In an earlier post on “Eisenheim the Illusionist” by Steven Millhauser (March 25, 2015), I explored the theme of “all may not be as it seems.” Appearances can be deceiving. In “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” deception is shown to be at the heart, not only of the magician’s art, but of life itself.
In Millhauser’s “A Game of Clue,” two brothers, their sister, and the older brother’s girlfriend sit around a table playing the famous board game. What could be more mundane? But, “all may not be as it seems.” While appearing to be simply playing the game, all four characters are caught up in their own private psychological dramas. Jacob is angry about his failing career and rocky relationship; Marion is angry at Jacob for being late to the family gathering to celebrate their brother’s birthday and for bringing his girlfriend unannounced; David, turning 15 and preoccupied with sexual fantasies, secretly wants time alone with his big brother; and Susan simply wants to be accepted by Jacob’s family.
Meanwhile, on the game board, as they move from room to room, the suspects play out their own private dramas. Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet are engaged in a game of seduction; Professor Plum is getting lost in the secret passageways; Mr. Green is paralyzed with social anxiety; Mrs. White is mourning the death of her murdered lover; and Mrs. Peacock, while pretending to console her friend, is harboring a dark secret.
The murder mystery is popular entertainment, in fiction and film, on stage and television, as well as in puzzles and games. Perhaps our attraction to this genre is a displacement of our own anxiety about death. Though there is no real life murder mystery in the lives of the players, the brothers and sister are worried about their father’s health, though they avoid discussing it. After all “It’s David’s birthday.” It’s fine to play a murder mystery game, but heaven forbid that the shadow of actual death should spoil the occasion.
Similarly, while a murder has occurred just the night before, only Mrs. White seems to have it on her mind. Colonel Mustard and Miss Scarlet are preoccupied with their own sexual game, just as David cannot stop thinking about women’s bodies as he plays the game of Clue; Professor Plum is lost in his own world of secret passageways, just as Jacob is faraway in his own private world of personal failure; Mr. Green is stuck in a social situation in which he seems unable to act, just as Susan is trying to navigate the social dynamics of Jacob’s unfamiliar family; and Mrs. Peacock is guarding her secret, just as Marion (and the rest) put on their public “game” faces while harboring their secret attractions, resentments, fears, frustrations, jealousies, hostilities, even homicidal thoughts.
Just as the secret passageways are not visible on the game board, so a dark, psychic labyrinth lurks beneath the surface of both the players and the suspects.
The whole story is a multi-layered representation of a Freudian drama in which characters disguise and deny their id-driven pursuits of pleasure and power, their ego-driven rationalizations, and their superego-driven repressions and avoidance. The surface may appear innocent, but the depths reveal our conflicted, ambiguous, chaotic psychic realities.
At another level, Millhauser inserts periodic descriptions of the bare, physical facts of the room, the table, and the game board, as if to suggest how facts merely scratch the surface of truth. Just as appearances can be mere illusions that hide reality, so observable facts can be irrelevant to hidden truths.
The story seems to move toward a redemptive conclusion, as the game moves closer to its end, the mystery is about to be solved, and the players join together in a mutual sharing of birthday wishes for David, but in the Freudian world there is no redemption. The ongoing psychic conflict is never-ending, mysteries persist, and the sense of redemption is just another illusion, perhaps the greatest of all.