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w/e 25 November 2018

Hello, another week has happened.

One of the differences between the London Review of Books and the New York Review (of Books, although they don’t seem to include that when they refer to their title) is that the letters in the NYR are sandwiched in the space remaining between the final article and the classified ads, and those few letters often feel a little pompous, formal and usually aggrieved, frequently coming from authors whose books have been reviewed unfavourably. Whereas the LRB has a large selection of letters, they’re right near the front, and, while there are sometimes one or two from aggrieved authors, letters are generally informative, interesting and sometimes light-hearted.

In a recent LRB I started reading the letter below and inwardly groaned, thinking, “This sounds like a grouchy NYR letter.”

Christian Lorentzen should be ashamed of himself (LRB, 13 September). He writes that Alex Blum got ‘fired from his job as a youth hockey coach when parents protested at the presence of a felon in the rink. He was no longer even allowed to drive the machine that smoothed the ice.’ That machine is called a Zamboni, a vehicle much loved for its Zen-like glide and a name (its inventor’s) suggestive of a mammoth tube of pasta, whose pronunciation evokes an immediate, curious joy. Opportunities to say or write the word ‘Zamboni’ are not to be wasted, Mr Lorentzen.

Lee Gillette

Jolly good.

This weekend I watched the first six-episode season of Portlandia. I had high hopes, having heard good things, but I was initially disappointed. For some reason I thought it was going to be a sitcom set in a purposely stereotyped, hipster-heavy Portland, but it’s actually a sketch show set in a purposely stereotyped, hipster-heavy Portland.

I’m struggling to think of US sketch shows other than Saturday Night Live but my theory, based on almost nothing, is that they have a different genealogy to US sitcoms. There’s something about the humour that seems quite different and, generalising wildly, the humour in US sketch shows doesn’t travel as well as their sitcoms. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone among British people in being puzzled as to why SNL, experienced only through a few sketches here and there, is, apparently, regarded as funny.

Anyway, my hopes of getting to know a bunch of flawed-but-loveable characters in a new (to me) sitcom were dashed and I watched a few episodes straight-faced, with “Whose dog is this?” being the sole exception.

But I stuck with it, and by the last couple of episodes I liked it a bit more. “Did you read it?”, for example, was very nicely done, although it tailed off. Some of the characters repeat and, other than one or two, they’re often daffily endearing, so I did start to enjoy getting to know them. It still sometimes feels like a single joke stretched to unfunny lengths, but I have season two on the same DVD I rented from the library like some artisanal hipster Netflix, so, ignoring the sunk costs, I’ll plough on.

I have continued with Red Dead Redemption 2 a little. I’m a bit stuck with the main story (I’m only on chapter two) because my only currently outstanding story-related mission is in a county in which there is a large price on my head, a price that I can’t afford to pay off. I think this is due to a previous mission that was, er, messy, and made worse by my Arthur Morgan being incapable of putting a bandana round his face to disguise himself. Those bloody fiddly inventory controls.

So, without the story I’ve been gently entertaining myself by trotting around collecting cigarette cards, which is a thing you can do. I used the available maps to find them — I don’t actually want a difficult challenge! However, collecting cigarette cards proved more tricky than anything else I’d previously done; Arthur has died more times and, that one messy mission aside, has killed more people doing this hobby than any other activity.

RDR2, and probably other games, feels a bit odd in terms of realism. We’re at the point where games look incredible, almost better than photographic, and movements and behaviours are closer and closer to being “real”. But this makes all the remaining things, that we’ve made allowances for when games were a little more primitive, seem weirder.

For example, in any game you get to know which objects you can interact with and which you can’t. “I could go through that door, but those ones are just texture maps,” or, “That’s obviously an ammunition chest I could open but those inviting-looking boxes are only solid blocks”. Which is fair enough; there are limitations. But the more things we can do, the odder the remaining impossible things seem. In RDR2 there are many buildings you can walk into and explore so it’s jarring when you find many that have solid “painted on” doors. And while there’s some variety of cupboards and drawers and suchlike to open and search, there are lots of things that you can’t, and many items lying around — clothes, tools, food — that are decoration rather collectible, useful, items.

Human interactions are similar. Occasionally it feels realistic (if limited and pointless) that Arthur can have brief exchanges with the random people he encounters. But when I was collecting cigarette cards he ended up having to shoot people simply because of the limits of this aspect of the game. For example, walking up to a man at his cabin, seeing the card I was after lying on a table nearby, Arthur could greet the man, but then the options were exhausted and, as he got antsy about Arthur being on his property there was no way to say, “I’m sorry pardner, but would you mind if I took that there cigarette card? I’ll gladly pay you for it!” My only choice was run or shoot.

And, when Arthur happened across a man who would pay for complete sets of cigarette cards Arthur reacted as if he’d never heard of the things before, despite having just spent a few days riding around collecting them, killing several people in the process. Me thinking, “Oh, I was supposed to meet this man ages ago,” kind of destroys the illusion that any of this is a believable, unscripted reality despite the pretty graphics.

But, obviously, I’m still playing, and it’s still a pleasant place to spend time! It’s just… there are niggles.

That’s all. We’ll be fine.

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