Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Alex Mercer, Tyler Durden, and Post-Urbanism

image by Phil Noto
For those of you who read this blog looking for hints on good cowboy books to read, this one is going to stray pretty far from that objective.  If you read this because you like the occasional environmentalist or political wanderings, this post may be up your alley.  If this is your first time here and found the blog by plugging “Alex Mercer” or “Tyler Durden” into a search engine, welcome and enjoy.

Think of everything we've accomplished, man. Out these windows, we will view the collapse of financial history. One step closer to economic equilibrium.”

Like a lot of formerly angsty Gen-Xers I absolutely love Fight Club.  The movie is something to behold, but to really get the full impact of the story you have to read Chuck Palahniuk’s original book, which is where I got started.  You are probably already familiar with the storyline- Average Joe develops a split personality with an anti-corporate, anti-consumerist attitude and forms a secret society of disenchanted men who look for personal meaning in seemingly random violence, leading up to massive attack of anarchic terrorism against the credit card companies.  Okay, maybe you didn’t know that, since most viewers probably just remember the half naked guys punching each other. But trust me, that’s what the story is about. 

(Well, there’s also the theory that the narrator is really a grown-up Calvin and that Tyler Durden is Hobbes.  And the theory following Palahniuk’s outing that half naked fights in basements were actually big man-orgies.  Also, the movie Old School is Fight Club re-written as a comedy.  Fight Club stirs up lots of theories.  That’s why it’s important to follow the first rule of Fight Club- Do Not Talk About Fight Club.  Which is also the second rule.)

What was missing from the movie version of Fight Club is a sense of where the Fight Club / Project Mayhem / Space Monkey movement is heading- an elimination of the modern industrialized world and a returning humanity to some kind of post-urban, post-industrial hunter gatherer society.  The book is strewn with neo-primitivist passages like this one:

"Imagine," Tyler said, "stalking elk past department store windows and stinking racks of beautiful rotting dresses and tuxedos on hangers; you'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life, and you'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. Jack and the beanstalk, you'll climb up through the dripping forest canopy and the air will be so clean you'll see tiny figures pounding corn and laying strips of venison to dry in the empty car pool lane of an abandoned superhighway stretching eight-lanes-wide and August-hot for a thousand miles.”

I admit there are days where this vision sounds pretty attractive to me, such as the day that I received one work e-mail on average every 7.5 minutes over the course of the work day.  Then there are days where a little voice inside my head says “look, bionic man, you walk around with a Dacron aorta and a carbon fiber aortic valve- who are you to complain about progress and technology?”  It is all very confusing.  Still, one can fantasize…

So just how did New York City turn into this post-urban landscape reclaimed by nature?  Surely it was something more than the destruction of the credit card companies at the end of the novel, right?  That question always lurked in the back of my mind.  That is, until I played a console game called Prototype, and saw how the main character systematically wrecks an electronic Manhattan in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.  I sure wouldn’t want to live there. At least not until the zombies move out.

Warning: Here There Be Spoilers

In a story told through a mix of flashbacks, intense action sequences, and eating people’s brains (yes, you read that right) you learn that there is a secret government program to develop bioweapons that somehow goes wrong.  Their biggest and best virus, Blacklight, somehow gets loose, and eats its creator.  That is you, Alex Mercer.  Or was you.  It is entirely possible that you spend the entire game as an evolving virus that is a roughly six foot tall shapeshifter which spends most of its time looking like the first guy that it ate and defaulting to those memories.  You also spend part of the game growing claws and whips out of your arms, running up and down the sides of building, karate-kicking attack helicopters, and slashing apart both the zombie hordes that you may have inadvertently created and the vast military force arrayed to stop both the zombies and you.  Also, as I mentioned before, eating brains. That’s just what walking viruses do. Between the zombies, the kill-crazy military, and quite frankly your own manic action, Manhattan slowly gets wrecked around you. 

"My name is Alex Mercer. I'm the reason for all of this. They call me a killer, a monster, a terrorist. I'm all of these things.”
The thing that was Alex Mercer in action

Let me just say that it takes some big hairy nuts in a post 9/11 world to set a game in Manhattan where the protagonist (I won’t even touch the word “hero”) is a self-described terrorist who racks up a body count like an al-Qaeda wet dream.  I’m about 2/3 of the way through and the KIA list is already north of 3,000.  Despite all the bloodshed, though, there are strange moments of calm.  In later parts of the game when you’ve dodged the attack helicopters, the UAVs are out of sight, and you are hanging off of the antenna of a skyscraper like Jack on his beanstalk, you see Manhattan laid out before you.  Entire neighborhoods are given over to the zombies, civilians streaming across the bridges looking safety.  The city’s urban landscape is getting reshaped one block at a time, and you suspect that this place will never be the same again.  It is a tragedy, played up in the game, but sometimes I had moments where I looked out and thought, “dang, Tyler, nice job.”

And since you asked nicely, here’s a cowboy.

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