Emotional Tumult, Formal Play
Games and Stunts
(Black Square Editions, 2017)
Albert Mobilio’s Games and Stunts is a weirdly devastating book, one whose heft you can’t imagine on picking up the slim volume. Nor are you likely to guess the coming emotional tumult on looking at the table of contents and realizing most stories in the collection are a page or two (the really indulgent ones drag on for just shy of five pages). Plus the structure can leave you feeling like you’re in the realm of some structuralist whose keenest interest is to “make formal play”: each of the stories in the collection involve, as the title should make you absolutely aware, games and stunts. The first story features a game which involves players inflating balloons; the first to blow their balloon up enough to explode it wins, and everyone else in the game, after the winner’s been decided, must destroy their own balloons. It begins thus: “Stand with the others in the fenced-in yard.” The stories, to a one, begin with an establishment of the rules of the game/stunt.
And now, coming back after having read the book quickly, intently, I see that the first story is titled “Balloon Bust,” which title of course freights double: the story is about actual busted balloons, but the story also makes clear that the games themselves have a sense of bustedness involved in them. And that sense of “bust” need not explicitly translate to broken; it’s more like bust as in broke, out of resources at a card table, a losing hand tossed down—the balloon bust of the title works eerily well as a sort of critique, an event designed for something but which doesn’t quite, achieve its goal.
Because the trick of Mobilio’s fantastic, strange, beguiling collection is that, for all its formalism and surface-play, it’s actually an incredibly emotional and strange assortment of stories all centered around a group of friends the reader comes to know not through the usual routes of fictional understanding—who slept with whom, owes money to whom, never got over some ancient slight, hair color, eye color, job, etc.—but through the playing of games. That we might be most obviously ourselves while involved in formal, structural tasks that involve a minimizing of the self is hardly some epochal insight: if you want to know who someone is, screw power or loss—just see how they operate when they’re trapped in a web of rules.
The characters, if it matters, are Bean, Jess, Jack, Sandy, and Frank. The less made clear about them here, the better: suffice it to say, they’re friends, and have known each other long enough to form opinions about what each expects of the others. Such distances—as between expectation and response—make up a crucial aspect of the book.
What Mobilio does in Games and Stunts is an almost magic blending of two disparate pursuits. On the one hand, his language is almost brutally direct: “Two equal teams take the field,” he writes in “Elimination,” the twelfth story—“although just what is meant by equal remains ever out of conclusive reach.” This is non-negotiable language: the rules shall be followed, and woe be to the participant or reader who seeks more info on the margins, among the story’s interstices. We’re left with an unshakeable sense that the games and stunts themselves, and the rules that undergird them, are paramount.
And yet there are these mostly monosyllabic characters. Few details are revealed other than names and genders; certainly you don’t necessarily know, conconsively, just why Frank or Sandy are the way they are. And yet that’s part of the trick Mobilio is pulling off as well: by dint of the characters being so blankly open, it seems impossible for the reader not to lay herself into the characters as well, populating the rest of the cast with friends as well. It’s hard even to get at what happens. What transpired for this reader was that I read a book ostensibly about other characters playing games I literally cannot imagine myself playing, but that, through the reading, I ultimately wondered more about myself, and my friends, and how we would negotiate trickier terrain, were we ever confronted by it.
Maybe this, then: every game is some permutation of what if. My favorite game is cribbage, which game posits something like what if the “winner” was determined by who could score 120 points first based on an arcane set of rules? Most of us would opt out of thinking like that re: our closest friends and deep-down matters. The highest praise I can offer Mobilio’s Games and Stunts is the highest praise I can offer for fiction, period: it forces us to reckon with considerations we’d rather avoid, even while it doesn’t make us suffer those considerations fully. It’s somehow both the most tender and brutal book I’ve read in awhile, and I imagine it will be for you, too.
The rules shall be followed, and woe be to the participant or reader who seeks more info on the margins.
But maybe it’s the people who bring you to the edge who are the ones who see who you really are.