I just found out that Matt Bell’s story, “Alex Trebek Never Eats Fried Chicken,” did in fact win the Million Writers award. I’m glad to see my top pick get the recognition. Though I didn’t write a post beforehand about the second place winner, Sruthi Thekkiam’s “Friday Afternoons on Bus Number 51,” this story has beautiful imagery. Incidentally, Blackbird, the site that published Thekkiam’s story is generally excellent. For another great story there, try Laura Madeline Wiseman’s “How to Measure Your Breast Size” (though I have to give credit to the editors at On The Premises for tipping me off to Wiseman’s story in the first place by mentioning it in their newsletter).
In honor of Matt Bell’s win, I thought I’d take a look at some of his other work. In particular, I liked “Mario’s Three Lives.” I spent many hours playing all Mario 1, 2, and 3 on the original Nintendo, and have felt for some time that the games have become part of my personal landscape of myth. I’ve worried in the past that I’ll have trouble passing this important background on to my children (when I have them), because it will be hard to find software that will run the games. As a consequence, I’ve feared that my children will never fully understand my culture. It sounds silly, and it is, but read the story and you’ll see one example of the impact the Mario games have had on the psyche of a generation.
Bell doesn’t miss the humor in his story. He writes:
“The blocks contain either money or food, gold coins or else mushrooms and flowers he can devour to grow bigger or stronger. Sometimes they make him fly and shoot fireballs from his fingertips. Of course, he does not actually eat anything. The closest they ever come to an orifice is when he jumps up and lands on them with his ass, just like he does to the turtles. He eats with his ass. He kills with his ass. His ass is a multi-purpose tool.”
But he also imbues the story with spiritual gravity:
“He prays for continuation and then God says Continue and the music plays that means the plumber will live again. Back in the world, he realizes that the God he senses between deaths is there when he’s alive too, guiding his motions. His triumphs are God’s triumphs but so are his failures. It bothers him that God can fail but he doesn’t show it. He is a stoic little plumber, looking for mushrooms and jumping on turtles.”
Is Mario’s God the God who controls the actions of the plumber himself (i.e. the player), or is He the God who built the world and the monsters in it (i.e., Nintendo). It’s a good question, and one that brings forward the sorts of questions I have in real life. Is God on my side, but sometimes just not up to the task, or is he an adversary, who provides the foundation of the world and the challenges that bring both pain and meaning to my life?
As with “Alex Trebek,” Bell is keying in on something I think most people have felt on a subconscious level. I remember once at the video arcade, having fed a bunch of quarters into the Mario arcade game, being dragged away by my mother. I tried to explain to her that I still had quarters there, and that my game was still running, and would keep running long after I walked away. Mario was going to die without me.
“Is he just going to sit there?” she asked. “Dying and dying until he runs out of lives?”
“Yes,” I said. “He is.”
In that moment, I knew I had a responsibility to Mario. I didn’t want to leave him without the guidance a God-like figure can provide, to stand there paralyzed until he ran out of time. I also didn’t want to leave him to the capricious whims of some other kid, who might come up and knock him into the abyss over and over again just for fun. But I did leave him, because I didn’t have any choice but to listen to my mother.
When you think about this story in terms of Mario as human and the player (me) as God, it becomes deeply evocative. Bell’s story flips the reader into thinking of Mario in these terms, and, I think, invites the reader to extend that thought into her own experiences with the little plumber. I hope to read much more of his work in the future, and I think the Million Writers award is well deserved.
Briefly, I’d also like to thank Jason Sanford for linking here. It’s great to know that my posts on Million Writers were being read by the person running the award, and I’m proud to be part of the discussion around the stories that were nominated. I’m also grateful that these stories were brought to my attention. I got so involved in posting about the award because all of the stories in the top 10 very much rewarded the time I spent thinking about them.