The Hole Man

by E.Z. Poschman

2022

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Spring Thing 2022: The Hole Man, May 14, 2022

The Hole Man is a game of identity theft, as in, “Some thief stole you, from top to bottom, and didn’t leave anything behind. There’s nothing left but a hole in space, where you are supposed to be.” The physicality of the wordplay is indicative of much of what follows, a metaphoric journey of self-discovery that delights in a quirky humor, where a fiddler crab is, well, literally a fiddler, and everything’s a little silly: “This is the bookstore. / Waiting behind the counter is a firefly. / (This is a bit of a surprise, since most people aren't animals in your experience, but there isn't really a way to bring it up that doesn't seem rude to someone who's just doing their job.)”

Like many works that cut a wide swathe through received tropes and which delight in a light-hearted silliness, The Hole Man flirts with camp: “The ominous stone castle in the mountains towers before you, its battlements and towers seeming to be ringed by the black stormclouds overhanging the whole area. / The whole entryway of this castle is shaped like a jawless human skull. Strangely, the front teeth are not the eaves, but the front step: you enter through the nasal cavity. You hope the castle doesn't sneeze on your way in.” This hard commitment to tropes renders the writing cartoony, but it sidles out of campiness with its self-undermining glee, ending up instead at a middle grade zaniness: “What's really weird is that all the furniture is zipped up in plastic vinyl coating. Who lived here before? Grandma? / There is in fact a sort of spooky-looking belfry filled with bats on the property, but that's not scary! Bats are very helpful pollinators and also eat mosquitoes. Having bats on your property is nothing to be ashamed of! / The single scariest thing about this house? No wifi.”

The prose is expeditious, zooming you through candyfloss pastels to focus on action, incident, whirlwinds of content: “At the end of this maze of machinery, mounted in the largest and most intimidating metal cabinet yet, haloed by yellow caution stripes and bearing warnings in every language except the one you speak, you find a single lighted red button, pulsing gently. / Can you resist temptation? Do you have the inner fortitude, the willpower, not to extend one finger and press such a tempting, inviting red button? Can you hold out any longer?” What keeps these scenes from motion blurring into nonsequitor are syncopated detail glistens which keeps the reader tunneled into where they’re being hurtled: “Near the center of the room, a smaller cabinet is hosting some very small and delicate work: the construction of two human hands. This is done with what looks like a grid of clicking knitting needles, each taking threads of flesh and nerve and quilting them together with all the others, layer after layer, until the two hands begin to curl their fingers.” However, this focus on detail can sometimes jar with the wordplay silliness, resulting in several times the joke is explained to you, then explained to you again just to be sure: “You have discovered The Made Man. Or, perhaps more accurately, you made him. / Of all the strange people you’ve met so far, the Made Man has given you the best idea of his appearance, because you’ve literally just seem him constructed, seemingly from raw materials.”

Here we touch on the conceit of the game, which is that you wander the world trying to get yourself into situations where you can locate personifications of some concept, who explain themselves to you, and then you can decide to become that person. This would normally result in a glorified personality test, except there’s a Gotta Catch ‘Em All design, as you’re meant to repeat the scavenger hunt until you find all of the personifications and unlock a special final ending. In this collection paradigm, each new man becomes more like a lesson our protagonist learns, a maximalist iteration meant to be negated and collated into a more fulfilling whole. Here, for instance, is the lesson the Darin’ Man teaches us: “"I study life up here," the Darin’ Man starts. "But the thing about life on Earth, is that it comes FROM Earth. There’s no life that comes directly from the air or space. Everything up here came from down there." He gives an emphatic point downward. "And, unfortunately, everything goes back too." / "The ground is rising up to meet all of us. Some of us will meet it in the form of, say, a heart attack, or cancer, or a traffic accident; others might have something more unique, like a practical joke gone tragically wrong, or falling out of an airplane." He chuckles. "Almost makes you feel privileged to have such a rare opportunity, doesn’t it?" / The expression on your face seems to suggest to him that you don’t agree. / "Regardless of your situation, Earth wants you back, and it’s going to get you," he says simply. "We are in the rare position of seeing it coming. Threats are an unavoidable part of life, but most of the truly existential threats to life move so slowly we never see them as a threat at all." / "What about you?" / "Same as anybody: I’m too busy living to think about dying," the Darin’ Man chuckles. "There’s so much to discover up here, you know? And even the things that have already been discovered, we can still learn so much from."” From the Darin’ Man we gain a bit of perspective that helps us to appreciate life’s brief blessing with a hypercurious verve powerful enough to overcome the ennui and angst.

Not all of the lessons we collect are quite so blatantly didactic though. Many are more openly conceptual, as the Drake Man’s paeon to fantasy as a vital element that can still empower our disillusioned scientific age, for instance through the musical magic of theory-ludic jazz: “"You’ve probably heard the phrase, A sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic? That’s Arthur C. Clarke’s third law," He chuckles. "There’s a corollary to that, though: a sufficiently transparent engine of magic would be indistinguishable from science." / He reaches over to his boom box and turns on some light jazz. "Electricity was once the tool of gods alone. Even those who called themselves witches and wizards feared it… but we studied it, mastered it, and now it comes in a battery you can buy at the dollar store." / The Drake Man smiles as he watches the giraffe, whose head is bobbing as it unconsciously grooves to the music. "If magic were something that could be tested, reproduced, and marketed, it would be science! Your cell phone would have magic wand functions built right in, your car would have collision-avoidance spells and they wouldn’t even cost extra!" / He jumps to his feet, crossing the room to open the door for the giraffe, who gratefully runs out to frisk in the pink morning daylight. "And of course the opposite is true of science. Magic does have rules, in a way… but they’re literary conceits. No angel investor would touch your invention if, like magic, it was subject to things like dramatic irony, deus ex machina, and the rule of three!"” Yes, oh, I forgot to address the giraffe in the room. That’s just kind of what this game is like.

The scavenger hunt element makes the game engaging, because each man exists in a little rabbit hole down from the central “overworld”, as it were, so you’re constantly exploring the overworld looking for routes into something weird, which is fun. There are multiple routes to some of these rabbit holes, which makes the world feel more porous and interconnected. However, I think you actually have to say No to each man before it counts them, even though it gives you a screen marking your collection only when you say Yes? The collection mechanic is confusing, and means that, to truly appreciate the game, you have to go through the world collecting all of them twice.

Once you do manage to collect them all, you go through a secret elevator, and as you descend you have an internal debate about your identity using all of the lessons you have learned from the various men, coming to the conclusion: “But being yourself is the right thing to do, whether or not you succeed. It’s worth fighting for. It always was.” Having achieved this realization, you confront the thief who stole your body. You take it back, forgiving him in the process, then reappear in the courthouse, with everything wrapped up with the feel good bow of “You wouldn't ever want to be anyone else but you.” If you like your introspection with a dash of speculative playfulness and a little on the YA side, then The Hole Man has a wild ride for you.