There is a lonely need at the heart of this book, the need for all this ephemeral shit to mean something, for the generations nurtured by the internet to have collected something more than transient commodities and opinions about them, more than posts and tweets and days of recycling things we’ve consumed and perhaps leveraged into monetized brands. But Cline has rejected the bigger ideas that usually absorb all our mortal flailing into an arc of greater redemptive significance. Religion is out. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t so much as flirt with Marxism, even in a rootless Hegelian form of thesis, antithesis and synthesis inexorably churning human society forward. Capitalism is portrayed as a disease unless it’s in the hands of the right people, which is indistinguishable from the view of capitalism espoused by the wrong people.
At times, you can almost sense a muffled scream trying to escape the page, the unthinkable recognition that memorizing movies and videogame speed-runs and every beat of a standup routine contains only the memory space required to store it—that it builds to nothing, achieves nothing, signifies nothing more than the story of somebody else. That you can watch Raiders of the Lost Ark 100 times, and on the 101st, it won’t reveal a greater truth or build a better you. That the passivity of life via filmstrip exacts no price because it confers no prize. That, maybe, the cold message of becoming a pop-culture savant is realizing that you’ve dedicated your life to the craft of memorizing how it happened to someone else—or as someone else happened to imagine it. That the Comic Book Guy was right to lament, “Oh, I’ve wasted my life.”
Maybe that’s the seductive—and to those who embrace it—profound appeal of a story like Ready Player One, built on the bones of hundreds of others: that somehow we can construct a scavenger hunt of narrative human significance from everything we’ve already consumed, something every bit as spiritual and whole as a more rigorous study and embrace of the world as it is. Maybe there is a mechanism by which we can collect enough skill and armament and enchantment to ineffably cohere as flesh and spirit, something more sublime than meat networked and spasming with electricity.
Cline just hasn’t watched the movie that explains that part yet, and it’s not his fault. Nobody has.