Best American Short Stories 2012 – “Navigators” by Mike Meginnis
As someone who caught the tail end of the NES-generation games, this story strikes a special chord for me. Told in limited third-person narration from Joshua’s point of view, “Navigators” details Joshua and his father’s experience playing a fictionalized video game called Legend of Silence. The game is loosely based on games from the NES era—Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Kirby’s Adventure, etc.—but it contains a significant philosophical twist. Instead of attaining power-ups, such as the Super Mushroom in the Super Mario series, the object of Legend of Silence is to collect all of the game’s “power-downs,” which gradually debilitate and deplete the game’s main character, Alicia, who was once queen of the virtual kingdom.
For the story’s two characters, the game serves as an escape. Joshua’s mother’s absence is central to the story’s tension, and the characters’ poverty is an essential theme. In a story where a lot of the main action occurs on the video game screen, it would be difficult to explore these ideas. But in Meginnis’ expert hands, carefully placed details make the story vivid and complex.
From the beginning, the reader senses that the video game and its completion are very important to the characters. In the opening sentence, even time itself is wedged between in-game events: “After they found the metal boots but before the dirt clod, Joshua’s father bought graph paper at Wal-Mart.” Joshua’s father hangs the six- by seven-foot sheet of graph paper on their apartment wall to serve as a map for the game. When Meginnis writes, “In games, where it was so often so easy to lose perspective, but also in life,” he is drawing a connection between maneuvering through the game and navigating the characters’ lives. And when the father says, “If we map the whole world…we can stop getting lost,” the reader might wonder if he’s only talking about the game.
How this piece deals with poverty is an excellent exercise in detail and how carefully placed elements can magnify principal motifs. The reader sees the characters’ poverty in their cheese-puff-crusted clothing, discount saltines and 73/27 ground beef. When the father neglects to pay the bill, the gas is shut off—“again.” Halfway through the story, the pair is forced into a smaller apartment, and they “[experiment] with a mostly vegetarian diet.” Moreover, the allegorical nature of the game—that they, too, are burdened each passing moment with their own “power-downs”—enhances the story’s central themes of poverty, suffering and escape.
Meginnis’ details also establish a sense of alienation, both accidental and self-inflicted. On page 98, the father tries “to talk to other fathers about [the game] at Boy Scout barbecues and overnight camps, but they did not listen.” Later, he deletes their voicemails—“even the new ones’’—without listening to them, presumably to avoid someone. When an unknown caller rings their phone, Joshua answers, and though he doesn’t recognize the voice, he wants “to find the old answering machine tape, or something else with his mother’s voice, to see if it sounded the same.” The reader can speculate, based on Joshua’s father’s reaction (“Crazy bitch,” he says on page 102), that the caller is indeed Joshua’s mother. In this slight series of details, the reader sees how severe the dissolution of their relationship is: even his mother’s voice is alien.
With another subtle series of clues, Meginnis characterizes the father as a recently separated, middle-aged father. First, Joshua notes that his father is losing his hair on page 101. On page 102, Joshua notices coupons for gyms set on the kitchen table. On the next page, after they’ve moved into a new apartment, Joshua sees his father’s “still-boxed ab roller.” One can surmise the father’s personality from these few details. The unused coupons and the packed ab roller suggest an intent on personal improvement but a lack of willingness to follow through—a very reasonable characteristic for a recent divorcé and one that adds depth to an otherwise straightforward narrative.
This is all worth noting because Meginnis accomplishes multidimensional characters in only a few pages of real-life depiction. Most of the action occurs in the game, and through Meginnis’ careful use of detail, a complete, sophisticated world is built.