The Word Is Murder, or, Write What You Know

Anthony Horowitz’s detective story “The Word Is Murder” is a page-turner, in both directions

Cover of The Word Is Murder via Goodreads

I started reading The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz knowing absolutely nothing about it going in, apart from the fact that I loved reading his book Magpie Murders last year.

I honestly can’t tell whether it was the fact I went it cold that gave me the feeling of surprise, delight, and discovery I had when going through the first half of the book. So I’m reluctant to say too much about it, because I don’t know what could be considered a “spoiler.”

So I’ll start with my summation and just say that I recommend it to anyone looking for a well-written, somewhat “old-fashioned” detective story. For fans of Magpie Murders, it’s a no-brainer. That book felt more ambitious with its central conceit — and honestly, I think it’s a little better — but there’s the same appeal for anyone who wants to get lost in a twisting, turning murder mystery told with cleverness and confidence. For fans of the British TV murder mysteries that Horowitz writes when not doing novels, it’s an easy recommendation.

To talk about why it’s so clever, I’ve got to talk about the main conceit of the book, which doesn’t become completely clear until the second chapter. I won’t mention any details of the mystery itself, but that process of gradually making sense of what was happening was fun, and I’d hate to ruin it for anyone.

If Magpie Murders was like Scream and Scream 2, I guess The Word Is Murder is more like a more conventional Adaptation. Or maybe a less introspective 8 1/2. The book is a fictionalized account of writing the book, and it maintains that fiction even into the final acknowledgements.

Horowitz casts himself as the Dr Watson to a brilliant but abrasive (and pointedly homophobic, for some reason) former police detective named Daniel Hawthorne. Or at least, he tries to. Hawthorne proves to be nowhere near as interesting or engaging a character as Sherlock Holmes, and he stonewalls all of Horwitz’s attempts to find out more about him. There’s even a bit of meta-commentary on that at the beginning of the book, as Horowitz insists that they’re called “detective stories” because people want to read about an interesting detective, while Hawthorne insists that reader only care about the mystery.

So much of the book reads like a heavily fictionalized memoir, with Horowitz telling stories about his (real life) work as a writer for television and books — he mentions Foyle’s War, Poirot, his Alex Rider books, and his Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk in particular —as it relates to a murder mystery done in the style of those classic detective stories. He never breaks the conceit that he’s writing true crime non-fiction, and it’s filled with so many real-world references, that you start to wonder how much of it is fiction. Wait, is there a Tintin 2 actually in pre-production? Is this actually the name of an actor in the Star Trek movies? Does Charlie Kauffman really have an identical twin brother, and was Susan Orlean really a drug addict and attempted murderer? I found myself hopping out of the book to check IMDB or look up stuff on Wikipedia, to reassure myself what was “real.”

The Word is Murder is a page-turner in the traditional sense — Horowitz is a master of writing chapter breaks that practically force you to keep barreling through — but I just as often found myself turning backwards in the book to see what I’d missed. He rewrites the book’s opening chapter while the book is still in progress, asking us to pay closer attention to the details. And he has a particularly clever gimmick in which he’ll alert us at the end of a chapter that we’d just learned a crucial clue, and we should go back and make sure we noticed it.

Almost all of it is a joy to read. It’s kind of a marvel that it works at all, considering everything that could’ve gone wrong. For a while, I was worried that Horowitz’s frequent mentions of his CV would overwhelm the book. But he seldom makes it seem self-congratulatory, and he seems so eager to knock himself down a peg and make his fictional self seem foolish, that he ends up coming across as an affable and charming surrogate for both the reader and the author.

It was also a risk to center the story around such a cold and unlikeable character as Hawthorne, but it somehow works. I never ended up liking the character at all, but I’m still not sure I’m supposed to. I suspect that the “trick” of the book is Horowitz’s acknowledgement that readers don’t follow Sherlock Holmes stories because of Holmes; he’s ultimately just there to keep the case moving along. Readers are more interested in Watson, who’s not always two steps ahead, but is just there trying to make sense of the case along with them.

I do have a couple of complaints, and they’re related. I don’t quite feel like the case was “fair;” it’s guilty of Murder by Death syndrome, i.e., there’s too much essential information withheld from the reader until the last minute. The book is very good at establishing its red herrings, and I spent the first half certain that I knew the motive at least, until that theory was thoroughly shot down. But there’s essentially a chapter-long monologue towards the end of the book, which feels like not only Horowitz dumping a ton of research on us all at once, but introducing a motive that had never been hinted at earlier. So when, at the end of the book, Hawthorne is checking off all the important clues, I didn’t react with Ah ha! Of course I should’ve noticed that!, but instead I noticed that but had absolutely no context that would make it relevant. That chapter also wrecks the pacing of the book right before the climax, which is my second big complaint.

Still, the book is such a fun mystery story that it’s hard to find fault with it. I get the sense that Horowitz is so technically proficient and understands the genre so completely, that he imposes these layers of meta-fiction on himself to keep it interesting. And like Magpie Murders, these have the unmistakable feel of someone who’s not only good at writing for the genre, but who thoroughly loves the genre.

Two Things I Love About Piranesi

Entry for the 7th day of the 10th month in the year everything was relentlessly awful

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is an extraordinary, spectacular, wonderful book. Even among the books I’ve loved, it’s rare for me to find one that makes me feel transformed and transported as I’m reading it, in the distracting, mind-absorbing way that only literature can.

One of those was Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Clarke’s gigantic, exhaustive history of magical England. I read it years ago, while I was spending a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms, and its ability to completely absorb me and surround me in the world she’d created was a blessing of escape from anxiety. I can’t say how much of my love for that book is due to the time in which I read it, but I do know that it wasn’t just “escapism” in the sense of avoiding reality. It was being transported to another place and then returned to reality a little wiser and more perceptive than I’d been before. It’s fitting to be delivered another magical book exactly when I’m most desperately in need of escape.

One of the reasons I started writing “One Thing I Like” was, well, to keep me from rambling on too long about whatever movie or videogame or book I’d just experienced. But mainly, it was to avoid my tendency to be reductive. To stop treating art like an assignment: watch or read or play the work, analyze the narrative (if any), put it in context, pull out the “message” or the one thing that it means. To instead, talk around the experience I had with a work of art or entertainment, drawing out one aspect I particularly like to suggest why it impacted me the way it did.

I especially don’t want to be reductive with Piranesi, because the process of reading it is the source of magic in it. Although the book had a lot of pre-release buzz, apparently, I knew nothing about it other than it was the first book from Clarke in over a decade. (And that it’s surprisingly brief, especially when compared to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell). I only read enough of the synopsis to know that it involves a grand house with infinite rooms. I don’t consider it a plot-driven book; its wonder doesn’t depend entirely on its narrative surprises. But I do believe that that ignorance of what I was getting into was a huge part of the wonder of the book: that sense of intrigue and discovery that fills the first half.

Or in other words: I highly recommend it, and I strongly recommend going in cold.

I feel a little like the book was delivered as a Max Headroom-style blipvert directly into my brain, and my subconscious is still unpacking it. There are tons of things I love about it, with more revealing themselves the more I think about it, but right now two are fighting for dominance.

The first thing I love about Piranesi

First: I love the way that Clarke writes villains. Specifically, she writes villains as if they were merely antagonists.

Comparisons between Piranesi and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are inevitable, so I’m just going to lean into them. Both books are most easily categorized as “magical realism,” largely because they both focus on scientists diligently observing and documenting worlds that are too fantastic to be explained by science. One of the wonderful aspects of Jonathan Strange is how well it captures the tone of arrogant optimism of the 19th century, when there was no doubt that with enough observation, experimentation, documentation, and innovation, the unknowable could become knowable.

The protagonist of Piranesi also describes himself as a scientist, but it’s also immediately apparent that he has an unshakeable faith — he exhaustively studies and documents the wonders of the house not to render it knowable, but to affirm and appreciate all the gifts that the house has given him.

But even more than all of the detailed footnotes and methodical journal entries, the two stories more subtly enforce a realistic tone by presenting their villains as casual, conversational, and more carelessly antagonistic than you might expect from fantasies about magical realms. They don’t indulge in grand monologues, nor in moments of sympathetic introspection. Unlike what most of us expect from fantasy stories, it’s never really presented as a grand battle between equally powerful rivals, each with their own motivations, the fate of reality locked in the balance. The villains are banal, capricious, and needlessly cruel.

There’s been a trend in art and entertainment for a while now, where stories are told from the villains’ perspective. The first I became aware of it was Grendel by John Gardner, although I’m sure it must be much older than that. Wicked is the most obvious example from (fairly) recent pop culture. I believe it’s an offshoot of an earnest attempt to make villains more three-dimensional, with their own motivations and their own justifications, instead of merely obstacles for the heroes to overcome. There’s an idea that’s been repeated so often that it’s become accepted as a rule for actors and writers: good villains don’t see themselves as the villain.

Piranesi rejects this. But instead of making its villains seem shallow or artificial, it makes them all the more menacing. And, I would say, more realistic. At least in my own experience, the people who’ve had the most negative impact on my “story” have almost never been the ones targeting me, but the ones who don’t really give a shit about me one way or the other. More than realism, though, it delivers what I think is a longer-lasting and more transformative catharsis. The heroes’ victories aren’t defined in terms of the villain. They win by being brave, compassionate, and kind.

