Book Review: Post High School Reality Quest (Meg Eden)
Reviewed by Michael Uniacke
This extraordinary novel announces itself in its very first sentence:
You are in a psychiatrist’s office.
Notice it does not commence with " I am in a psychiatrist’s office." Neither does it say: "She is in a psychiatrist’s office." It begins with you, dear reader! This opening drags all of us readers into a turbulent year of the life of Buffy, aka Beth, aka Elizabeth, a newly graduated American high school student leaving home and entering college.
Without fanfare, the story pitches the reader into a psychiatrist’s office, and immediately the novel issues a questioning statement – who is the credible narrator in this story? Two narrators compete for the reader’s attention. One is Buffy herself; the other is Buffy’s gamer self, who inhabits a computer game which happens to be Buffy’s physical world. We are not sure if we can trust the gamer narrator, because she is in a computer game. What kind of reality is that? But the physical world intrudes, early on, as Buffy contemplates the finish of school:
Everyone says that after today, everything that you do actually matters. That every decision you make will invariably have consequences on your existence and wellbeing. The only consequences you’re used to are not saving before entering the water temple in Ocarina of Time, or using up your master ball before encountering Mewtwo in Pokemon Red.
So in a computer game, all that’s necessary is to save. In Buffy’s physical world, the computer game is never very far away, even when kissing the boyfriend:
How when he finds your lips, he leans in eager, like you’re a new unlocked level bonus in his favorite game. Like you’re the prerelease demo that he’s been waiting months, maybe even years for.
A computer game is a comfortable reality. It runs according to its programmer’s rules, it can be stopped and saved any time, and it can be resumed when it all feels right again. Buffy’s gamer self, who plays a role as a controller, is rarely rattled. It’s quite simple – if you stuck or get injured or die, just save into a slot and start again.
But before we can even trust the Buffy narrator compared with her game controller, Buffy has a disconcerting habit as she sizes up new environments, like a cafeteria, a basement, a hallway, a bathroom: she immediately notes the exit points. This very consistent habit is repeated dozens of time throughout the novel. It is always as a single-line sentence, and they contribute an unsettling air. Buffy needs to know how to escape.
Exits are: cafeteria, door, another door, bathroom, main office, and out.
The game controller narrator often issues commands for Buffy to take one of these exits, and more often, direct commands to perform a simple action. Occasionally Buffy protests but usually she does what the gamer tells her. After all, that’s the name of this game: the Post High School Reality Quest.
Stylistically, this is a brilliant novel. The narration is mostly in the second person, a risky point-of-view but here it works. Second-person narrative takes the reader into the centre of the action, and very close to what’s in Buffy’s head. She is not privy to the thoughts of others. She can only observe, speculate, and act. In doing so, Post High School Reality Quest gives us a masterful account of a journey through psychosis.
The novel divides into segments, each has a date and a curious sub-heading, giving a hint at what follows. This risks giving it a choppy feel, but it works, because Eden links the segments, by time, by events, by people.
Buffy graduates from High School in May 2009. The story starts in May 2010 shortly after Buffy is discovered muttering to herself in a phone booth. Then segments flash back to the previous year. The reader knows what happened, and the novel tells the story of how Buffy came to be like that. This builds tensions in a remarkably effective way. The treatment segments start in May 2010, and continue to August of that year.
Seven of the segments describe Buffy’s treatment. In each of these, the narrator slips into the first person, and these afford a breather from the relentless second-person point-of-view. The treatment segments are the more onventional storytelling and allow for a breather, as it were.
It’s not clear what is going on in Buffy’s head; it might be a form of schizophrenia, but even the treating doctors, who surface in the treatment segments, are not entirely sure. It’s made all the real by its plausibility and credibility. Post High School Reality Quest is indeed a quest, for the kind of rules to guide you through life at a time of profound change. Buffy is in her late teens, and the transformation to adulthood is a tricky and erratic path.
Buffy never seems to be convinced that the rules of a computer game are the correct ones, but she clings to them because there is little alternative. She does not want to become like her mother, who like most mothers has an intuition of her daughter’s struggles, but has no language to respond other than tepid recollections of her own college days.
The cliché of teenage angst is not easy to dismiss – it is there, it can hurt, and it’s complicated because teens are coming to grips with the vast choices suddenly thrown open to them. Cope with that? You do the best you can. We learn every bit of Buffy’s turmoil, about the future, about relationships, about her friends, her dorm mates, the people she encounters. Most are stressful and puzzling. Little wonder the game is a comfort for the way it gives certainty. And if it gets a bit much? You can always save and reload. It’s very seductive.
The writing is stark, pared back, and has some exquisite descriptions, as in this excerpt, in describing her treatment and the medication issued her, when the narrator reverts to the first person:
A package on my desk. It’s the new prescription, a second chance at killing the thing inside
me. Why does taking these pills make me feel like I’m performing my own abortion?
Towards the end, there are signs Buffy is tiring of the ersatz life of the computer game, even if it continues to retain a powerful grip on her:
Maybe this whole text adventure game would go away if you got away from your computer, your games, your technology—it’s an idea you’ve been playing with for a while, but suddenly in that moment you feel your heart race, wondering if your room and things are bugged, if maybe that’s how this game is happening, and if you went away for a while it might finally go away. But where to go?
The novel ends with Buffy’s emerging awareness in the final treatment segment.
I’ve been laying on my bed for the past two hours in silence. Is it possible to have a phobia of silence? Because now, without a game inside me, I feel like someone’s removed my spinal cord. It’s amazing how we get used to—and depend on—even the things that drive us insane.
A dreamlike figure appears to Buffy just as the gamer narrator tells her she’s scored only 18/100 for Post High School Reality Quest. She could go back and start again, but … the figure helps her to understand that the game has given her some signposts, some guidance, but it’s up to her. More importantly, it’s clear to her that you can’t undo things in life in the same clear cut way as a computer game. Buffy recognises this is just a normal part of life: we do make mistakes, we can’t undo them but we can try to make amends.
In telling the stories of the maelstrom of the human mind, it’s easy to shove aside the concerns of anyone with a psychiatric illness. How could anyone, how could any character, so afflicted by psychosis, dreams, hallucinations and obsessions, possibly tell a coherent story? After all, to tell a story, writers (mostly) follow agreed rules, such as logic, grammar, spelling and structure. That is the reality of a writer who wants to tell a coherent story. Post High School Reality Quest grafts the certainty of a computer game onto the fragility of Buffy’s disturbed teenage mind. In doing so, it tells a memorable story of Buffy’s quest to reclaim her humanity.
Title: Post High School Reality Quest