Books

LOG: You Know You Want This reveals more than it intends

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

Much like the rest of the world, I was fascinated by Roupenian’s Cat Person when it appeared in the New Yorker. Although I was immensely frustrated by the story and the actions of the main character, I felt Roupenian had tapped into a cultural moment better than anyone else who had tried. It seemed she had something to say and it would be worth it to hear her message. This short story collection shows the promise Roupenian has to craft a compelling message about the darkness of our own desires, but largely I found these stories to be a mix of adolescent drama and egomania mental illness.

How was it?

Let’s start with the good. The last batch of stories in this collection show Roupenian at her most promising. Unsurprisingly, these stories are also the ones that are highlighted by reviews and the jacket cover. These stories give life to the mental disturbances in our own mind by manifesting them as real life terrors, more frequently of the body-horror variety.

  • Scarred is a short tale about a woman summoning a naked man who acts as a cadaver as she cuts him for blood and other ingredients as she betters herself with more black magic.
  • The Matchbox Sign follows a couple where the woman develops strange “insect bites” that spread across her body, while doctors suggest they’re self-inflicted.
  • Death Wish is a first-person recount of a strange sexual fetish.
  • Biter tells the story of Ellie and her desire to bite people for gratification.
Death Wish

There are obvious themes across these four stories. Our desires — specifically sexual fetishes — can corrupt the world around us. They can be a source of self-fulfillment and gratification, while degrading our so-called loved ones. Each of these stories has a different take on how we may respond to being targeted as the supplier of our sick fantasies. Some of us can’t handle it and stay forever disturbed (Death Wish) while others may accept our demented side (Matchbox Sign). Roupenian has tapped into the vulnerability our culture feels when discussing our sexuality and how it exists in the #MeToo era. Although these are the most promising stores in the collection, they often end short of their potential. Quickly wrapping up anticlimactically when it feels like it was just getting good. These later stories show Roupenian is close to synthesizing her ideas into something really quite novel.

However, the rest of the book could convincingly make the case that Roupenian needs to address her own demented desires before further plunging herself into fiction writing. I am a strong believer of separating art from the artist, but virtually every character — their motivations and worldview — appear to be see-through stand-ins for Roupenian herself. Specifically, the thoughts and desires of someone who suffers from intense narcissism. This is evident by the fact that all of her stories maintain this revolting obsession with reputation sabotage, sadism and egomania. Let’s look at some of these stories:

Bad Boy — where a couple discovers their fetish for teasing their friend and using him for sex.

“It became the kernel of a fantasy we shared, picturing him out there with his ear pressed to the wall, all churned up by jealousy and arousal and shame.” (pg. 4)

“As soon as he was gone, though, we got so bored we could barely stand it. We white-knuckled it through two days, but without him around to watch us, we felt so dull and pointless it was almost as though we didn’t exist.” (pg. 8)

Look at Your Game, Girl — a young girl recalls the time when a strange beach-bum’s attention to her could’ve turned her into a nationally recognized name.

“After she went away to college, Jessica came to believe that this early impulse to link her own experience to Polly’s had arisen from a childish self-absorption, the impulse to see herself as the center point around which the rest of the universe revolved.” (pg. 25)

Scarred

The Night Runner — an earnest Peace Corps teacher is pushed to desperation due to a class of girls terrorizing him.

“She was propositioning him, and the joke of her offer to take him back behind the classroom and suck him off in return for a higher mark left him red-faced and stunned, she while strolled back to her desk amidst cheers.” (pg. 46)

The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone — a princess seeking suitors decides a mirror that reflects her image, a bucket that echoes her voice, and a thigh bone that replicates her touch, is the “mate” she chooses to spend her life with.

“You love what you love, the king said. If that means you are selfish, or arrogant, or spoiled, then so be it. I love you, and your children love you, and the people of the kingdom love you, and we don’t want to see you suffer any longer.” (pg. 71)

Cat Person — a young woman has a complicated relationship with a man, but ultimately finds herself most attracted to him when he makes her life herself.

“…from the way he was gazing at her; in his eyes, she could see how pretty she looked, smiling through her tears in the chalky glow of the streetlight, with a few flakes of snow coming down.” (pg. 83)

“She was starting to think that she understood him — how sensitive he was, how easily he could be wounded — and that made her feel closer to him.” (pg. 85)

“She pushed her body against his, feeling tiny beside him, and he let out a great shuddering sigh, as if she were something too bright and painful to look at, and that was sexy, too, being made feel like a kind of irresistible temptation.” (pg. 86)

“As they kissed, she found herself carried away by a fantasy of such pure ego that she could hardly admit even to herself that she was having it. Look at this beautiful girl, she imagined him thinking. She’s so perfect, her body is perfect, everything about her is perfect, she’s only twenty years old, her skin is flawless, I want her so badly, I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anyone else, I want her so bad I might die.” (pg. 89)

Once again, I believe in separating art from the artist. A writer’s ability to create a viciously immoral character does not imply they themselves are viciously immoral, but these disturbing views are not exclusive to one character, or one story, they exist across all of the stories. Roupenian herself has said that reading her stories is a window into her worldview:

Here’s the catch: when you read a story I’ve written, you’re not thinking about me—you’re thinking as me. I’ve wormed my way inside your head (hi!) and briefly taken over your mind. You’re forced to reckon with my full complexity—or, at least, whatever fraction of that complexity I’ve managed to get down on the page.

Kristen Roupenian, New Yorker

With this in mind, it’s obvious Roupenian has a sustained interest in the concept of extreme idolization, to the point where a person is willing to self-harm to please the target of their affection. This theme is present in virtually every character across the many stories within the collection. On its own, this fascination with a dismal personality flaw might be interesting enough to dedicate a dozen short stories to, but what makes You Know You Want This so loathsome to read is how it celebrates the narcissism of its protagonists.

Bad Boy’s protagonists are the tormentors. Look At Your Game, Girl reads like a missed-connections tragedy. The Night Runner routinely emasculates and degrades a person who’s shown to be earnest. The queen/princess of Mirror/Bucket/Thigh Bone is relished for her selfishness. Cat Person’s Margot is hailed as a survivor of toxic masculinity despite being the author of the story’s emotional terrorism.

The Good Guy

These characterizations of immoral, awful people prevailing in their own terribleness is infuriating to read. As if they were the modern-era equivalent of a teenage boy writing about a muscular anti-hero manipulating women into sex. The majority of You Know You Want This reads like a childish power fantasy. One where Roupenian and her subjects acknowledge their immorality and get rewarded for it.

My only hope is that Roupenian is playing a different role than the one she’s been assigned. Viewed as a voice for women in #MeToo, Roupenian seems more interested in examining the extent of awfulness humans are allowed. In what situations do we forgive our tormentors? What becomes our breaking point when we’ve already submitted ourselves to abuse? These are fascinating questions that seem to be on Roupenian’s mind. Most notable in in Biter, where the protagonist’s desire to bite a man is portrayed as deranged, but circumstances arise so that she’s seen as a hero. It’s an interesting conclusion that made me reconsider the rest of the book’s themes.

Final thoughts

I have no idea how this short story collection came about. These very well could be stories Roupenian wrote over a decade ago, before she crafted her style, or understood the target of her obsessions. Maybe she even realized her earlier stories were devoid of morals and has learned to tune them to a wider audience. Maybe that is why the last batch of stories are significant improvements from the ones that precede them. This is all I can hope for.

I won’t diminish Roupenian’s potential. There clearly is some talent behind her writing. However, as a standalone work, You Know You Want This reads like the immature journal doodlings of an egomaniacal prom queen.

1/5

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Books

LOG: Sapkowski finds the Witcherverse’s potential with Sword of Destiny

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

As mentioned in a previous log, I’m in the middle of rereading the entirety of The Witcher books after I lost track of the plot in the third novel — Baptism of Fire.

Sword of Destiny is the second short-story compilation before the true story of The Witcher series begins. While technically these short stories are “separate” from the larger storyline that begins with Blood of Elves, the information from these short stories are utilized in the novels in meaningful ways. For example, Geralt is introduced to Ciri — a future main character — in one of the latter stories of Sword of Destiny. This introduction may not be vital to understanding their relationship but it certainly helps. Considering I dropped off the novels because I felt lost by the revolving-door of characters and conflicts, I wanted to reread these short stories more diligently. Refreshing my memory of what has happened could better prepare me for what events were coming up.

How was it?

