Desert Bus (1995) has gained a reputation as the worst video game ever made, but as an act of culture jamming—and a comment on a medium that often panders to our basest fantasies—it’s probably the best video game ever made. Conceived by the illusionists Penn and Teller, of all people, and intended for release on the short-lived Sega CD console, Desert Bus never reached shelves, but its concept is so staggeringly mundane (“stupefyingly like reality,” as Penn Jillette puts it) that someone eventually saw fit to leak it. Your goal is to drive a bus from Tucson to Las Vegas: an eight-hour journey, conducted in real time. Is there any traffic to negotiate? No. Can you pause the game? No. Are there even passengers on the bus? No. Can you speed, at least? No. You can’t go any faster than forty-five miles an hour, and your bus always lists to the right, so you have to be vigilant in steering—no falling asleep at the wheel. If you veer off course, the bus will stall and you’ll have to wait for a tow truck to bring you back to Tucson, a humiliating defeat that also unfolds in real time. For the successful completion of this arduous journey, the player receives … one point. Then you get to make the return trip, another eight hours, for another point. Today, Desert Bus is available on smartphones for a mere ninety-nine cents, meaning it’s possible to drive the virtual bus from Tucson to Vegas while you’re on a real bus from Tucson to Vegas. The existential despair induced by such a pursuit may well sunder our universe—but it would be so cool. —Dan Piepenbring
Picking up a paper this morning, it suddenly struck me that Napoleon (whose 245th birthday falls today) must be one of the few people who actually experienced that age-old question: “If you were stranded on a desert island, what would you read?” Confined to the (not quite desert) island of St. Helena, Napoleon’s top ten included Homer’s The Iliad, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex. But according to his biographer, Vincent Cronin, Napoleon’s number one was Paul et Virginie, an eighteenth-century love story by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre in which the heroine is sent to be educated in France and (spoiler alert) drowns in a shipwreck on her way back to Mauritius. Napoleon allegedly loved anything that resonated with his own position—anything featuring, that is, an exile, a separation from a lover, or a life of confinement. How interesting that, in a situation that seems to cry out for the use of literature as escapism, he found release in books of captivity. —Helena Sutcliffe
Sadie Stein recently turned me on to Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel, My Cousin Rachel. As you might guess from the title, this later book shares certain ingredients with du Maurier’s 1938 blockbuster, Rebecca. There’s a grand estate in Cornwall, a suspicious death, an innocent orphan, and a femme fatale. In My Cousin Rachel, however, we get to meet the lady in question: a Cornish-Italian beauty with a shady past. Also, the orphan is a man, a twenty-four-year old virgin in love with the memory of his dead male cousin … who looked exactly like him. In Rebecca, du Maurier invented a genre—romantic suspense. My Cousin Rachel is a creepier, campier book. What makes both novels convincingly romantic, and actually suspenseful, isn’t their lurid plots, but how well du Maurier depicts the fear of abandonment. That’s what scares her protagonists—that they might lose the mysterious, dangerous love objects who have put them in touch with their own loneliness. As Sadie warned me, My Cousin Rachel is no Rebecca. But it’s close. —Lorin Stein
Some years ago, I bought a copy of The Song of Igor’s Campaign, translated by Bill Johnston, from Ugly Duckling Presse at the New York Art Book Fair, but I never got around to reading it until now. I wanted the chapbook for its content, but also for its materials. It’s a small, limited-edition letterpress booklet: the thick cotton cover, hand torn by Johnston, is covered with ink-blue birds in flight, a photolithograph by Yulya Deych; and the pages are bound with red cord. It’s more treasure than book, which is fitting for the story it holds. Composed sometime in the late twelfth century (though some claim the poem is a fabrication from the eighteenth century), the Song describes Prince Igor of Chernigov’s campaign, in 1185, against the nomadic Polovtsians, who roam the steppes. Things go poorly for Igor, but the tale overlays action sequences, both thrilling and terrible, with descriptions of the natural world, to stunning effect, as when Igor escapes from captivity:
Prince Igor leapt into the reeds
With the agility of an ermine,
Like a white duck into the wear.
Then he leapt up on his swift horse
And down again, running like the whitefoot wolf.
He hurtled towards the Donets meadows,
Soaring like a falcon beneath the mists,
Killing geese and slaying swans
For morning, noon, and evening meals.
I first came across Ring Lardner’s name in The Catcher in the Rye, wherein Holden says Lardner knocks him out. When I noticed Lardner mentioned again in Franny and Zooey, I picked up a copy of his collected short stories—I like to read my favorite writers’ favorite writers. A sportswriter by trade, Lardner has an impeccable ear for dialogue, and damn it, he can put a big brass button on a scene. He was revered by many Lost Generation greats—a young Hemingway wrote stories under the name Ring Lardner, Jr.—and there’s something classic in stories like “Alibi Ike” and “Mr. And Mrs. Fix-It”; it’s puzzling that they haven’t endured. In the hysterical “I Can’t Breathe,” we glimpse a precursor to a young woman like Salinger’s Muriel Glass through Lardner’s eighteen-year-old narrator: “And she says she was only engaged once while I have been engaged at least five times a year since I was fourteen, of course it really isn’t as bad as that and I have really only been really what I call engaged six times altogether, but is getting engaged my fault when they keep insisting and hammering at you and if you didn’t say yes they would never go home.” —Chantal McStay