The Chimerist

Posts tagged Laura Miller

Possibly the most impressive thing to be said about Ryan Woodward’s comic/app “Bottom of the Ninth" is that it got me to read about baseball, a subject I usually exempt myself from due to extreme indifference. True, the story is set in a slightly sf future (the characters play, or follow, a game called New Baseball) and the central figure is a pitcher who’s the first young woman to play in a professional league, two elements that somewhat softened my resistance to it. But still: baseball, and the way some writers go absolutely sappy over it? Not for me.

Then I fell into “The Bottom of the Ninth,” which despite subjecting me to not-great music and a parody version of sports radio, is a lovely piece of work. The art is a very palely-tinted sepia, and the lay out is much like that of traditional graphic novels, albeit a particularly well-drawn one. Select panels feature animations, which are sometimes full-blown action scenes and at other times just the subtlest of details: fluttering pennants, a curl of smoke, a flicker of hair. Some of these barely register, but, along with the excellent sound effects, they create a pervasive sense of place, which, given that the setting is a crazily high-tech sports arena festooned with holograms and jetpack transports, is remarkable. 

The story (of which the currently available “Bottom of the Ninth” is just the opening installment) relates the experiences of Candy Cunningham, whose first time up on the mound is greeted with scorn and skepticism by the fans. Of course, she wows them, but this only attracts the sinister attention of The Corporation, a monolithic entity that has previously been unaware of Candy. You’d think that the public would have noticed her when she made the team, but I will not presume to quibble on points of sports culture.

Tapping on the app’s speech balloons delivers audio versions of the dialog — particularly welcome given that the lettering can be hard to read — and the voice acting is uniformly excellent. An opening sequences dwells overlong on a pair of hamburger-munching, goofball fans as they race to the stadium to catch the game — there’s a particularly nifty animation in which their car zips across several panels, providing a literally moving illustration of how the form should be read. But I for one would be really happy never to see either of those guys again. I suppose the pair is meant to be relatable and humorous, but instead, they’re exemplary of a nagging problem with too many comics, animated or otherwise: sophisticated images married to callow, hamfisted stories and characters.

The truth is, sometimes you’re willing to put up with mediocre narrative content to look at something as visually ingenious and elegant as “Bottom of the Ninth.” It would just be so much better if the words and ideas were at a level comparable to what meets the eye! Woodward’s app could well take Candy’s story into more intriguing territory, however, and The Corporation could wind up being more than just an action-movie baddie. It will always be about baseball, however, and even so, I’ll still be reading it.

Laura Miller

Like Maud, I fell for text adventure games in the 1980s. They were exciting precisely because you couldn’t detect the boundaries and limitations of the world they constructed, and because it felt like you could navigate that world at will. If you turned left, you might discover a castle, while turning right would lead to a dark and menacing forest. Your choice!

But the earliest adventure games, like many of their graphical descendants, turned out to be a lot more constrained than they at first appeared. You could do “anything,” but somehow you always wound up looking for a crowbar or a box of matches so that you could execute some banal task that would ultimately give you access to another bit of imaginary space in which you’d have to perform yet another inane job. These games are fun in the way any puzzle can be fun, but they aren’t really stories. The best of the bunch, the game Myst and its sequels, could be gorgeous and absorbing, but not ever truly moving the way a novel or dramatic work can be. It was once fashionable to claim that games like Myst pointed to the future of storytelling, but the rudimentary stories offered by the vast majority of the genre are less compelling than the average folktale, let alone a play or film.

For that reason, Yesterday by Pendulo Studios is an intriguing departure. Yes, there’s a lot of rummaging around for pen knives and oil cans in order to fix machinery or unearth hidden keys, but the game is more story than puzzles, and the story itself is a gruesomely baroque concoction of satanic cults, renegade academics, mad preachers, gnomic martial arts masters, serial killers, reincarnation and a sinister billionaire.

The central narrative of Yesterday is like the plot of an adequate B-movie in the supernatural thriller genre. This may sound like faint praise, but this is the only game I’ve ever played in which the plot achieves that much substance. There’s a prologue involving a volunteer for a homeless center who falls into the clutches of religious fanatics living in a deserted subway station, then the action resolves around John Yesterday, a private detective with total amnesia striving to recover memories of his past after an apparent suicide attempt. Amnesia is a fairly common affliction for video game protagonists; the player doesn’t know who the character is, and memory loss puts the character himself in the same boat. But Yesterday is unusual in keeping the purpose of the game firmly focused on reconstructing the narrative of John’s life.