I remember really enjoying Sword of Destiny, far more than I anticipated, and even more so than The Last Wish. The author — Andrzej Sapkowski — has clearly set-up what journey he wants his characters to take and as a result the stories in Sword of Destiny feel cohesive with one another. Whereas The Last Wish was a string of subverting fantasy tropes, Sword of Destiny feels like it’s about something. Specifically, Geralt’s philosophy on where he lies in the world’s conflicts, his relationship with Yennefer, and his views on fate.

The Bounds of Reason

The Bounds of Reason is the first story in this collection and may very well be one of the tightest introductions in a short-story compilation. A side character named Threejacks is introduced and frames the reader’s interpretation of the Witcherverse by asking Geralt if he sides more with the forever-conflicting concepts of chaos and order. Threejacks suggests Geralt is one the side of order, because monsters are on the side of chaos, and Geralt kills monsters professionally. However, Geralt counters that a dragon is most certainly on the side of chaos, but witchers don’t kill dragons. This conversation becomes far more complex as the events of the Bounds of Reason unfold and we learn more about Threejacks, as well as what Geralt is thinking at this point in time.  

Bounds of Reason introduces a slew of side characters in the form of various mercenaries, all vying for reward money for a particular contract. These characters allow Sapkowski to reintroduce various parts of the world — the ruthlessly violent professionals, the impractical idealists, the snooty bourgeois, the chaotic monsters, and the common man who’s crushed by each of those groups. The interplay between these groups dumps the reader into the Witcherverse’s shades of gray, while anchoring it all to Geralt’s story and his various friends. In this case, Dandelion and Yennefer. Every one of these characters serves a plot purpose and there is a string of payoffs in the final chapter that provide an immensely satisfying conclusion. It’s practically a perfect story.

A Shard of Ice

Bounds of Reason is followed-up by A Shard of Ice, a story that focuses on Geralt’s relationship with Yennefer and establishes Sword of Destiny’s willingness to tell tales outside of traditional fantasy quests. A Shard of Ice reveals Geralt and Yennefer have been engaged in an on-again-off-again complicated relationship and in that time Yennefer has reconnected with a former lover — a sorcerer named Istredd. Geralt and Istredd become aware of one another and Yennefer’s desire to reduce her number of lovers, pitting them against each other.

A Shard of Ice proves to be a surprisingly modern story, considering it was written in the mid 90s. The dynamic between the three characters is easily relatable to anyone entrenched in the hellscape of modern dating where there is a silent agreement every romantic engagement is deemed “casual,” unless commitment is explicitly stated. A familiar dynamic emerges where all parties believe they were fine with the noncommittal nature of a relationship, but the presence of competition makes them realize they care about it more than they realized, forcing them to rush for a resolution while stomaching emotional pain. This is a good pitch for a story, but a lot of Sapkowski’s writing devolves into this infuriating vagueness in pursuit of being “deep” that can get very frustrating. Specifically, Yennefer tells of a story of an “ice queen” as a metaphor for herself. It starts off coherent enough, but as Geralt throws in his own metaphor and the two intermingle, it becomes less clear what each character is trying to say — or what Sapkowski is trying to convey.

Still, this story is one of the only insights we get into Geralt and Yennefer’s feelings for one another. It’s also one of the few stories that lacks any physical combat or battle of some sort. It’s entirely focused on the characters and their conflict. It shows that their personalities are strong enough to hold the reader’s interest, and the diversity of Sapkowski’s writing ability. It shows where the Witcher stories could go, and sets up the theme of the rest of the book.

Eternal Flame

Eternal Flame is likely the most unique story in the collection simply because it barely follows Geralt at all. Centered around a dwarf named Dainty Biberveldt who’s had his identity stolen by a doppler, this story builds the world of the Witcherverse’s greater economy and various institutions. We get introduced to the city of Novigard — the only worthwhile metropolis mentioned in the entire series — as well as the religious cult of the Eternal Flame, the legal system of local cities, the dwarves’ guild, bankers’ guild and how a market economy is affected by the constant waring of feudal states.

This is one of those stories where fans can reread endlessly to infer additional lore details about the Witcherverse. We get exposed to many elements and sects of life that otherwise exist as background to the tales of Geralt, Ciri and Yennefer. It’s a story that feels remarkably different from the other stories in the collection and solidifies Sword of Destiny’s point of proving the versatility of stories told in the Witcherverse.

A Little Sacrifice

A Little Sacrifice is a low-key, low-stakes, story for Geralt, but it may be my favorite story in the entire series. Geralt takes on a contract to assist a local lord woo a mermaid into marriage, and while doing so he spends time with Dandelion and his longtime friend/fellow musician, Essi “Little Eye” Daven. Geralt and Essi get engaged in the equivalent of a “summer fling,” which forces Geralt to confront his feelings for Yennefer. There’s an obvious theme between Geralt’s fling, and his mission to force an unnatural relationship into success, but they’re surprisingly understated.

A Little Sacrifice feels like a novelty episode of your favorite TV show. There’s no real conflict in the story; it’s pitched as a string of summer days with friends spending time with one another. It’s maybe the only story where you feel a sense of peace and joy in its events. This tone, combined with the subject material of love and regret, creates an immensely melancholy atmosphere. You can feel the impermanence of happiness existing in the story’s pages. Even though this is one of the longer stories in the Witcherverse, I personally felt like I didn’t want it to end. Essi is an incredibly likable character and we see Geralt at his most vulnerable. The final paragraphs of A Little Sacrifice are heart-crushing, and easily one of Sapkowski’s finest moments.

Sword of Destiny

Sword of Destiny’s title-story is significant for its introduction of Cirilla “Ciri” Fiona to the series, but otherwise is the most insignificant story. Geralt ventures through the forest and comes across Elven territory where he finds a mousy young Ciri. He attempts to aid her through the forest, but we’re introduced to the “dryads” of the forest. Psuedo-elves who were human children, straying too far into the forest, and are subsequently captured and indoctrinated into dryad life. Ciri is one such child. Though Geralt tries to intervene with her fate, it becomes clear that he must leave her behind. There are many macro-plot lines introduced in this chapter, such as Nilfgaard’s war, elder blood, elven prophecies, magic and the relationship between various realms like Cintra and neighboring nations, but the drama of this story is lackluster. Sapkowski relies heavily on vague metaphors about a “sword of destiny” that “cuts two ways,” but it’s not clear what this comparison is meant to convey. It also doesn’t help that Sword of Destiny ends anticlimactically, leading directly into the next story.

Geralt shooting fire

Something More

Something More, is the final short story for the collection and launches Geralt onto the journey that will be told for the remaining six novels. After assisting a tradesman on the side of the road, Geralt suffers a near-fatal injury, causing him to drift in and out of consciousness as he recalls previous memories. Primarily, his promise made in The Last Wish’s Matter of Price, where he said he would return in six years to collect on his law of surprise — a barter where witchers offer help, in exchange for “something at home that you don’t suspect,” often a child. In this instance, Geralt goes to the country of Cintra to collect on this law of surprise, but after philosophizing with Queen Calanthe for a bit he decides it isn’t worth the trouble. Leaving Cintra empty-handed, Geralt decides to help the tradesman referenced in the beginning of the story.

Along with the memory of his time in Cintra, Geralt recalls one of his prior meetings with Yennefer, and partly hallucinates an interaction with his biological mother. These both provide a tied knot for two dangling threads left by the series so far: What’s Geralt’s backstory? And where is his relationship with Yennefer going? The former is explicitly concluded and the latter is framed as a never-ending conflict in Geralt’s life. While it’s nice for Sapkowski to clearly reiterate his intentions for the main character, these interactions feel a little stale. I’ve never desired an answer to Geralt’s lineage, so the mother scene feels out-of-place. Additionally, Yennefer has been a constant presence within the book so far, so to emphasize her importance once again seems repetitive.

Finally, the crux of this story is centered around the vaguely fatalist “law of surprise” and the complicated lineage politics of Cintra — a lesser-nation in the context of the world’s greater geopolitics. It’s easy to get lost in the needlessly confusing threads spewed across this story. The multiple flashbacks and reintroduction of old characters makes it difficult to know where the story is going, what it’s trying to accomplish, or what we should be paying attention to. All of these thoughts swirl together until it abruptly reveals Geralt’s reward for the law of surprise: Ciri, effectively binding each other by fate, or as the book states — something more.

Final Thoughts

Taken as a whole Sword of Destiny leaves a powerful impact. The first four stories are so phenomenally told and wonderfully unique, it creates a lot of excitement for the prospect of a full-fledged novel in the Witchverse. However, the final two chapters show how Sapkowski can sometimes get lost in the various themes and characters interacting with one another to disappointing results. Sword of Destiny simultaneously shows how the characters are strong enough to support a story on their own, while also reminding readers of Sapkowski’s flawed desire to keep adding more ingredients to a formula that’s fine on its own.

