IF Comp 2017: Bookmoss

bookmossBookmoss (Devon Guinn) is a Twine liminal-fantasy piece.

It was written for a fellowship at Harvard’s Houghton Library, and there’s a slightly forced air about it, like when the Poet Laureate is obliged to write a poem for a royal jubilee. From the outset, the Moral is clearly going to be that books and libraries are great and the Houghton Library and canon New England writers are extra specially great. I don’t see it explicitly flagged as a piece for children anywhere, but it seems designed to at least be child-suitable. The two protagonists, Jon and Gina, are a father and daughter visiting the Houghton.

YOU: Yeah, yeah, okay, but doesn’t the internet already do that?

DAD: The internet is pretty great. Libraries are special too, though.

So there’s a books-are-magical-gateways plot. This is a very well-established trope, to the point where if a story’s setup is ‘weird things are going on in the library’ it’s the most obvious possibility. Bookmoss is kind of ponderous about setting this premise up, and when it gets there it’s not really sure what to do with it; there’s very little that resembles a Story Problem, and the brief section where there seems like there might be one gets rapidly resolved. Rather than a dynamic plot, it’s mostly interested in dialogue and in exploration.

The dialogue is a little reminiscent of later Brendan Hennessy pieces – presented as a play script, and aiming for a tone of quirky characters and gentle sass. Quite a lot of that slow pace is because the characters spend a lot of time cracking wise to one another. This is the sort of thing that requires your dialogue writing to be really good; this isn’t bad dialogue, but it thinks it’s funnier than it is, and consequently tends to outstay its welcome a little.

The exploration has a couple of loci: texts and artefacts preserved at the Houghton, and a time-traveled version of the Old Manse, a few miles away, home to Emerson and later Hawthorne. Jon explores the Manse and looks at stuff, but because the action cuts back and forth between him and Gina, the exploration’s cut off several times. (After every cut back-and-forth, Jon is returned to the same place.)

The exploration of texts is kind of haphazard. We get fragments of texts, some presented as quotes and some – I think just from Hawthorne – interspersed into the text itself. Hawthorne’s style is very distinct from Guinn’s, so it’s generally clear which is which.

I’m not entirely sure what I was meant to get out of all this. Various characters flag up the word adventure, and ‘adventure’ is right there in the subtitle, but as an Adventure it’s extremely lightweight. Adventure isn’t going through the portal, looking around a bit, and then going home; adventure is going through the portal and becoming entangled in high-stakes conflicts. Nor are there really any mundane character problems to deal with; Gina misses her broken phone, and she briefly doesn’t know where her dad is.

Ultimately, I felt as though this was a piece that demonstrated a lot of diligence and care, but didn’t really have a clear picture of what it was targeted at. If it wanted to be a pure exploration piece – look at cool old library manuscripts, poke around historical spaces – then why waste all this effort on setting up characters? If it’s meant to be a liminal fantasy, then why isn’t more at stake? If it’s meant to be a character piece, why aren’t these characters more dynamic? If it’s about texts or about Hawthorne, why does it offer so little context about showing these things? I think perhaps a decision may have been made to let the texts stand on their own; but for me, at least, this required an unmotivated switching of gears.

Score: I feel like this is in 4-5 territory, depending on field.

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