The characters, including John himself, are the robotic animated figures typical of many computer games, and the quality of the animation here is not especially high. (Particularly unsettling is the rendering of people’s mouths as they speak — they all seem to suffer from a surfeit of teeth.) This is, of course, a big problem in all such games, even those whose animation is much more realistic; however accomplished, these drawings will never be as emotionally engaging as a real actor’s face, although the player’s investment in scoring and achieving other goals will usually compensates for that. 

A good test of the strength of any game’s narrative is to ask whether it would be at all interesting if the gameplay and goals were subtracted — if all the fighting/killing were removed, or all of the puzzles. What makes Yesterday exceptional lies in the answer to that question. To my surprise, I found myself genuinely curious about the mystery of John’s identity and how he lost it while engaged in some highly dubious research. This is largely due to the game’s ambiguous villain, Henry White, who looks like an over-dentated Ron Howard in the “Happy Days” era and whose true motives remain enigmatic up to the end.

Storytelling and gameplay, however, are almost always at odds with each other, if for no other reason that that a game hinges on the player’s volition while stories require the audience to surrender to the storyteller’s vision. With Yesterday, the tasks demanded to move the narrative forward feel like trivial, mildly annoying obstacles that don’t have much relevance to the player’s real concern: getting to the bottom of John Yesterday’s dilemma and figuring out what Henry is up to. This sensation isn’t helped by some fairly awkward game mechanics.

Yesterday offers a choice of endings, although there really isn’t that much difference among them. (Some are more gruesome than others, but the game overall is not for the squeamish.) That feels right; one of the great satisfactions offered by a good story is the feeling that its conclusion is both unpredictable and, when revealed, inevitable. 

— Laura Miller

Elizabethan sonnets are like fantastically complex little puzzle boxes made of words, crammed with extended conceits, puns, double meanings, shifting authorial personas and more. For that reason, Touch Press’ latest and predictably magnificent app based on Shakespeare’s poem sequence, The Sonnets, is both exactly what you need to better understand the sonnets, and a bit more than you need as well.

Touch Press also produced The Waste Land, still a benchmark in adapting a complex literary work for the iPad, so the expectation is for beauty and elegance of design and that expectation is more than fulfilled. The Sonnets features standard texts of the poems, with the option to toggle to a facsimile of the 1609 Quarto, the first published edition.

The accompanying notes — essential for any modern reader trying to plumb the nested and layered meanings of many of the lines — come from the Arden Shakespeare edition, the full introduction of which is also included. These feature not only explanations of some of the more enigmatic terms and expressions, but also brief discussions of scholarly debates about word variations. (Elizabethan spelling was not standardized, and copyediting was pretty much nonexistent in the early 17th century, so there’s a lot to argue about.)

In addition, the app includes commentary by the Scottish scholar Don Paterson, taken from his terrific book “Reading Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A New Commentary.” You can also add your own notes, if you feel bold enough to follow Paterson’s first-rate act. The original content in The Sonnets, which is primarily video, features Paterson and other experts, such as James Shapiro and Katherine Duncan-Jones, speaking extemporaneously on such matters as the origins of the sonnet form, the context in which the poems were written, arguments for and against interpreting them as autobiographical works and such burning questions as the identity of the young man and the dark lady to whom they are addressed. These extras alone are worth $13.99 price tag of the app.

Where the riches become embarrassing is with the inclusion of videos of assorted actors reading each poem. Among the performers are Patrick Stewart, Fiona Shaw (whose rendition of “The Waste Land” was the crown jewel of that app), David Tennant and Dominic West. It’s a commonplace to say poetry ought to be read aloud, and indeed much of it should. Furthermore, Shakespeare himself probably read the sonnets aloud to his friends before they were published.

However, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for modern readers the sonnets are best appreciated on the page, in close, multiple readings. The actors, who for the most part approach the poems as dramatic works, evince the common modern view, a legacy of Romanticism, that poetry is an outflow of pure, sincere, personal emotion — not how the Elizabethans (or, for that matter, many contemporary poets) regarded it. (Shaw, who can convey the intellectual dimensions of complex verse better than anyone, is an exception.) On top of that, the sonnets are famous love poems, so the performers address the camera head-on, as if confessing their deepest feelings to the viewer. What gets lost in this approach is the reality of the poems as public, performative works and displays of virtuosity. 