Although it may end on an indication of things to come, Sword of Destiny is still one of the best books I’ve read. It’s surprisingly modern and dense with interpretations. It’s the book I remember whenever the novels slow in pace, because I know the slog will be worth it if Sapkowski can recapture what he accomplished in this series of stories.

5/5

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Books, Politics

Log: The Coddling of the American Mind

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

In 2015, I read Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty. At the time, it seemed like our country was at the height of on-campus hysteria and reading that book gave me an enormous peace of mind. For starters, it looked like the bulk of these problems were originating from the left — the portion of the spectrum I had identified with my entire life. If I disagreed with what was happening on the left, did that mean I belonged somewhere else? This thought led me to researching conservative ideologies which I quickly deduced were not representative of my views at all. I felt out of place. There was nowhere in this new dynamic where I was represented, but then I read Lukianoff’s book.

Lukianoff is a self-described lifelong Democrat who cherishes free-speech and other liberal ideals. These were views I aligned with. I consider myself a free speech absolutist, but at the time it was difficult to find anyone who agreed with view that wasn’t a right-wing lunatic. Lukianoff’s take was refreshing and gave me the insight I needed to make sense of the crazy world we were descending into. From Lukianoff, I was introduced to many other public intellectuals. Jonathan Haidt, co-author of Coddling and a researcher who did studies on political tribalism; Sam Harris, who I had cursory knowledge of but didn’t look into many of his views; Steven Pinker — and eventually more uniquely political-defined characters such as Mark Lilla, Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, Jordan Peterson and Brett / Eric Weinstein. Reading Lukianoff’s book set me on a path to finding the voices I now consider the most valuable in our current moment.

Of course, 2015 was not the peak year of campus hysteria or whatever we want to call this strange time we’re living in. It’s not clear we’ve reached the peak. You could argue 2018 was the worst year yet, but 2019 has already started with a viral scandal about the media’s portrayal of MAGA hat-wearing teenagers and if they didn’t anything wrong or not. We’re clearly still in a time we don’t quite understand. The Coddling of the American Mind is a book that attempts to resolve some of the mysteries of how we got here.

Greg Lukianoff

How was it?

It’s interesting to read a book by two authors because you can pretty much tell when one section is written by one or the other. Lukianoff is an effective writer and makes every sentence meaningful. I tend to highlight key sentences or phrases that impact me and I had to stop myself from highlighting entire pages of this book. Of course, other sections are far more sparse of quality one-liners and take a bit to get to the point (my analysis is these sections were written by Haidt). In terms of pure readability, this is an engaging book on a topic that could’ve come across as dull. Although I have to say the introduction chapter has one of the dumbest framing gimmicks I’ve read in nonfiction.

In terms of information, I was a bit surprised the book’s thesis relied so heavily on other authors. Specifically, Nassim Taleb’s theory on anti-fragility is front and center for most of the book. Other authors and written works are pulled from Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids and Jean Twenge’s iGen. I suppose it’s worth saving the time by not rehashing what other experts have already concluded, but at times it felt in the dark on the full-scope of an explanation because I wasn’t well-read on the other sources of information the authors repeatedly pulled from.

Jonathan Haidt

Of course the book has a fair amount of its own analysis, especially in the “How Did We Get Here?” portion of the book. It makes a compelling case for how the issues born on campus actually came from a variety of sources that intermingled for this very specific catastrophe of free society. This isn’t a book that gives a simple answer for a complicated problem, there are many layers to the issue and each one is extracted and examined. The book doesn’t suggest the finger can be pointed at any one event or individual, this is an issue that came to life due to many influences and all of them must be addressed.

The end of the book concludes with ways to potentially address the problems and I thought this was one of the stronger sections of the book. For one, it helps to end a grim book on a point of optimism. It also helps that the solutions range from small-scope to large-scale and are all backed by data. Something as small as restricting kids’ time on smartphones is an easy life change to make, but others like incentivizing students to take a gap year after high school by altering college admissions to favor that behavior, show how institutional change could affect these outcomes as well. You finish the book feeling like there is a way out of this hole we’ve dug into.

Final Thoughts

I’ve followed the issue of campus hysteria pretty closely for five years, so a lot of this book was a rehash. It felt slow at times; mainly when I was in a section about an experience I still have fresh in my memory. Even with the repetitiveness, this book has macro-level analysis that isn’t always possible in the news cycle of individual events. The third and fourth parts of this book offer the reader an opportunity to step back and see the extent of the situation we find ourselves in as a country. These parts of the book are what made the reading experience worth it.

I can only imagine how much more rewarding this book would be in the hands of someone who had no knowledge of this issue, or maybe only heard about it on their periphery. This book acts as a great introduction for the unfamiliar and adds important insight to a problem others may be well aware of.

4/5

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fiction

In Flight

“I’ve been having a ‘me’ year,” Derek said, although it was closer to two years now since he had finally acknowledged the rampant unhappiness in his life and resolved only to commit to himself in all manners of life.

“I can tell, you look great!” Kelsey said. It was true. Derek’s “me” year provided many successes. He lost weight, earned a promotion at his job, traveled quite a bit (alone) and managed to finish War & Peace after maintaining an off-and-on-again relationship with the Russian tome for over a decade. The successes were nice, but hollow. He kept prolonging the me “year” and eventually discovered his isolation merely replaced one destructive coping mechanism with another.

“Thank you, it’s been good but I needed to come back,” Derek said, he wanted to reintegrate with his friend group and this annual New Year’s party was a good excuse. There were a few people he was hoping to see, but kept an open mind about who he’d reconnect with. Kelsey wasn’t exactly one of his closest friends, but she was incredibly inoffensive. She had the type of unabashed optimism that would be fitting for an animated Disney protagonist, but she was difficult to condemn without sullying yourself; you can’t really criticize a person’s optimism without announcing your own bastardly character.

“You should meet my friend Jill,” Kelsey said and motioned toward another end of the party. “You’d like her, she’s nice.”

They walked through the crowd of people illuminated by multi-colored lights and sparklers. Jill was positioned close to the speakers playing nostalgia-laden 80s tunes, but she had no difficulty projecting over the noise. In fact, she handled most of the conversation on her own. Jill was a 24-year-old veterinarian. She loved animals, dogs specifically, and coffee, and dogs, and astrology, and dogs. She brought one with her. His name was Rusty. They had the same sign (Scorpio). She’d hold him while she talked. Sometimes she’d put him down and use wild hand motions to accentuate the emotion in a story about herself, but then Rusty would come back over and shower her with attention until she picked him up again. She loved Rusty. Her love for animals was so immense she thought maybe she was truly from a different species of human — one that descended from dogs.

“You know, it’s like, those people that say men are from Mars and women are from Venus — right? Well I’m like from — somewhere else,” Jill said.

Derek felt a strong reaction to Jill, but likely not the kind Kelsey intended or Jill would’ve wanted. During his year of exile, he found he valued less and less in the world. Niceness was one of the causalities. It seemed like a character trait that could only be applied vaguely; for strangers with no actual personality. Jill seemed like a nice person. She liked things. She felt love for life. She wouldn’t harm anyone, and maybe that’s why he found her boring. For all of Jill’s niceness, he could only think how nice it’d be to push on her windpipe until she couldn’t talk about dogs ever again.

“Do you think you’d go to another planet,” he asked.

“Me?” Jill clarified without waiting for response “Oh, I mean. Totally. They’re sending those ships eventually, right? I mean, maybe I’ll find more of my people there… Would you go?” Jill opened her eyes wide and sucked on the straw leading to her fruity drink.

“I feel like it would take a lot of self-restraint — you know because…” he searched for the rest of his thought across the room but felt his attention spiral out of control as the woman he hadn’t seen for nearly two years made her entrance to the party. She had silver hair now, apparently having had exhausted the rest of the rainbow. Derek remembered seeing her one last time in her apartment with blue hair, then a few days later announced to the world she was blonde. He knew then it was over.

Jill had taken advantage of Derek’s prolonged silence and continued musing about space-traveling dogs, but he didn’t care. His attention was focused on the silver-haired guest circling the room. He didn’t want to appear scared to look at her and miss an opportunity to acknowledge one another. It was already awkward enough with how they left things. He could tell she felt his presence; she was careful not to wander her gaze in his direction. His stomach turned as her irises danced around him. He felt annoyed knowing they might ignore each other for an indefinite amount of time. Couldn’t she get it over with and face him the way he envisioned in his head? In that exact moment she found his eyes, curled her lips into a smile, and approached.

