Brian Oliu, Leave Luck to Heaven, Uncanny Valley Press, 2014

Reviewed by Will Slattery

[Review Guidelines]

Brian Oliu's lyric essay collection Leave Luck to Heaven is a song, of sorts, to youth & loss mediated through the trappings of 8-bit video games. It's not a march—there's no celebration, no triumph, no gleeful return to afternoons of devouring post-school snacks and mashing buttons in front of a basement television. Nor is it a waltz—too oblique, too large, too difficult, too opaque for that. We're carried through a constantly expanding sequence of houses that empty and vanish, dreams thwarted by quiet reality, loves that don't quite ever work out the way we expect, funerals that we can't know how to respond to, and scenes that we just barely realize we don't understand.
     Maybe, then, it's a threnody, but one chopped & screwed. A sequence in which the jaunty waving arms of late-80s video game sprites are splayed out, ripped off, refracted, recurred, and then worked anew into a tapestry of softly pleasing heartache.


Each essay in this collection shares the name of a video game or an element from them. But Oliu's essays aren't about video games. They don't comment on them. They borrow their tropes and then remake them. They embody a monster or a hero or a flash of pixels just long enough to metamorphose a childhood memory into an adult eulogy.
     Consider "Dragon Warrior". It reworks the back-and-forth relentlessly turn-based action of the titular video game through tight syntactical repetition:

I go then you go then I wait. Little is known about anything except the ancestry that exists only in exposition, in rumors spit forth in white text by old men who all look the same...Once we are finished something will be revealed other than my name, shortened by restraints in characters and character, a name rendered obsolete. I go and then you go then I go then you run. At the end of things I am asked a question that I answer incorrectly and I am killed. The colors change when I am about to die and they change when I am dead. You talk to me about leaves. You talk to me about how beautiful it is when they die. You send me a letter in the mail with dead leaves and you ask me if I miss the colors and I say yes and this is all I say.

     And so the steady rhythm of a tin-clad knight hacking at a gelatinous monster gives us an elliptical circuit, one which just barely dips near the intertwining of desire and failure at the heart of it all.


If this book were the hero of an iconic video game—an avatar whose electronic actions are punched in through a menu—then instead of the traditional options of


we would get something more like




Houses, senses of self, girls, monsters, syntactical elongations, deaths (esp. of family), references to flowerbeds, senses of other, hearts, ghosts, reoccurring phrases which build a sense of familiar dread like a foreboding mantra, romantic losses, points at which you can save your game and turn the console off without losing progress, quiet and bearable failures, ninjas, Chekhovian shifts in perception during which multiple individuals simultaneously realize that a thing has been made impossible or was never possible to begin with, fruit, changes in the background music, neckties, and letters.

The essay "Rampage" tells us that we are a destructive monster: an unlicensed King Kong knock-off, an unlicensed Godzilla knock-off, or a wholly original blue-and-gray building-sized werewolf named Ralph. We are to "take the naked woman from the shower and pop her into your mouth" and chew as we climb buildings, punch through walls, rip open skyscrapers, and rain down rubble. But the images don't stop piling up, and as they pile, the tone of the essay shifts: planes are plucked from the air, buildings gape open like mouths prepped for jaw surgery, businessmen shuffle up and down stairs because "it's safer in buildings than it is on the ground", and people fall through the air "like champagne pouring down a flute". The imperative you swells and then collapses into a single I who wants to grab the people she knows and hold them in her mouth to protect them from urban catastrophe, to keep them warm and safe, secure if only for a little while, like Darwin with his beetles.


You are the player. You are one of many players. You are a girl, in distress. You are you. You are a boy preparing for his grandfather's funeral. You are a party of adventurers on a quest. You are the monsters that will be killed by a party of adventurers. You are reflexive, general, a way of saying "one". You are an American. You are a girl, not in distress. You are a boss. You are the theme music for a boss battle. You are a house. You are a sequence of houses. You are a love dimly remembered.

     We are there as well, but with a little less frequency than you, as in the one-line essay ">>>":

We were in love until we reached the end.

     But the most viscerally pleasing sections are those where the roving subjects settle and coalesce after so much expansion and contraction. After 45 essays, three different rounds of sparring with the video game series Ninja Gaiden, and 5 boss battles & accompanying shifts in music we get the following painfully simple, understated recognition of loss, of failure without blame in "Boss Battle: The Girl I Was Supposed to Save":

When I arrived the music changed—
and so did you.


Leave Luck to Heaven is like that moment when you drink something too fast or step too quickly out into the winter and a finger of cold traces the curve at the back of your eye before pressing solidly slowly down on it: painful, unflinching, pleasing, inevitable.