But since those and many other facets of the sonnets are in ample evidence elsewhere in the app, I can’t say it matters much. In one of her videos, Duncan-Jones says she finds it peculiar that people give volumes of the poems as Valentine’s gifts, considering how dark and ambivalent is their depiction of romantic love, but then goes on to speculate that in such cases the giver and recipient probably never get around to actually reading them. Perhaps the videos will charm that constituency, but the true riches of The Sonnets await anyone who chooses to dig deeper.

— Laura Miller

Sometimes, when people ask me how useful my iPad is (meaning: compared to a laptop), I’m at a bit of a loss. How do you measure the utility of taking a ten-minute break to dip into Fotopedia’s spread on the Alhambra or to glance at the Guardian’s photo of the day? Hours of reading and writing can leave even the most bookish person starved for images and color. The iPad is a relaxation and consumption device for me (the laptop = work), but it provides a refreshment of eye, mind and spirit that surely do me more good than a whole suite of productivity software. I use it to look at art.

Apps for looking at art abound. One of the best-known is Art Authority, a big barn of images, ranging from classical to modern works, fronted by a modest facade. What Art Authority lacks in sophistication, however, it makes up for in volume: the developers have pulled tens of thousands of images — including many high-resolution ones, for you retina screen users — from all over the web and served them up in a format designed to look like a museum.

Some users have complained that all of this stuff — from the images themselves to the Wikipedia pages that pop up when you touch the information button — is already available for free online. Art Authority is basically a big database of that material, which you can search using a limited range of fields: artist, title, location and “subject,” if, say, you really want to find paintings of horses. There’s no presiding curatorial sensibility, no narrative, no analysis. The developers have also produced a companion art-history book available for free in the iBook store. That consists of some very basic information about the various schools of Western visual art, but as with the large chronological categories in the app (Renaissance, Baroque, etc.), the framework is strictly for beginners. This app isn’t going to replace your Janson. Then again, you can find pictures in here that Janson didn’t have room to include.

And you can set Art Authority on shuffle, prop your iPad up and gaze at a seemingly endless stream of gorgeous images, quite a few of them in high resolution. You can pinch zoom to get a closer look, or try an interesting (if somewhat mysterious) tool that picks out “similar images” from the trove. At five bucks, the app’s seamless presentation is well worth the cost, although it would be great if — in addition to being able to save a list of favorite images — users themselves could add tags to aid future searchers. Technically, for example, it’s correct that the Pre-Raphaelites belong to the Romantic era, as does the Hudson School of landscape painters, but otherwise these two groups don’t have much in common. Yet you can’t currently search the database for either school. 

You’d think, then, that I’d appreciate the more strictly curated artCircles app, which serves up images hand-selected by “the artists, musicians, designers and innovators of our time.” (I had heard of none of them.) You can look at all the images picked by a single curator while listening to an audio narration explaining his or her choices. There are also circles organized by dominant color or theme. The images include paintings, photographs, illustrations, even some vintage advertising.

Unfortunately, the wince-inducing narrations in artCircles are a reminder of just how hard it is not to sound self-indulgently dopey when talking about art. The selections in the app should have felt fresh and eclectic, full of new discoveries, yet there was something overly familiar about it — Klimt, Warhol, Dali, etc. — that made the experience strangely redolent of a dorm room. That’s probably because this free app is produced by the company, which sells exactly the sort of posters you and your roommate and your best friend taped over your desks during freshman year. The app is actually a catalog designed to sell prints.

The Gagosian app is forthrightly a catalog, but one that’s so intricate and inventive that even a viewer who’s mostly indifferent to contemporary art (my favorite painter is Tintoretto, to give you a sense) can end up being charmed by it. Gagosian is a name to conjure with in the current art world, and even I recognize a few of the names (Damien Hirst, Richard Serra) in the three issues produced so far. While I liked playing around with Hirst’s colored-dots animation, the real fun lay in meandering through the works of artists who were entirely new to me, like Mike Kelley, who, alas, died earlier this year. 

The Kelley “exhibit” presented by the app featured video, stills, quotes from critics, narration by the artist (which also confirmed that most people sound dopey when talking about art, including artists), and information and images concerning how his wacky, brainy installations were made. It helped that the project, “Exploded Fortress of Solitude,” offered a cockeyed version of Superman’s mountain sanctuary you could walk through. There’s also video in which bewigged men chain a groggy bride to a stone wall. I don’t know what it all means (despite Kelley’s efforts to explain it), but it sure was fun.