“Hey you,” she said playfully. He anticipated an affectionate greeting but felt only the embrace of anxiety. “How’ve you been?”

“We were just talking about space travel,” Derek replied after a pause, he didn’t want to bring up the past. “Jill was saying whether she would go to another planet.”

“Totally,” Jill said, retrieving Rusty from the floor.

“How about you,” she asked. “Were you planning on leaving all this behind?”

Derek considered the thought. He had tried. For the past two years he had challenged every aspect of his life to see what would hold. Did he really like anything about his life or was he running on inertia? Nothing escaped his examination and much of it was eviscerated. His friends, his career, his hobbies, and much more was systematically reset. For a long time, this felt exhilarating. As if he had launched from a space probe, feeling the air rush past him as he got closer to unexplored territory that would reveal his true self, but as he descended faster downward he found the only surface waiting for him was rock bottom. Before he started his journey, he would’ve taken a trip to another planet, but now he feared the void he sought to resolve raged inside him still.

“I was saying before, I feel like it would take a lot of self-restraint,” Derek began, searching around the room for the rest of his thought. “Because you’re going to be on another planet eventually, but first you have to live for two or three years on that spaceship with the all the same people every day.”

“Yeah, I’d probably just kill everyone on board,” she said dismissively. Derek’s face lit up.

“That’s what I was going to say!” Derek said with grin. “How can you miss the opportunity to be the first space serial killer?”

“Oh yeah, you’re in history forever if you do that,” she said with a smile. “You’d probably have a cult started in your name too.”

“’Mommy, why are there no astronauts anymore,’” Derek began mockingly. “’Well, honey, there was this one guy…’”

“With the way things are going now, you’d secure the extinction of our entire race, that’s like the most consequential thing you can do with your life” she said.

“Huh,” Jill said defeatedly. “I feel like being one of the first space colonists would be consequential enough on its own.”

“Nah, I’d rather be an intergalactic terrorist,” she said, stifling her laughter.

They laughed at the absurdity of their conversation until Jill used Rusty to excuse herself. Alone with one another, Derek could feel a familiar thrill as their cynical humor propelled them through taboos and the profane. Suddenly the void inside him seemed like an ally, guiding him toward the happiness he had sought. If he closed his eyes and focused he might’ve noticed the sound of air rushing by on his way down, but when he opened them again he could only see the reflection of his best self in the mirror of her approving gaze.

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Politics

Crisis 2020: What Our Next President Needs to Acknowledge

We’re over a year away from the first primaries and almost two years away from election day, but with five high-profile politicians announcing their candidacy as America’s next president in the past week alone — it’s clear we’re full-swing into the 2020 election cycle. This isn’t going to be a fun election. It’ll be as grueling of an exorcism on our country’s values as the last one. It will feel like torture, but it will be necessary torture. There are big questions we have to resolve about our country’s future. Along the way it will become very easy to get lost in the day-to-day horror show, so I wanted to outline my personal beliefs and what I’ll be looking for in our next president.

I want to stress that this election is the second part of a once-in-a-lifetime event. As The Atlantic’s David Frum said: America’s politics were frozen from 1990 to 2015, evident by the fact that the main issues on opposite sides of the era were exactly the same: health care, wars in the middle east, Russia, taxes on the rich and ultra-partisanship. If we learned anything from 2016, it’s that the public was desperate to shatter the ice. We’re still picking up the pieces from that decision. It’s clear the majority of people are not happy with our current state of affairs but it is just as true that many people do not want to go back to the past. We all want to go somewhere different. Where that destination may be lies in the candidates for this election. This isn’t simply the rejection of our current president, it’s deciding the future of our political parties for the next generation.

Below are some musings about what I think are the two most important things facing our country.

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Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren became popular as the progressive darling of the party, but many other politicians have risen alongside her.

The Economy and a post-work society

Let’s talk about robots. Everyone knows that automation is coming. We see it at McDonalds’ self-serve kiosks or read about it when Amazon announces they’re investing in drone technology to handle deliveries. Automation will be a great thing for many reasons. The jobs that are getting automated are careers no one wants. No one’s life purpose is discovered making change as a cashier or troubleshooting tech support over the phone. We’re happy to give these jobs over to robots, but the problem with automation comes from how our system is designed. America was founded on the prospect of receiving the fruits of one’s labor — but what does the world look like when you don’t have to work?

Right now, we only know what happens if you can’t work and it doesn’t look good.

In traditional capitalist market economy, they say when one market goes defunct, another one will take its place. Where there is a void in the market, a smart entrepreneur can cater to the market’s needs and make a living out of it. This is true for individuals as well. If your job is no longer viable, you’re motivated to get a new one. Many skills can be retrained and reapplied to different industries and we all have an intrinsic desire to survive. This is what many economists say will happen with the automation revolution. Unfortunately for anyone paying attention, we know this is not the case, because we already have a test case for what happens when an industry disappears.

Between 2000 and 2009, America lost five million manufacturing jobs. There is a dispute on whether these jobs were sent overseas or automated by robots, but the fact remains that these jobs are never coming back. In the wake of their disappearance, our country now had five million unemployed workers with relatively dexterous skills and decades of experience. Market economists would tell you these workers had a good chance of retraining for another job, but that is not what happened. The majority of displaced manufacturing workers were unemployed for over a year and then eventually stopped looking, leaving the workforce. Some applied to work retraining programs which proved to have an effectiveness of zero to 33 percent.

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Entrepreneur Andrew Yang is a long-shot candidate running on the platform of Universal Basic Income to compensate for shifts automation will make to the American economy.

What are all those workers doing if they’re not paying for their cost of living? The government is paying for it. Starting in 2000, more Americans started filing for disability insurance. The increase in disability benefits focused in states hit hardest by manufacturing losses, such as Michigan. Of course, disability wasn’t meant to act as a replacement for work and it wasn’t meant to balloon in size over a short amount of time (the number of Americans on disability doubled between 1980 and 2005). This isn’t to say that these workers “gave up” on finding a job and now belong in an underclass of Americans who rely on entitlements. They spent years looking for a job, but couldn’t find one. When desperation finally hit, they turned to government assistance. Who can blame them?  

Disability saved many manufacturing workers from financial ruin, but that option will not be available for the other industries that get displaced. America’s disability insurance was predicted to run out by 2028, due to the massive increase of recipients. The fund was merged with social security to prolong its financial sustainability. Social security is having its own fiscal problems though — that fund is expected to run out by 2034.

Manufacturing was one industry, but in the next decade we will see many more disappear from the market. AI experts say that any job that’s considered “routine” can be automated. Regardless of complexity, if a task is performed the same way every time, a computer can learn how to do it. The Federal Reserve has classified around 58 million jobs as “routine,” and therefore at risk of being automated. This includes the industries of retail, food service, call center support and trucking driving. These also happen to be the four most popular industries in the United States.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden is known as a policy-hound, and could provide some insight on how to resolve America’s economic problems.

Truck driving illuminates how dire this situation will become. The average truck driver is a 49-year-old male, with a high school diploma and no significant family. There are roughly 3 million truck drivers in the United States. It’s the most popular profession in 29 states. What’s going to happen to these truck drivers when they can’t get a job? What do you think millions of 49-year-old single men would do if pushed to desperation? The alternatives to disability insurance are not fun to consider.

While all this is going on, we have companies like Amazon and Apple announcing trillion-dollar valuations and market experts claiming the United States’ economy is better now than ever before. There is clearly a disconnect between these two Americas that cannot be ignored. We’re in the middle of redefining our country’s relationship with work and there are few suggestions to how we’ll navigate this reality. One thing is certain: our current system will collapse. It will begin to collapse during the next recession (which is forecasted any day now). Our country needs a leader who understands the breadth of this issue and has an ambitious solution for it.

When it comes to viable presidential candidates, this issue eliminates anyone who appears tone deaf to the extent of our economic crisis. This is a bigger problem than a $15 minimum wage or tax cuts for the rich can solve. We need big ideas because we can’t afford anything less. I’m more willing to consider a zany idea that appears to have the reach we need, over a more mainstream idea that clearly will not work.

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New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is known for being a skilled politician and effective policymaker, but her call for Senator Al Franken to step down rubbed some Wall Street campaign financers the wrong way — potentially crippling her financial position in a crowded field.

