Jenny Bitner: Here Is a Game We Could Play (2022) | featured image

Hypochondria Sets the Rules for ‘Here Is a Game We Could Play’

Hypochondria, obsession, and confusion set the rules for a love affair in Jenny Bitner’s excellent debut novel, Here Is a Game We Could Play.

Here Is a Game We Could Play
Jenny Bitner
May 2021

Jenny Bitner’s debut novel, Here Is a Game We Could Play, is a tour de force, a swirl of fantasies within a scaffolding of obsession, insecurity, poisoning, loneliness, longing, and humiliation, all layered over the complex trilogy of food-sex-death and the narrator’s fear of each. It is also very funny. 

Claudia, the eccentric narrator in her mid-20s, addresses the reader directly as the perfect potential lover she is searching for. At this point, the perfect lover is only a concept, someone of unformed shape and gender who would love to play the games Claudia offers. But Claudia offers more than games. She also serves up a concoction of hypochondria, paranoia, confusion as to her sexual identity, and obsession with being poisoned and accidentally poisoning others. 

Above all, she offers her complete, and risky, honesty. Before we reach page six of Here Is a Game We Could Play, we find Claudia telling her potential lover, the reader, that there “is one thing I want – to be painfully honest.  I won’t lie or omit details just so you will love me.” She follows this rule assiduously. 

It is the ‘90s, and Claudia lives near a polluted river amid hulking industrial behemoths long abandoned in the rust-belt Pennsylvania town where she was born. She works a dead-end job, spending her free time in the town library, where she develops a crush on a library worker – a recently widowed volunteer in his 80s. In a poignant set piece that readers are unlikely to forget, Claudia spends an evening in his home and brings a video of Harold and Maude.  

Then along comes Rose, the library’s new hire. Claudia and Rose take a stroll along the river, and before long, Claudia spends most of her off-hours in Rose’s home and – after curling up on Rose’s bathroom floor with what Claudia thinks is either acute food poisoning or a bout of nerves – in Rose’s bed for the first time. Her confusion over her sexual identity is quickly resolved.

The throughline concerning poisoning is illustrative of the narrator’s character. Claudia tells us that “poison is all about the dose” and so “everything is a little bit poisonous.” She is particularly concerned about Mad Cow Disease, and when Rose prepares hamburgers for dinner, Claudia demurs. “I’m a little afraid of the food,” she confesses to Rose, who is startled and suggests that Claudia simply eat the other food Rose has prepared.  

Claudia, however, isn’t done; she thinks about Rose’ eating her hamburger, about having to watch Rose “turning into a terrible invalid, losing her mind and dying…maybe they’ll have to come and put a straitjacket on her.” We watch as it dawns on Rose that she may be dealing with more than cute quirks. She asks Claudia, “how often do you get like this?”  

The bulk of Here Is a Game We Could Play is the arc of a love affair. Rose and Claudia enthusiastically play their bedroom games, but soon Claudia’s other, more edgy games (‘let’s tell each other our worst truth’) and her incessant talk of dark dreams cause Rose to say, “You’re a little eccentric, aren’t you? …I like that about you.” Rose is game to help Claudia work through her idiosyncrasies, but more serious foibles surface. Claudia’s poison paranoia and her self-defeating jealousy soon come bubbling up, and she ties them together when she admits to herself that “love has poisoned me with jealousy.” 

Throughout Here Is a Game We Could Play runs a murder mystery that is at the root of Claudia’s problems. The mystery is whether there has been a murder at all.  

It is often the downfall of a debut novel’s narrative structure that plot points are separated by lengthy stretches of filler exposition, unnecessary description, or other tangential material. In Bitner’s debut, the plot points are indeed separated by lengthy stretches, but these are the heart and soul of Here Is a Game We Could Play, the mother lode from which we mine the vignette gems that inform the reader’s understanding of this honest and anxious narrator. It is here, in the interstices, that we become aware of the granular backstory of Claudia’s idiosyncratic fears and obsessions, leavened with unexpected doses of humor. 

It is in these gaps that we are exposed to the panoply of Claudia’s fantasies and fears, her picturing herself and her loved ones lying dead, her notebook of articles relating to poisoning, her dreams and fantasies of hospitals, of abandonment (with a witch) in the deep forest and of young girls falling into wells, of (detailed) sex with aliens and of Rose’s hands as “floating ghosts”. These are the honest offerings that satisfy her dire, self-fulfilling prophesies.

Even as she realizes the danger, Claudia does not hold back in disclosing to her lover (the real and the sought-after) her fraught inner life. Bitner’s language is beautifully wrought (but not overwrought). Her debut is highly imaginative in its form and framing, yet deftly controlled. Here Is a Game We Could Play stands, in the end, as a critique of pure honesty. 

RATING 8 / 10