Even though I try to hit the major art museums in cities I visit, I’d probably never make it to exhibits at the various glittering Gagosian galleries scattered throughout the world. Not my scene. But the Gagosian app has earned a permanent spot on my tablet. Each issue has two or three things that purely delight me, presented in some sly way that invites exploration and play. How useful is that? Very.

—Laura Miller

Ibiza Lights from Jose A. Hervas on Vimeo.

Here’s Ibiza without drunken tourists and seaside kitsch, just immense Mediterranean skies wheeling over the rugged Spanish island, in an HD time-lapse video that will look ravishing on all the new retina screens out there.

Laura Miller

When it comes to integrating images, text and video in inventive ways, some of the most promising new tablet apps have been produced by museums. It’s a logical fit: Museums are about both information and looking at things. People absorb their exhibits by wandering around, in a self-directed and often non-linear manner. And museums tend to be funded by corporations who like the idea that their investment will result in their logo being attached to prestigious content distributed all over the world, not just in the city where the museum is located. That means the apps are often free.

The new app for the Design Museum in London is, unsurprisingly, beautifully designed. It features 59 exemplary objects from the museum’s collection, everything from iconic chairs and the original, candy-colored iMac to the first plastic-covered nappy (diaper), devised by an American housewife in 1946 and celebrated in the accompanying text as an example of ingenious “design without designers.” Others are simply beautiful.

The items are presented on a grid, with each column and row scrollable either vertically or horizontally. Select an object and the entry expands to reveal a gallery of photographs from various angles, text explaining the object’s provenance and the reasons for its inclusion, and a brief video of museum director Deyan Sudjic talking about why it’s notable. Although Deyan has a pleasant voice and extemporizes comfortably, the videos are the weakest part of the app because they are superfluous. There’s nothing in them you can’t already find in the text or photographs. Occasionally, they miss an opportunity, such as not including the sound of Alberto Alessi’s famous Whistling Kettle, which was designed to sound like an American freight train, and since many of these objects are praised for their functionality, it would be nice to see some of them in action.

A curious effect of meandering through the Design Museum Collection app and other forms of non-linear media is a low-level anxiety that you might miss something. In a physical museum, you can poke your head in every room and assure yourself that you’ve covered all the exhibit territory in the building. Every so often, using the Design Museum app, I found myself scrolling an interesting object off the main page and then not being able to find it again. (The scrollable “strips” seem to change their composition when you move in and out of an entry.) Where was that weird-looking TV, again? Eventually, I found it, but this nagging sensation of incompleteness is something nonlinear-media creators need to bear in mind. The idea is to make art and information accessible to an audience in new ways, not (or at least not always) to make them wonder if it’s been withheld.

Finally, while I’m leery of the mania for injecting social media elements into every cultural experience, I love that the Design Museum app supports comments on every single entry. The objects were all designed to be used, and it’s delightful to read accounts (both laudatory and derisive) of what it’s like to live with them. 

Laura Miller

Auroracam. Footage of the aurora borealis (Northern Lights) from above, taken from the International Space Station.

— Laura Miller

Oh, March — so grey and brown. Is there any month more likely to infect a resident of the East Coast with wanderlust? Lately I’ve been treating my incipient spring fever with a form of simulated travel that can only be enjoyed on the iPad.

TourWrist is the app for a panoramic photo sharing service of the same name. Users upload panoramic photos, which are pegged to the geographical location where they’re shot. You can find them as pins on a map or browse through thumbnails.

The special advantage of the iPad app is a gyroscope setting. With that option turned on, you can hold your tablet up and view the panorama as if through a window, with the image changing as you rotate. Some of the panoramas are 360-degree “strips” — that is, with nothing but black, empty space above and below — but most are fully immersive, so if you hold the iPad directly above your head and look up, you’ll see the sky — or the vaulted ceiling of a cathedral.

The odd thing about TourWrist is the mix of subject matter. Realtors and hoteliers post panoramas of their property for potential customers, and there’s a fair amount of random stuff from users who are just trying it out. In the UK, which has a lot of pins, you might find yourself standing at the center of the ancient stone circle at Castlerigg, and then hanging out with a teenager on his back porch in a suburb of Oxford.

