Truth is Fragmentary, Skulljhabit, a braindump, and this place that is no place

Maybe something a bit lower key, yes? A little rambly, maybe? Less formal? (Like formality is even a thing for this blog.) Pretend that we’re sitting at a kitchen counter somewhere. In one of his more recent (term used loosely) videos, Zefrank talks about getting unstuck in creative work, and one of the tricks he mentions is thinking about “specificity of experience.” If I paraphrase (badly), Zefrank is referring to one’s thoughts and feelings in reaction to a particular subject, e.g. how you feel (sad, angry, bored, etc. etc.) watching a movie, or, like, how you feel waiting for it to start or the atmosphere in the theatre after it ends, or even how it feels to write about that movie. I’m pretty sure that as a filthy blogger, this is basically about the only thing that I’m any good at.[1] Anyway, I bring this up because I’ve been literally (not literally) holding a copy of Gabrielle Bell’s Truth is Fragmentary in my hands for two weeks and turning Porpentine’s Skulljhabit over in my brain for even longer, and once again I don’t know quite what to do with ‘em. (Except read them. Ha! Ha! Thanks for that joke, Dad Brain.) Really, the only thing I can think about is that experience part. To wit: they have nothing in common except that they both have a little bit of travelin’ feels to them. So I’m going to talk about travelin’ feels, I think. Kind of.

Truth is Fragmentary subtitles itself with “diaries and travelogues,” which if we’re being kind of rude, sounds like the most indulgent thing ever. Heck, the whole travelogue genre is the poster child for indulgent vicarious living, what w/its jetsetting and deliciously authentic foods and romanticized backpacking trips across the south of France. Yt. has to disclaim that his touchstones for travelogues are limited to Anthony Bourdain[2] and Elizabeth Gilbert[3], so maybe this is a bit heartless.

Whatever my perception of the travelogue in general, though, Bell’s entry in the genre is remarkably pragmatic. Anyone who’s familiar with her work will probably know about her self-deprecating humor and matter-of-fact drawing style (not much shading here, just splotch shadows and a keen handle on negative space), so that pragmatism, too, probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. There’s no glamorous jet set; Bell makes it clear that she’s traveling to Oslo/France/Colombia/etc. as part of her comicking career—to do work.

It’s a direction that lets Bell open up a bit, get kind of personal; there’s no grand culture clash (partially, one has to assume, thanks to the internet), no sweeping rumination on The Entirety Of Life And What It All Really Means.[4] Sometimes it’s just what she’s talking about with friends at a bar, and sometimes there’s small a personal drama or two, like who’s talking about her behind her back. Not fate-of-humanity stuff.[5] But with Bell’s attention (and aforementioned technical skill), those are the kind of situations that feel like they carry a lot of weight. It’s palpable, her sense of accomplishment upon completing whatever she’s working on, whether it’s wrapping up comic convention appearances or drawing the last panel in the comic we’ve just finished. Or, simply, surviving a plane ride from one place to another.

Sheesh, I just wrote a “celebration of the mundane” paragraph, didn’t I?

Okay, but so this is what I’m getting at, yeah? The personal, mundane stuff: surviving a plane ride can have real personal importance, just because sometimes the act of traveling is so fraught with unexpected emotion. Yt. (sort of) remembers a This American Life episode about Travelin’ Feels[6] (and possibly? possibly about crying on airplanes). And if yt. remembers with any accuracy, the whole airplane crying phenomenon comes from a sense of liminality—being neither here nor there, but at least in a quiet, calm moment of loneliness. I’m not talking about being at a destination, but the act of traveling and being in transit; that state really, truly does feel lonely to me, regardless of if I’m, like, going a long distance on an empty plane or surrounded by strangers or even traveling with people I know. So that’s like the most personal thing, right? Loneliness? Right? Am I just a crazy person? Am I? Am I?!