In these stories, evil isn’t the opposite of good, it’s the absence of good. Their heroes devote much of their passion to explaining the inexplicable, knowing the unknowable, but they will never be able to truly understand evil. They lack the capacity for true selfishness and callous carelessness.

The second thing I love about Piranesi

Second: Piranesi is a wonderfully vivid, extended example of metatext, or how the format of the book conveys a core idea of the book.

I have to admit that while I was reading, I was enjoying the book so much that I reflexively started looking for something to criticize. The flaw that my initial enthusiasm must’ve caused me to overlook, or even the one imperfection that made it perfect. I can’t just ramble on effusively about something without having any criticism of it, right?

I found my criticism at around the halfway point, as the story’s mysteries started to be explained. I could fairly easily guess what the clues were leading to, I could make connections the protagonist wasn’t making, I had a very strong feeling I knew what the backstory was going to turn out to be, even if I didn’t know the specific details yet.

(2.5 thing I love about Piranesi: the protagonist typically discovered things or made conclusions about things no more than one page after I’d figured them out. Any time I started second-guessing the novel, it reminded me that everything was under control, and everything was coming together right on schedule. Such a refreshing change to read something that respects the reader’s intelligence, instead of dragging out “intrigue” for chapters while the reader’s shouting “Yes, I get it!”)

So my one major criticism was that after so many chapters of gloriously intriguing expansion, the story starts to rapidly contract as it gets closer to the ending. Mysteries are explained, MacGuffins are found, plot threads are drawn together, loose ends are tied up. It seemed as if this wondrous book used up all its supply of wonder at the beginning. Instead of building up momentum towards a spectacular climax, it seemed to be politely cleaning up after itself.

To be clear: the plot of the book does come to a spectacular climax, but it was also, literally, predictable. (The protagonist predicts it). For a story that had derived so much energy from exploring the inexplicable, everything seemed to have a clear and immediately apparent explanation.

After reading the last chapter, though, I believe that feeling of expansion and contraction is essential to the tremendous impact the book had on me. Throughout the final chapter, there’s a powerful sense of melancholy. The narration is matter-of-fact, even numb. A loss that seems irreplaceable and inevitable. The protagonist had grown to love his prison, and we realize that we had grown to love it as well, because of its seemingly infinite potential energy. Escape is unquestionably preferable to solitude, especially after we’ve been reminded that people are capable of such unselfish kindness and compassion. But it also means abandoning wonder, mystery, and peaceful simplicity.

Piranesi contains a brief reference to Narnia, and when I encountered it, I thought it was just a clever, self-aware touch that confirmed there was a connection between the world of Piranesi’s house and our own world. But when I reached the end of the book, I was overcome with a feeling that was entirely too familiar: it was exactly how I felt as a kid, reading Aslan telling Susan and Peter that they were being banished from Narnia, essentially punished for growing up. It seemed so cruel and sad and unfair and inevitable and natural. I realized that Piranesi was a 245-page prose poem perfectly expressing that feeling. It took me, a 49-year-old, back to the Narnia I remembered from when I was 13. And it left me with a reminder that I could always come back any time I wanted, and while it would never be the same, I now at least had a deeper and more mature understanding of why I couldn’t stay.

Ten Little Influencers

Thoughts about The Guest List by Lucy Foley, my constantly-changing opinions about snobbery, and the value of, well, trash

I’ve been having really bad insomnia for a couple of weeks. I’ve wanted to find something like a good old-fashioned murder mystery to read before bed. I decided to try The Guest List by Lucy Foley, based on comparisons to Agatha Christie, in particular Ten Little Indians/And Then There Were None. I read the first thirty or so pages in one night, and I fell asleep eager to see how the rest of the story played out. The next night, I finished the entire rest of the book.

So now I’m torn. I’ve always been frustrated by how slowly I read, so I rarely get into books and don’t read all that much. I can’t even remember the last time I got engrossed enough in a book to finish it in one night. This one is a page-turner in the purest and most cliched sense: short chapters jumping back and forth in time, a number of intriguing omissions from each character’s story, a cliffhanger at the end of every few pages.

At the same time, I’ve got to admit that it was all pretty silly and predictable. I’d figured out who the murderer was at just after the halfway mark, even before we were explicitly told who the murder victim was. The references to popular technology and snobs-vs-slobs class divides seem just shy of authentic, as if the book is laser-targeted at a very specific type of thirty-something who’s just familiar enough with online pop culture to be aware that they’re not familiar enough with it to be cool. And the most shocking thing in the book was the absurd lengths it went to in order to tie all its characters’ tragic backstories together. I realize that’s a trope of murder mysteries, Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None in particular, but when you have a book that’s told almost entirely in the first person, it stretches credulity too far.

For years, I’ve been insisting that the division between high art and low art is a pretentious, snobby, and unnecessary one. Being well-crafted and engaging has merit in and of itself. In the visual arts and film, we can recognize the value of something that is beautifully made but doesn’t aspire to be “high art,” so why shouldn’t that apply to everything else. There should be no such thing as a “guilty pleasure.”

The Guest List is making me rethink that.

Or more accurately: it’s making me rethink whether I actually care. For years I’ve been trying to make a case that there’s not a meaningful distinction between “high art” and “low art.” Instead, I should’ve realized long ago that the people who insist on making the distinction are people whose opinions I don’t particularly care about. And the people who’d actually be affected by the distinction — creators and fans — don’t actually care.

Lucy Foley’s brief bio says that she worked in the publishing entry, so that, plus the fact that The Guest List is a best-seller that’s made it to the top of several recommendation lists, including the one that made me find out about it, all make me suspect that she knew exactly what she wanted to accomplish with the book, and she accomplished it several times over. I’m kind of skeptical she considers a discussion of “literary merit” at all relevant.

I think more than anything else, the fact that I consider it so bizarre and alien to read a book for pleasure is a sign that I simply don’t read enough. And also, my own biases about genre. I’ve read two Star Wars novels this year — okay, one and a half before I gave up on it — so presumably, I understand how genre fiction works. I suppose I’ve just always had a shallow assumption that books involving lasers and/or elves are exempt from literary requirements. I’d never considered mysteries or thrillers set in “the real world” to be “genre fiction,” even though they’re every bit as much.

The truth is that the whole question of high art vs low art, genre fiction vs literature, graphic novels vs comic books, TV vs film, movies vs cinema, etc, stopped being at all relevant over a decade ago. The lines have blurred, the gatekeepers have been made obsolete, and good riddance to all of it. The only times it reasserts itself nowadays is when a snob pipes up with an opinion that can be ginned up into a controversy: “oh no, that guy said the MCU movies aren’t ‘cinema!’ Let’s write 10,000 essays and blog posts about it!”

And, of course, it reasserts itself when after years being told about the transformative power of challenging literature, I reflexively get defensive when I realize I’ve just enjoyed reading or watching something that was strictly entertaining instead of insightful. I mean, I’ll spend hours sitting in front of YouTube watching strangers recording themselves going to a theme park, but God forbid I read a book that’s not “challenging” enough. I suppose I spent too many years in school having it stressed that I should be Reading At Or Above My Grade Level, that I never quite got over it. And considering that I’m pushing 50 and I’m still voluntarily writing book reports, that seems to be the most likely explanation.

To be clear, I’m not trying to defend blatantly commercial or derivative works. But then, I don’t think anybody’s asking me to. Of the two Star Wars books I mentioned, one was essentially an advertisement for the last movie, while the other was essentially an advertisement for a theme park expansion. Still, one felt so uninspired that it might as well have just been ad copy, while the other felt like someone genuinely wanting to share a story. It ended up being fun and engaging and a perfectly fine use of my time, no matter whether someone else thinks it’s “trash.”

Paper Exhalation

A double book report for two tangentially-related books: Paper by Mark Kurlansky, and Exhalation by Ted Chiang

I was a big fan of Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt, so I’ve been looking forward to his more recent book Paper, the second in his series of biographies of a mid-80s hip-hop girl group whose name he mis-heard.

Inexcusably contrived dad jokes aside, Paper uses roughly the same structure as Salt did: trace our use of a seemingly mundane but ubiquitous and essential thing throughout history, to present a popular survey of world history to a wide audience. I think Salt worked much better, possibly because it seems like an even more boring topic than what is essentially the history of written communication and record-keeping.

The tangents into corresponding inventions, and the bits of detailed information about a person that are usually overlooked in a more “serious” survey of history, are what make Kurlansky’s work interesting, and there simply seemed to be fewer available here. There wasn’t a whole lot that was surprising. For instance: before reading Salt, I’d never realized that so many towns in England ended with “wich” because they were originally locations of salt mines. Similarly, Paper explains how the elements required for paper mills — abundant water, water as a source of power, available rags or pulp for fiber — determined which parts of the world could be good sources of paper production. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t so easily distill down into the Mental Floss-style quick-fun-fact-to-share format.

I don’t feel like I learned the actual process of making paper in a way that made sense to me, even though much of the book is devoted to almost describing the process in detail. I know that it involves vats of water, and beating rags into pulp, and screens and fibers that somehow end up forming a film that is pressed and dried. But that’s just what I’ve been able to glean over hundreds of pages, and it’s honestly not more or less detailed than what I already knew about the process. I don’t recall at any point the book giving a satisfying explanation of the procedure from start to finish, so chapters and chapters of subsequent innovations and modifications to the process were lost on me, because I didn’t have enough context to understand why they were significant.

