A review of

But Our Princess Is In Another Castle

by B. J. Best

Central Question: Can you tell the story of a full life through video games?
Oldest video game invoked in book: Pong (Atari, 1977); Most recent video game invoked in book: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (Rockstar, 2002); Longest name of video game invoked in book: Commander Keen in “Invasion of the Vorticons” (Apogee, 1990); Other recent literary writers who make extensive use of video games: Ander Monson (“Afterword: Elegy for Telegram and Starflight”), Gregory Sherl (The Oregon Trail Is the Oregon Trail); Poet’s advice in interview by gaming columnist: “My best advice is to take ownership of whatever details of the subject have energy for you, and then try as hard as possible to ignore the rest. Video games are a great medium for this because they often have such an odd and incongruous set of details. Why is Pac-Man chased by ghosts but eats fruit? Why is Mario in a kingdom ruled by mushrooms that was invaded by turtles?”

You might expect this collection of prose poems—whose puns, extended metaphors, and multiple-purpose generalizations string together the story of the author’s life, from childhood to fatherhood, by way of sixty-three video games—to be a sweet exercise in old-school nerd nostalgia. (“Frogger,” for example, concludes: “Some things are too dangerous to cross.”) And yet B. J. Best gathers his power not from nostalgia, not from the mere contrast between a kid’s joys and a grown-up’s cares, but from a deeper dichotomy. Most video games, from Pong to Grand Theft Auto by way of Donkey Kong, have clear rules and in-game goals, along with clear consequences, however cartoonish, silly, or amoral, for the actions we take. We know, in a game, how to get points and what to do next; we may be rewarded with a high score (Best entitles his valedictory poem “Congratulations, Enter Your Initials”). Life, however, has no such clarity. So to follow Best through these poems about games is to watch him come to terms with the difficult, helpless, undirected shapelessness of our grown-up, analog lives.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Stephen Burt

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