On Wednesday, Electric Literature unveiled a short story, by science-fiction fabulist Charles Yu, with its own futuristic twist: digital annotations, courtesy of the close-reading behemoth Genius. “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” chronicles the epic quest of Hero and his magical band through 256 battles, at the end of which they will face “the final boss” and their destiny. Using Genius software to glaze commentary from the Hero’s elf guide, Fjoork, over the main narration, Yu adds layers to an already-complex set up, in which our world abuts and sometimes flows into a fantasy reality. “When the folks at Genius and I first discussed the possibility of annotating fiction, we were excited about the possibilities,” wrote Electric Literature editor Halimah Marcus in an introductory note. “A secondary character could finally have her say; an older, wiser narrator could look back on his misspent youth.” Fjoork’s commentary is clever and welcome—another thread in the story’s fugue of vantage points, and another deadpan delight in a tale studded with Easter eggs. But it doesn’t exactly point toward a brave new world of virtual storytelling.
Reading “Major Damage” can resemble (wink, wink) playing a video game, in that you range around absorbing secret totems and treats: a character muses that his body “looks like some kind of puppet, something to be … controlled and manipulated,” a swordsman confesses he’s “always wanted to get into Animal Empathy.” The elf-zingers are offered in the same puncturing spirit. “It felt like we’d been through just about everything there was to go through,” says the Hero loftily. “The elf really didn’t like the term ‘paycheck job,’ ” notes Fjoork. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think Krugnor [a sexy warrior-mystic, the Hero’s comrade and rival] had cast Infatuation on everyone,” grumps the Hero. “It was not the easiest thing for The Hero to deal with. No one likes feeling inadequate,” snarks Fjoork.
Yu first wrote “Major Damage” sans annotations, and it’s worth mentioning that the story feels complete without them. Fjoork’s glosses don’t provide a different kind of pleasure than the Hero’s first-person account; surreal, undermine-y jokes are already baked into the main narration. When Krugnor explains that, in order to become brothers-in-arms, he and the Hero will need to touch souls, the Hero tells hastily him “that I’m getting over a cold and don’t want him to catch it.” Not only does the epic deflate itself without Fjoork’s help, but the elf’s viewpoint necessarily holds less interest than the Hero’s. After all, Fjoork is not willfully suspending his disbelief or fending off external distractions. He lacks his captain’s double consciousness—the broader, high-stakes knowledge that makes statements like “I Am Here” and “Is it really going to end like that?” at once hilarious and profound.
So by all means, come to “Hero Absorbs Major Damage” for the innovative format, and because signs show that Genius is poised to take over the world. Stay for the lovely storytelling. There are goofy touches (a hapless, mediocre god named Frëd) that open like trapdoors into metaphysical quandaries, and a cast of likeable, vulnerable schmoes whose big, nerdy, romantic dreams feel implicative. (This poignancy extends even to the hardiest gamer conventions—how the babe must love the hero, and the hero the babe—as if Yu were underscoring our powerlessness against the true clichés in our own lives.) There are wonderful George Saunders callbacks, as when the Hero observes his soul tugging “itself out of my mortal coil” and ghosting toward the edges of the screen:
My POV is floating up toward the clouds. I watch my body down there, fighting without spirit. Frëd help us, I cry out, in a moment of desperation.
I can’t see him, but I feel Frëd’s presence next to me. “I thought you didn’t believe in me,” he says.
“That seems sort of petty.”
Stay for a redolent hodgepodge of Norse myths (frost giants!), gamer-ese (“Darts of Moderate Pain”!) and chicken parts (the characters only eat chicken, for some reason). If “Major Damage” represents an effort by Electric Literature to demonstrate the indispensability of annotated fiction going forward, I’m not sure they succeeded. But if they wanted to publish an excellent story, they definitely did.