Once upon a time there lived a nerd... Like the start of a good fantasy novel, Mark Barrowcliffe’s memoir The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing up Strange begins with the main character’s last ordinary days just before embarking on a life-changing journey.
But in the opening chapters of Barrowcliffe’s book there is less of Bilbo Baggins, the reluctant hero, and more of Gollum, the corrupted cave-dweller, sustained by his stolen “precious,” the sinister ring of power.
Ever a fantasy geek, Barrowcliffe readily identifies with Tolkien’s tragic character. But his ring is the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons.
Once, finding an original rule book for the game, Barrowcliffe hugged it close. “I only just stopped myself muttering ‘the precious’ under my breath,” he confesses.
Barrowcliffe, of course, was hardly alone in his ardor. An “estimated 20 million boys” worldwide make up the rabid fan base of the phenomenon known as “D&D.” Barrowcliffe’s memoir of his teen years is the hilarious, uncanny story of one of the game’s early adopters.
Desperate to escape the mundane world of 1970s Coventry, England, and too shortsighted to do so through normal channels such as growing up, Barrowcliffe describes his 12-year-old self as ideal for the world of role-playing.
He’s convinced by his lack of success in conventional arenas (sports, school, dating) that he’s destined for greatness in magical arts. His ambition to become a wizard lasts throughout his school years.
It gives him an odd perspective on the rest of life.
When his family’s kitchen catches fire, “I found this hugely exciting,” Barrowcliffe writes. “I imagined a fire elemental had broken free, and while we were waiting for the fire brigade I hung around outside the house trying to cast a ‘summon storm’ spell by twiddling my fingers at the blaze while my mum stood crying.”
D&D feeds Barrowcliffe’s proclivity for fantasy like nothing else because it’s so immersive and participatory, offering simulated trials and triumphs in vast, other worlds. As a “weedy,” picked-on boy, he falls for it hopelessly.
But it’s not the game that affects Barrowcliffe’s life as deeply as the circle of gamers he plays with.
These are mostly older boys, all of whom he looks up to – even though they wouldn’t normally make the best company and even though they openly resent him. Regardless, he adoringly adopts their sneering, sarcastic mannerisms, deducing that these must be sophisticated ways to express camaraderie.
The book is a compendium of nerdiness, a bemused exploration of the degree to which Barrowcliffe was a thorough social misfit.
At times the narrative feels hesitant to advance, even as Barrowcliffe himself hesitates to claim adulthood, admitting he still sometimes feels like “a recovering adolescent.”
But Barrowcliffe takes a big leap forward when he finds his first true friend, Billy Crowbrough, a corpulent 15-year-old smoker from grammar school who slowly leads Barrowcliffe away from the gaming table and into the out-of-doors (which makes for some of the book’s funniest stories).
Billy also helps Barrowcliffe expand his perspective and grow socially.
The book’s explanations of game play are detailed, but not as exhaustive as they could be in the hands of a more relentless D&D fan. Barrowcliffe is merciful in this regard, letting us in on the world without requiring us to be sworn into it.
In the best tradition of British humor, Barrowcliffe reveals the absurdity of his subject matter (in most cases, himself) through highly formal sentences spliced with flippant common speech.
The cadence of his paragraphs, the awareness of his audience, and his diverting conversational stream give “The Elfish Gene” the immediacy of a verbal story. The slang keeps everything tongue-in-cheek.
Occasionally Barrowcliffe’s narrative leaps between his present and past selves grow cumbersome. And cliffhanger chapter endings are an unnecessary distraction in a narrative with a brisk, witty pace.
But as he looks back on his all-male, antisocial socialization, Barrowcliffe has some meaningful insights to offer on masculinity and society.
“The Elfish Gene” is laugh-out-loud funny, but thoughtful as well, as it examines what it meant to be a geek before that was an accepted social identity.
Dan Fritz is an intern at the Monitor.