If you just want to look at gorgeous vistas — and believe me, anyone who has ever cursed the inability of a snapshot to capture a great view should try panoramic photography — TourWrist could be frustrating. (There are filters so you can look at one kind of photo at a time, but oddly enough, no search feature.) If you’re also the kind of person who stops to examine the photographic listings posted outside realtor’s offices, then the opportunity to peer at dining rooms in Rome might be as alluring as the panoramas of famous landmarks. The things in-between are what I like best: a country church, a spot on a hiking trail, the old square of a small town in France. These things seldom end up in travel brochures, but they happen to have attracted the camera of a local hobbyist, who has been generous enough to share his or her little corner of the world.

And if you just want to be wowed, I recommend the fifty — count ‘em fifty — panoramas shot on the outrageously picturesque streets of Bruges.

Laura Miller

I don’t hate games. In fact, I can become as obsessed with a game as anybody else. It’s true, however, that I don’t care for most popular iPad games because 1) combat bores me and 2) I don’t like cartoon characters. I can offer no defense for myself on the second count: Animation, apart from Miyaazki and some Pixar, mostly just leaves me cold. 

For this reason, my eyes glaze over at the sight of countless app icons featuring the big-eyed, wacky/goofy cartoon heroes of the average casual iPad game. I don’t want to defend towers, help Squidgy the Squirrel get his nuts back, or plant crops. (The “time management” game genre baffles me more than any other — how did mimicking the least enjoyable aspect of modern life become a form of play?)

But here at The Chimerist, we love us some Vectorpark. Maud has already praised Levers and the delightfully bizarre Feed the Head. Now it’s my turn to celebrate Windosill, my favorite of the bunch. 

Windosill involves rolling a toy truck through a series of tableaux. In each scene, you have to figure out how to obtain a small cube (I think of them as sugar cubes) that will enable you to get to the next scene. This involves interacting with peculiar objects and beings: windmills made of feet, giant eyeballs, a sort of jack-in-the-box snake thing, colored dots that swarm like bees, and a little man in a space ship, among others. Clouds can be peeled back to obtain water, or shattered like glass. Disembodied tongues and beaks poke out of cubbyholes. Everything is bathed in a cool, blue glow like the light cast by a television set in a dark room.

Windowill is simple, I suppose, but it feels like its own little snow-globe world, consistent and self-contained. Yet it’s full of clever surprises. In its own small way, it’s just about perfect.

Laura Miller

Color, I recently realized, is a big reason why I love my iPad. I spend most of my day looking at black characters on (more or less) white pages. If I have the time to get out to a museum, I’ll sometimes stand in front of paintings, gorging on their colors, until I feel almost woozy. But I don’t often have the time for that. My iPad can give me a chromatic hit to tide me over.

Color Uncovered is a free app produced by the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco. Each page explains how a certain aspect of color works, often using optical tricks, like asking you to stare at a color negative image for 30 seconds, then switching it with a black and white version of the same image, causing it to seem, briefly and gloriously, technicolored.

You may already sorta know this stuff — saturation and complementarity, etc. You learned it in school decades ago. But chances are you don’t really remember it that well, partly because tools like this weren’t around to teach it to you. I confess, though, that I’ve never entirely understood why TV screens are made up of tiny blue, red and green lights when I always thought the primary colors were blue, red and yellow. Now I know.

In addition to the various optical illusions and other illustrations of how our minds and eyes perceive color, this app includes some delightful, deftly edited videos in which people of various ages talk about what certain colors signify to them. Remember those late-night undergraduate bull sessions about how we can’t really be sure that other people are thinking of the same thing we are when they say “red”? Well, these videos could revive such talk. I was mystified by the emotional connotations the interviewees attached to my favorite color (green, if you must know).

Writing often gets short shrift in a visually -based app like Color Uncovered. Not so in this case. The text is perfectly calibrated to be understood by the many young visitors to the Exploratorium, without irritating adult readers. Every aspect of this app, down to its smallest design elements, is beautifully and expertly rendered. 

Laura Miller

I recently found myself wide awake in the middle of the night, so I decided to do something I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while: re-watch Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 film Persona on my iPad using the Netflix app.

How you view a movie affects your experience of it, which is the main reason film lovers deplore the closing of theaters in the age of home video. The auditorium seating, the darkness, the large screen and the presence of so many other attentive viewers concentrates the mind. So does the theater’s place outside the ordinary business of life. I can stream Netflix to my TV as well as my iPad, but lately I’m finding it harder to sit down and focus on a whole movie, especially in an apartment full of distractions and undone chores.

