The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak
Undoubtedly operating in the shadow of Ernest Cline’s 80’s nostalgia-fest Ready Player One, debut author Jason Rekulak offers The Impossible Fortress. It’s the story of a high-school nerd with a knack for video game design who engages in adolescent hijinks with his two pals, and falls in love along the way. For those captivated by the works of Cline and the recent Netflix hit Stranger Things, this novel is sure to satisfy. It doesn’t attempt the ambitious world-building of Ready Player One, in favor of a grounded, charming tale of suburban adolescence in the Reagan years. Whether you lived through the era of Duran Duran or not, there’s a fun (if imperfect) tale on offer.
High-schooler Billy Marvin and his two buddies share an obsession for Wheel of Fortune vixen Vanna White. As the newest edition of Playboy features her in the centerfold spread (remember the 80s, when Playboy had nudity?), the trio’s prime directive is securing a copy by any means necessary. In planning a nighttime heist to steal the magazine from a local convenience store, Billy is elected to obtain the building’s alarm-deactivation code by befriending Mary, the shop manager’s daughter, in order to con the digits out of her. It just so happens Mary shares an equal passion for video game design, so he continually consults her for assistance with an ongoing project as an elaborate pretext to gain her trust.
We’ve been here before: Male X befriends Girl Y as a means of acquiring Goal Z. If girl Y discovers it was all really about goal Z, will Male X be able to persuade her that it started as a con, but he developed genuine feelings and admiration for her along the way? As this recognizable plot arc materializes, you may wonder if we’re headed toward cliche village. Yet somehow, The Impossible Fortress generally feels fresh and fun.
This is so because the story’s core isn’t actually about the acquisition of pornography, but rather about the duo’s passionate interest in video game design. The care and creativity with which Billy crafts his creations is meaningfully endearing. Once Mary’s revealed as a superior programmer with a lot to teach him, the chemistry of their creative sessions is enough to overcome the slapstick buffoonery of the magazine heist plot. She’s the positive beacon for him in the midst of his struggles to fit in at school, satisfy his mother’s expectations, and determine a path forward for how he’ll one day contribute to the economy.
This book makes no secret that it is set in 1987, which adds a distinctive layer of charm. This certainly fits in with the recent wave of 80s nostalgia brought on by Stranger Things. The retro-premise works most in its examination of how tools for game designers were once so limited—minimal graphics, miniscule processing power, and the grind of utilizing the elementary ASCII code set. But through such restraints, come delightful expressions of creativity.
The 80s-factor is, however, at times stretched thin by the references to media and culture that pepper the text. Occasionally, Rekulak interpolates a paragraph-length summary of the day’s current headlines, with no meaningful connection to the narrative. It’s just a way of shouting to the reader, “Hey look, it’s the 80s! Remember Reagan?” Cassette mixtape playlists are detailed, and symbolic integration is absent in favor of pop culture name dropping. Ernest Cline at least found ways to integrate Rush, War Games, Pac Man, and Family Ties into his plot; Rekulak’s nods are merely token.
The Impossible Fortress isn’t fine literature, but makes no attempt to be, yet never bores the reader with YA-level stale prose. Its ostensible plot is surely the novel’s weak point. While the Playboy magazine at first appears to be a starter Macguffin designed to introduce the main characters, it ends up consuming a substantial portion of the story. The novel’s final third is driven by a separate mission which is ultimately just a similar infiltration caper, largely devoid of laughs or meaningful thematic development.
The book’s closing phases do provide some layer of redemption, and Rekulak is brave enough not to indulge a perfect happily-ever-after. Through the vehicle of Mary, the book initially flirts with themes of feminism and body shaming, but due to some plot twist detours, it never really delivers. Nonetheless, even though The Impossible Fortress treads a familiar era with a plotline that breaks no new ground, there’s still a lot of fun to be found in many of its chapters. It would make for a great family movie, and stands firmly on its storytelling merits found in Billy’s creative drive in an emerging technological art scene.