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The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange Paperback – Unabridged, 4 Apr 2008
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Comic novelist's laugh-out-loud funny memoir of his nerdish youth in 1970's Coventry
Coventry, 1976. For a brief, blazing summer, twelve-year-old Mark Barrowcliffe had the chance to be normal. He blew it. While other teenagers concentrated on being coolly rebellious, Mark - like twenty million other boys in the '70s and '80s - chose to spend his entire adolescence in fart-filled bedrooms pretending to be a wizard or a warrior, an evil priest or a dwarf. Armed only with pen, paper and some funny-shaped dice, this lost generation gave themselves up to the craze of fantasy role-playing games, stopped chatting up girls and started killing dragons. Extremely funny, not a little sad and really quite strange, "The Elfish Gene" is an attempt to understand the true inner nerd of the adolescent male. Last pick at football, spat at by bullies and laughed at by girls, they were the fantasy wargamers, and this is their story.See all Product description
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It is sprinkled with rather profound snippets of wisdom about life, and the author comes across as self-reflective (both about himself as well as his society).
However, it does that through the lens of a protagonist (the author's putative teenage self) who is - with apologies to the author - not the most lovable main character. Throughout the book, I sympathized with the protagonist, emphathized with him, and tried to rationalise some of his poorer life decisions - but, at the same time, I can't say I ever came to fully like the main character, to the point where I'd actually want to be in the same room with him. (I'm also curious to get another man's view on the book to ask if some aspects of the author's adolescence are normal and part of some aspects of the journey to manhood that I am unaware of.)
I am sorry if this sounds blunt because it's autobiographical but some other reviewers have mentioned something similar. Given that the author is a professional writer, I can assume that this choice of characterization was intentional!
One thing that was left hanging for me was in the part where the author's "friend" kicks him out of a Dungeons & Dragons game; I was wondering if that was because the "friend" felt the author was too obsessed over it, but I wasn't sure.
As a memoir, it succeeds; however, that choice of perspective also limits it solely to the characterization of fantasy/D&D as an adolescent male obsession as a means of escaping unideal circumstances, the dreariness of everyday life, and - on a deeper level - the reality of being born into the working class. It treats these as adolescent concerns, and concludes with the protagonist growing up.
However, it doesn't really admit to the possibility of people being interested in these things as adults (rather than as an adolescent rite of passage for the socially awkward male), or as things other than obsessions to cope with a sense of meaninglessness.
Additionally, being written from the perspective of a teenage boy attending a boys' school, it almost entirely leaves women out (although there is some brief discussion about why women were more or less excluded from this subculture). I was taken aback by some generalizations about women which I feel are untrue (for instance, men are obsessed with things and women are obsessed with relationships - no we aren't, we're obsessed with all sorts of things just like males), and I wasn't sure if they were the adult author's own comments or else his attempt to express what his teenage boy self would have thought.
In any case, an enjoyable read!
As for Mark's addiction to Dungeons and Dragons I found it easy to relate to, but could easily have been about any sort of teenage obsession. Like many have mentioned, obsessions tend to seem much more intense when you're a kid. It's just that when you get older you understand that real life bumps up against you. That doesn't mean you have to abandon everything, only that you may have to put down the GM's Handbook in order to put the kids to bed.
I must say, my heavy analysis aside, there were plenty of times it had me laughing out loud. Two stand out moments for me were when Mark and Billy decide to create "real fireballs" using balloons and lighter fuel (with disastrous consequences), and Mark's insistence on describing D&D to his Nan.
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