REVIEW: The Elfish Gene by Mark Barrowcliffe

Having immersed myself to the point of diminishing returns in the story of Gary Gygax and TSR, I have recently been enjoying thinking about the differences between US and UK RPG culture and how Britain reacted to the invention of RPGs.

My first attempt to investigate the question was somewhat frustrating as Livingstone and Jackson’s Dice Men turned out to be a desperately mundane business memoir by a very nice man who made some money selling table-top games only to then go on and make a whole lot more money making and selling video games. I don’t regret reading Dice Men, it was interesting in its own way but I realise if I am going to make any inroads into the history of the British RPG scene, I really need to look at histories written by obsessive nerds and those are precisely the words that spring to mind when I think of Mark Barrowcliffe’s rather charming memoir The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons, and Growing up Strange.

My first reaction to Barrowcliffe’s book was bafflement at the fact that it got published in the first place. Nowadays, Barrowcliffe is an established figure in British SFF who has written a string of rather splendid wolf-themed historic fantasies under the name M.D. Lachlan as well as a more recent novel about an alternative history of the moon landings that looks rather fun. However, Elfish Gene pre-dates all of that by some time and comes instead from a period where Barrowcliffe was writing comic novels.

Barrowcliffe’s Wikipedia page mentions that he was briefly positioned as a ‘lad-lit’ author and so I wonder whether Elfish Gene might not have been an attempt to shuffle into the kind of territory that was once dominated by male authors of the long-90s like Nick Hornby. The difference being that while Hornby made a fortune writing about listening to music and watching football, Barrowcliffe produced a memoir about being an eerily obsessive little nerd who spent all of his time playing D&D and reading fantasy novels.

The problem is that while Hornby wrote about ‘obsessives’ he wrote about obsessives whose interests fell well within the boundaries of what has always considered acceptable male behaviour. Barrowcliffe instead chose to write about an activity that was deeply uncool and borderline suspicious in both the 1970s and the mid-to-late 2000s when this book was first published.

As with David M. Ewalt’s intermittently biographical Of Dice and Men, writing about RPGs at a time when their cultural stock in down has resulted in a book that feels ambivalent and apologetic to the point of being shame-faced. It’s not that these writers regret the fact that they spent their teenaged years playing D&D; it’s more that they are eager to let their readers know that they a) grew out of it, b) don’t do it anymore, and c) gave it up in order to go off and have proper sex with actual real-life girls.

As is so often the case with these kinds of shame-faced protestations, what is supposed to be an assertion of strength and maturity actually comes across as a sign of closed-mindedness, weakness, and moral cowardice. For starters, the primary market for fantasy novels has always been women so the idea that being into this ‘type of stuff’ is antithetical to meeting women is and always has been nonsense. There have always been female gamers and even if their numbers have historically been rather low, that absence has always been a result of male gamers choosing to exclude them from their social spaces. Turn most well-read women in their 30s and 40s upside down and chances are that an awkward teenager with a bag full of Terry Pratchett and Marion Zimmer Bradley novels will come tumbling out.

Even if male sexual maturity and gaming were somehow incompatible, I would argue that the problem here is not the awkward, whimsical and borderline obsessive identities foisted upon people by gaming culture; It’s the narrow and oppressive nature of the identities that society makes available to cis-het men and the reluctance of well-educated middle-class blokes to stray even a single step from the path of bourgeois respectability.

Both Ewalt and Barrowcliffe walked away from RPGs because they wanted to be basic bourgeois bitches and both of them eventually came crawling back to it when they had a book to write. Indeed, one of the more amusing codicils to this book is that while it ends with Barrowcliffe walking away from a gaming-session halfway through because he doesn’t want to have to deal with obsessive nerds, the career move that followed the publication of this book was to re-invent himself as a fantasy and science-fiction author. The big difference between Ewalt and Barrowcliffe is that while both men seem amusingly reluctant to admit that they still love this nerdy shit and regret leaving it behind, Barrowcliffe is at least willing to accept that he has the capacity to make mistakes and that low-key pathos really humanises the book and opens up vistas of human experience that are far more interesting than ‘I was a teenaged geek’. Look beyond the dice and the Hawkwind LPs and you’ll find a book with quite a bit to say about loneliness, conformity, and the oppressively conservative nature of male-dominated social groupings.

The Elfish Gene is first and foremost a funny book. The tone is set quite early on when the D&D-obsessed Mark goes on holiday with the family of someone he hasn’t been hanging around with much since discovering D&D. Despite being quite young, this friend has girls on the mind and winds up snogging some local girl at a bus stop. When said girl’s friend looks to Mark and expects the same, Mark is unable to cope and so tries to ‘woo’ her in the style of a third rate romance novel: Lots of “my lady” and not nearly enough snogging.

Mark is an unceasingly upbeat and cheerily naïve presence and so a lot of the comedy revolves around the way that his naivety and obsession with D&D running keep forcing him to run face first into the wall of reality. Nowhere is this more evident than in his dealings with the other D&D nerds who go to his school.

Aside from being ever-so-slightly older than Mark, a lot of these boys come across as horrible even by the standards of teenaged boys. A couple of them are self-professed Nazis and the rest of them are proto-Tories who idolise posh people and lie about their own more humble backgrounds. Barrowcliffe does try to engage with the question of social class and the way that a lot of the nastier kids seem to come from privileged backgrounds but the thread kind of dissolves and the focus always returns to the way that Mark spent ages battering his head against a closed social group only to be met with first aggression, then scorn, and then a kind of belligerent tolerance.

