The Level Game: Architectures of Play in American Fiction and Theory, 1968–2018

Change log

This thesis investigates the theme of ‘levels’ in postmodern and contemporary American fiction, as manifested through levels of reality, levels of architecture and levels in games.

Postmodern fiction engages levels in the ontological sense, employing literary devices such as reflexivity and narrative embedding in order to interrogate the nature of fictional worlds. In the later stages of postmodernism, approaching the millennium, technological developments contribute to a terminology of levels in video games. Here, levels come to be associated with goal-oriented hierarchies, and are adopted by the corporate world as motivating tools. Throughout these examples, the navigation of levels is associated with play, and I conceptualise the spatiality of levels through the phrase ‘architectures of play’. This applies both abstractly (architectures of narrative) and concretely (architectures in narrative).

My introduction defines the concept of levels, detailing their role in my period of study. Chapter one discusses the work of Jean Baudrillard, interrogating the relationship between play and ontology through his remark that ‘reality has passed completely into the game of reality’. Chapter two analyses John Barth’s ‘Lost in the Funhouse’, where I suggest that the spatial navigation of architectural levels in physical funhouses corresponds with the conceptual navigation of narrative levels in this text. Comparing Barth’s story with David Foster Wallace’s ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way’, I illustrate how Wallace uses the same literary materials as Barth but experiments with their arrangement. This is exemplified by Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which my next chapter examines in relation to the mise en abyme and the play within the play. I conclude by suggesting that the physical traversal demanded by the novel is a means of restoring the boundaries of play to the infinite jest.

Chapter four further probes the physicality of texts, studying the material levels of two formally experimental works: Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tree of Codes. Chapter five contrastingly explores the thematisation of digitality in fiction, where levels are used in a teleological sense to denote progress in video games and commercial gamification strategies. Chapter six elaborates on the theme of technology by discussing levels in relation to networks, comparing Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) with Richard Powers’s The Overstory (2018). Both novels depict worlds structured as networks, but I draw attention to the prepositions of their titles, arguing that one must travel through levels in order to realise the network’s connections.

Exploring the ludic capacity of levels, my study asks: what do levels do? How do we play with levels – architecturally, digitally, and narratively? How do these different media interact in postmodern and contemporary fiction?

Through the above six case studies, I delineate the effects – and affects – associated with the figure of the level, identifying a pervasive ‘level game’ in postmodern and contemporary literature and culture.

Connor, Steven
Postmodernism, Metafiction, Architecture, Play, Levels
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
English Faculty Centenary Award