I also find it easier to read subtitles up close than from across the room. Watching a movie on my iPad is different even from watching a film in bed with my laptop because I’m able to curl up on my side (my preferred reading posture), with the screen propped by a pillow. 

Looking at the screen late at night, in the dark, in what amounts to a fetal position in bed makes for an unprecedentedly intimate, enveloping, almost womblike cinematic experience. It turned out to be perfect for this film about intimacy, the story of an actress suffering from a case of hysterical muteness and the nurse assigned to care for her in an isolated seaside cottage. 

Persona seemed entirely different from the first time I saw it, decades ago, in a drafty art house with a post-college boyfriend who was introducing me to Bergman’s work. That meant negotiating a very different sort of intimate terrain, and the art-house experience can be oddly pressured. You’re rarely comfortable, which always reduces my tolerance for slow movies, and you know you’ll be expected to make some sort of thoughtful comment afterwards. Chances are, if you’re seeing a classic art film like Persona, it’s with someone who already loves it and wants you to love it, too.

This time, it was just me and the two characters (played by Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson), who both looked heartbreakingly young. I remember the movie as very cryptic, but now I see that it simply has a multiplicity of meanings, all of which are fairly accessible. The arty bits of found footage I regarded as most worth decoding now look a little quaint — and how did I miss that Persona is a kind of ghost story, one of my favorite genres? I was so much closer to the actors this time, their faces right there, as if they were lying on the pillow next to me. Their performances — the core of the film — overwhelmed me.

You do lose something seeing a film without an audience, but I feel that more with comedies than with this type of serious-minded art film. There was a chilliness and distance to the art-house experience I don’t miss at all. 

Laura Miller

Maud and I have been going back and forth on The Chimerist’s house style. My journalism background makes me unusually sticklerish on this subject; I care less about which style we use than that we’re consistent. Maud likes the Oxford comma, which I’m not used to since it’s not AP style (what most of the publications I write for use). I did adjust to it, though, when writing my book, which was governed by the Chicago Manual. So, we’re using the Oxford comma. Unless I forget, in which case, Maud gets to scold me.

The thing we’re hung up on, however, is how to set the names of apps. AP style puts the titles of most works of art in quotation marks, rather than italics. That’s due to something about typesetting in the newspapers where AP style emerged back in the olden days. (It also turned out to be good for early HTML publications, where the last character in an italicized word would lean into the space before the first character in the next word set in roman type — awful!) But italics do look better, and you don’t run into trouble with possessives.

Anyway, we’ve been kicking the question around, and at one point Maud went in to put the titles of all apps in quotes. This didn’t seem weird for apps like "Chopsticks" or "Meanwhile," which are obviously fictional, narrative works like novels or films. But what about Evernote or Flipboard? They’re apps, too, but setting their names in quotes or italics feels strange — they’re tools like Microsoft Word or Scrivener, not works of art. (Though Scrivener comes pretty close to art in my book.)

This question gets to the heart of what we want to explore with The Chimerist. Some apps are most definitely works of art; others are definitely not. But what about Strange Rain, an app that I approached as a piece of storytelling, but that my friend Clive uses as a sound effects machine when he’s having trouble getting to sleep? An app that’s not especially creative — say, a basic catalog of images from an art exhibit — would definitely get quotes or italics if it were published as a printed book, but requires a lot less ingenuity in the making than Evernote.

We decided from the start that The Chimerist would not cover the utilitarian apps that (along with games) dominate most app review sites. We want to do our small bit to foster and encourage the innovative use of tablets as a creative platform. But the App Store is a crazy hodgepodge of barely-organized stuff, from currency converters to interactive versions of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” (As a former bank clerk, Eliot might have appreciated the irony of that.) It’s not always clear what’s art and what’s not. After all, most people think of Steve Jobs as immensely creative but he never made an actual work of art in any conventional sense of the term. 

Who knew that a little thing like quotation marks could trigger so much soul-searching about our mission?

—Laura Miller

I fell in love with Desi Leaves Town in spite of myself, and then fell out of love with it. It’s an app that tumbles through the awkward triangular space between novel, film and game. It doesn’t really work, but the reasons why are interesting.

Desi Leaves Town tells the story of a rich, jaded Parisian aesthete who shuts himself up in a suburban villa to escape the world he despises and to pursue various peculiar lifestyle and design choices. It’s based (loosely) on an 1884 novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans. However, the protagonist has been changed into a giant cravat-wearing frog, which alleviates much of the ridiculous (and, I have to say, very French) grandiosity of his carryings-on. Desi pursues elaborate and eccentric design schemes (buying a tortoise to set off the colors in his rug, then deciding to have the animal’s shell gilded and encrusted with gems), and then mopes around after he gets tired of them. That’s the extent of the plot.