Education and the American purpose

It’s often debated whether school is meant to prepare students for a career or for life but it’s clear that the American education system does neither. A High School diploma has become so ubiquitous and devalued by programs like No Child Left Behind that it’s led to the necessity for post-secondary private education for students to stay competitive in the job market. Of course, private higher education has become just as meaningless as a High School diploma, all the while burdening students with oppressive debt that prevents them from entering the workforce sooner and suppresses entrepreneurial endeavors that are necessary to maintain a free marketplace.

We have a lot of economic reasons to fix our education system (and I’m intrigued by ideas such as bailing out student debt, or at least making loan payments interest free) but I believe our schools can resolve a different issue. Americans, and the western world, are facing an existential crisis of purpose. In the same way that our economy is being massively overhauled into a post-work society, our cultural identity has also massively shifted. The question of “what should I be doing with my life?” once had a few answers. Religious texts gave followers a path to leading a good life; American families stressed the importance of leaving a legacy and making the world better for the next generation; and some found their career to be worth dedicating to during the era of prosperous free-market capitalism. These options are not available to younger generations. American religiosity has plummeted (which has many good side effects, but this particular one could be marked as a negative), our country has a declining birth rate that’s barely equalized by mass immigration, and few have the option to pursue a career that’s guaranteed to employ them for their entire life.

Unsurprisingly, our country has become massively depressed and turned to destructive tendencies to fill the void. We’re in the midst of the biggest opioid epidemic in history. In 2015, drug overdoses took over car accidents as the most common form of death and has continued to reign number one ever since. Drug use is a way of ignoring our problems, but our solutions are just as damaging. I believe our political polarization is fueled by individuals desire to define their purpose with ideology. In many ways, politics has overtaken religion as our generation’s existential identity. This is why phrases like “everything is political” have become mainstream. Politics is the only lens people can view the world in a way that makes them care about it, so they inject it into everything, even where it does not belong.

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California Senator Kamala Harris has been an establishment candidate since her Senate race in 2016 where she was endorsed by Vice President Biden and President Barack Obama, despite running against another Democrat.

Last year’s The Coddling of the American Mind outlined how modern trends of polarization and increased anxiety could be addressed by restricting kids’ access to smartphones (two hours a day) and teaching them the basic tenants of cognitive behavioral therapy (a method of addressing cognitive distortions that lead to depression and anxiety — it doesn’t require medication or professional help and is hugely successful). I believe we can redesign our education to address the most important fact of reality: existence can be incredibly draining and you have to teach yourself to find enjoyment in life. There are small modifications that can be made to prevent catastrophe (such as CBT) but we also have to give students the means to discover their own purpose in life. Whether that’s creating a structure that contributes to society (business management, entrepreneurial pursuits, law), pursuing art (music, writing, visuals) or becoming a pillar of a community (parenthood, journalism, religious or volunteer work).

Giving students the resources to navigate the world is more important than frontloading them with entry-level information they might need. I’m sure any person can figure out the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell if they need that information to achieve their goal. That’s not the main concern for young people today. Most are totally lost. They either have no direction, or they’re so dejected by early failures they’re uncertain they can apply themselves to anything meaningful. This type of educational overhaul may not have many-short term gains, but it’ll address a generational issue that if we continue to ignore will lead to monumental problems in a decade or two.

I believe one of the biggest issues facing our generation is finding an answer to nihilism. It may be a stretch to call this section “education,” since the issue I’m describing exists far outside of standardized testing and the achievement gap, but this is the only institution in our society I believe can help with this goal. Nihilism is no longer the harmless, cringey, pop-philosophy name dropped in movies and metal albums. It has overtaken many Americans as their defining ideology. Anyone paying attention can see this. When one of the president’s biggest factions is a group of trolls who refer to a mythical “kekistan” where everything is a big joke; when you have a huge increase in mass shooters, all one-upping each other on who can cause the most devastation to reality; and when you have record breaking drug addiction and depression diagnoses, you’re dealing with a populace that doesn’t believe life matters. That belief has a consequential effect on the rest of us. Our country needs a leader who’s attuned to this existential problem and believes they can do something about it.

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Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg considered a run in 2016 but decided against it.

Closing thoughts

These two issues may seem to exist on such a macro-level that it’d be impossible for any politician to fulfill them. That may be true. I can’t imagine a dream candidate will descend from the heavens and resolve two of the biggest problems in our country within one term. However, this criterion serves the purpose of identifying who will not be helpful for our country’s future.

With these issues in mind, any politician campaigning on restoring our country to pre-2015 is dead on arrival. This is why I am totally unenthusiastic about the prospect of Joe Biden running for president. This is equally true for any establishment Republicans like Jeff Flake, Bob Corker or Mitt Romney. I’m unconvinced any of them truly understand the crisis our generation sees and they’ll want to talk about the same old ideas we’ve heard for decades. The ideas from the past will not lead us into the future.

My focus on redefining our American purpose toward something productive outlines my total zero tolerance toward any politician willing to play the identity politics game. Our generation has a massive over-reliance on deriving purpose from politics. That reliance has devastated our public discourse, ruined friendships, polarized our nation and hampered all mechanisms to resolve these issues. Maybe this would be ok if it resulted in a better world or healthier people — but there is no indication of that. We have increasing numbers of depression and anxiety, and various polls say Americans believe the world is getting worse — not better — despite overwhelming statistical evidence proving we’re in the best point in history. Politics works best when people angrily demand change. This incentive to stay in a perpetual state of anger is what is making us miserable. I see any politician exploiting this existential insecurity as an opportunist who’s leading their followers down a destructive path of self-immolation.

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Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders hasn’t ruled out running for President, but has suggested he’s deciding if there’s another candidate who could make a more viable run on the same platform.

Unfortunately, these two criterions knock out over half of the suspected democratic field. While I’m sure people like Kirsten Gillibrand or Cory Booker have the best of intentions with the tactics they utilize to bring about change, I believe some of those tactics directly contribute to the bigger issues looming over everything else. At the same time, although I may loathe their candidacy throughout the democratic primaries, if my only other option is the guy who’s systematically destroyed our country’s institutions, the choice makes itself.

I’ve been talking about these two issues for the past few months with some friends and the overwhelming response is a common criticism. “Every generation thinks they’re at the brink of global catastrophe!” Before our current moment there was nuclear war in Russia, before that we had a corrupt President who was shooting anti-war protestors on campus, before that we had an assassinated president and racists preventing civil rights, before than we had a world war, which came just after a great depression which was preceded by the first world war. With all these moments in our past and the story of our perseverance over each of them, how could we remain so cynical about the future? Each generation thought this was the end, but it wasn’t. That’s true, but I believe it is because they believed it was the end that they got through it.

Our current political moment may not be the tipping point before devastation, but it sure feels that way, and if we want to prove that feeling is wrong, we should take it seriously and elect a leader who can add the problems of today to the history of adversities we’ve overcome.

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Movies

Top Films of 2018

This year of film had a lot of incredible originality. I’ve never been more optimistic for the future of movies than right now. Here are some movies that show movies are still one of the best ways to tell stories and dissect the human experience:

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10. A Quiet Place

It’s pretty crazy that a movie like A Quiet Place was billed as a mainstream blockbuster. It wasn’t so long ago that filmmakers had preconceptions of what audiences would accept. At the top of that list has always been the necessity for dialogue. People believed audiences were too stupid to understand a plot through pictures. Those long sequences of no-talking were for artsy films by Stanley Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson. A Quiet Place has proven audiences are up for a lot more than Hollywood may have expected. The film has a plot explanation for the lack of exposition and it commits to its own rule without circumventing it by having soundproofed rooms or an abundance of subtitled sign language [Bird Box call out goes here].

The bravery of A Quiet Place to commit to its own idea is enough for me to commend the film, but it helps that it’s actually a thrilling nail-biter as well. The sound design has an obvious contribution to the tension, but just as important is John Krasinki’s direction and decision to show the monsters sparingly (although we do get that paid off eventually). It’s also a film that takes narrative risks. The opening scene shows the lethality of the world and proves to the audience that this story could go anywhere — and indeed it does. A Quiet Place is more than an exciting thriller with an intriguing pitch, it’s a sign of how far mainstream audiences have come and how far filmmakers are now allowed to go.

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9. The Front Runner

I could probably write ten thousand words about my thoughts on The Front Runner, but most of them would be focused on politics and not the movie itself. To put it simply, the story of Gary Hart is essential to modern day America. It’s a tragic tale of an upstanding politician whose presidential aspirations are torched by shoddy reporting and a societal shift toward denying privacy to public figures. Hugh Jackman plays the lead role of Senator Gary Hart and he perfectly captures the mixture of anger and disgust Hart embodied when he was asked personal questions or suggestions he had been unfaithful to his wife. He was a reasonable man who reacted appropriately to inappropriate inquiries, but it wasn’t the reaction the public wanted and we all suffered as a result.

