Tribute to growing up pains

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak (above) has an in-story game, replete with 1980s-style graphics, which can be played on his website.
The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak (above) has an in-story game, replete with 1980s-style graphics, which can be played on his website.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Jason Rekulak's debut novel is a coming-of-age caper which sees three high-school misfits trying to steal a Playboy magazine

At a time when #nerd and #throwback posts are hugely celebrated on social media comes The Impossible Fortress, an irrepressible novel that transports the reader back to the balmy pre-Internet days of 1987.

In his debut novel, Jason Rekulak makes many contemporaneous references that, frankly, elude me as I was born in the same year.

Still, I deeply appreciated the nostalgia, with a Super Mario-esque computer game taking centre stage in a novel that pays tribute to the heyday of the defunct Atari games.

Rekulak, 45, is a first-time writer, but is no greenhorn in the fiction industry, boasting a keen eye for idiosyncratic novels as the publisher of Quirk books.

The company is behind such titles as Pride And Prejudice And Zombies (Seth Grahame-Smith, 2009) and Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs, 2011), both of which have been adapted into movies.


  • The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak (above) has an in-story game, replete with 1980s-style graphics, which can be played on his website.THE IMPOSSIBLE FORTRESS

    By Jason Rekulak

    Faber & Faber/ Paperback/ 272 pages/$28.84/ Books Kinokuniya

    3/5 stars

The Impossible Fortress, which does not dive into the supernatural, is a down-to-earth bittersweet coming-of-age tribute to puppy love, awkward teenage years and growing up pains.

The story revolves around three high-school misfits Billy, Alf and Clark, who contrive to steal a copy of Playboy magazine featuring Vanna White - of Wheel Of Fortune fame - in the buff on its cover.

But their mission is fraught with obstacles, given that they are underage, and that the only store in their sleepy town that stocks the magazine places it behind the counter. The store is run by the perpetually grouchy Mr Zelinsky who employs a robust security system.

Yet, they harbour entrepreneurial dreams of photocopying the pictures and reselling the copies to their schoolmates for a quick buck.

At the same time, Billy, who has terrible grades, but is a budding computer game designer, strikes a friendship with Mr Zelinsky's daughter, Mary. She convinces him to enter his game - the titular The Impossible Fortress - into a competition to win a new computer.

The inherent geekiness is embedded in each chapter, which opens with basic computer code language.

And there are parallels between the computer game being designed, featuring a prince facing great peril to rescue his trapped princess, and the Operation Vanna heist, where the three boys face hurdles, including a dog named Arnold Schwarzenegger - as they try to get hold of the risque mgazine.

Their far-fetched larceny, however, makes it difficult to root for the juvenile characters who are also either perpetrators or victims of such real issues today as peer pressure, fat-shaming and bullying.

And the lack of character development leading to the equally improbable climax, made for a one-dimensional narrative.

What is notable is that even as the book was set in the past, its marketing drive has an eye on the future.

The book was launched at the London edition of the Comic Con pop culture expo last July and there is a curated Spotify playlist with a 1980s soundtrack to accompany the book.

Interestingly, The Impossible Fortress in-story game - replete with 1980s-style graphics - can also be played on Rekulak's website at

If you liked this, read: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Arrow Books, 2012, $15.95, Books Kinokuniya). Set in a dystopian future, people live within a virtual reality simulator in which clues to a huge bounty have been left behind by its creator.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2017, with the headline 'Tribute to growing up pains'. Print Edition | Subscribe