At least as far as I can tell. The story is told by a series of short animated films alternating with basic puzzle games. The interactivity is all in the games, which did not much bother me. I was enchanted by the artwork (by Jakob Haglof) to the degree that I was willing to set aside my usual literary Francophobia. Desi, who would have been insufferably tedious as a human being, was much easier to take as a cartoon amphibian, sort of like Mr. Toad if he’d falling under the influence of Oscar Wilde. As befits the visual realization of a book about a person obsessed with color, the palette of Desi Leaves Town was so voluptuously saturated, its use of patterns and contrasting hues so bold, I felt happy just to stare at it.

However, I got stuck on one of the puzzles and could go no further. This was frustrating. Some of the puzzles were too rudimentary to be fun, but could be quickly gotten through. Others were challenging enough to hold my interest. My stumbling block, however, involved flipping exactly the right configurations of switches on a perfume machine, and it proved to be simultaneously difficult and boring. For reasons unknown to god and man, there is no “skip” option, and so I had to jettison the whole thing. By then, I cared — just a smidgeon — about Desi’s fate, but not enough to slog through all those lever combos. Instead of the interactivity opening up new experiences, it imprisoned me in a dead end.

Desi Leaves Town exemplifies how difficult it is to integrate narrative with games; each interferes with the other rather than advancing it. I’ve played puzzle games where I sat impatiently through the attempts to impose a “story,” but this is the first case in which I would happily have dispensed with all the puzzles to see what happened. 

"See" is the operative word. Puzzles that were uniformly elementary but fully as ravishing as the rest of the app would have been welcome. If they were clever or inventive, better yet, but in that case I probably would have lost interest in the story. The fact that I enjoyed it as much as I did suggests that I’m more easily swayed by eye candy than I’d like to believe.

Laura Miller

Chopsticks ($6.99) falls somewhere between a book and an app. It’s a scrapbook “novel” telling the story of a difficult romance between two high school students, published by Razorbill, a Young Readers imprint at Penguin, in both app and print forms. The challenge of assembling this fusion of photography, video, animation, and audio clips was recently recounted in the Wall Street Journal as part of a longer story on the enhanced ebook genre. Chopsticks was held up as an important test case on the viability of the form.

I have my doubts about the inclusion of too much visual material in a text narrative (outside of picture books for young children, that is), but Chopsticks has very little text to begin with. The characters write each other notes and IMs, and there are faux documents from schools and the sanitarium where the character Glory, a piano prodigy, is sequestered for a while. You aren’t told the story, as is the case with prose novels and graphic novels; instead, you have to deduce it from the images and scraps of writing supplied by the authors, Jessica Anthony and Rodrigo Corral. While some of these are fairly straightforward — programs for Glory’s performances and newspaper clippings describing her breakdown at Carnegie Hall — others are winningly subtle: a stack of board games momentarily puzzled me until I realized it was meant to indicate how Glory killed time in the sanitarium.

This element of detective work made Chopsticks much more engaging than I’d expected. I think fiction works in part by eliciting an imaginative investment from its reader. Instead of the access to the characters’ inner selves that prose usually offers, Chopsticks shows us what they look like, what they draw (Frank, Glory’s boyfriend, is an artist), what they pack for a trip, what they scribble in the margins of the books they’re reading. From these clues, the reader is invited to imagine not just what’s happened, but how the two principles feel and think about it.

The only frustration I felt with Chopsticks resulted from the abundance of embedded YouTube clips showing what the characters watched on TV or compiled into the music mix tapes they swap. The Wall Street Journal article explains that this was a strategy to work around the rights nightmares associated with using music and video from copyrighted sources, which is clever, but ultimately not that successful. You can’t listen to the music while looking at the images in Chopsticks and I, personally, didn’t feel much like pausing to watch music videos by the Decembrists or Death Cab for Cutie. But then, I wouldn’t, and the inclusion of the characters’ favorite songs might be more meaningful to the intended audience.

Will I return to Chopsticks, the way I occasionally return to Touch Press’ landmark enhanced version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land? Probably not, but that has more to do with the subject matter than the form. I’d love to see an adult story told this way, with images, videos, and interactive garnishes luring me into a puzzle that offered more mystery and ideas. If the videos advanced the story instead of bringing it to a halt, they might seem less of an interruption. As the WSJ explains, putting something like this together is expensive and complicated, more like making a film than writing, editing and publishing a book. But I hope someone tries it.