One of the reasons this story is so important — although it is never addressed in the film — is Hart has since been exonerated for this so-called “scandal.” A Republican strategist admitted on his deathbed that Gary Hart’s scandal was a set-up. How could such a shoe-string trick tank an otherwise popular politician? Well, that’s where the 10,000 words come in. In short, The Front Runner will force you to address how you view the purpose of the press, how we consume media, and what’s relevant to report — without getting confused by the craziness of our current president. It seems we’re living in the day Hart predicted “when we get the kind of leaders we deserve.”

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8. Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse

It’s hard to believe this is the fourth time Spider-Man’s origin story has been committed to film, but Spider-Verse’s greatest accomplishment is how new it feels despite that fact. This is a superhero film with a purpose. It has a narrative it wants to tell that exists outside of maximizing audience likability to launch a franchise of films. As a result, Spider-Verse is the most refreshing superhero film in a long time. I really loved its total embrace of the animated art style and Spider-Verse concept. The presence of multiple universes isn’t a generic roadblock for the [hero] to overcome, it’s interwoven into every aspect of the film. The multiple Spider-Mans and alternative versions of well-known villains made this particular story standout in the sea of copy-paste superhero films out today. Spider-Verse holds on its own and shows there’s more creative energy in this genre that’s starting to feel tired.

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7. Searching

You’ll often find people who claim every style of film has already been explored and all that’s left are gimmicks. I’d challenge those people to watch Searching. The film is shot entirely from the perspective of a computer screen while a father searches for his missing daughter. You might wonder, why restrict that story to a computer screen? Wouldn’t it work better if you could pull away and see the main character react to information? Well 1) you do see him react in other ways and 2) there’s an immersion quality to the main character’s search that wouldn’t be possible if you weren’t glued to the screen in the same way he is. It’s an inventive filming technique that truly utilizes its form to fortify the narrative. Searching has incredible pacing and some great twists, making it easily one of the most enjoyable film experiences this year.

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6. First Reformed

This is a strange entry on this list because First Reformed went from 0 to 100 very quickly for me. The film stars Ethan Hawke as a priest in a congregation that’s getting more irrelevant in modern times. He’s asked to help a woman’s husband, who has become nihilistic due to global warming and the fear of raising a child in a dying world. Hawke’s character goes on his own journey, but I’ll be honest and say a lot of the messaging in this film was eye-roll inducing. It’s a movie that seemed like it was going the absolute wrong way for so many bad reasons, but it all changes at the very end. Its final shot delivers a blow to pessimistic scare-mongering, and it wasn’t until that final shot that I decided I loved this movie. If nothing else, First Reformed is worth a watch for the interesting musings about what we should be doing in the face of a potential global catastrophe.

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5. A Star Is Born

It might not be surprising the fourth remake of A Star Is Born is good, but it is surprising just how good it is. This isn’t just a retelling of an old story, it’s about the realities of fame, the loneliness of popularity, how hard it is to remain authentic, and the difficulty of supporting a relationship in the spotlight. It’s a film with huge scope, but feels like a passion project. A lot of that passion comes from Lady Gaga’s performance. Her musical performances sing for themselves, but her acting matches the caliber of skill found in the array of actors she’s surrounded by.

In the review I gave earlier this year, I had some criticisms for individual scenes or how the second act loses its tight direction, but many of those critiques disappear given the full breadth of the film. A Star is Born succeeds at humanizing celebrities and getting the audience to see how the struggles of stardom are not so different from ordinary life. There may be some faults along the way, but it feels like a cultural event that deserves to be seen.

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4. Hereditary

I don’t like horror movies. I want my movies to have some value beyond jumping my nervous system so I feel alive for a few hours. I want something to think about. Hereditary gives you something to think about and maybe some mild PTSD to overcome for the rest of your life. If there’s one thing I can say to convince fellow non-horror film fans, it’s the fact that Hereditary has no jump scares. It plays it straight from beginning to end, and it doesn’t detract from the terror it inflicts. Although Hereditary inevitably becomes a supernatural hellscape in its final minutes, the majority of the film is a family drama depicting the ways people cope with death. It was the dramatic moments of the film that have stuck with me. The ants, the scream, the rear-view mirror — they still give me chills. Hereditary taps into the true fears of the human condition and sets an example all horror films should aspire to.

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3. Eighth Grade

We don’t deserve Bo Burnham. In an era where everyone is focused on the Logan Pauls of the world, Burnham understands that the majority of experiences with the internet is intense loneliness manifested in personal vlogs. For a man who benefited early from “going viral,” Burnham shows a remarkable amount of empathy for the type of person who gravitates toward web content. Eighth Grade follows a young girl with no following of any kind, and shows how her web presence contrasts with her dull life. While this alone might have been good enough to be a great film, Eighth Grade enters another echelon with the infamous truth or dare scene. In one of the most uncomfortable versions of a well-known party game, Burnham shows the complicated relationship between our desire for human connection and our frequent disappointment with other people. It’s a brave film that leaves its audience with a new sense of empathy and understanding for the oddballs attempting to navigate this strangely interconnected world we live in.

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2. The Hate U Give

When I tell people I like The Hate U Give, the number one response I receive is “Really? I thought you’d hate that movie.” Maybe that’s a low-level insult about me, or maybe I can’t blame people for that reaction since I haven’t liked Sorry To Bother You, Moonlight, Blackkklansman or countless other movies about the black experience in America. But maybe my enjoyment of The Hate U Give proves the effectiveness of its message. Regardless of your political views, it’s clear America’s relationship with black Americans and police officers is something that needs to be examined. While many pieces of art have attempted to present their worldview as the definitive solution to these complicated problems, The Hate U Give knows when it can give an answer and when it can’t. Instead of pretending to possess oracle wisdom from the future, the film anchors its conflict to how it affects its family of characters.

The family of The Hate U Give is based on a book that came out two years ago (which received similar level of praise) and the movie really feels like it’s derived from dense source material. The world feels rich with life and backstory. Numerous side characters pop in and out, all with their own history that contributes to the narrative and how it affects the main character. Starr isn’t a perfect person — and she makes many mistakes throughout the film — but all her choices are understandable given the context of her situation. She’s an immensely likable character who’s attempting to navigate difficult issues in good faith. Much of Starr’s wisdom comes from her father, Maverick, who acts as a source of stability throughout the family’s turbulent journey. I couldn’t help but wonder how many black families could have had a Maverick figure in their life, but were robbed of such an individual due to the realities of our era.

From a filmic view, The Hate U Give doesn’t have any standout production elements. It’s not a movie that’s praised for its artistic direction. Instead it’s a movie that addresses difficult issues and allows productive conversations as a result. It’s for that reason, I consider it the most vital film from this year.

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1. Annihilation

My first viewing of Annihilation was defined by awe. My initial review praised the movie for accomplishing incredibly tense minute-to-minute set pieces, but also found time for lofty big ideas to think about. There was enough left unexplained to allow for a conspiracy theory-level of obsession. I saw Annihilation twice in the theater. I bought it the first day it was available for download and I’ve since seen it a total of six times, each time with a new group of friends so we could uncover the mystery of Annihilation. In these viewings and conversations, I haven’t “solved” Annihilation — in fact some people would say movies are not meant to be solved — instead I’ve found a wealth of interpretations, all of which have their own merit. Annihilation is dense with ideas and as a result it can be about so many things.

Even if it weren’t high-concept and otherworldly, Annihilation is one of the more memorable journeys into the unknown. The film is classified as science fiction, but it’s closer to a horror film. The crew’s experiences in the shimmer run the gambit of every type of dread you can experience. Jump scares, body horror, extreme violence and gore, existential horror and psychological unease. Who can forget the alligator, the video tape, the bear or the lighthouse? They’re permanently implanted in your brain not only because of the terror they inflict, but because of the strangeness you never completely understand. How do these traumatic experiences affect who we become?

I’ve seen this movie a bunch of times and I’m still in awe. Annihilation is an unbelievable achievement. It’s the most inventive science fiction film in a decade, an unforgettable experience and easily the greatest film from this year — perhaps one of the greatest of all-time.

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Books

Log: Entering the Witcherverse with The Last Wish

This post is part of a log I keep on things I finish. Read here for why I keep this log.

Why did I read it?

