize what Greg says and realize that it's not okay. I would have liked to see him tell Greg off, stand up for himself and reveal Greg for the bully he is. Except - it never happens. Greg throws a mild hissy fit when he finds out Lesh is a G.I.R.L. (Guy In Real Life - get it?) and then vanishes from the novel completely. No resolution. No exploration of theme.

And the depictions of almost all the gamers (with a few exceptions with Svetlana's D and D crew) are laughably stereotyped. They're nerds who are good at math who hunch over their screens with bad posture and bad skin, their hands poised like claws above their keyboards. The only thing missing is a pair of taped-up, thick-rimmed Coke bottle glasses to settle the depiction of gamers firmly back in the 1980s.

4. The description of the MMO itself makes no sense. First of all, the author inserts truly laughable attempts at epic fantasy to describe the world of the game. Brezenoff is no Tolkien. He's not even a Tracy Hickman. Moreover, there are a number of "questionable" events that happen in the game - for instance, poor Lesh gets molested and drenched in beer by a pack of dwarves and needs to be rescued. Um, I'm sorry - are there fantasy games out there where avatars are allowed to rape or sexually assault other player characters? Who would design a game like that?

I get the sense Brezenoff is attempting to highlight the sexism that female players often endure in gaming - but instead of focusing on the very real, very common ways girls are ostracized in games, he decides to make up some exaggerated, cartoonish bullshit that would NEVER HAPPEN in a popular MMO because no game dev in his right mind would put a rape feature in his game unless he wanted to endure a billion lawsuits.

5. Our two main protagonists barely spend any time together.
Seriously, even if the rest of the book had been fine, Guy in Real Life would still have fallen flat because its two romantic protagonists barely talk to each other. Sure, Lesh obsesses over Svetlana all the time, but Svetlana has her own life, and their scenes apart are far more numerous, important, and interesting than their scenes together. I still don't understand what they have in common or how their romance works - and ultimately the whole stalker storyline muddies the waters even further.

My opinion? Avoid this sloppily-plotted, creepy, and ultimately pointless novel in favour of novels that aim for a higher level (ha!) of story telling and theme structure.


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