With the mention of ‘Tigris’ in the title, you could be forgiven for assuming that this story from Black Static #17 is a sequel to the earlier “Babylon’s Burning”. In fact that’s the only point of coincidence, and this story stands alone.
Superficially it makes use of a familiar plot device, the loner who is, depending on your point of view, a) mad and off his meds or b) the only one who knows what’s really going on: in the case of protagonist Anthony, a) is most definitely the fall back position, though Kaysen cleverly conflates this with elements of b).
As the story opens, Anthony has just returned home to his family after making a shocking discovery while away at university – dead bodies are cremated at hospitals all over the country, and then reconfigured at police stations to serve as officers of the law. His prompt for this revelation is a quote that he remembers from the Game cards he used to play with when he was younger (the Game is similar to Magic though far more pervasive, at least in Anthony’s case). Only when he goes up into the attic, he cannot find the pack of cards to verify this, and so suspects that the authorities have removed the evidence.
Anthony’s father has also become addicted to the Game, collecting many sets of cards of his own, and sharing his son’s delusion that there are aliens on the moon (albeit, within the context of the story this may be actual fact – we never know for certain, which is perhaps part of where Kaysen’s story is coming from, that consensus reality is simply a shared delusion). The cards are the key to defeating the aliens, with Anthony convinced that they hold the power to achieve practically anything. Characters such as Moss Man and Our Lady are real to him.
While his father colludes in Anthony’s psychosis, his mother appears to be the voice of reason, offering to set up a doctor’s appointment for her son, with references planted in the text that reveal he has had a mental breakdown of some sort in the past. A crisis is provoked when he meets Helena, the sister of one of his old Game buddies Luke, and learns that Luke was killed when the London Tube was bombed. After this there is an incident involving the police, and Anthony appears to be hospitalised, though he has his own version of what happened. At the end of the story he is ‘Waiting for the dead to rise and flow’.
Kaysen’s prose, as ever, is deceptively simple, inviting us to focus on the wealth of ideas planted in the text. On one level, this is exactly what it appears to be: a story about a young man whose fantasy life has impacted his reality, leaving him unable to distinguish between the two with terrible consequences, a purely personal tragedy.
At the same time there’s an inference to be made about how so many of us have been disenfranchised from consensus reality, with distractions like the Game assuming an importance in our lives completely out of proportion to their real worth. Consequentially, reality itself has been reduced to a game of sorts, and in this context events like the war in Iraq and the Tube bombings are reconfigured and made every bit as senseless and (un)real as the impending alien invasion and the dead policemen walking the streets. The world as conspiracy/game theory, and to those in the know any scenario is as likely as any other, with the majority belief becoming the default reality.
In Tropic of Capricorn Henry Miller quotes from somebody he refers to as ‘the mad Spaniard’ (my guess would be Cervantes) – ‘By being crazy is understood losing one’s reason. Reason but not the truth, for there are madmen who speak truth while others keep silent.’
His addiction to the Game is madness, and yet there is truth of a kind in Anthony’s insanity, a sense in which we are all now playing games, often not of our own choosing.
Anthony isn’t believed by the authorities, not even when he tells the ‘truth’, because he has been tarred with the brush of madness and so is an unreliable witness/narrator. It’s up to each reader to judge how much of this is real and how much fantasy, and perhaps we need to be similarly circumspect in our approach to the media machinations of our political and corporate overlords.