Sam Lipsyte: “The Dungeon Master”

Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Sam Lipsyte’s “The Dungeon Master” was originally published in the October 4, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

This is my first encounter with Sam Lipsyte, though I’ve heard a lot about him since The Ask was published, and I have his story in the Fall 2010 The Paris Review to look forward to. “The Dungeon Master” didn’t make me more or less anxious to read that piece of fiction, “The Worm in Philly,” because it was good but not great for me.

The book centers around a young man who plays Dungeons and Dragons after school. If that turns some of you off, let me say that the story does not focus on Dungeons and Dragons, and any knowledge of that game is not necessary (or, perhaps it is, and that’s why this story wasn’t great to me). Within the group are several types of gamers. The Dungeon Master, in particular, takes the game very seriously and completely leaves the world behind:

“So why’d you get detention?” he says.

“When did I get detention?”

“Today,” I say. “You got it today.”

The Dungeon Master peers at me over his screen.

“Today, bold ranger, I watched a sad little pickpocket bleed out on a bakery floor. That’s the only thing that has happened today. Get it?”

“Got it,” I say.

I know that he is strange and not as smart as he pretends, but at least he keeps the borders of his mind realm well patrolled. That must count for something.

The Dungeon Master and his little brother Marco are raised by their strange father, Dr. Varelli (“Play nice, my beautiful puppies.” and “I honor your wish, my beauty.”). Their mother left, somehow, years earlier. Our narrator comes from what appears to be a more stable family — at least, his parents worry about him, his playing Dungeons and Dragons, and his contact with the Varelli family.

“Is it fun?” my mother asks. “I want you to have fun, you know.”

“Yeah, it’s fun, I guess.”

My mother gives my father one of those meaningful looks which means nothing to me yet.

“What?” I say.

“The Varelli kid,” my sister says. “Isn’t he the one who flashed those girls at the ice rink. And set his turds on fire in the school parking lot?”

“That was a long time ago,” I say.

“It was kind of cool,” my sister says. “In a sicko way.”

“Poor Varelli,” my father says. “His wife.”

“That’s the think about it,” my mother says.

“The thing about what?”  I say.

The story is a nice look at adolescence, with the vagaries and the chance and the attempts to understand how one fits in, though there is more darkness here than that suggests.

Perhaps as the story sits in my head and if more people comment, I can move this one up a few notches from just-above-indifferent.

10 thoughts on “Sam Lipsyte: “The Dungeon Master””

  1. New New Yorker fiction up.

  2. Perhaps of note for some, this is the first issue available in the brand new iPad New Yorker app. Every Monday you can download the new issue and read it anywhere. It is attractive and easy to read.

    But, perhaps due to fear about how to advertise on an app, there are major disincentives for getting the app if you already have a print subscription.

    Each issue costs $4.99 to download, which, if you don’t have a print subscription, is a bit cheaper than going to the bookstore and paying the current newsstand price of $5.99 per print issue. The problem is that if you do have a print subscription, that means nothing for the app. If you wanted to read the same thing on your iPad, you’d have to pay the $4.99 still.

    The app is also a bit redundant because you can go through each New Yorker issue on the iPad’s safari web browser by clicking on the digital issue. This costs nothing and is still attractive to read. Further, you can use this method to read any issue of The New Yorker ever printed.

    Basically, then, there is little reason to get this app if you’re already a print subscriber, and the costs greatly outweigh the benefits.

    The benefit of fully downloading each issue would be nice — but not $5-per-week-on-top-of-subscription nice. A print subscription is $40 per year. To use this app to get a year’s worth of issues would be close to $250 (and so far there is no archive). Hopefully The New Yorker will get some feedback and figure out a viable way to change this structure. I’d willingly pay a bit (only a bit — like $10 or $15 per year only) more for my print subscription if it included the free weekly download to the iPad.

  3. It’s interesting. I remember disfunctional D&D games like that clearly from when I was that age. He’s clearly played the game at some point, all the details are correct and he’s at pains to contrast the game the narrator’s in with other more successful ones (the after school game among others) – ie he’s at pains to make it clear he’s talking about these people specifically and not the game per se. Only someone with fondness for the game would do that, nobody else would care enough to bother.

    When I was a kid there were those of us who played because it was a fun game. I still play RPGs in fact and that remains the reason. But there were others who played for other reasons. People who didn’t seem to enjoy it as a game, but for whom it seemed to mean something more. People for whom a game was supplying something missing from their lives.

    But it’s just a game. It can’t bear that weight. No game can.

    It captures that nicely. The mix of people, some who’re just playing from boredom, some who’re into it and some who have other issues and for whom it’s an escape and perhaps a little too important.

    It’s very funny in places, funnier I expect if like me you once played in groups a bit like that (not regularly, there were better games around as he says and I gravitated to them). I do wonder if it would have the same resonance for those who never played though.

    And no, there isn’t a warthog in the game manual as far as I recall…

    Brilliant opening line by the way. “The Dungeon Master has detention.” Wonderful.

  4. Joe says:

    As someone who never played Dungeons and Dragons, I’m not sure what to make of this story. I think the world divides into two groups, those who have played D & D (and who have probably read “The Lord of the Rings”) and those, like me, who refuse to have anything to do with any book, game, or movie that includes a character named Xandar.

    So the bottom line is that I didn’t especially enjoy this story. It did give me a glimpse into a universe about which I knew nothing, so I’m grateful for that. But after the last few weeks of New Yorker fiction, I’m really hoping the grown-ups return next week and we get a story by Alice Munro or Tobias Wolff.

  5. I don’t think the world ever divides into two groups, whatever they may be.

    The story isn’t about D&D. You’re getting lost in the detail I think. It’s about growing up.

    The teenagers in the story are going through adolescence. They are awash with emotions they barely understand and that they can’t voice. They face a future that’s uncertain, and therefore frightening. There has to be some outlet for all this, and for them it’s D&D.

    It could just as easily have been Chess Club, or an after school baseball league. It wouldn’t make a difference. The point is that they’re expressing things through their pastime that really have very little to do with it, and it’s those things that are the meat of the story.

    I imagine the author chose D&D because that’s what he grew up playing. If he’d played basketball or backgammon it would be that. Ultimately, it’s not an important detail.

    You do confirm my fear though that for those who’ve not played it D&D is simply too obscure a reference point. I don’t play baseball, never have, but if it had been an after school baseball league I’d still have understood most of the references. RPGs are perhaps too obscure a hobby for that kind of wide applicability (by way of probably tedious explanation, D&D is one of hundreds of these sorts of games many of which have no fantasy elements at all, it’s just the best known so like Hoover it’s become something of a generic name).

    On a total aside, I think Lord of the Rings is fairly poor. Bizarrely though (to me) it came top a little while back in the UK of a survey on what the public regarded as being the best book of all time. I don’t think it’s come absolute top in similar surveys in the US, but I do think it’s usually in the top ten. So, while I may not like it (or rate it) I’m clearly in something of a minority on the topic.

  6. Ken says:

    I really liked this story and felt there was an ease and grace to it missing in the last month’s “20 under 40? stories. He references D&D(which I did play for about a year or two 30 years ago) but it’s also universal to adolescence and its confusions and social hierarchies and manages to be both funny and poignant.

  7. Joe! I can’t believe you called out Alice Munro and that she delivered out of her retirement!

  8. Joe says:

    When I saw that this week’s story is by Alice Munro I laughed out loud. I didn’t realize I had such power! I haven’t read it yet, but am looking forward to it.

  9. Just keep using it for good, Joe!

  10. My brief thoughts on “The Dungeon Master” above.

Leave a Reply