Impossible Fortress: A Novel by Jason Rekulak. Simon & Schuster, 2017. 9781501144417.
Sarah: So do you find yourself wondering if a book is intended to be an adult or teen book and then judging it differently?
S: I think I would have been harsher to this book if it had been a teen book.
G: Isn’t it a teen book?
S: It is not a teen book.
G: I read it like it was a teen book.
S: I read it as an adult book, so I was a little bit more forgiving of the fact that it meandered.
G: But it’s clearly a teen novel. It just relies so heavily on nostalgia that you can’t put it on the teen shelf. It’s much more for us.
S: Yeah, yeah. Rekulak does a little bit of explaining, but so much of it is, “Do you remember this? I remember this.”
G: Ah, that’s why it’s a Ready Player One readalike. Which also also isn’t quite a teen novel.
S: The pitch: It’s 1987…
G: That’s all I need! I’m reading it.
S: (laughs) It’s 1987. In a little town in New Jersey, a commuter town where there’s nothing to do. Our hero, Billy, who also goes by Will when he’s trying to be cooler, is super into programming his Commodore 64. He hangs out with two friends who don’t understand this at all and who are complete, I don’t know, adolescent dirtbags.
G: One of them has a claw instead of a hand.
S: Yes! He’s super handsome and feels he would be dating everyone if he just didn’t have this goddamn birth defect.
G: But he clearly could be dating everyone anyway, if he just looked around.
S: Yes. And a really short, squat kid.
G: He’s the business guy.
S: The action really gets going when they decide on a great money making idea, to somehow get ahold of the Playboy that has Vanna White in it…
G: I remember that one from my childhood.
S: …and make color copies of the photos.
G: And then resell them.
S: Initially they were going to get extra issues and resell them, then they decided to increase their empire by making color copies and selling them for a buck apiece.
G: And the only place in town that sells Playboy is this office supply/newsstand run by a grumpy old man. They try to hire a guy to buy a copy of the magazine for them and he walks off with their money. They try to disguise themselves, but that doesn’t work. What’s dumb to me is that they could just have asked a senior at their school to buy one for them.
S: Yes. It’s sort of touched on through the book. “Why doesn’t this person just go buy it?” Which leads to the frightening peak of action involving someone who could buy it for them, but instead ropes them into breaking and entering.
G: So they can get the magazine and so that that guy can do something worse. Which is the central event of the novel. But to make that plan work, they have to get the alarm code for the store. They decide to do that by having one of them seduce the daughter of the store owner, a teenage girl is also a computer programmer.
G: She hangs around the store.
S: She’s overweight, goes to Catholic school.
G: And Billy’s friends kind of think she’s a dog. But he really likes her. And he has great taste because she’s super cool and smart.
S: Yes. He goes in and starts to make conversation and realizes “Oh, this is the only person in town who could possibly understand me.”
G: They start working together on the game he’s been making: The Impossible Fortress. (There’s a playable version of the finished game online.)
S: They write it to enter a contest.
G: To win a new buffed-up computer that Billy needs for his life as a computer guy. It’s hard to know what to say about this book. He’s obviously falling for her, she’s obviously falling for him. What I like is that it all leads up to him going for it in a very interesting way. And it doesn’t work out and that leads to everything else.
S: There are complications, things don’t work out like he thought, and he reacts like someone who is 14 would really react. As an adult, you’re like “Jesus, knock it off, dude! Let it go!”
G: Yeah, he calls her a fat fucking bitch.
S: He feels like he’s been led on. And that’s only a thing you think at that point in your life. So he makes a lot of bad choices.
G: What’s interesting is that betraying her wasn’t going to be one of them.
S: He was angry, but he didn’t really want to hurt her. That’s the thing, with her dad, who’s slowly getting that he’s good for her and tries to put out this helping hand to him, a kid with a dead end life, and Billy can’t accept it because he’s been given a non-paying summer internship at a makeup factory by his principal!
G: Because he’s flunking out of school because he’s programming his computer all the time. He’s so obviously going to be OK, in our world today, that it’s a little strange.
G: But maybe instead of working for Google or Amazon he’s boxing up groceries somewhere now.
S: Yeah, it was early enough in that first or second wave of video games that he could have made a bunch of money and then lost it all again and now be working for some other company. I don’t know if he’s a millionaire.
G: All the games he eventually programmed for the Atari 2600 could be in that landfill.
S: They mention that, at the end of the book.
G: I was reading this as a teen novel and I was like “What teen would ever love this book?” and I could only name one or two.
S: Can I just back up a little and say that really, only a particular kind of adult is going to be reading this? The person who can say “Hey, Koala Pad! I had one of those! Hey, Print Shop! I used to make dot matrix banners with that!” Like me and my brother.
G: And me, the kid who copied programs in Basic and recorded them on a tape player to feed back into a computer. My friends and I did that with Lunar Lander.
S: There’s an episode of Dimension 404 on Hulu, “Polybius”, that’s set in this exact time and with this exact kind of video game nerdery. An Impossible Fortress watchalike. So those particular adults like us should watch that, too.