Role-playing games take over New York City’s Morningside Park with calamitous consequences in Davidson’s (Invisible Things, 2010, etc.) latest novel.
Lucy, a poet and MFA graduate student, shares an apartment with Ruth, a postdoc in game theory and design. Their Swedish neighbor, Anna, has garnered a Fulbright scholarship to study the urban culture of outdoor gaming. Yet each woman harbors a secret weakness. Lucy’s tenuous, almost ghostly connection to life and Ruth’s eating disorder, however, pale in comparison to Anna’s past as a neglected child consigned to a psychiatric hospital. Both Lucy and Anna assist Ruth in constructing her latest game, Trapped in the Asylum, which uses contemporary technologies (GPS, smartphones) to recreate an 1890s community for the insane. Anna is soon inspired to develop her own, darker game that imagines evil forces impinging on the city itself. Players must—weirdly and erotically—reinforce the magical protective wards first set into the gardens and buildings designed by Olmstead and architectural giants McKim, Mead and White. The arrival of Anna’s charismatic brother, Anders, catalyzes a dangerous game, indeed. Based upon The Bacchae—Euripides’ unsettling dramatization of the tensions between the rational and the irrational, between reason and passion—this game employs live-action role playing. Casting Ruth as the logical Pentheus, Anna as the irrational Dionysus, the game is replete with maenads and enforcers recruited and mobilized via Gchats, text messages and blog posts. As the players take their roles more and more seriously, the game becomes disturbingly unpredictable. Despite some stilted dialogue, Davidson deftly orchestrates a startling collision between the classical and the contemporary, reality and play.
A suspenseful cautionary tale: Don’t play games with strangers.