Earlier this year I finished Baptism of Fire, the third novel in the Witcher franchise, but the fifth book in the series (the first two books are a collection of short stories). The story of Baptism of Fire is largely self-contained. The main hero — Geralt — goes on a very linear adventure looking for his pseudo-adoptive daughter — Ciri. Geralt goes to one place, then another, then another, and another. He meets many people and these characters and their relationships get a good deal of progression, but at the end of the book the narrative pulls back reminds the reader of the macro-scale politics that are going on in the world while Geralt was galavanting in the forest. It was in these final few pages of the book that I realized I had no idea what the hell was going on.

If I’m being honest, the feeling of confusion has been the most defining attribute of the Witcher book series for me. It seems as if it was written for an audience that would read, and re-read, every entry to pick away at the world — something I have no interest in doing. I’ve consumed most of my understanding of the Witcherverse through the games which I hoped would catch me up to speed enough to understand the books. But when it comes to these grand feuding political entities and their individual motivations, I get totally lost. It also doesn’t help that there are plenty of characters who have hidden motivations or mistaken motivations and many of those characters don’t appear in the games at all. One example that comes to mind is Vilgefortz, who’s referenced in Witcher 2 as a type of guy you can envision being a main antagonist. Vilgefortz appears in the second novel — Time of Contempt — and his introduction is such that it becomes very obvious he’s a significant character worth remembering. In Baptism of Fire, Vilgefortz does not appear at all, and if it wasn’t for Witcher 2’s mention of him I would’ve forgotten about him entirely — the same way I forgot many other characters.

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One of the strengths of the Witcher games is it knows to anchor your interest in the world with characters Geralt has a direct relationship with.

If any other book series had done this to me, I would’ve given up on it. I’m a bit of a completionist when it comes to individual books (I almost never give up on a book, I force myself to finish it even if it takes years of chipping away at it), but for a book series I’ll easily abandon it if one book loses my interest. I did this with The Magicians series where the second book handled a heroine character so catastrophically I swore off the whole thing. At this point, The Witcher has committed a similar grave error. I read books to enjoy them and if I have to take notes just to know what’s going on that’s not conducive to an enjoyable experience. It makes reading feel like work. Suddenly reading this series becomes a literal chore and I don’t want to have that experience.

But I also feel an obligation to The Witcher. I loved Witcher 3 so much. I like the characters Geralt, Ciri, and Yennefer. I like Sapkowski’s interest in politics and the allegories he creates for the modern day. I also truly enjoyed the short story collections The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny. I even remember really liking Time of Contempt. So where did it all go wrong? Maybe I took too long to read the individual books, or maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention. There’s enough doubt in my own ability to compel a re-reading before I swear off another series that I really have every reason to like. So, I started re-reading The Witcher franchise, starting with the first short story collection. This time with a more critical eye: What is it about the series that turned me off? Where does it all go wrong?

How was it?

Unsurprisingly, The Last Wish remains one of my favorite fantasy books. This was my impression when I first read it a few years ago and its quality holds up today. In a way, re-reading this book was the first true reading I’d done of it. When I first began the Witcher books I got confused on which book came first so I actually started with Sword of Destiny. I didn’t notice the error until I started The Last Wish, where it becomes very obvious that I had consumed the story out of sequence (Yennefer is introduced in Last Wish whereas she’s a prominent character throughout Sword of Destiny). This time around, I got to read The Last Wish as a true introduction to the Witcherverse. Every story told was an indication of what Sapkowski thought was vital about the world he was creating. It was a revealing re-read and I want to share some thoughts from each individual story:

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The Witcher games pitch Geralt’s profession as supernatural detective work, but the book is far more politically focused.

The Voice of Reason

I should mention up front that The Last Wish is framed with the backdrop of an overarching story called “The Voice of Reason.” The Last Wish has six self-contained short stories, but each one is broken up by a few pages dedicated to The Voice of Reason which typically sets up the next story.

There’s probably a good reason Voice of Reason exists but it’s easily the worst part of the book. It’s disjointed delivery and shallow scope offers nothing but confusion to the reader. Maybe Sapkowski wanted to give The Last Wish a sense of “conclusion” that it didn’t have otherwise if it ended on a random short story, but Voice of Reason is a poor substitute. Its problems get worse as the book goes on. By the final installment, Geralt has a “climactic” fight with a character who was introduced several chapters ago. Which means you have to read two self-contained stories plus a chapter of Voice of Reason without this character, so I can’t fault anyone for forgetting the identity of this character or why they’re upset with Geralt

Voice of Reason is a shape of things to come from Sapkowski’s storytelling. My experience with the Witcher novels is reading about characters as if I should know who they are, but it’s been several hundred pages — or sometimes multiple books — since I last ran into them.

The Witcher

The introduction to Geralt and the Witcherverse is basically perfect. You get everything you need to know about this world in a single story — specifically how it subverts genre tropes. I’ve always heard that the Witcher series is known for subverting tropes, but it’s been a funny experience for me. I am a Polish American, and although I won’t say I totally understand Polish culture, I have some understanding of Polish people (specifically older Polish men) and their tendencies. I’ve always considered Polish people to have a streak of contrarianism. There’s probably a good historical reason for this. I imagine the concept of “general wisdom” has always been a term dominated by Western societies that have no interest or understanding of Polish culture and customs. So to Polish people, the “general wisdom” is simply the thoughts of westerners that don’t know anything about their life or values. But since Polish culture is a minority, it comes across as being combative and contrarian. This is a half-baked theory that probably deserves more research before I make such bold claims, but that’s the unedited version of my thesis at this point in time.

The reason I mention this streak of contrarianism is because The Witcher seems conceived from a place of contradicting the current fantasy norms. Mages are not intelligent scholars but self-interested rejects who can’t be trusted; Elves are not mystical environmentalists but ruthless rebels with no interest in diplomacy; Geralt is not a knight in shining armor but a mercenary who kills monsters for money, and etc. Even the details of the plot have slight deviations that give The Witcher a grittier feel. Geralt is tasked with saving a King’s daughter, but not from a monster, she is the monster — a striga. And why is she a monster? Well because the King had an incestuous affair with his sister. Some might say the Witcherverse exists in shades of gray but it’s closer to shades of black. Pretty much everyone in the universe is an asshole, which is not unlike our collective experience in life.

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Nothing is ever simple for Geralt. Every bit of information affects various parties and their attitudes toward him.

But then there’s Geralt. Who’s portrayed as a politically neutral actor focused on his job and that’s it. It’s interesting to hear that Geralt — and by extension Sapkowski — has become a right-wing hero to some readers because of the values he puts forth. For example, in the introduction story, Geralt is focused on his work and nothing else. He believes he has a trade and his purpose in life is to excel at the responsibilities and duties of that trade. There’s definitely a conservative value in that approach that some readers may see as admirable. However, I feel this is a shallow reading of Geralt’s motivations.

As interesting as the genre-defying window dressing may be, this story — and the Witcherverse itself — really comes into its own when Geralt is given a counter-offer to the King’s predicament. Rather than cure his daughter, a loyalist asks Geralt to kill the monster. The loyalist offers more money, but Geralt doesn’t believe the sum will be paid and even if it were, he can cure her, so why kill her? If that wasn’t an interesting dynamic enough, another political actor asks Geralt to leave the town. Don’t cure the daughter, don’t kill the striga, leave things as is. Geralt intuitively sees this political actor wants to oust the King, and it’d be easier to do so if the striga ran rampant.

This added plot point is what dumps the reader into the world of the Witcher. Even a neutrality-focused mercenary finds himself entrenched in politics. Sure, witchers have a “code,” but even Geralt admits it’s used as a convenient reason to decline contracts that seem more trouble than they’re worth. This is where the modern-day allegories become obvious. It seems we’ve been thrown into a world where every action is political and no one can remain totally neutral. This is a concept that’s developed more fully throughout the novels. It’s the idea that made Sapkowski’s books so successful and what makes the series unique. It’s evident in the very first story and it’s what makes this particular introduction so rewarding to read.

In the end, Geralt satisfies the wishes of the King and it seems as if all the bad guys have been defeated and the good prevails, but we’re left with this world that’s buried in unfairness. Geralt is mistreated throughout the entire story. His morality has no benefit. In fact, he probably lost money by adhering to it. So what is the fate of this character in this world? The Witcher is a great self-contained story but its greatest accomplishment is piquing interest in where things could go next.

A Grain of Truth

The Witcher eventually becomes a fascinating political world, but A Grain of Truth is the first deviation to traditional fantasy elements that have never been Sapkowski’s strength. This story is meant to be a redux on Beauty and the Beast where the beast is kind of an awkward jerk and the beauty is a monster he’s fallen in love with. From a lore perspective, this story sets up the monster side of the world. Not only are there various factions and political entities in the Witcherverse, there are also monsters who can co-exist with some humans or resolve their own problems with one another. Not every monster needs to be killed. In fact, a horrifically cursed man can fall in love with a nice creature of the woods.

