Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, by Cory Doctorow

This book reads like a first draft with promise. The most compelling parts of the novel are flashbacks due largely to the fact that the plot is a bit of a mess and not engaging; the most engaging bit was a flashback explaining the relationship between the main character, Julius, and a woman named Zoya, or Zed, which would have been a nice short story.  It’s the moment, for me, in which I am able to feel empathy for any of the characters; the character are, by and large, flat and lifeless…. Probably a by-product of a novel in which people live forever- in the event of sickness or death their minds are downloaded from the most recent save-point into a new body- so they behave disgracefully (casually smoking crack, for instance), and therefore, despite the author’s attempts to make them deserving of our empathy, are kind of despicable. This would be totally excusable if the novel were pure satire, but the author’s nostalgic sentimentality for the pop culture he should be using to eviscerate us is what ultimately binds his hands and makes the book flat (for instance a major plot twist foreshadowed… or completely given away if you’re familiar with the song “Rocky Raccoon”... by the narrator’s love interest being named Lil who cheats on him with, you guessed it, his “friend” Dan). This is perhaps the most frustrating part for me; I expected a dystopian novel set in Disney World to offer some really scathing satire, really roasting our cultural attachments to inane, overly-cute nonsense, but the author seems not be able to make up his mind on this point: the characters truly love Disney, more specifically, The Haunted Mansion, and spend most of their time geeking about it, working to make it better, and saving it from the forces of evil. Now, the mansion is probably the least despicable thing about the Magic Kingdom, because it is at least a nod to the original folk and fairy-tales Walt Disney used to built his glittery kingdom off of: namely a hard stare at where horror (even if the horror of the Mansion is somehow, frustratingly, made cute by the end with campy songs and pesky poltergeists that just want to hitchhike a ride home with you… gawsh) intersects with beauty; this is my main beef with Disney: the emphasis is on the glitter, the cuteness, the virtue, while the ugly, the horrific has had all its fangs knocked out, talons filed down, and the most menace it can muster is skulking in a long line sucking down a Capri-Sun, masking a longing look at the air conditioned waiting room four bends distant as a malevolent stare (sorry Mel, if you’re reading this. I love you). See here my youngest son’s face just before we forced him to go inside said mansion. That alone was almost worth the utter miasma that is Disney.

I can’t decide if the characters’ love and loyalty to the park is intended to be satirical! It feels like they, and the author, might really be into it. The Hall of Presidents is lambasted as being trite and dull (yup), but even IT is used as a meaningful platform to introduce presidential style satirical narrative into the sorry state of humanity as it’s portrayed in the book: Lincoln intones: “if destruction be our lot, then we ourselves must be its author-- and its finisher.” So the line is blurred here in a way that doesn’t serve the novel. It seems as if the book is trying to say humanity is destroying itself by becoming tritely beautiful, namely the glitter-crack, pleasure-fest that it has become in the book... Heck, the main character is murdered for Christ’s Sake, and the reader really doesn’t care, because nothing was at stake… he’s just uploaded into a new body and viola. So, ultimately his need to find out who killed him is just as inane as the killer’s reveal at the “climax” of the book. So as I reflect, I think this book could really pop as satire if the author figured out how he wants us to view his characters, and Disney. Sort out your priorities, mate... do you want to eviscerate us or inspire us to visit the Magic Kingdom?

I feel like I've just taken a hard swing at a writer I really like, so on the zero percent chance you ever read this, Cory Doctorow, I’m sorry. I really like you when you’re on, but for me this book was rough.


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