It’s also frustratingly centered on Europe, which has been my main annoyance with attempts to learn more about history since high school. The book acknowledges that paper was invented in China, and that most of the technological innovations that brought Europe out of the “Dark Ages” were either borrowed from or independently invented in Asia and the Middle East, so it’s not that the book is chauvinistic or misleading. But still, it abandons an entire hemisphere while it talks about how paper and printing spread through Europe and the New World, only going back to East Asia at the end to talk about Japanese paper craft and Chinese recycling.

So comparing the two Kurlansky books I’ve read at this point, I’d say that Salt was surprisingly interesting and entertaining, while Paper was pretty much exactly what it says on the cover.

One of the recurring points that Kurlansky emphasizes in Paper is that he doesn’t believe societies are fundamentally changed by technology, but rather that they inevitably develop the technology they most need to accommodate the ways that their societies are already changing. For instance, paper didn’t create bureaucracies; China needed a bureaucracy at that point in its development, and paper was the invention that made it possible. It helped explain how my reading a book about the history of Paper on an iPad wasn’t as much of a cognitive dissonance as I would’ve thought at first.

It also dovetailed eerily well with the next book I read, Exhalation by Ted Chiang. One of the common threads through the stories is that they take the premise of a radically new invention or discovery, and then speculate about the societal and personal changes that might result. One of the stories takes the idea of technologically-assisted perfect memories and compares it to European colonists introducing paper record-keeping to an African society with a long oral tradition.

Chiang’s stories create worlds that are either alternate universes, or extrapolations of our own universe after an inherently disruptive innovation or event. That would make them seem inherently incompatible with the idea that technological development is a long, ongoing process instead of the sudden, completely unprecedented, culture-shifting inventions that inventors and marketing firms often want us to believe. Several of the stories are based on familiar technology — AIs and digital pets, AR glasses, using our phones as digital recorders and “augmented memory” devices, quantum computers and a gradually growing popular awareness of the concepts behind quantum states — but I don’t think Chiang is taking the role of a futurist. Instead, he’s taking a fairly extreme interpretation and using it to explore the implications at a personal level, not a societal one.

Ultimately, the two books played surprisingly well off each other when read back-to-back. They have a similarly optimistic and humanist take on “disruptive” technology. They suggest that people are above all else adaptable, and the things that make us human are never completely changed by any technology. Paper, e-books, cell phones, sentient virtual pets, time portals, and alternate-reality communication machines may make our lives different, but not necessarily better or worse.

An invention that uses a negative time-delay circuit to flash a light before you push a button, however, would ruin absolutely everything.

That’s the larger through-line between the stories in Exhalation: fate vs free will, knowing vs not knowing, and how our choices are what define us as human beings. That’s a very reductive take on it, of course, which is especially a drag in this case, because it’s impressive how he can have so many stories exploring facets of similar concepts without them all feeling simplistic or repetitive. Similar to Stories of Your Life and Others, he’s able to take ideas rooted in “hard” science fiction or speculative fiction, form them into a premise that is rigorously and technically defined from the start, and then use all the implications from that premise to tell an often intensely personal story about our experience as humans.

And as a petty human, I should probably say that I didn’t enjoy Exhalation nearly as much as I did Stories of Your Life and Others, but I felt so much better after reading it. After I read the latter book, I felt drained, and inexplicably envious. For years I’ve heard people complain about Instagram causing them depression or wrecking their self-esteem; seeing beautiful and/or rich people living perfectly ordered and presented lives makes them feel inferior. And I’ve been sympathetic but never fully understood it, probably because I’ve never aspired to being rich or fashionable. But I finally understood it after reading Chiang’s first short story collection, in which he seemed to talk about theology, theoretical physics, and parenting all with complete understanding; could understand the full implications of a technological disruption while I was still trying to wrap my ahead around the initial premise; and balance his rigorously scientific hypotheses with deeply-felt emotional conclusions.

Exhalation, on the other hand, reads like a book written by an actual human being. The first story is wonderful, from concept to presentation, a story about fate and time travel that ingeniously borrows the One Thousand and One Nights conceit. And I don’t want to spoil anything, but I found the very end of the last story surprisingly poignant and beautiful, a perfect ending to the collection. But the rest seemed to vary from fine but straightforward, to overlong and somewhat tedious. There was nothing that left me confused or intimidated, but also nothing that left me particularly inspired.

Like I said, that’s a fairly petty and ego-driven take on the collection, but I think it’s a testament to Chiang’s talent that his writing can generate that kind of reaction. Ultimately it’s a pleasure to be able to read such a compassionate, empathetic, and hopeful work from a writer who’s that intelligent. And it pairs surprisingly well with Paper, another book about how humanity responds to the inventions and discoveries that we make.

Museum of the Weird

Reading Rolly Crump’s book convinced me I’ve been wrong about Disney’s tension between originality and familiarity.

I just finished reading It’s Kind of a Cute Story, a memoir from Rolly Crump about his career as an Imagineer and afterwards. Even though I’ve been trying to follow the history of the Disney parks and their creators for years, there were quite a few things I hadn’t known before. One was that Crump was straight-up jacked. More significantly, though, I learned about an aspect of working for Walt Disney the man that’s gotten lost among the decades and the huge volume of work generated by Disney the company: Disney the company has gotten a reputation for safe, predictable, homogeneity; but Walt Disney himself was often a champion of the original and the weird.

In retrospect, this should’ve been obvious to somebody with even a cursory knowledge of Walt Disney’s career. But all my experience with the parks, cartoons, and TV series happened after his death. And according to every account of the company’s history that I’ve seen, including a mention in Rolly Crump’s book and an episode of The Imagineering Story, the period after Walt’s death was filled with timidity and aversion to any risk. Ironically, by making “What Would Walt Do?” the question that drove every decision, they ended up doing the opposite of what Walt would probably have done.

Still, that shaped my perception of Walt Disney as a conservative above all else. It cemented the idea that everything had to be on model, everything had to fit into an easily recognizable “Disney Look,” and it all had to be accessible and easily digestible: the most cynical interpretation would be that he hired some of the finest artists in the world to create art for the lowest common denominator.

And what’s remarkable is how I kept that simplistic and condescending impression despite tons of evidence to the contrary. It’s weird that he had a friendship and collaboration with Salvador Dali. It’s weird to make an animated film that’s nothing but artistic (and sometimes abstract) interpretations of orchestral pieces. It’s weird to build a successor to a hugely successful theme park and decide to focus not on the theme park, but on an elaborate planned city. Long stretches of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros are just weird. There are plenty of other examples, but I somehow ignored them and continued to think of Walt Disney as the genius at safe, family entertainment who occasionally had an aberrant weird idea.

So it was interesting to read Rolly Crump’s book and see him give Walt so much credit for some of his own best and most memorable work with Disney. Crump is one of the rare Imagineers who’s managed to have his own style and influence stand out as recognizable, since it’s only recently that the company has begun giving more credit to individual artists and engineers. Pretty much everything he had a hand in designing is part of my favorite Disney attractions — the clock outside Disneyland’s it’s a small world, the Haunted Mansion, the Enchanted Tiki Room, and The Land pavilion at Epcot. According to Crump’s own account, he was encouraged by Walt and chosen to bring his unique style to projects, despite not being the studio’s most traditionally skilled artist.

It seems so odd compared to the popular (and likely over-simplified) perception of how creative businesses work today. The stereotype is of the artist with a unique vision who somehow manages to make something new despite the people in charge, never because of them. To use an example from Disney animation: I’d always thought of Sleeping Beauty as a case of Eyvind Earle’s wonderful art and design work being constrained to fit into yet another princess movie, with mostly traditional Disney character design, right down to the prince who’s all but indistinguishable from the ones in Cinderella and Snow White.

But after hearing Rolly Crump’s description of how Walt Disney would think about projects, I think I may have had it completely reversed. Walt wanted to make use of the outstanding artwork of Eyvind Earle (and Marc Davis, and a ton of other legendary artists), and he recognized that a commercial, family-oriented production was the best way to make that financially possible. I’m so used to hearing about the tension between art and commerce as the broadest, most simplistic dichotomy — it’s even baked into the Disney “mythology” that insists that Walt was the creative one while Roy was the money guy. But that makes it sound as if Walt was perpetually in “Blue Sky mode,” which I suspect does a disservice to the actual extent of his genius. Walt wasn’t interested in taking weird and original stuff and sanitizing it, sanding off all the rough edges to make it something safe and homogenous; he recognized that safe, homogenous, and predictable sold really, really well to a global audience. Making Sleeping Beauty meant that the entire world would get to see Earle’s beautiful work. Building a corporate-sponsored pavilion at the World’s Fair meant that millions of people would get to see Rolly Crump’s kinetic sculpture.

I realize that that’s probably just as over-simplified take as the opposite, and that there was likely as much commerce as art involved in every decision. But as a lifelong Disney fan who’s still well aware that “the Disney version” almost always has a negative connotation, I like reminding myself that originality and weirdness are an essential part of the company’s creative history, and not just one-off exceptions. And I like seeing more of that looser, freer originality making it out to the public. There’s more experimentation with art styles and character designs — the current Mickey Mouse shorts are brilliant, and I love that their place has been cemented in Disney history with a dark ride in that style. The new look of Duck Tales, weird and off-model concept art from the Toy Story movies, the varied and experimental art and animation styles in the shorts (and even occasionally the features, like Wreck-it Ralph), are all signs that creativity, originality, and weirdness can be profitable.

Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz is a murder mystery nested within a murder mystery nested within a defense of murder mysteries as a literary genre

Paperback cover of Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie Murders gives the whole thing away in the first two paragraphs. And by “the whole thing,” I mean “my own reductive interpretation of what the novel’s overarching meaning is.”

If the image isn’t already a bit of a cliche, it’s rapidly becoming one. It seems lifted from advertising targeted at Women of a Certain Age (basically, over 29), selling them the ultimate luxury of just getting to relax for a couple of hours. But it’s still a perfectly concise way of establishing the whodunnit as a guiltless pleasure.

The protagonist and narrator of the book has settled into her apartment on a rainy night, equipped with a bottle of wine, a pack of cigarettes, and a bag of Doritos, ready to read the manuscript for the latest in a line of formulaic murder mysteries. “What could be better?” she asks.

Our hero has every right to be jaded about this book, since she’s edited every book in the series, she’s got a contentious relationship with the author, and she spends her entire life immersed in a publishing industry that categorizes every book as either a trivial entertainment or a life-altering masterwork, with little in between. But she remains a fan. And being intimately aware of all the tricks and gimmicks doesn’t ruin the appeal of them, but adds to their charm and the pleasure of working out their puzzles.

When I was looking for book recommendations a while back, that kind of comfortable, familiar, and engaging reading-for-entertainment was what I was hoping to find, having exhausted all of Agatha Christie’s books (apart from the Miss Marple ones, which I never liked) back in high school. Reviews of Magpie Murders made it sound perfect: a pastiche of Christie and other’s traditional murder mysteries, from the author who created the Midsomer Murders TV series. All embedded in a clever meta-fiction, in which the mystery novel gives clues to solving a larger mystery in the “real world.”

Even the positive reviews of Magpie Murders tend to describe it terms of pastiche or mimicry, and the novel would’ve been a virtuoso achievement even if it had been just that. The book changes voice seamlessly and effortlessly, not just between characters and not just between styles of writing, but between different qualities of writing. Trying to mimic both a pretentious and self-important author and a well-meaning but talentless writer is to me the literary equivalent of an actor doing a character with an accent trying to mimic another character with an accent, all through a ventriloquist dummy. But Horowitz fearlessly adopts different voices for entire passages, on top of including clues and red herrings for multiple murder mysteries, and an additional layer of anagrams, acrostics, puns, and allusions throughout.

And because the book is a murder mystery narrated by a character who edits murder mysteries, Horowitz frequently draws attentions to the book’s gimmicks and puzzles and explains how they work, but somehow, they still work. It’s much like a magician who explains sleight of hand and misdirection to the audience, and then immediately pulls off the trick anyway.

But as impressive as Magpie Murders is just as a smart and confident recreation of traditional murder mysteries, I think there’s an additional layer to it: a recurring assertion that there doesn’t need to be an additional layer to it.

It’s a love letter to mid-century murder mysteries, but it’s also a self-aware defense of them that rarely comes across as self-aware or defensive. Horowitz acknowledges all the tropes and criticisms and limitations of the genre, either directly or indirectly. Then, he asserts that those criticisms are either irrelevant or miss the point entirely, because they underestimate the skill and artistry that goes into writing a good murder mystery and why they’re so beloved by their audiences. They needn’t be life-altering works with profound insight into the human condition, but that doesn’t make them pointless garbage, either.

Part of what impresses me is that it could’ve all gone so horribly. Descriptions of Magpie Murders make it sound like the literary equivalent of the Scream movies: deconstructions of a genre that still work as well-executed and entertaining examples of the genre. As much as I love the Scream movies, they are full of that late-90s self-aware pointlessness, not really saying much about horror movies apart from “we get it.” The only gratuitously self-aware bit in Magpie Murders is the repeated reference to Midsomer Murders, which comes across half as Horowitz’s wink at the reader and half as an acknowledgement that he’s aware of the similarity in the titles but it’s given that title for a reason.

The story-within-a-story gimmick the Scream movies introduced with Stab in the sequels took the self-awareness even further, and it’s the perfect example of something clever from the 90s that now seems insufferable. It’s a defensive crutch, more concerned with letting the audience know that they’re in on the joke than with saying anything meaningful. But I don’t get any sense of condescension in Magpie Murders to the Atticus Pünd half of the story; if anything, the book feels like a love letter to that type of story written by an unapologetic fan.

The examples of “bad” writing in Magpie Murders are used in a subtly but significantly different way. One example of clunky an amateurish writing isn’t mocked, but instead is given some amount of sympathy from our professional editor protagonist, who suggests that writing talent is less of an innate gift and more of a skill. The other passage get a much harsher treatment, because it’s a pretentious and overblown attempt to mimic an “important” writer, written by someone who’s sneeringly dismissive of murder mysteries as trite and pointless. It seems to have little sympathy for the affectations of authors striving to make Great Art. Instead, the entire novel has a recurring theme praising the virtues of well-organized, readable, and accessible fiction.

At the beginning of the book, Ryeland (who seems to be speaking for Horowitz here, at least) acknowledges the life-changing power of books — but she includes Never Let Me Go and Atonement along with the Harry Potter novels, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and 1984. Some led the reader to a profound insight, some had cultural significance, and some were considered just popular entertainment but still had a huge impact on readers’ lives. It’s a rejection of the idea that the power of a book consists entirely of what a great author embeds within it. It says that the real power of a book is the result of a combination of author, a moment in time, and a reader’s interpretation.

Granted, all of that is itself a reductive interpretation from someone who’s always hated the Art vs Entertainment argument. Several times over the years — too many times — I’ve gotten in arguments with people who use “entertaining” or “a fun read” with a dismissive sneer, and who insist that a work has to be “challenging” to have any merit, and that accessibility is mutually exclusive of importance or significance. I say that art is ultimately communication (even if the idea being communicated is “interpret this for yourself”), and I’ve got little patience for pretense and artifice. So I might be reading too much into this overarching theme of taking the hot air of literary snobs. Even if that’s the case, I think Magpie Murders still stands out as an ingenious and expertly-written example of detective fiction.

Even though I did totally predict the murderer right away. Which leads me into a final couple of observations which are in mild spoiler territory. Please don’t read the rest of this until after you’ve finished Magpie Murders.

First: all the focus on anagrams and acrostics and hidden clues has left me with the nagging feeling that there’s an additional layer to the book that I’ve missed and am too dense to pick up on. I purposefully read without trying too hard to solve the puzzle in advance, and I definitely don’t have the patience to go back and look for more anagrams or common themes in the names of characters. But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to be found in “New Game+” mode.

Second: I loved that the elaborate years-long puzzle throughout the series of books was revealed not as a momentous stroke of genius, but a vulgar prank by a snob who died unsatisfied because he was never able to appreciate his actual talent. It rises above the whole argument and leaves literary snobs to their own insecure futility.

Third: There seem to be a couple of threads that were left hanging; I’m fine with them being red herrings, but I wish there were a definitive resolution to them. And if there was a definitive resolution, I was too dense to pick up on it. Is there more to Andreas’s past at the school? What was in the photos that were mentioned and dismissed by the “real” vicar’s wife? Is there any significance to the fact that Conway created pseudonyms for so many characters but left the name Jack Dartford unchanged? What about the mentions of pedophilia that never get a follow-up? Is there an additional significance to the final paragraph, or is it just a metaphor? In the beginning of the book, Ryeland says that real life doesn’t offer all the tidy endings that fiction does, but this is also a book in which the villain sits quietly while the protagonist explains the whole sequence of events, so….

Fourth: I’m happy with my interpretation of the book as being a celebration and defense of reading murder mysteries gleefully and unapologetically without being concerned about their literary merit. But I also appreciate that the last paragraph adds “…in moderation.” Horowitz seems to suggest that he doesn’t want Ryeland getting so wrapped up in fiction that she neglects to live her life. Ultimately, he seems to acknowledge the value of a great book but treats the publishing industry as shallow and self-important.

10% Chance of Soft Rains

Reading The Martian Chronicles in 2019 feels wonderfully transgressive and optimistic, and is the best example of Ray Bradbury’s genius that I’ve read so far.

I just finished reading The Martian Chronicles as a 48-year-old man in 2019. Or, it seems appropriate to point out, I had it read to me by my global internetwork-connected smart phone connected to my half-electric car as I drove on an interstate highway to my job helping to make computer software for virtual reality headsets.

The reason I point all that out is to acknowledge that the book is so well-known and highly-regarded at this point that I don’t have much to add to what’s already been said about it, except the accident of timing means I can say what it feels like to read now. (I’d read “There Will Come Soft Rains,” probably the best known of the book’s stories, as a teenager). The events of the book are due to start about a decade from now.

At least, it’ll start a decade from now according to the edition I read. Apparently, the original started in the 20th century’s favorite year for science fiction, 1999. Which was in reality a dud, seeing as how we didn’t start settling Mars, the moon did not escape from Earth orbit, and the sky didn’t even turn all purple, nor were there people running everywhere. Instead, to those of us in the United States, it just meant the Y2K scare and school shootings, or in other words the combination of dull stupidity and cyclical horror that have pretty much defined the 21st century so far.