Laura Miller

In which we talk with Findings about our reasons for starting the site.


Welcome to the second installment of “How We Will Read,” a series exploring the future of reading from the perspectives of publishers, writers, and intellectuals. This week, we talked to Laura Miller and Maud Newton, founders of The Chimerist, a new blog dedicated to exploring the imaginative potential of the iPad.

Laura Miller is a writer and critic. She was a co-founder of Salon and is currently a staff-writer there. Maud Newton is a writer, editor and critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Bookforum, Narrativethe Los Angeles Timesthe Paris Review Daily, Granta, The Awl,and many other publications.

In addition to ruminating on the experience of using the iPad, Maud and Laura discussed the future of narrative forms, interactive storytelling, and their hopes for the evolution of publishing. What resulted was two poetic and nuanced views of what digital reading means to people who love books. Their work at The Chimerist had already distinguished Laura and Maud as thoughtful writers at the intersection of media and technology. It was incredible to hear what else they were thinking about as they navigate this new and rapidly changing space. Check out their interview below, and be sure to check out The Chimerist, too.

Tell me how you guys got together and founded the Chimerist.

Maud Newton: Well, this is the first time Laura and I have spoken over the phone.

Laura Miller: We did actually have lunch in person to talk about it.

MN: And we got drinks once. But those were the only in-person meetings we had about it. I was writing a little diary for the Paris Review about using my iPad, and I was having a back-and-forth with Laura about how annoying the app store is to navigate. I was going to quote her in the interview, so I asked her if that was okay, and we started talking about how great it would be to do a site about the iPad. That was May or June of 2010.

What about the iPad appeals to you as readers and consumers?

LM: I actually had this argument with a friend last night — he was advancing the Cory Doctorow thesis that it’s this horrible, oppressive device because it forces you to be a consumer rather than a creator. And I don’t necessarily disagree with the idea that it is more a device for consumption of culture than production of culture. But I already have a laptop, so it’s not like it’s supplanting my laptop when I want to create something. Most the stuff I create for The Chimerist I create on my laptop, not my iPad.

There’s some sort of disgrace to being a reader, or a viewer, or just absorbing some work of culture — it’s this lesser activity, by that rationale. I really disagree with that. I feel like reading and looking at art and all of these things are creative acts in their own way. The experience of a piece of culture being appreciated takes two people. A poor reader cannot have a great reading experience with a great author.

With the iPad I can be more relaxed and receptive. In the industry lingo, it’s called the “lean back” rather than the “sit forward” mode. That is a buzzword, but I kind of agree — I lean back with my iPad, in a calm mood. I’m not responding to email, I’m not checking Twitter, I’m not feeling like I should be writing something, I’m just there for whatever somebody has created. I’m there to witness it, and appreciate it, and absorb it.

MN: Unlike Laura, I’m not really interested in engaging with people who don’t like the iPad, which is one of the things that appeals to me about The Chimerist. I have a lot of friends who are really skeptical of its use and its value, and that’s fine, I’m not trying to convert anyone. I don’t care. In my opinion they’re missing out, but that’s their choice (laughs).

I like the idea of having a site that is a place to think about what the potential of the iPad is — the narrative potential of the tablet and the potential of the tablet to create venues for new art and new kinds of fun that blur the boundaries of these things. It’s a really exciting time to me. When I first heard about the iPhone, even though I had the most bottom-of-the-barrel phone — that I was always losing — I said, “Ooh, I want that!” And the iPad is just vastly superior to the iPhone, as far as the user’s ability to experience art and to try new things that aren’t just games.

I think I use my iPad for a greater variety of things than Laura does. I do use it a little bit for work. And I do a lot of reading for my non-day job on it, and that basically includes everything I’m known for. When an e-galley is available, I tend to read that, because then I can read it at home, on my iPad, and then take my iPad with me on the subway, or just sync it to my iPhone and read that way.

But it is a special kind of canvas. It is a device that enables you to focus on one thing at a time, and I know some people have a real issue with that, that you can’t open another window inside what you’re doing, but I actually find that really refreshing. Even as someone who loves the internet. When I turn to my iPad, I’m looking for a different kind of distraction-free experience, for whatever I’m working on at the time.

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