The Game of Sunken Places

by M.T. Anderson

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen    

Recommended for: There’s nothing in particular to exclude girls from this book, but it’s likely better suited to boys with its tendency to skip past all that boring emotional and character development business and get right into the action. Ages 10 and Up

One Word Summary: Messy.

It was Anton Chekhov who said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there.” Well Chekhov might well have thrown The Game of Sunken Places out the window in frustration, a book tantamount to a gun store full of empty chambers.

The promising premise of The Game of Sunken Places concerns two thirteen-year-old boys, Gregory and his friend Brian, who for some reason are permitted by their parents (who allegedly exist though there is no evidence of them) to take up the invitation (literal, calligraphic paper invitation) of Gregory’s ‘Uncle Max’ (who of course isn’t actually related to the family, but is some sort of friend of Gregory’s father) who Gregory himself has only met once as a young child, to come and stay at his strange mansion in the countryside of Vermont for the boys’ “October Vacation” (two inexplicable weeks off at the start of the school year, which according to Wikipedia actually does happen in Ireland, The Netherlands, the UK and Germany, but they’re only afforded one week, and guess where this book isn’t set.) Have you swallowed those pills? Ok, lets keep going.

Once at the house, things obviously start to get weird. Uncle Max, predictably senile, forces Gregory and Brian to don 19th century boys’ clothes, (which he happens to have lying around in his childless house) just, you know, because. Gregory’s actual cousin, the twenty-year-old Prudence is something of a ward to Uncle Max, and through years of potential mental reconditioning seems to be in on the Victorian era fun, wearing giant starched collars and needlepointing up a storm. In the creepily frozen ‘nursery’ that the boys sleep in

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they first encounter the game board, a dirty, ancient thing that spring to life as they stare at it. By turning over the hourglass in the center, Gregory commits both himself and Brian as pawns in a kind of live-action-role play game that takes them into the surreal forest surrounding Uncle Max’s property.  Riddles must be solved, objects must be found, and the boys follow through with unwavering conviction though nothing is personally at stake for them, their lives are continually threatened by the game’s obstacles, and neither seems to be having any fun in the process.

Early on I was tempted to describe this book as ‘What would have happened if David Lynch wrote Jumanji,’ but I think that would be giving the book too much credit. Even in Lynch’s ludicrous and delightfully absurd world of ‘Twin Peaks’ there was a linear narrative and you had the sense that you were at least playing with the same deck of cards as the bizarre characters. As Sunken Places went on I found it more akin to listening to a seven-year-old boy trying to explain his fantastic imaginings

to you: there are glimmers of a rich and incredibly complex world coming through in the story that occasionally draw you into the phantasmagoria, but the rest of it is basically incoherent. Anderson may know what’s going on intimately, but all you’re given are broken ends. As a great fan of his previous work Feed I was stunned by the chaotic sloppiness of this book. Whether it was arrogance or laziness that led to this mess I’m not sure, but as the boys wandered through dark, subterranean caverns able to see only what their feeble lantern illuminated, I couldn’t help but feel that image was the perfect metaphor for the experience of reading this story.

Time travel, trolls, robots, parallel dimensions, Elvin creatures, ancient empires and teleporting wormholes all make appearances in this story, as if Scholastic’s entire children’s book catalogue vomited into Uncle Max’s woods. It’s eventually discovered that the boys aren’t just playing this shapeless game for the joys of sleeping on the ground in the rain, but in fact the fate of two supernatural races hangs in the balance, and this ritual that the boys have either clumsily wandered into or have been purposely chosen for (it isn’t made clear) has been going on for centuries. The Scooby-Doo style ending where all is reveled and some of the questions are given answers that only spawn more questions, doesn’t cause so much of an “Oh!” as an “Oh? Oh.”

I have to take a moment to talk about the strangeness of the writing itself, because for a book that’s only 260 pages long it seemed to take an eternity to read, and I realized that was because on nearly every page there were sentences and paragraphs that I had to go back and read again because they were so puzzling. For example at one point, Gregory climbs to the top of a mound overlooking the forest, which is continually described as being in the height of Autumnal splendor, but as he reaches the top, “Leaves and branches stretched before him like a metallic fog.” Sorry, but how exactly is that? Yes it was somewhat overcast that day, but then wouldn’t you describe the SKY as looking like a metallic fog? And what’s a metallic fog? Fog is already gray. When they first encounter the troll he is described as “a spindly being that was squat like a kettle.”  How can something be spindly and squat at the same time? Spindly means tall and thin, squat means short and fat. Pray tell? In describing Prudence sewing he says “She sewed a fancy-work pattern onto a handkerchief. Her hand moved rhythmically and quickly across the fabric, like a well-handle pumping –as if at any moment, she wound start drooling out water.” It’s possible that M.T. Anderson has never seen anyone sew in his entire life, but suffice it to say that if Prudence was sewing in a way that one might compare to the action of pumping a well she would both stab herself repeatedly with the needle and have an awful mess of a handkerchief pattern.  You can say I’m being picky, but it’s like this on almost every page; these little throw away asides that are actually huge stumbling points for anyone who is even halfway paying attention. 

In the edition of this book that I read there is a lengthy Q&A with the author at the end that seems both like an apology from the publisher and an attempt to explain what in the world he was talking about. When asked about the development of the story Anderson says “I first wrote this novel when I was about eighteen years old. It was much longer and the plot was much more obvious. At the time, as I recall it, I sent it out to publishers, but of course received nothing but rejections – because it was far too clearly the work of someone who didn’t know what he was doing.”  One wonders if he re-drafted.

© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012