Love, loss, and game design in Santiago

I was nervous about this book. The main character sounded like someone I could relate to and the Chilean setting intrigued me, but it's positioned as a millennial zeitgeist novel with gamer appeal, and I'm pushing forty with pop-cultural references that fade out in the late nineties. I needn't have worried: even I recognise Tetris and Super Mario, and with more mentions of Metallica than Facebook it's easy to forget the era and concentrate on the universal themes of love and stupidity.

We Are The End is Gonzalo C Garcia's first novel and was published as a paperback in October 2017 by Galley Beggar Press.

Set in Santiago, Chile this is a dark comedy about love, loss, and game design. Tomás is a failing game designer, a part-time university lecturer who hides under the desk whenever he's in the office, a man whose girlfriend has not only left him but gone to Antarctica. Alone in Santiago he sits in his disintegrating flat, drinking coffee from a cafetiere with a straw because he has no cups, and watching the band he's no longer in become annoyingly successful. "There is something of Tomás in all of us" the press release says, possibly as a cautionary tale, but it is true that We Are The End is both unique and universal. 

Gonzalo C Garcia is originally from Chile though he has lived in the UK for more than a decade and currently teaches creative writing at the University of Warwick. His Chilean background, membership of an interdisciplinary research group on video games, and experience of sleeping under a chewing-gum covered desk in his office have all fed into We Are The End. He was an invited author at the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2017.

There is no getting away from the fact that Tomás is hopeless, one of those characters that make you groan and want to save them from themselves. Herein lies the novel's strength, taking the reader so deeply into his thoughts and repetitive dreams that Tomás becomes real and important. By the time he ends up sleeping in a tent in his own living room, that seems like perfectly reasonable Tomás behaviour. Similarly, the way so many sentences trail off into ellipses fits with Tomás, his tiredness, his desire to avoid certain thoughts, and his inability to follow through on pretty much anything, so it stops being unusual pretty quickly.

The twin obsessions in his life are his ex-girlfriend, Eva, and the elusive game, the big one that will change his life. The two are, naturally, entangled in his mind and the chapters are peppered with pages from his Ideas book, complete with crossings out and occasional sketches. The theory is that if only he wrote the perfect game if only he knew exactly the right words to say to Eva, everything would change for the better. But while Tomás is living in his imaginary future, life is passing him by and the everyday necessities like preparing for lectures or marking his students' coursework get overlooked.

fantastic, funny, dreamy, quirky, and sometimes surreal 

At twenty-seven, single again after a brief shared life of haute cuisine and cushions, Tomás is in a weird in-between state where he doesn't know the rules, worries about how boring he is and that he's at an age where people start to dress like their parents. He continually gets himself tangled in lies, and caught up in unfortunate situations because he wants to avoid an uncomfortable conversation or he's putting things off. Much of the humour in the book stems from that, and his general awkwardness. For instance, in one scene at the university, wanting to make a grand gesture he grabs his colleague's umbrella and tries to rip it apart. "It is, however, way harder than he thought it'd be and he keeps pulling but nothing comes off… a minute passes by in silence with Tomás trying to break an umbrella."

As both a portrait of the young and feckless of Santiago and the absurdities of love, this novel works brilliantly. The rainy city itself, or Tomás's view of it, is used to great effect as more than just a backdrop, and it's here where Garcia's most lyrical writing comes through: "they try to spot the stars but it's all fog and even the largest cities can disappear behind passing clouds but that's fine… They look up to Santiago, to its blurred streets, to the invisible corners they know will reappear tomorrow all changed and new, and they wish the river would for once just stop."

We Are The End will appeal to anyone who is or can remember being young and introspective, with life's potential around the corner if only you knew how to make the most of it. A passing familiarity with video games, heavy metal and universities will add an extra layer but it shouldn't spoil your enjoyment if you have barely encountered any of them before.

This is a fantastic, funny, dreamy, quirky, and sometimes surreal novel, and Tomás is an endearing loser. He and his city will stay with you well past the last page.

We Are The End by Gonzalo C Garcia is available for pre-order from Galley Beggar Press.

 

Jacqueline Saville

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