REVIEW: Level End by Brian Oliu (reviewed by Patrick Trotti)

Level End by Brian Oliu
Oigami Zoo Press

Released on April 2nd by Origami Zoo Press, Brian Oliu’s Level End is a stunning collection of video game inspired lyrical essays. This slim volume, with a total of thirteen stories checking in at about twenty pages, packs quite a punch.

In many ways the marriage of Oliu’s work with Origami Zoo is perfect. The two person operation, located in Pittsburgh, focuses on quality not quantity, publishing only a few titles per year. Printed in small runs of no more than 200 editions, the indie press forces a relationship with it’s audience on a much more personal level than the bigger publishers out there right now. Level End has that similar special, almost delicate feeling to it as well. Reading makes you feel as though you’ve been granted access to something, something that feels very important at first, even if the details or answers don’t quite manifest themselves until later on.

Each story, usually no more than a page or two in length, takes the reader further into the maze of a pixellated journey, one that is full of dark corners, secret passageways, and mortal enemies. Mysterious and quirky at times yet equally honest and revealing, Level End is unlike anything you’ll read. Using the inherent oddities within video games as a launching point, Oliu has positioned himself at the forefront of a new frontier, one where the numbing sensation caused by hours in front of a screen, controller gripped tightly in hand, are used to dissect human nature at large, extrapolating larger truths out of the sometimes conscious shifting and mind altering effects that have overtaken a generation of youths raised in front of a video game.

You need not be a gamer to enjoy the linguistic beauty present on every page. You don’t have to know what a boss battle is to bask in the wonder of Oliu’s well crafted sentences, his alluring prose and sense of imagery and economical use of every word, creating mini narratives that brim with life. The book, much like a great game, hypnotizes you, lulls you into an odd mixture of comfort and amazement with its repetitive narrative structure, forcing you to keep up.

Choosing a favorite story from this collection is like trying to narrow down a shelf full of classic video games to just one that you’ll be allowed to play from here on out. “Boss Battle: A Woman Made of Feathers” is that one, that complex mix of groundbreaking graphics and compelling storylines. Reading it for the first time is an experience, like the first time you tackled Super Metroid. Consider the opening of the story, complete with a language gushing with so much energy that the area between you and the words are the only thing around you that matters. The tunnel vision inducing, spell binding metaphors roll off the reader’s tongue with such ease that you’re forced to go back and reread the last sentence just to make sure you really read it correctly. Basically, it’s so good that the only way to do it justice is to drop the entire thing like a bomb and let everyone else experience it.

“When I arrived, the music changed—you rotating like a flower with a cracked stem—you rotating like you are caught in the wind: blades on a fan above us where we once slept, a buzz saw, a spinning plate. This is the room that you are locked in— deep within a house that someone else has built, rooms leading to other rooms: you in the middle of the eye, you to the east. I remember you beautiful—long necked, silver shined, wrists bent in the back of cars, hair on the window. You bit my leg once: drew blood, wiped it on your white coat. If I could fit your body inside my mouth I would, you said, and I believed you: to be swal- lowed whole like a fish is a noble way to lose one’s way—out of breath, crushed to serve a purpose. As you spin your feathers come undone—they crash into the walls, they spin in reverse. I can catch anything you throw at me: grasp it between my fingers; snatch it as it floats to the ground. I try to pluck what is left of you from the air, but the vane slices my palm. I will do better. I promise to you I will do better. Your feathers get caught in the door. They stick to the walls. Your armor is in the world, and you are naked: arms out, palms up. You have lost weight. You have a new bruise, a freckle on your hip I don’t remember. I roll my sleeve to my elbow and show you where you bit me: the teeth marks are gone—the skin has snapped back to where it should be. The color, too, is gone: no gradient to red and purple, all anomalies dabbed over. Some of the feathers return to your body; the hollow shaft cuts your skin and digs through the layers of what is left of where you stood, the vane twisting down- ward. When there are no feathers left the door will open. The music will stop. No one will know we were here.“

If you like what you’ve read, the rest of the collection won’t disappoint. This is a must read, it has become an instant favorite of mine, a rare book that I’d been eagerly anticipating in the mail that actually outdid my expectations.

A limited Gold Edition of Level End is also available for purchase. This includes collector’s case and a CD complete with extras such as the e-book file, an audio recording of Oliu reading from his work, videos of actual boss battle, and extra artwork. It’s a fitting way to experience such a unique book.

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