Ronald Metellus discovers that the point of playing is not to win, but to find what it means to play at all.
“I had achieved such a deep mastery of computer solitaire that my goal was no longer to win a game but to win two or more games in a row—a kind of meta-solitaire whose fascination consisted not in playing the cards but in surfing the streaks of wins and losses. My longest winning streak so far was eight.” — Jonathan Franzen, “Farther Away,” The New Yorker, April 11th, 2011
Game 1: This, I could do. Here was solitaire: an activity that, even if it was intended as a distraction from my dream of being a writer, I could probably do better than Jonathan Franzen. All I had to do was win eight, technically nine to best that number, consecutive games. My first game went by easily enough—aces came early and often. I whisked cards around, stalling until I got the ace of clubs and, with it, my first victory. All in a quaint six minutes. The post-victory animation changed since the last time I played, way back, when I was a “pre-teen,” before “tween” was conjured up to supplant the term—so that must have been, what, at least seven or eight years ago? Back then the cards would jut out toward the screen and sit like an obnoxious three-dimensional font reading, “Victory for the forces of solitary freedom!” Now the cards jump and explode like little mimetic fireworks: the king of spades became a tiny flying spade, the two of hearts into a tiny heart. After the animation, a window appeared with detailed statistics. Winning Percentage: 100%. Current Streak: 1.
Game 2: The game’s over in less than one minute. This would have been very impressive if I actually won. Losses are more pronounced on this new version of solitaire, a window hastily appears and declares, “There are no possible moves. What do you want to do?” with all the verve and finality of Freedom‘s Walter Berglund going on about the environment. Solitaire imposed itself as a character, with a capital “S,” that I would come to fear and would always loom. Winning Percentage: 50%. Current Streak: negative 1.
Game 37: Four of the last five games have been victories. Midway through games I’ve started anticipating the order of cards. If, for instance, I needed a six of diamonds, I was cognizant of where in the draw that six would come. The looming voice of defeat dimmed fainter. Winning Percentage: 31%. Current Streak: 3.
Game 63: In my haste to win nine straight, I hadn’t finished the Franzen article. I also forgot that you lose two points after ten-second intervals, so by the time I flipped to the page featuring a Roz Chast cartoon, I hit rock bottom. I salvaged a 50-point loss and finished the article. Winning Percentage: 21%. Current Streak: negative 2.
Game 100: With lazy abandon, I would slog through games while leaning on my cardboard-cushioned couch. After one particularly close defeat—having gone through the deck, only two cards remained unrevealed, but a jack of hearts proved immobile—I muttered blearily. I stomped on my couch’s armrest. I stomped like a two-year-old. Winning Percentage: 16%. Current Streak: negative 1.
Game 157: My winning percentage was stuck at 16, and I was still mulling over “Farther Away.” Franzen’s choice to quote his 16-year-old self was particularly bold and telling. Sixteen-year-old Franzen’s declaration, “I didn’t know who I was or why I was and that I didn’t show my love to my parents,” was poignant and, perhaps, first sketches of both The Corrections and Freedom, novels that, among their many preoccupations, send-up and investigate his parents and the familial unit at large.
I originally approached the article for Franzen’s commentary on David Foster Wallace, which didn’t disappoint. Franzen’s intimated that, “[Wallace] was lovable the way a child is lovable.” The article’s veracity forced me to consider a source of my own literary embarrassment: that I’d considered Franzen’s pillars, The Corrections and Freedom, to be lovable inasmuch as a child was lovable. The marriages and the characters in them, in both novels, felt like looking into a convex mirror. They were either too dissimilar (Enid’s fear that her children were changing ethically in The Corrections didn’t exactly strike a chord), or they were eerily similar (Freedom‘s Walter and Patty’s sensibilities and politics matched up with mine although their dysfunction seemed prescriptive of not only where nice guys will finish but how). The characters I loved were the kids that, invariably, found themselves in quelling their malaise through international schemes (Freedom‘s Joey in Iraq; The Corrections‘ Chip in Lithuania). Empathy is a crucial part of any realist (hysterical or otherwise) fiction, so in my conflicted feelings toward the protagonists of these books, I suspected I wasn’t showing love to my literary parents. Winning Percentage: 16%. Current Streak: 1.
Game 172: The fear that I had entered into a meta-Solitaire state where the goal was to prove to myself that I was, in fact, a player capable of winning 16-percent of my games grew rapidly. I could string together two wins in a row, but just as easily lose five. My strategy changed from an attacking approach where every card that could be moved, must be moved into a crafty tact that had one rule: don’t self-sabotage. If the only ace available was an ace of diamonds, each card in the diamond suite was privileged so that diamonds remained unfettered.
One learned the proper name of the deck, “waste,” the section parallel to the deck where the aces go, “the foundation,” and where the cards are sorted, “the tableau.” One had also posited that the term “tableau” and the pronoun “one” seemed to have a symbiotic relationship.
When my research into the strategies of the game produced nothing—there were no strategies—I thought of days when I played solitaire regularly, as a middle school kid in the heyday of the 56k modem. This proved to be more frustrating as not only could I not remember any possible tactics, I couldn’t even vividly describe the sounds of logging onto my 56k modem. Maybe the caterwauls and screeching of signing onto my Juno account, or maybe NetZero, meant being met with unintelligible noises, something like an elderly couple approaching the pop culture references in Juno if they stumbled upon it on Netflix? Not vivid enough, I thought, and anachronistic to boot. Winning Percentage: 16%. Current Streak: 2.
Game 203: If you find yourself befallen by an unprecedented losing streak, just know that stomping is not the remedy—I’ve taken this method in doses and, trust me, it’s not even a placebo. When I considered how long it’d take me to beat Franzen, the subtitle to Wallace’s math book came to mind: A Compact History of Infinity. Winning Percentage: 12%. Current Streak: negative 22.
Game 215: After 34 consecutive losses, a win materialized. I suspect “Defeating 16-Year-Old Jonathan Franzen at Journal Taking” would have been a wiser endeavor. Winning Percentage: 11%. Current Streak: 1.
Game 300: Four of my top five high scores were posted on the same day. The game is indeed about streaks of wins and losses and getting better doesn’t make losing any less frustrating. Had Franzen mastered the only hobby that shared the same qualities of being a writer? That is, it required that you sit and, despite one’s talents, incur losses before you made any headway. Or that winning meant rewriting; the tableau, the waste, and the foundation used the same cards and the trouble was arranging them in the correct order—the work exists, Solitaire says, now, what do you want to do? And if you want to write something different or vital, winning wasn’t enough; the goal was to win consecutive games in a row, to “surf the streaks of wins and losses.” Winning Percentage: 16%. Current Streak: 4.
Game 325: This is the game that exists in the present tense. It remains untouched, the time and score frozen at zero. The layout is a rare one, in that there are no moves to make on the original tableau. Having lost 13 in a row, I don’t think this is the start of my nine-game winning streak.
Though, like Chip or Joey, I, too, am a schemer. If it takes another 300 games, all’s well. You can’t make corrections without first having some margin of error.
—Photo Collin Allen/Flickr