In retrospect, just the act of pushing the dates of the novel back seems like an optimistic move. It’s like hitting the snooze bar on human advancement, confident that in just another 30 years, we’ll have gotten our shit together enough to be able to realize the kind of dystopian future people imagined in 1950.

Reading the book in 2019, that sense of optimism and faith is the part that feels the most curiously dated. More than all of the analog technology, or the belief in the coming ubiquity of rocket-based travel, or the casual assertion of breathable atmosphere on Mars, or blue sand or canals. Bradbury asserts in the forward that it’s not a work of science fiction. It quickly becomes clear that Bradbury has no interest in futurism, either, as the book remains un-self-consciously locked in a perpetual 1950. Not just in technology but in society: attempts at humor are steadfastly in same school as The Honeymooners or The Flintstones, women are flighty and gossipy and look to their husbands for assurance, and American exceptionalism extends to space. The Martian Chronicles is a story about America, and humans’ attempts to turn Mars not into a New Earth but specifically a New America.

For the most part, though, it’s charming and wonderful. In “The Silent Towns,” the attitude finally overwhelms everything else, and the attempt to be light-hearted instead comes across as misogynistic, fat-phobic, and mean-spirited. But for the rest, it’s a kind of benign chauvinism that I hadn’t realized I’d been missing.

It’s undoubtedly a vision of a world dominated by white American men (saying “straight” is irrelevant here, since it’s a universe where non-straight people don’t even exist), but it’s not the stupid version we’re surrounded by today, full of people wallowing in willful ignorance, taking their refusal to acknowledge their own biases and blind spots to a ridiculously absurd extreme. Bradbury writes about the pioneer spirit without forgetting to acknowledge everything that the pioneers helped destroy.

Actually, much of the book reminded me of Epcot. I’m not sure if that’s because I know of Bradbury’s involvement with Spaceship Earth, or just my pathological need to associate everything with Disney parks, but whatever the case, it was a wonderful sense of nostalgia for a feeling of optimism that everyone seems to have abandoned. The Martian Chronicles isn’t too concerned that Mars doesn’t actually have canals or a breathable atmosphere; it’s just an inconvenience that can be overcome not with any particular technology but with pure human ingenuity.

So reading the book in 2019 felt almost transgressive. It was a break from the faux Progressives who’ve introduced a kind of New Puritanism, which would insist we focus on the “problematic” in the work instead of appreciating the beauty of its intent. The Fahrenheit 451-esque story “Usher II” felt as depressingly relevant now as it probably did when the Hays Code and HUAC were still fresh in memory. Resisting my first impulse to dismiss the stories as dated because of their antiquated technology, or their chauvinistic or sexist assumptions, meant that I was able to appreciate the universal insights that Bradbury was exploring. Unlike, for example, The Illustrated Man, which felt more fixated with Twilight Zone twists than universal experiences.

I think the story in The Martian Chronicles called “The Musicians” perfectly captures the tension that makes this book transcendent, and in fact the qualities that make Bradbury’s work such masterpieces. The story is about a bunch of Earth boys desecrating the corpses of Martians in their dead cities — Martians who were more or less murdered by humans, in fact — and Bradbury somehow makes it simultaneously a lamentation of the tragic needless loss of life, and a pitch-perfect celebration of boyhood in America. It loses nothing because of its lack of diversity; in fact, it’s that specificity that makes it universal. Bradbury so wonderfully understands that very specific experience that he recreates it perfectly. Even for those of us who spent our childhoods mostly indoors and afraid of breaking the rules.

Bradbury’s ability to perfectly convey how something can be simultaneously horrible and beautiful, sinister and nostalgic, and joyful and tragic, is beautifully realized throughout this book. Yes, much of the book is about Americans and the optimism of the pioneers, but ultimately it’s about how civilizations rise and fall and will continue to do so for eternity. He can write about the wonderful comfort and serenity of life in small-town America while simultaneously acknowledging what had to be destroyed for it to come about, how fragile it is and susceptible to corruption, and how it will inevitably fall to ruin, just as every wonderfully comfortable and serene world must.

That unshakeable faith in the inevitable death that leads to the inevitable rebirth imbues the entire book with an optimism that I hadn’t even noticed had disappeared. I can now recognize so many more familiar things in “There Will Come Soft Rains” than when I first read it. I have the lights in my home scheduled to turn themselves on and off, and appliances programmed to make me coffee, and devices by the bed to answer my questions, and of course my complete reliance on the handheld pocket computer that was so alien that Bradbury’s stories didn’t even speculate on it.

But even as darkly sinister as that story is, it still has faith in a world that will survive us. Bradbury’s stories mention an Earth that maxes out at around two billion people, where the devices controlling the house aren’t all aggressively corporate-driven and designed to have us consume even more than we can keep on reserve, and where nuclear warfare is the worst we could possibly do to the world. Even as Bradbury wrote about callous Earth men tossing garbage into the Martian canals, he seemed to see the damage it did more as disrespect than active destruction. He captured the risk of our destroying each other, but underestimated our desire to take as much of the Earth with us as possible.

So maybe we should take comfort in “The Green Morning,” where Bradbury conjures Johnny Appleseed to describe how humans can create an atmosphere on Mars with a combination of American tenacity and Martian magic. If Bradbury can make me vividly remember my boyhood in small-town mid-century America that I never actually had, maybe we can use that tenacity and optimism to stave off the collapse of our civilization for at least another thousand years or so.

One Thing I Love About “Stories of Your Life and Others”

I think Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang is a work of genius that dispels my assumptions about science fiction vs science fantasy

From the movie Arrival, based on “Story of Your Life”, and also a billion memes

Whenever I meet another person who’s significantly smarter than I am, my brain immediately and involuntarily starts doing this thing where it starts looking for deficits. “Okay, sure, she may understand linear algebra in a way that I’ve never been able to, but I’d be able to understand it too, if I hadn’t devoted so time to developing a sense of humor to be a more well-rounded person.”

It’s complete bullshit, of course. And it should go without saying that it never actually works, because I don’t live in an 80s teen movie where people have one defining trait. And almost every time I’ve met someone frustratingly smarter than I am, they’ve also turned out to be creative, imaginative, and often funny. (And occasionally, infuriatingly, really good-looking as well).

It was a familiar feeling reading Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, a collection of short stories seemingly written by someone better than me at understanding linguistics, semiotics, and what it fundamentally means to be human.

Usually my attempts to read science fiction end in failure, even though it’s always seemed like I should be a fan. I think I bounce off “real” sci-fi for the same reason I didn’t enjoy taking astronomy in college: the amazing things that we’ve learned about the cosmos aren’t the result of seat-of-your-pants jaunts on a faster-than-light spaceship navigating through asteroid fields, but from centuries of earthbound study. On a purely intellectual level, I can appreciate the spectacular amount of work and brilliant insight that goes into just gathering images from outer space, but still I was disappointed that astronomy classes turned out to be 1% cool pictures of nebulae and 99% geology and physics. Science fantasy is flashier and more fun than science fiction, and both are orders of magnitude more fun than actual science.

It’s appropriate that immediately before this book, I read Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C Clarke for the first time. That’s long had a reputation as being a classic of “hard” science fiction, and for good reason: its drama comes almost entirely from insurmountable limitations of physics (along with some conjecture about interplanetary politics) instead of human interaction. Its characters speak in dry monologues, the attempts at humor are almost unforgivably corny, and there’s an air of just-give-her-a-smack-on-the-ass sexism that pervades the whole thing, although to me at least, it comes across as more musty and dated than genuinely misogynist. The only real personality in the book is that Clarke comes across as way into polygamy.

The preface to the edition of Rendezvous with Rama that I read acknowledges the weakness of character development, but gives it a pass because the book isn’t “about” that. It’s a stereotype about science fiction that I’ve long just accepted as true: a story can either have scientific rigor or good character development, but never both, because they’re inherently mutually exclusive.

The aspect I love the most about Stories of Your Life and Others is that it completely refutes that idea. It takes concepts from science fantasy (and high fantasy), tells them with the rigor of science fiction, and uses them to explore some of the same ideas as contemporary literary fiction. Most of the stories in this book are deeply, profoundly human.

And they don’t use the crutch of direct allegory to make their point — like using the story of an android to ask what makes us human, which can be well-told and effective, but is still processed intellectually. The stories in this book explore a fantastic premise in all its permutations, layering on idea after idea to leave the reader with less of a conclusion and more of a feeling. I didn’t understand “Division by Zero,” for instance, and I still don’t. Even (especially?) after reading Chiang’s afterword describing the impetus for the story, I don’t feel like I can understand the depth of its premise, or fully appreciate the implications of its premise. And still, it left me feeling shaken, in a way even more troubling because I couldn’t explain it. I had to put the book down and couldn’t go back to it for a couple of weeks.

That’s why I can’t say I loved the book, even though I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to call it genius. I do think the stories at the end of this collection were well told but felt either a little predictable or a little too direct when compared to the others, but honestly only suffer when compared to the strength of the first few stories. But more than that, it took an emotional toll on me, as if I’d read seven complete novels in the time I’d intended to read one. I’d expected a short story collection to be a light read, but it was anything but. These short stories don’t feel like sketches, but like sucking on bullion cubes of densely-concentrated ideas.