Certainly, if you’re collecting skulls![7] In her liner notes for Skulljhabit, Porpentine mentions the superstition angle, the formation of habits without knowing the efficacy of those habits—crazy person behavior. (I spend about 70% of my time feeling like a crazy person, so believe me.) The randomness of the game mechanics—whether or not one follows any habit at all—turns the world of Skulljhabit into a waiting room (filled with skulls). For the longest time it’s not clear what the player is supposed to actually do—sell skulls? shovel skulls? take endless walks up the mountain? But the interminable fog, the fact that the player can take a one-way train ride and somehow end up back in bed, all contribute to a sense of transience. With how little the village acknowledges the player’s presence, the player barely exists there at all. The “promotion” that the player receives as a result of their decorated skullduggery (heh) reinforces that sense of never belonging. The player’s whisked away, as quickly as they came, to a strange bureaucratic building, seemingly devoid of life but built to purpose—just not your purpose (which is skulls). So Skulljhabit feels like a game about the process of traveling to me; being from a place, going to a place, even being in a place, but not belonging to a place. If we choose to read into the letter written to Skulljhabit (aka the player character)—the emotional core of the game, the single thing that meaningfully ties the player character to some place—then there’s a thread about the things we lose in transit, whatever form that transit takes. And if we want to get really wacky, here, then there’s an entire story being told from the opposite side of that letter, at the same time that Skulljhabit is shoveling in the skull pit. The tragedy I see in the game isn’t the loss of the letter itself, but (maybe obviously) the loss of that contemporaneous story.

That’s all well and good, but what do all these travelin’ feels have to do with anything? Well, I’ve got the Travelin’ Feels[8] these days because I’m planning a trip to Portland to attend XOXO.[9] And I’m scared. I’m scared shitless.

Because, look, 2014’s been pretty bad for me. Okay? It’s been lonely and sad and anxious. Despite seeking help and having a small but profoundly generous support network, I feel like I spend so much time wallowing in negativity. So this trip into the Great Unknown (that is, a Social Gathering in Another City) sans backup is, okay, yes, a lot exciting. But also effing horrific, and the opposite of everything that I want to do right now. Because I’m pretty sure the bubble is shrinking again. I’m pretty sure the tarp is falling off. And I’m pretty sure that if I don’t try this now, I probably never will.

Is this making any sense? Oh man. Okay, different tack. I’ve felt—homeless lately. Weird, right? But I dunno, I have some pretty firm opinions on what a Home is, which sometimes (rarely, but sometimes) leads to tortured sentence construction so I can refer to places of residence by their function. E.g. “your apartment” vs. “your home.” And so this place that I’m living in now, I dunno, there’s nothing there. It is just an apartment. It’s a waiting room (without skulls); it’s transit; it’s not any place in particular.

So. That’s the last four weeks.

You know, I don’t expect this trip to be life-changing; I just want it to be kind of fun. And (okay this is def. going to make me sound like a crazy person) I want to know that I can be in transit and arrive at a place and not belong to that place and still be okay. I would like to be able to get off a plane (or a train car for this Portland trip, I guess) and know that I have accomplished that most basic task of being human and surviving. I’d also like to attend John Roderick’s Rendezvous while I’m in Portland. That would be pretty rad.[10]

  1. I have so many feels, y’all. But I’ve been thinking about it because even after like a decade (!) of on-off blogging, I still feel like I have basically no idea how to express anything external to my brain with any kind of coherency. For example, do you have any idea what I’m talking about with this paragraph? Heck, I kind of don’t! An example would be helpful; that thing I wrote about howling dogs is useful reference material, then. That was very much about the experience of playing that game. Not to say that I’m displeased with how that piece came out, but man it’s only been like a couple months since I wrote that and I already know that I would have done it way differently these days. On the other hand, the experience of playing it was way more important to me than, say, theme and tone and texture and mechanics (though obviously those things fed directly into everything that I found deeply personal about that game). Which is fine; there’s a place for that stuff, certainly. E.g. there’s Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest, which is in my experience is more important to have played than to play (???). By its own admission, it’s very much (my words) an “experiential” (??????) game, where the important thing isn’t the game itself, but one’s reaction to it; the “tangible” bits—or what Zefrank calls in his video the “specificity of observation”—(so, e.g. loudness of static, locking/unlocking of choices) again feed into that experience—but it’s not a game about its mechanics. Obvious, right? (Can I just disclaim that I realize how tortured this paragraph is? Totally aware of it. I also realize this isn’t an excuse at all [cuz like this kind of disclaimer just highlights how many solvable structural issues that this paragraph has], but probably if MultiMarkdown supported footnotes in footnotes, this problem would be marginally tolerable.)

