The Dungeon Master – Sam Lipsyte – Envisioning a World

Whether you’re writing a story set on a made up planet orbiting two stars or in Cleveland, Ohio, there is one thing these stories will share: they’re settings are fictional.  Don’t believe me?  Have you been to Cleveland?  You write about, you capture the city, but really, you’ve interpreted the city.  You’re Cleveland, Ohio does not really exist, except maybe for you.  That doesn’t mean people won’t recognize it, or believe in it.

The reader is welcomed into a dual world with “The Dungeon Master” by Sam Lipsyte.  There’s the real world where the narrator is an average teenage boy who trends toward the geekier side.  Then there is the world of the Dungeon Master and they’re D&;D campaigns.  It’s funny and clever how Lipsyte ties in some fantasy writing to a literary piece.  The fantasy world of the Dungeon Master is depressing and degrading.  Unlike normal adventures, “the Dungeon Master hopes to teach us, the world is not a decent place to live.”  In their games, misfortune and the mundane ruin everything.

“We’ve all died here before, in brawls and dagger duels, of poisoned ale, or even just of infections borne on unwashed steins. But the Dungeon Master insists the place has the best shepherd’s pie this side of the Flame Lakes.”

Still, the kids come back to play.  They’re outsiders, looking for escape.  Finally, it seems things are about to change.

“today’s game is too good to waste bickering. We smite the fanged and scaly, stalk the untold riches the blind man did, in fact, tell us about. Meanwhile, no runaway oxcart smears us into the road. We are not nipped by rabid squirrels. We do not succumb slowly, like one early Valentine, to rectal cancer. This must be what the official after-school game is like—gifted children dreaming up splendors, not middle-trackers squirming beneath a nutso’s moods.”

As the story progresses, the real world intrudes on the fantasy.  The narrator outgrows gaming as economic uncertainty presses in on his family, the Dungeon Master succumbs to his own demons, and Cherninsky faces the consequences of his actions.

“Another interesting aspect of this story is the ending.  Lipsyte pokes fun at the overdone epiphany.  He builds it up like the narrator is having one, but then cancels it out with a line. I stop, picturing him there behind me with his ridiculous head sticking out of the passenger-side window, but I cannot turn around. I’m still trembling from our drive. Do I have an almost uncanny sense in this instant of what’s to come, some cold swirling vision whose provenance I do not comprehend but in which I see the Dungeon Master, blue-cheeked, hanging by his Communion tie in Dr. Varelli’s study, and Cherninsky, his dad in prison, panhandling with the scrawny punks, the pin-stuck runaways in Alphabet City, and me, Burger Castle employee of the month for the month of October, de-gunking the fry-o-lator in the late-autumn light?

Of course I don’t.”

“The Dungeon Master” is a well-written story that dwells on escape, and allows the reader to as well.

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