Writers Block and Family Block

[Includes spoilers for The Novelist]

The Novelist is about a family. It’s also about a ghost, which is our role in the story. The ghost is a device for exploring people’s thoughts, memories and desires, and deciding who gets what they want. The ghost whispers in the father’s ear and tells him what to do.

Why does the ghost exist? Since the father’s choices are the only ones given any importance why don’t we just play as him? Possibly to add challenge, or fit a restrictive definition of “game”. There’s already plenty of emotional challenge in compromising between family members, but the ghost adds a dash of more traditional stealth-based gamey-ness. On the higher difficulty setting it’s possible for family members to spot the ghost, and spooking them reduces your options slightly. So, a tiny element of risk without going as far as a hard fail state.

The ghost is part of a side story about the history of this house, and other people who have lived there, but it seems incidental. These parts could easily have been dropped without a significant impact on the experience. The Novelist is really about this family during this particular period of time, and how the father prioritises his writing, and time with his wife and son. Of course, it’s not his priorities we’re looking at. The ghost’s influence means he isn’t truly accountable for his own decisions, which seriously undermines their weight.

I dislike the thought of choices being taken out of people’s hands, and of the father’s being the only decisions that matter. Possibly the best solution here would have been to take on the point of view of different family members at different times (and not just in the current voyeuristic ghostly possession way). Then they would have more agency to pursue their own goals, while still running up against the need to compromise with the rest of the household. Logically, the kid would still have the least freedom and be the most reliant on the choices of his parents, but he could at least be an individual in his own right.

On being introduced to The Kaplan family I immediately got the impression the son was being wrapped in cotton wool, but I’m not a parent myself and found it difficult to get a proper feel for his capabilities. Still, my instinct was that he needed his bum kicked out of the house more often, and more opportunities to take his own initiative. There are never any options like that though, so I generally just neglected him.

Initially I had the most sympathy for the wife, who worried her husband was becoming more distant. It seemed like their marriage might be in serious trouble, but it turned out to be trivial to put things back on track. If all relationship issues could be solved by spending an evening together over a bottle of wine there would be a lot of therapists out of work. Honeymooner-style sex is used repeatedly as a symbol of marriage strength, though thankfully there are depictions of other forms of intimacy and support.

The wife’s arc completely lost me during part two, in which she wanted her parents to see her wearing the ugly sweater they’d given her. If I think clothing is ugly I’ll give it to charity, or possibly not even accept it in the first place. I’m not going to build relationships around lies, that’s not okay with me. I was confused about why the husband’s input was important for her to get a jumper washed, couldn’t she just do that? The ugly jumper is a shitty symbol, and if her relationship with her parents is built on that kind of rubbish they aren’t worth it. Yes, I’m obviously transplanting my own value systems and history here but that’s unavoidable. I’m not going to be able to respect or connect with desires I find despicable.

The novelist himself was an odd prospect for me. It’s not immediately clear what the best choices are because writing is such an individual art. Sometimes it’s about time away from the keyboard, other times it’s about knuckling down. Alcohol complicates this plot, and it’s not always easy to tell the difference between problematic drinking and harmless lubrication to get the words flowing. The idea that he is falling into the former category feels distant, implied by letters and children’s drawings and never really experienced. Laying off the alcohol seems to have a short-term negative influence on his novel writing. Is there anything sophisticated enough here to balance this out with a longer-term benefit? It’s not clear. Alcohol issues are complex and what I saw didn’t do them justice, though I stomped on that plotline quickly so it’s hard to say.

Both the adults here are artists and inclined to make life choices I never would. I naturally lean towards accepting steady work when it’s offered instead of the uncertainty of other creative lifestyles, and the outcome wasn’t what I might have hoped. A steady job could mean more structure and ability to spend time with family. Instead it meant devoting even more time to writing, going on to win book prizes while the ignored son struggled and had a terrible life from then on.

The Novelist’s version of compromise is something I’ve never encountered before. It’s a ranking system, where one person gets exactly what they want, the second person gets part of what they want, and the third person is completely disappointed. It’s also possible to avoid the compromise and just have one person happy and two sad, but that seems less likely. Certainly the way I play it’s not going to happen.

Behind the scenes, the maths of this means (when there is a compromise), one person gains a happiness rank, one stays the same, and one loses points. The compromise (person ranked second) keeps more points in the system than if two people were getting sadder, keeping the family happier overall. This makes it possible to give everyone a good ending by balancing out the choices throughout the game, though if you aren’t playing by the numbers I think it’s more likely to get two people to a good place while abandoning the third. At least, that felt more natural to me, but I might just not take parenting seriously enough.

The rankings are a simple way to measure how content people are, and the strength of their relationships. It’s neat and attractive enough, bearing in mind that these numbers are hidden. The thing is, I don’t think it has much to do with compromise. Arguably it’s compromise over time when many choices are taken together, but during any single choice it’s about one person getting their way, while person number two shoulders 100% of the compromise and person 3 isn't even relevant.

There are genuine compromises here, but they aren’t presented as such. Without the time to go on a longer camping trip, a single night camping on the beach is a compromise, but that’s zero comfort to the wife who wanted to get away. She proceeds to twist her ankle as a contrived way to make her completely miserable instead of just disappointed. Considering either her husband or the ghost responsible for that is a bit rich. Some choices would have multiple impacts in reality, but don’t. Scheduling regular family time over dinner could have several different benefits, but here it only seems relevant to the romantic bond between husband and wife.

Of course human dynamics are complex. Nothing like this is going to be properly realistic, but what’s emphasised is the important thing. When compromise occurs across multiple interactions but never within a single interaction it feels more transactional. There’s a point where our interactions are obviously unbalanced, and that’s not cool, but in general I don’t want to treat relationships like checkbooks. Constantly weighing up the “fairness” of things tends to leave a lot of important aspects unaccounted for and skew things in toxic directions. This is not the version of compromise I’d want to promote.