Random Review: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

All the charm of a guy standing, arms folded, at a magic show and loudly explaining how he figured out all the tricks.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory DoctorowDownandout

In a future, deathless, society people with computers in their brains try to run Disney World.

That’s really all I can muster as far as a synopsis. I really did not like this book. I didn’t dislike it as much as Ready Player One, but it was close.

This book was so narratively uneven, I’m just going to analyze it using a list:

The Major:

  • The main character is horrible. Pompous, condescending, narrow-minded, and limited in both emotional range and depth of feeling. He verges on sociopathic, valuing people primarily for the benefits the offer in his life. The character acknowledges some of these flaws from time to time, but makes no effort to change or compensate for them. He just expects everyone to recognize his inherent rightness and fall in line.
  • I love Disneyland and Disney World, even hearing about the technical development and detailed work so many brilliant creative minds put into it. Somehow Doctorow makes the behind-the-scenes stuff dry as an overcooked pork-chop. He often comes off as smug, describing the nuts and bolts of the attractions, even as his author-insertion main character berates other characters for the same.
  • The resolution feels somehow both too obvious and a like bit of a cheat in the narrative.
  • There are frequent contradictions in the world-building. There is a currency of inter-personal esteem, and somehow a person with none at all can’t get an elevator door to open for him but can get into Disney World. The story loops back on itself several times in whiplash fashion, undoing what has just seemed accomplished in the previous chapter.

The Minor: 

  • The main character has a girlfriend with a Bella Swan/Edward Cullen-level age disparity. This could be an interesting comment on connection in a society where apparent age has become irrelevant, even deceiving. Instead, it is depicted in a way that makes the main character appear immature at best, creepily perverted at worst. Like when, upon meeting, his teenage girlfriend’s youthful innocence and hygiene makes him want to pinch “either set” of her cheeks.

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  • There is limited invented slang in the novel, but “Whuffie” and “Bitchun Society” seemed like juvenile place-holders that should have been replaced in editing.
  • All of the relationships are paper-thin.
  • It is awfully hard to get invested in a murder-mystery when the person is replaced with a clone with a near-identical memory mere days after it happens. Particularly when the character just spent some time talking about how death is merely an inconvenience. His sudden outrage became comical, “it’s okay when other people die, NOT ME!” The entire story hinges on this self-important jerk imagining that nothing can possibly go right unless he is there to manage it personally. A more skilled writer probably could have gotten me to buy-in, but that was not the case.
  • All of the relationships were paper-thin. Familial, “best” friendships, collegial, adversarial. All the characters were paper-thin. Placeholders for the interesting people who might have been. “Love” was meaningless, people who had wronged one-another basically made a sad face and kept right on doing wrong. That might have been intentional, again to show the superficiality of what a world without scarcity had become, but you still need a skilled writer to find a way for the reader to invest and engage.

This novel brought out all my worst anxieties as a person who sometimes writes things: that I might assemble a novel that is a string of interesting ideas poorly joined, that I might write unrelatable characters, that I might frequently contradict myself within the lines of my own world and premise.

Overall, this was a really frustrating read. Not good or bad enough to enjoy. I would say it was a waste of interesting ideas, if M.T. Anderson hadn’t written a book with essentially all the same ideas which I love: Feed.

Seriously, read Feed. Take the time to get acclimated to the slang, and read it.

Chair Rating:

Flat, uncomfortable, and essentially broken.

Flat, uncomfortable, and essentially broken.

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