I haven’t yet seen Arrival, but it’s such a beautiful idea that makes perfect sense for a movie translation. And I’ve already got Chiang’s latest collection, Exhalation, but I’m not eager to jump into it right away. One of the review blurbs calls it “relentless,” and there’s a story called “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom,” both of which make me think I need to take a break first and read something lighter. I can tolerate somebody being smarter than me, and I can tolerate somebody being more insightful than me, but pulling both at once just seems unfair.

Roughage: A Novel

A somewhat interesting question arises from an uninteresting debate: can books be both cinematic and literary? How much can we expect to get from a work of art, if artists deliver everything to us in an easily digestible manner?

BrankflakespackageEven by the already low standards of internet-based ponderings over the nature of art, the whole question of “Should adults read Young Adult Fiction?” is a particularly stupid one. Sites don’t raise it to encourage meaningful conversations, they raise it to take advantage of Harry Potter and Hunger Games traffic. Even now, bloggists are likely dusting off their essays on the modern myth-making of The Avengers.

And even when the discussion doesn’t fall into the Danielle Steele vs. Madeline L’Engle trap, the people bemoaning the dumbing-down of American society never have to substantiate their claims. We’ve gotten so accustomed to the idea that of course reading anything non-literary is a guilty pleasure at best, that we immediately go on the defensive. We read smart stuff too!

So it was interesting that an entry in the Books & Beer podcast raised the first non-immediately dismissible argument I’ve heard around the topic. One of the podcasters, Greg Brown, makes the claim that books usually labeled “young adult” are primarily plot-driven and use “cinematic” storytelling. But I was disappointed that the claim just lay there and wasn’t taken any further.

On Twitter, Chris Remo expanded on that by saying that cinematic storytelling is focused on delivery: “pushing” content and meaning to the audience, instead of encouraging readers to “pull” it for themselves. He went on to say that it’s unfortunate to see another medium forced into the same stylistic constraints as movies (presumably, as video games, comics, and television already have been). And finally, he said that this style of storytelling actually discourages interpretation; it trains audiences not to analyze the meaning of a work too deeply.

All interesting, reasonable points!

Before I go into how wrong they are, a disclaimer: I’m completely side-stepping the clunky “young adult” label, which invariably spins off into unproductive tangents. There are plenty of shallow books aimed at adults, just as there are plenty of great books that are typically categorized as being for children. Instead of “adult” vs “young adult,” I think it’s a lot more interesting to talk about genre fiction vs. literary fiction, and plot-driven storytelling vs. (for lack of a better word) “introspective” storytelling.

Art Finds a Way

First, I can definitely sympathize with the argument. When I first read Jurassic Park, I absolutely loved it. I read several of Michael Crichton’s books afterwards, and Jurassic Park remains the most successful example — both artistically and commercially successful — of his formula: take a concept rooted in “real” science, and then spin it off into an adventure story that gives a Popular Science-level overview of the concept.

Jurassic Park was my first introduction to chaos theory and the idea of “the butterfly effect.” It was filled with genuine quotes from actual scientists, and had its own wisecracking scientist on hand to explain everything! It was based on a fascinating concept spun off into speculative fiction, but based most of its action on actual facts: there really are species of frogs that change their sex when the population becomes unbalanced. And even though he took extensive liberties with the details, he gave a genuine overview of contemporary knowledge of dinosaurs. The velociraptor and dilophosaurus were actual species, which was a big deal for those of us whose knowledge of dinosaurs began and ended with The Flintstones.

But then I read a quote from Crichton, where he was asked what he was working on while writing Jurassic Park. He (half-jokingly) replied “I’m writing the most expensive movie ever made.”

I felt like I’d been duped! He wasn’t writing a real book, he was just writing some shallow pre-novelization! Just trying to cash in. I’d gone away from the book believing that I’d actually learned something in a clever and entertaining way, but that just made me look as stupid as if I’d said, “Yeah, The Matrix really opened my eyes, taught me a lot about what it means to be human.”

The problem with that type of thinking, of course, is that I did actually learn something. It’s not like Ian Fleming’s claim in You Only Live Twice that sumo wrestlers can suck their testicles into their body; most of the details included in Jurassic Park were based on actual contemporary scientific understanding.

But of course, facts aren’t meaning. And that’s what I thought was most clever about the book (and still do): Crichton used his formula for double duty. One of the concepts — cloning dinosaurs from DNA found inside a parasite — drove the plot, while the other — concepts of chaos theory — drove the theme.

While I’m not going to claim that the book is earth-shatteringly profound, I have grown to have a renewed appreciation for what it says about arrogance and knowledge. Obviously, it’s a contemporary spin on Frankenstein, with the theme of “tampering in God’s domain.” But it’s also an observation of the changing role of science at the end of the 20th century — we’d moved away from the unbridled optimism of the turn of the century, when we had every reason to believe that we could control and understand everything if only given enough time and enough study. We were starting to come to the realization that the universe is made of systems that are almost inconceivably complex. We’re no longer aspiring to become Conquerors of the Unknown; we just want to better understand the unknown, so that we can coexist with it.

And that message is still in the book, no matter what the motivation was for writing it, no matter how many good and bad movies were made from it, and no matter how entertaining, accessible, and “cinematic” it was. Sphere and Congo? Cinematic and also predominantly dumb. Rising Sun? Cinematic and also tedious, pedantic, and just shy of being irredeemably racist. But the material that’s “real” in Jurassic Park isn’t diminished or made any less real or less valuable just by virtue of its being wrapped in an adventure story.

The question remains, though: is my comprehension of that material diminished by the fact that Jurassic Park hands it to me in the form of a wisecracking scientist and a rampaging T. Rex? Can I really say that I “get” it, when I didn’t have to work for it?

Lost in Translation

Before you can talk about that, it’s necessary to figure out exactly what’s meant by “cinematic” writing that’s supposedly common to Young Adult fiction, and the “stylistic conventions” that are infecting real literature.

I’m assuming that it means plot-driven stories with writing that is more descriptive than interpretive. Since The Hunger Games was such a quick and effortless read, and since I read it in the middle of its major motion picture hype, I’d assumed it was a perfect example of that. But it wasn’t until I actually saw the movie adaptation that I appreciated how much the book actually does, thematically and stylistically.

After the movie, I was talking with someone who’d read the books, and she said that for the first several pages of The Hunger Games, she had no idea that the protagonist was female. I didn’t read the book until well after it’d be synopsized all over the place, and until after the movie casting had already been announced, so I knew from page one that it was written from the first-person perspective of a young woman. But going back over it, I saw that it’s deliberately left ambiguous, until she first speaks to another character. That’s a pretty big deal. For a book that adamant about presenting its target audience with a strong, responsible, and flawed but heroic female role model, it’s absolutely crucial that she’s introduced in terms of her thoughts and her capabilities, and not her appearance.

The part of the book that bothered me the most was the over-reliance on a teen love triangle, the “oh dear which cute boy shall I choose?” that’s not only a well-worn staple of stories aimed at teenaged girls, but which seems to undermine the whole notion of an independent female role model. In the movie, it’s every bit as shallow and predictable as you’d expect: teen romance set against Battle Royale. That cinematic adaptation — the switch from a first-person perspective to a third-person one — makes all the difference, and it highlights the novel twist in the book that the movie lacks.

In the book, she’s constantly aware that she’s on camera, and she’s constantly playing to the camera. The line between reality and what’s done for show is so blurred, that she’s never quite aware what she’s really feeling: is she actually falling in love with this guy, or is it just keeping up appearances? And again, for a novel targeted at an already emotionally tumultuous audience dealing with peer pressure and constant exposure to the media, that’s a big deal. It forms the basis of half the novel, but it’s never quite spelled out explicitly.

This Section is About Fevers and Fight Scenes

As for stylistic conventions, I’m going to invite jeers and/or swooning from the literary-minded people in the audience, by comparing The Hunger Games to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. (Incidentally: I’ve seen The Road dismissed as “genre fiction,” but anyone who doesn’t acknowledge its literary merit is someone I just have no common frame of reference with).

I haven’t read enough young adult fiction to know whether the claim that most of them are written in a “cinematic” style has any merit. Since there’s no way in Hell I’m ever going to read any of the Twilight books, I’ve only got Harry Potter. And those books would definitely apply. They’re told in an absolutely conventional style; every scene and every moment is given roughly the same weight.

But I’d insist that The Hunger Games is pretty impressive, stylistically. It’s not what I’d call “experimental,” but it does have the most remarkable pacing of any book I’ve read in recent memory. The shift between slower, more introspective moments and bursts of action is seamless. What’s most interesting to me is how the actual structure of the writing changes: as the book transitions from the build-up to the games themselves, the paragraphs transform. Sentences crash into each other. Details that would’ve warranted a couple of sentences earlier in the book now only get a passing reference, as if everything is happening at once, glanced out of the corner of the reader’s eye. Later, when Katniss is drugged, the sense of time seems completely elastic, scenes are stretched and compressed, and you’re never quite sure if what you’re reading is real or a hallucination.

