I have been known, when the planets are aligned, to make the sweetcorn chowder from Nigella Express, which is Nigella’s best book even if I wonder if it would kill her to season things now and then. Anyway, it is a treat to make and a treat to eat – although I warn you in advance to give it time to cool, since sweetcorn, it transpires, has a capacity to retain heat that is almost singular amongst cooking materials.
The chowder itself is mainly a business of blitzing and then stirring on the hob, but as an accompaniment Nigella suggests nachos baked in the oven, and it was while baking these nachos the other day that I discovered that my oven makes the treasure chest noise from Fortnite.
What a mixture this noise conjures within me. Opportunity, certainly, for loot. And truly, there is a mysteriously avaricious note to the shimmering sound that alerts you to the fact that a chest is nearby. But avarice is never simple. I have lost many games of Fornite specifically because I have found one chest in the attic of an old house, and then discovered, once it has been opened, that I can still hear the sound. This must mean that there is another chest nearby, and regardless of how little I may need it, I cannot leave it undiscovered. So I will tear the house apart, wall by wall, floor by floor, until the storm engulfs me or I am shotgunned in the back while attempting to construct a ladder in the shattered remains of a bathroom in order to access a promising hole in the ceiling.
This sound, in other words, is perfect. It simply will not be denied. When I started to hear it in my own house, it had much the same effect on me that it does when I hear it in a house in a match. I had to find out what was causing it. I had to find it and silence it.
And it was the oven. Something, I think, to do with the fan and a harmonious excitation of a baking tray that the fan set humming against a wire rack. It was strange to think that the oven had probably always made this sound, registering, if at all, on the most pedantic edge of hearing. Fortnite had simply made me listen to it, by investing it with meaning.
I mention this because recently a friend sent me Pulphead, a collection of articles by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and it has absolutely taken over my day-to-day thoughts. There is so much to say about Sullivan’s work, but I will limit myself here to furious admiration – and admiring fury – at how regularly he finds the perfect word for something.
Reading him is like watching someone sink an endless run of corner shots, I think. And this is even more thrilling because the perfect words are not ten-cent words. More often than not they are ordinary words, and simply extremely well deployed. He knows that typewriter keys, if the machine is old enough and the paper sufficiently thick, land with a “slap-slap.” Pages earlier, and in the same piece, he describes how cave crickets “pop” around him and land with a “click”. It is almost too perfect, and it does what a certain kind of perfect writing does: it keeps the thought alive, because it is simply too satisfying to set aside.
Is the treasure chest sound in Fortnite another example of the perfect word phenomenon? I think it might be, and the reason lies with the fact that it is impossible – often terminally impossible – for me to resist. The sniper sound effect is possibly another perfect word thing, a nice bit of theatre this, because it contains in its echo a hint of the landscape the bullet travels through, a hint of canyons and wilderness and lonely, rattling spaces. (I gather it is a lift from Halo.) I wonder, sometimes, if this is how to approach certain games, to move in close on the details, just as some writers make you hover in the glinting air just above their sentences. Move in close and see all the things that fit perfectly in place – and that will probably, as a result, be able to shift from the world of the game and into the world around you. Into the kitchen, for example, where there is soup waiting.