    I guess what I’m trying to say with this mess is that I have a serious struggle with backing up that “experience” with what’s actually in the text. (This came to light when I was talking to friends about True Detective and Rust Cohle’s philosophic turn at the end—spoiler alert, by the way, so you can skip the rest of this footnote—and no one bought it because they felt like it came completely out of nowhere. I was trying to make the argument that basically every scene with old-Cohle getting interrogated by the detectives is Cohle pitting his nihilism against his need to believe that his daughter/his life/anything and everything that humankind has ever done, no matter how seemingly minute, has significance despite the infinite darkness that surrounds them. So when Cohle finally ends that struggle inside himself—“The light is winning”—I felt like it was an extremely effective conclusion to an incredibly complex character arc. It’s a way more interesting thematically, I think, that Cohle considers himself a being of darkness—see his “bad men” quip—and tries to reject his humanity, but he realizes through this that his humanity is the most vital thing about him; contrast to what I think a lot of people wanted out of True Detective, which is that there’s weird supernatural cults and horrors and I-don’t-know-what-else that humanity has no chance against. The problem, of course, is that I couldn’t cite any example in the text to support this. Although this actually suggests to me that old-by-now cliché that people don’t want that kind of hope, and instead want to see gritty and dark, and the conflation of grimdark with thematic maturity. Which is a cliché and probably not true, unless you look at, say, Man of Steel, because after all Superman is supposed to be a completely cut-and-dry good guy who never compromises on the goodness of his heart, except then fucking Zack Snyder was all grimdark about it. End parenthetical!)

    Did I mention that this is the blog post where I just completely braindump about everything that I’ve thought about in the last four weeks? Secrets are revealed to the people that read the footnotes.  ↩

  2. Who isn’t actually as bad as all that.  ↩

  3. Gilbert catches a lot of flak for being what Jesse Thorn once tactfully referred to as a ”certain kind of white lady”, but she really is a funny, smart woman. And she wrote this thing about (yes) boozin’ it up on a backpacking trip across Provence, which, yeah, is like the most indulgent thing ever.

    Now, granted: the most advanced thing I know about wine is how to pronounce “pinot”; I’m not the biggest fan of cheese (I think the most adventurous thing I can manage with any regularity is brie, which is like the most whitebread of cheeses); and while I find certain aspects of French cuisine rapturous (of course it would be the thing that resembles deep-fry), I find just as many things utterly ???. Basically what I’m saying is that I’m a charlatan about the things that a person would backpack across the south of France to experience, which is probably why the idea sounds incredible.  ↩

  4. Bell brushes up against these topics during a self-imposed quasi-exile, in her home in New York while reading some Michel de Montaigne, and I will quote her thoughts here:


    Okay, she goes on a bit more than that, but you get what I mean.  ↩

  5. Unless her day was really boring (one assumes) and ergo she has to make up some fate-of-humanity story (e.g. zombie apocalypse) to fill up a page.  ↩

  6. “Travelin’ Feels” is the title of the worst blues song ever.  ↩

  7. oh my goddddd  ↩

  8. Oh man I’m cracking up every time I read “Travelin’ Feels,” why didn’t I edit this out, it’s so badddd. Whyyyy  ↩

  9. Festival only; no talks. A bit conflicted about this; it would have been even more costly (and I’m not exactly swimming in cash at the mo’), and if previous years are any indication, the talks’ll go up on YouTube before long to soften the blow. But the list is filled with names that I highly respect, and I would have loved to see them speak in-person. I mean, Gina Trapani? Darius Kazemi? Joseph Fink?! John Gruber?!? Johnathan Mann? Anita Sarkeesian?!?!?!?! Those other people…?!  ↩

  10. Hey, wait, what? That’s it? That’s the end? Aw man aw geez!  ↩