Bespoke Dissidence

An essay by Gregory Thompson intelligently and compassionately rejects the lie of far-right manufactured victimization.

One of the best things I’ve read in recent memory is “Return of the Cold Warrior,” an essay/book review written by Gregory Thompson on Comment, an online magazine “rooted in 2000 years of Christian social thought.”

The essay is structured as a review of a book called Live Not By Lies, but I won’t link to it, both because it sounds dreadful, and because the essay is really not so much a review as a foil for Thompson to forcefully repudiate the culture of false victimization that’s become more vocal — and simultaneously more dangerous and more ridiculous — over the past decade or so.

If I’m being honest, the first thing that occurred to me while reading Thompson’s essay is that I need to start reading more grown-up books. I’m still a firm believer in the idea that there’s no such thing as a “guilty pleasure,” that audiences can have unpredictably profound reactions to any work, and I’ve rejected the idea that “challenging” material is inherently more valuable.

But still, after years spent mostly reading social media and watching YouTube videos, my stumbling into such a literate, thoughtful, and compassionate essay as Thompson’s felt like I’d discovered a doorway into Narnia. Are there really parts of the internet where people can freely reference political, social, and theological movements of the past two centuries as freely as references to the 1984 movie Red Dawn? Is it possible to read someone putting the excesses of the last decade of American society into a larger context, with no sense of bland, moral relativist detachment, and also no talk of getting “owned?”

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I Don’t Think You’re Ready For This Player

How the book Ready Player Two could be a teachable moment for the internet.

At least Demi Adejuyigbe managed to channel his disappointment into a song.

The sequel to the book Ready Player One has apparently been released, which is news I’ve been told repeatedly for some reason. It’s a book that I’ve now read several passages from, despite having no interest in reading any of it.

Not long after the first book was released, I got a copy of it (and the audiobook!) based on the hype around it. But I realized it was not for me — or more accurately, it was 100,000% “for” me, but I didn’t want it — as soon as I’d read an excerpt from the first chapter. In a correctly-functioning universe, that should’ve been the beginning and end of my awareness of this series and the works of Ernest Cline in general.

But I haven’t been able to escape the new book. Not because of a marketing blitz, but because I can’t turn around on the internet without running into someone eager to dunk on it. And the same people who spend most of their time saying “just let people enjoy things” are now double plus eager to show how funny their snarky comments are.1For all I know, maybe that is part of the marketing blitz? Are publishers cynical enough these days to be investing in hate-reading campaigns?

Don’t we have better things to do? I mean, I recognize the irony in writing a blog post to say how much I don’t care about something, but I’m not convinced that everyone is self-aware enough to really understand the irony. And while it’d be a lot simpler just to say “That’s stupid, stop doing it,” followed immediately by deleting my Twitter account for good, this seems like a perfect opportunity to ask people to just try and be better.

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The October Country

Ray Bradbury’s The October Country is something I should’ve read a long, long time ago.

I finished reading Ray Bradbury’s short story collection The October Country in November 2020, which feels like I was too late by one month and about 30 years.

Some of the stories have a sense of familiarity that suggests I’ve read them in a long-forgotten English course, or maybe reprinted in a magazine. But overall, this book felt like a startling shift in perception. It’s made me reconsider the vague assumptions I’ve always made not just about Ray Bradbury’s work, but pretty much the entire state of popular culture before Stephen King.

Incidentally: for a clear indication of just how long this story collection has been in print (and by inference, how influential it’s been), check out a Google Image Search to see the history of book covers. It’s remarkable for two reasons: first, to see in a grid how many immediately-recognizable eras the book has persisted through. Second, to see how the varying selection of cover images suggests that the stories within transcend (or at least straddle) multiple decades and multiple genres.

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Good Bones

Thoughts on pledging to be better, and giving up on the idea that people are basically good, which was kind of a lousy idea anyway.

There’s been an excellent poem going around the internet over the past week: it’s called Good Bones. It was written by Maggie Smith as a response to the disillusionment and despair many of us felt in 2016. It’s really wonderful, easily my favorite poem containing the phrase “a real shithole.”

I can imagine how it would’ve resonated if I’d seen it in 2016 — an acknowledgement that the world can be a hateful place, but with a faint glimmer of indefatigable hope still left at the end. Now in November of 2020, its tone has shifted. Of course we know that “the world is at least fifty percent terrible,” because we’ve been reminded of it multiple times a day, ceaselessly. The end no longer feels like a faint glimmer but a determined resolve to make it beautiful wherever and however we can.

I’m not just writing about it to unnecessarily over-explain it, though: I just wanted to add a personal note to say I’m grateful for it, not just for bringing a bit of light to the despair of the past week, but for reminding me just how hard my parents and brother worked to shield me from that 50% Terrible for as long as they could. I think they did a pretty amazing job, considering that I almost made it to 50 years old before I finally gave up on the idea that people are basically good.

I don’t think it’s naive to believe that; I just think it’s the product of being blessed enough to live most of your life surrounded by good and kind people. And I don’t believe it’s sad or cynical to abandon the idea, either. If you cling to the belief that people are basically good, then you’re unintentionally undermining all of the hard work that good people do every day. It’s much more inspiring to realize that people are basically neutral, so the heroes that manage to radiate kindness and hope aren’t just staying true to their natures, but are putting in the effort to make things better.

It’s aspirational. I’m feeling exhausted from having to hold onto so much anger, suspicion, and resentment all the time. I’d rather work on repaying all the kindnesses and generosity that people have shown me over the years. This has been such a tough year, and some of the things we’ve all lost and that I’ve lost are gone forever. But instead of concentrating on what’s lost, I’d rather try and help make this place beautiful.

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.

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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.