The Road establishes mood with its structure, as well. Its characters remain nameless, and its dialogue remains barely offset from the rest of the text, all to give the story the quality of a fable. It repeats words over and over — you’ll be reading a lot about grey ash — and uses long stretches of sentences all with the same rhythm and cadence, all to drive home the feeling of oppressive doom and despair. There are relatively few action sequences, but in those sequences, the rhythm of the sentences transforms. The structure of the sentences conveys as much of the mood as the words themselves: an unexpected word suddenly appears in a long stretch of sameness, just as a threat suddenly appears in a bleak expanse of featureless ash. Later in the book, the main character suffers a fever, and we lose track of what’s real or imagined, and time becomes elastic.

And I’m going to be super-bold and make the claim that on a purely stylistic level, in those scenes, The Hunger Games actually did it better. With one, I never lost the sense that I was reading about a character involved in a life-or-death struggle. In the other, I couldn’t maintain that sense of detachment: I was actually getting tense as Katniss scrambled away from one attack after another, and I felt as if I couldn’t keep up with the action as quickly as it was moving on the page. With one, I was aware that I was reading about a character with a fever; in the other, I was genuinely disoriented, unable to tell what was real and what wasn’t.

Of course, the books are in no way equal in “weight,” in what they’re setting out to accomplish, or in how much of the meaning of the book is conveyed through stylistic choices. The ending of The Hunger Games sets up a sequel. The ending of The Road is completely rapturous, a sense of the inherent beauty of humanity that can be understood only after a prolonged journey through Hell.

But both books demonstrate how the reader’s interpretation of a book isn’t wholly cerebral, but visceral. It’s immersive, exploiting the direct connection between the creator and the audience that’s achieved when the medium disappears. That kind of direct connection would seem to be inherently “cinematic.” But it’s not merely descriptive: it doesn’t tell you that the character is disoriented or afraid, but makes you feel disoriented or afraid.

Common Trash and Horns with Fire

Maybe the best way to highlight the differences between “cinematic” writing and bonafide literature is to look at two books adapted by people who have a perfect understanding of how to translate literature to film: True Grit and No Country for Old Men, both adapted by the Coen Brothers.

I haven’t actually read No Country for Old Men, which makes it more than a little difficult to talk about it in a literary context, to be honest. But I’ve read that the film is an extremely faithful adaptation (and that the book was originally conceived as a screenplay). I can believe that, since it’s the most “literary” film I’ve seen in a long time, possibly since The Remains of the Day. Practically every word out of Tommy Lee Jones’s mouth has a ghostly whisper behind it: This is important. This means something.

It’s a perfectly fine film, and you can’t even make the complaint that it’s too arch, or too distant. There are moments of shocking brutality every bit as stomach-turning as they’re intended to be. You’re genuinely taken through the emotions of fear, despair, and even the perverse fascination with horror, instead of feeling as if you’re watching them from afar. It’s neither artificial nor ponderous, but it’s still self-consciously weighty. It practically begs the audience to interpret it, to acknowledge that there’s a message contained inside.

And although it was interpretive, not descriptive, the end result was the opposite for me. I felt as if I’d just been lectured by the nihilists from The Big Lebowski. It seemed not only that everything the movie had to say had already been said by Fargo, but that Fargo said it more effectively, since it took the form of an undercurrent instead of a full-bore, all-channel assault.

On the other hand, I can authoritatively state that True Grit is an outstanding adaptation of an outstanding book. In fact, the one scene that’s significantly different feels as if it was supposed to be in the story all along, and was just cut from the original novel for time or pacing constraints. Both the book and the film exploit the strengths of their media: the Coens use both amazing vistas you’d expect to see in a Western and “smaller” scenes that are no less striking and memorable, and they combine music and editing and dialogue perfectly because, well, they’re the Coen Brothers. And Charles Portis has such a singular gift for characterization through dialogue that he can even make punctuation funny. (Mattie Ross writes, “…I knew if the rattlers got behind me I would be in a fine ‘pickle.'” and you know just from the quote marks how much it pains her to use something as vulgar as slang). They work in concert so perfectly that they don’t even seem like an original work and an adaptation, so much as two manifestations of the same thing: a plot-driven account of the meeting and adventures of two unforgettable, perfectly real characters.

In terms of descriptive vs. interpretive storytelling, I believe it’s the perfect counterpoint to No Country for Old Men. True Grit is plot driven; it’s a story of revenge. It’s not introspective; Portis takes complete advantage of the fact that the story’s told in first-person, but he achieves all of his characterization through the quality of the language, not by extended passages describing Mattie’s innermost thoughts. (In fact, the strength of the character comes mainly from the fact that she’s so absolutely certain of her convictions; any self-doubt or reconsideration would feel wrong).

And most importantly, any “message” contained in the book is there for you to take or leave. It’s not trying to tell you anything, it just is. The characters aren’t symbols of anything, they just exist. If the claim is that a straightforward account of the actions of a group of well-realized characters can’t be as profound as a more introspective character study, then Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn shoot that theory apart. And while it’s true that it’s shallow to have a character explicitly say, “Men shouldn’t be tampering with things that they don’t fully understand,” it’s not significantly more substantial to have a character tell you about a dream he had about his father and a horn of fire, and then leave it hanging there for the audience to figure out what it means.

The Frosted Mini-Wheats School of Literary Theory

It’s counter-intuitive, but: whenever you bemoan the loss of art that demands the audience have to interpret it, you’re actually undermining the true value of interpretation.

We all have a long-held notion of the clear division between the stuff we read just for entertainment, and the stuff that’s “good for you.” Junk food vs. roughage. But that analogy assumes that all of the “nutritional value” of a work is contained in the work itself, and reading it is simply digestion. It assumes that accessibility is at best the sugar coating that makes the content easier to swallow, and it asserts that most often, it’s just empty calories.

To violently switch analogies mid-thought, it puts the writer in the role of puzzle-master. All the answers are contained within; the savvy reader will be able to figure them out, and the process will be so much more meaningful to him because of the effort. Take that to its extreme, and you end up with Ulysses.

But interpretation is more than just digesting or deciphering; it’s a kind of creation. Even the most insightful piece of writing can only work by triggering connections, correlations, sense memories, and value judgments in the reader. The reader isn’t merely piecing together the concepts laid down by the author, but can form connections the author couldn’t ever have intended. One of the most often-cited examples of that is a sky “the color… of a television tuned to a dead channel”, which to the author was a dull gray but to later readers became a vibrant blue. That implies that even a meaningless string of obscure or archaic allusions and non-sensical stream of consciousness could be interpreted by an insightful reader to have profound meaning. Take that to its extreme, and you end up with Ulysses. (I admit that I don’t understand how Ulysses works).

There are plenty of people who steadfastly insist that interpretation is the sole purpose and value of art; that once a work is made public, it exists as its own entity, completely separate from the artist. The artist becomes just another voice in the conversation, and the artist’s intent is all but irrelevant. There’s no such thing as an invalid interpretation.

I’m definitely not willing to take it that far, since I believe that art is fundamentally communication. But I believe that it’s two-way communication, always, whether the artist intends it to be or not. So a book (or a film, or a video game) is neither a lecture nor a puzzle, but a conversation. An asynchronous and often one-sided conversation, maybe, but still a conversation. In those terms, a work that invites the reader to “pull” meaning from it is no less didactic than one that “pushes” its meaning onto the reader. Neither accounts for the constant back and forth that all audiences engage in with media, even seemingly “passive” media.

It also doesn’t account for the fact that all audiences are always looking for meaning, constantly. Even when they’re not supposed to be looking for it, and even when they’re not particularly interested in finding it.

(Nothing But) Condescension

I do actually believe that there’s art that’s “good for you,” that we as audiences can become better at interpreting works, as we form new connections that build on old ones. As we’re introduced to new concepts, and just as our tastes change, we lose our appreciation for some works and gain new appreciation for others. It’s almost always a gradual, shifting process. But I can tell you exactly when I stopped liking the band Talking Heads.

It was when I saw the video for “(Nothing But) Flowers”. The song itself is fine; it’s essentially an ironic cover of “Big Yellow Taxi” done with David Byrne’s newfound interest in “world music.” And really, whatever: it was the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, and everybody was getting heavy into irony and Ladysmith Black Mambazo back then. But the video (which isn’t easily available online in the US) had everybody singing about the downfall of society while being superimposed with factoids illustrating our slow decline into corruption and apathy: bureaucratic waste, increased gun ownership, depletion of the rain forest. In the midst of all that, one of the factoids stood out: it laments that 29% of Americans have said that they were “moved to tears” by a greeting card.

At the time, it struck me as impossibly pretentious and condescending, but it took me decades before I was able to articulate exactly why. That opportunity came when I was standing in a photography exhibit at the SF Museum of Modern Art, listening to other museum patrons’ conversations about the photographs. A woman was there with a few of her friends or relatives, and she was looking at a picture of San Francisco from the early 1970s and pointing out specific buildings. Here was where she lived with so-and-so before he died, and here was the building where they’d had a really nice dinner before so-and-so’s baby shower.

My gut reaction, I’m embarrassed to admit, was that she was doing it wrong. This wasn’t a series of snapshots, it was an art exhibition. She was supposed to be commenting on the composition of the shots or architecture of the buildings, or at the very least, making note of how socio-political changes in the city’s population have been reflected by, resisted by, and influenced by the layout and architecture of the city as a whole. Even after being familiarized with the notion of soup cans and comic strip panels and even urinals as “art,” and the concepts of Modernism, post-modernism, and form vs. meaning, I was still clinging to this idea that art has a purpose and a value, even if the purpose was to say “this has no purpose,” and even if its value was only in its ability to question its own value. I was still attached to the idea of a “right” way to interact with art, that one-way communication from artist to audience.