It’s not just that these older kids hate Mark (and refer to him by the charming nickname ‘Spaz’) while he wants nothing more than to be in their game, Barrowcliffe describes his relationship with one of the boys as a weird kind of love, an obsessive crush born of hero worship that is so one-sided that at times the cringe becomes quite difficult to read.

While Barrowcliffe does provide some context and commentary on his memories, the book tends to stay quite close to young Mark’s perspective meaning that the decision to deliberately exclude Mark from the group is treated more as an emotionally difficult puzzle than as a social dynamic worthy of commentary. What commentary there is on this dynamic is present more by implication than statement; Show don’t tell and all that.

The implication starts to drift into view when young Mark hears of a war-gaming group that meets on the other side of town. At first, he is disappointed as the games on offer tend be all about Napoleonic miniatures but after a couple of visits he discovers another group who seem delighted to have him. A group dominated by the presence of Billy.

It’s here that the book’s emotional economy starts to get interesting as though Barrowcliffe describes Mark’s relationship with Andy (the lad who refused to let him join his campaign) in terms of love, Mark’s relationship with Billy seems a lot more positive and affectionate. In fact, the two older boys are conspicuous opposites: Andy is dark-haired, surly, and emotionally repressed while Billy is large, blond, witty, and joyous. Forever smoking and waving his hands around, Billy is extroverted and inclusive in a way that Andy is not.

The opposition between Andy and Billy is complicated by the fact that while Andy identifies as a Nazi (part of a self-proclaimed ‘Black Triumvirate’); Billy identifies as a socialist despite having a father who is a member of the 1970s neo-fascist political party the National Front. The Elfish Gene is not a political book and the boys’ political leanings arguably have more to do with some wanting to appear edgy while others are more well-read and earnest, but it’s interesting to note that the book is set at a time when the post-War consensus was starting to break down and Thatcherism was looming on the horizons. Despite coming from a range of backgrounds, the more ambitious kids at Mark’s school all instinctively identify with either the Tories or the fascists while the far less driven Billy is cheerfully Marxist and happy to defend his corner against all comers.

When Andy’s group implodes, Mark invites him to join his new group without a second thought and so Andy and Billy wind up being in the same group. This grouping forms the emotional focus for the book’s second act but while Barrowcliffe makes it clear that Andy and Billy hated each other, he’s oddly reluctant to either widen his view to take in the entire group or drill down into his own feelings about the conflict. This refusal to contextualise the conflict in either social or psychological terms results in the book’s big dramatic moment feeling rather under-cooked.

The problem is structured in terms of what is essentially a heterosexual love triangle involving three boys. Mark loves Andy and adores Billy but Andy and Billy absolutely hate each other. This conflict simmers for a while until eventually resulting in a massive blow-up that has Billy walk not only out of the session and the group but also out of Mark’s life. Mark does not defend his friend, nor does he show any signs of resenting Andy’s poor behaviour despite the fact that he was upset when that same behaviour was applied to him.

Barrowcliffe does accept that this decision casts him in a rather poor light but the closest he comes to explaining it is that Andy happened to go to the same school. He then goes on to say that when rows happen, you don’t always get to pick a side because sometimes the side picks you. This I found to be a really interesting comment as ‘picking sides’ is one of the few areas in life where we do have complete agency. We always have a choice, we always get to pick and choose sides… what we don’t get to pick and choose is the consequences of our actions and the truth is that when the chips were down, Mark chose an abusive one-sided relationship with a Nazi over a positive and encouraging relationship with someone who genuinely seemed to appreciate his company.

It is worth remembering that The Elfish Gene is supposed to be a light and funny book but I do find it rather frustrating that the book is built around a set of emotional dynamics and, when those dynamics result in a major confrontation, the writer winds up just shrugging his shoulders and scratching his head. I think that reluctance to engage with real emotions goes some way to explaining why this book has faded from view in the decade and a bit since its publication.

Given the cultural climate around the time when The Elfish Gene was first published and the fact that Barrowcliffe was associated with something called ‘Lad-lit’, I don’t think it unreasonable to compare this book to the likes of Hornby’s High Fidelity. High Fidelity works because it understands the role of humour in deflecting emotional hardships; the book opens with the record store owner going back over his past romantic mistakes while bantering with the lads who work in his shop. The lads in the shop not only serve to position the protagonist in an emotional spectrum (‘he’s less of a sensitive nerd than that bloke, but less of an egoistic nightmare than that one’), they also give the readers a bit of emotional distance from the Real Talk. The narrator is separate from his friends but knows them really well… he makes jokes about them but the jokes contain real truths. This leitmotif is kind of a microcosm for the entire book as it’s about two thirds jokes and pop culture references to one third serious emotional lifting as it is eventually revealed that the jokes and the romantic misunderstandings all come from the protagonist’s fear of death and commitment; a set of fears that have pushed him to do some really awful things.

The difference between The Elfish Gene and High Fidelity is that The Elfish Gene shies away from the emotional heavy lifting of that final act. Rather than recognising that he’d made a load of bad decisions and allowed a horrid little cunt to mistreat someone who had been a positive force in his life, Barrowcliffe simply shrugs his shoulders and writes a concluding chapter about how he’s glad he’s not a nerd anymore because now he gets to have sex with ladies. That was an authorial mistake, an emotional flinch, and a retreat into comfortable 1990s social stereotypes that ultimately resulted in a far less interesting and thoughtful book.

The Elfish Gene is not a bad book. It’s funny, it’s charming, and it does a pretty good job of capturing not just a particular era in gaming history but also the wildly dysfunctional groups that it supported at the time. I don’t regret reading it and I finished it pretty quickly but while this is a pretty decent book it could have been a great one and that more thoughtful, honest, and introspective piece of writing hangs over The Elfish Gene like the spectre of a socially-excluded communist.

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