But it took that one incident for me to really appreciate all of those artistic movements, ones that until then I’d only understood on an intellectual level. How arrogant is it to assume that the most a member of the audience can get from a work is already predetermined by the artist? The woman in the art gallery had immediate reactions to a photograph, memories from a lifetime of experiences — how is that not more profound than my detached (and more than likely, shallow) appreciation of the way the photograph was composed?

And how is it anything other than extreme arrogance to assume that someone moved to tears by a greeting card is too dim-witted or easily manipulated to comprehend that the sentiment is simplistic, trite, and maudlin? He’s not moved to tears by the writing’s purity of form or its universal statement of the human condition; he’s reacting to a profound summation of experience, one that the card somehow manages to invoke perfectly. I know I’ve yet to read any piece of literature that’s affected me as deeply as the greeting card I got from my father in the hospital.

Siskel & Ebert & About a Billion Other People At the Movies

Every discussion of “genre” fiction vs. literary fiction invariably has at least one example of a statement that’s trivially true, presented as if it held tremendous insight. This one is no different: people shouldn’t be concerned about high art vs. low art, but good art vs. bad art. If people are able to get a profound feeling of emotion from a greeting card, then they’ll be able to find meaning anywhere, whether it’s Jurassic Park, The Hunger Games, The Road, The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, Neuromancer, Harry Potter, or, regrettably, even Twilight and The Fountainhead.

Of course, that’s not saying that each of those books is equivalent in depth, literary merit, or value; if art is a conversation, then the reader’s interpretation will never completely outweigh the author’s intent, or lack of intent. Nothing is ever going to elevate Two and a Half Men and Jack and Jill to the level of valuable contributions to culture.

But the real value in a work lies in its ability to provoke a meaningful interpretation from the audience. (Even if using that overly inclusive definition means that I have to acknowledge that Stephanie Meyers’s and Ayn Rand’s books have “value,” as long as the meaningful interpretation is “the ideas presented in this book are absolutely horrible.”) That leaves one question: does the emphasis on descriptive, plot-driven writing actively discourage this interpretation? Does it “train” readers not to analyze what they’re reading too deeply?

I’ve seen absolutely no evidence that it does, and in fact, you could make a pretty convincing case that the opposite is true.

I can say with confidence (if not actual data) that today there are more people writing about, discussing, and interpreting art than there have been at any time in history. For decades we’ve been living in a culture that’s so media-saturated, critics and commentators have become celebrities. Add in the interactivity promised by the internet, and you end up with a society of people conditioned to believe that their interaction with a creative work isn’t finished until they’ve expressed an analysis of it. For better or worse, we’re living in the age of TV Tropes. (Mostly worse).

For Christmas one year, my family took me to see The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou on opening weekend. It was over my objections, and those objections turned out to be valid — I was sitting in the theater sobbing profusely, while they were mostly bored. That’s not in any way a value judgment; it’s simply not the type of movie that would speak to them. But during the car ride home, they all made it clear that they wanted it to speak to them. “I felt like the movie was trying to tell me something, but I didn’t get what it was.”

Whether you believe that’s some inherent quality of art, or it’s a more recent side effect of living in a society of movie blogs, message boards, and book clubs, it’s clear that audiences are constantly evaluating, analyzing, and interpreting everything. Even the people who insist that “you have to turn your brain off” to appreciate Transformers have at least analyzed the movie enough to recognize that there’s nothing worth further analysis.

And I know from my own experience that I enjoy horror movies not because of any inherent love of the genre — I’m easily startled, and I have such a low tolerance for gore that I can’t even watch the Ring video without getting the shudders. I enjoy them because they’re so easy to pick apart and analyze. The Friday the 13th movies and the millennial Castle film remakes are my sudoku. And picking them apart isn’t just a pointless exercise; it makes it easier to recognize when accomplished filmmakers either exploit the same techniques, or subvert them.

One thing the high art vs. low art “debate” doesn’t want to acknowledge is that over the years, popular entertainment has been steadily getting better. (Television and comics without question, but I’d make the same claim for games and movies). Audiences accustomed to analyzing and deconstructing works of art, instead of passively absorbing them, have grown up to make their own works that invite analysis and deconstruction. When The X-Files first aired, it was groundbreaking in introducing (or more accurately, re-introducing) the concept of season-long story arcs and self-referential storytelling to episodic, dramatic television. Now, you can find that in the most unexpected places: Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated and Transformers Prime. (Seriously!)

That’s why I put so much emphasis on pop culture and on mash-ups across multiple media, and why I insist that the line between high art and low art — or genre fiction vs. literary fiction, or young adult books vs. real books — has become irrelevant. It doesn’t mean that that there’s no such thing as a completely vapid piece of entertainment — we all know there’s an abundance of those. It simply means that art doesn’t take place in a vacuum. The communication between artist and audience, combined with our overwhelming desire to analyze, interpret, and re-invent, gives rise to a culture in which there’s the potential for “meaning” anywhere and everywhere.

Eerie Tales of the House of Mystery

Today on Late to the Party Theater: Chuck discovers that Locke & Key is a terrific horror comic that calls back to the “classics” without feeling like a self-conscious reinterpretation.

LockeAndKeyIssue3
In my defense: I’ve been hearing about Locke & Key off and on for years. It’s one of the tentpole comics for IDW with plenty of coverage at comic conventions, it’s won several Eisner awards, it was getting buzz for being turned into a movie or TV series that resulted in an unaired pilot, and I’ve been hearing recommendations from people online and from my boyfriend.

So I had it on the to-read list, and I’d assumed I knew how it was going to play out just based on the premise: a bunch of kids living in an old, unfamiliar family house, discovering magic keys that open mysterious doors, each with its own power. I’d expected another urban fantasy comic, maybe similar to The Unwritten, inspired by The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe with some House of Mystery and House of Secrets mixed in.

That would’ve been fine. But what I found when I read the first volume was a lot more compelling and more layered than I’d imagined.

It goes for the slow burn. I’d already plotted out the first issue in my mind: get the kids to the house, one of them discovers the first key, they all get pulled into the mystery, they confront the bad guy, and they set up the rest of the series. But there’s no quick pay-off in the first issue. Writer Joe Hill gradually lets the prologue unfold over the entire first volume, devoting an issue to each of his characters instead of just having them serve as interchangeable protagonists.

It retains the style of the “classic” horror comics. I admit I was turned off by the art of Gabriel Rodriguez at first; it seemed too stylized to work well with the tone that the writing was trying to establish. But after a couple of issues, I grew to realize that it was perfect — the book frequently makes subtle and not-particularly-subtle references to William Gaines and the old EC horror comics, and the art keeps it rooted in that tradition. (In fact, Rodriguez’s art in Locke & Key reminds me of a particular comic artist from the late 70s and early 80s, but I’m drawing a complete blank on the name. Anyone have any ideas?)

It puts a modern spin on several different eras of horror stories. Locke & Key is unabashedly a horror comic, even more than I’d expected it to be — axes to the head, knives to the eyes, attacks with crowbars and bricks, all rendered in splash pages with gouts of blood. But while Hellblazer always seems firmly rooted in the 90s, DC’s horror comics rooted in the 70s, and Tales from the Crypt unmistakably from the 50s, Locke and Key‘s influences seem to span several decades — from gothic (with the creepy old house and the town name of Lovecraft) to modern.

I realize it’s probably bad form to draw comparisons to Stephen King when talking about Joe Hill‘s work, but the greatest achievement of King’s first novels was how well he took traditional horror stories and translated them into contemporary settings. Locke & Key does something similar for comics, but without feeling “millennial.” Looking back at the first few issues of The Sandman, the influences of EC Comics and Berni Wrightson are immediately apparent, and the introduction has the feel of a deliberate reinvention of classic horror. Right out of the gate, Locke & Key seems to acknowledge the influences without letting them become overwhelming. Classic horror comics provide the tone of the story, not the purpose.

Finally, It’s smart. Again, probably because the art grounds it in a heavily stylized, almost cartoonish atmosphere, the writing and plotting can be introspective and realistic without either coming across as mundane or as pretentious. Instead of lurid descriptions of horrific acts of violence, we get matter-of-fact descriptions of them. Instead of monologues or dramatic soliloquies, we get natural, realistic dialogue. Literary allusions — much of the back story revolves around a school production of The Tempest — don’t come across as forced. And while none of the characters is complex enough (so far) to be the focus of an entire story, they all work together well and are given enough depth to keep from collapsing into caricature. Somehow, Hill puts just enough spin on them that they seem to be characters who just happen to fit into a stereotypical role.

At this point, I’ve only gotten through the first issue of the second volume. (Possibly the best single issue of the series I’ve read so far). There’s still twenty-three issues for it all to completely fall apart, or worse, to turn into something as solid-but-predictable as I’d originally expected. For now, though, I’m happy that my first impressions are being proven wrong. And I’m reminded of being a freshman in college, just discovering The Sandman and Hellblazer and learning that there was a whole world outside superhero comics.

Edit: I forgot to mention that he does have a kid who lives in San Francisco call it “Frisco.” But apart from that, it’s all pretty good.