While that sounds nice, reading this story is a bit of a chore. Sapkowski seems to enjoy describing scenes with a thesaurus on hand. One passage on page 50 uses the words mottled, festooned and plinth, which you wouldn’t think are enough to completely devalue an entire section but no matter how many times I read it my eyes glaze over and no image is imparted onto my imagination.

There are other lore concepts that are introduced in this chapter but it’s all very forgettable. None of these off-handed references add depth to the world, other than mentioning there’s various types of monsters and magic. Sapkowski has never seemed interested in explaining the fantastical elements of his stories so when a narrative focuses on those aspects, it’s not very engaging.

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Lesser Evil shows the Witchverse for what it is: grim and full of death.

The Lesser Evil

Lesser Evil is one of the more iconic stories from The Witcher, and potentially the best short story of both books. The central conflict in this story is an excellent synthesis of the world of The Witcher, but even before we get to that this story introduces some other realities in the universe.

The color of Lesser Evil fills in the grim thanklessness of Geralt’s work. At the beginning of this story he kills a monster but finds out there’s no contract listed in town — resulting in no pay. When Geralt meets with a sorcerer later, he makes a quip about witchers killing off the last of endangered species. These two encounters show how Geralt’s profession ensures he gains no fans from experts in monsterology, and it’s also rare for the common folk to show him any gratitude. He finds himself between the two worlds, serving a role that neither really cherishes, even if they do benefit from safer country roads due to witchers pruning monsters from the path. This isn’t a world of honor and prestige, it’s about individualism and people only acting in their best interests in the worst of ways. For example, there’s this passage from Geralt that shows what the world is like outside the stories told:

“One sees all sorts of things when one travels. Two peasants kill each other over a field which, the following day, will be trampled flat by two counts and their retinues trying to kill each other off. Men hang from trees at the roadside; brigands slash merchants’ throats. At every step in town you trip over corpses in the gutters. In palaces they stab each other with daggers, and somebody falls under the table at a banquet every minute, blue from poisoning. I’m used to it.”

More so than the prior stories, Lesser Evil shows the Witcherverse isn’t a fun fantasy world. It’s a dark place. This isn’t one of those worlds where you wish you could visit and stay for a while. These details do a nice job for filling in the world but also prepare the reader for the content of Lesser Evil’s plot.

Geralt runs into a sorcerer named Stregobor, who says he’s being hunted by a woman named Renfri. She’s coming to town to kill him. Stregobor hires Geralt to protect him, but to be extra safe, he stays locked up in his tower. Geralt seems confident he can resolve whatever murderous dispute exists between the two, but Stregobor says it’s not so simple.

He explains that Renfri bares the Curse of the Black Sun — being born during an eclipse. The curse is known to cause tendencies of insanity and pushes people to cruelty. The curse is well-known and as such, Renfri has been treated as a potential serial killer her whole life. Her step-mother attempted to have her killed. Stregobor was assigned the task of putting the girl out of this world but his plan went wrong and she escaped.

Given that background, it’s easy to sympathize with Renfri. She’s been mistreated her entire life. Even her own family wants her dead. It seems obvious that anyone who is treated as evil their entire life will develop a chip on their shoulder and may feel the desire to exact revenge on their terrorizers, but that’s not the result of a curse — it’s an understandable response from someone who’s been abused their whole life.

At the same time, Renfri doesn’t do a very good job at convincing Geralt — or anyone else — that she’s not a demented lunatic. The plot finds its own conclusion, but it’s difficult to see the resolution as anything but a tragedy.

Renfri’s story, and Geralt’s predicament, can act as allegories for other political issues. In any issue, there are abusers and the abused. It’s easy to imagine sympathizing with the abused, but there are instances where the abusers have their hands tied or are the results of other actions they may have mishandled (If you find it difficult to consider the thought that some people “deserve” the abuse they receive, consider this op-ed from a Silicon Valley billionaire who argued rich people are more mistreated than German Jews in the 1930s). While it may be true one side’s anger is more deserved, or maybe both sides are equally delusional, the reality of politics remains the same. Sympathizing with either side necessarily earns you an enemy of the other. There is no resolution in these types of conflicts, there is only tragedy. Especially when one side tries to radicalize their actions, hoping it will bring the result they desire.

It’s an excellent point, deliver perfectly by Sapkowski’s writing that doesn’t play favorites with either side’s depiction. Reading the story feels like being between a rock and a hard place, a location that Geralt will occupy many times over across all the Witcher stories.

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A Question of Price

So begins the unending tale of Cintra and its royal class. This story is the first mention of Calanthe, the grandmother of Ciri, and the country Cintra. Cintra has quite a significant place in the geopolitics of The Witcher and much of it stems from the royal bloodline and alliances made or broken in an attempt to preserve that bloodline. While this plotline’s first mention in A Question of Price isn’t so egregious, I have a hard time enjoying this short story since it represents everything I’ve come to loathe about The Witcher series.

For one thing, it introduces an immense amount of characters and expects you to remember them. Anyone who’s played the games knows about the culture of Skellige Islanders, and if you’re a devoted fan you may know that Mousesack is the same character as Ermion (he was renamed for obvious reasons), but if you didn’t have those reference points then this story is a bit of a slog. There’s a lot of banter between warrior buddies as they drink around a huge table trying to court Calanthe’s approval to marry her daughter.

Thematically, this story introduces the concept of destiny, and explains the law of surprise — a tradition in the Witchverse where someone chooses their reward to be “what you find at home but don’t expect,” often a child. This is a key development for Geralt’s relationship with Ciri, which is explained in Sword of Destiny.

It’s neat that this short story carries its significance across the Witcher novels, but it’s not a particularly interesting story. It’s a bunch of lords arguing with a stranger about his rights as a peasant with some random magic thrown in as well. Some of the dialogue is engaging, but this story is mostly all the types of politics people hate with none of the morality predicaments that makes things interesting. Even worse is this short story is likely the most essential for understanding the background of many of the events that take place throughout the novels, which makes its slow pace all the more agonizing.

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Edge of the World

This story is likely The Witcher at its most “fun.” You’ve got Dandelion, a talking monster, some pretty ridiculous superstitions and a run-in with the vicious elves. I’ve already mentioned how The Witcher or Lesser Evil set up the tone of the Witcherverse — grim, pessimistic and politically infused — but Edge of the World is a sample of how those elements get interwoven into a world that isn’t always so serious. There are a lot of silly elements in Edge of the World. It’s easy to see how Geralt’s job can go from dangerous to ridiculous, to dangerous again — which is pretty much the arc of this short story.

From a lore standpoint, this is the first introduction to the elves and forest mysticism which is relatively unknown outside of elder races that live outside of society. You also get a sense of where the world “ends.” There isn’t a flat earth with dragons off the side, but if you get far enough from the main civilizations, you’re in elf territory and bound to get your throat slit.

I remember not liking this story so much on my first read-through. Looking at my notes, it seems my younger self got very confused by two characters: Torque and Torviel, being introduced in the same passage (technically Torque is established way before, but his name isn’t mentioned until he’s in the presence of Torviel). Maybe I’m the dumb one here, or maybe it’s a good reminder for conventional storytelling wisdom: don’t have two characters whose names begin with the same letter — especially don’t have two characters begin with the same three letters.

Other than that minor misstep, this is a low-stakes story that shows what Geralt’s day-to-day is like, and it’s a refreshing change from the intense drama seen in the other stories.

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#TeamTriss

The Last Wish

Sapkowski ends The Last Wish by introducing one of his most iconic characters: Yennefer of Vengeberg. I’ve read that Sapkowski created the character specifically to write a female heroine that defied genre tropes. While it’s true that Yennefer’s aggressive attitude, more-than-competent magical ability, and dark fashion sense differed from what was in-vogue for fantasy during the 1990s — Yennefer still falls into some tropes that authors are frequently criticized for. Sure, Yennefer punishes Geralt for sexualizing her, and uses her sex appeal against many men to make them literal zombies to do her bidding, but at the end of the story she’s still a damsel-in-distress saved by our hero, Geralt. And of course, his reward is sex.

This is one of those instances where Witcher 3 has truly left its mark. Whereas the book Yennefer seems inconsistent, the video game adaptation seemed more fully-formed. In the game, Geralt is practically bossed around by Yennefer and the only reason he can hold his ground is because she does truly care about him and his feelings (although he denies having at all). It’s an interesting dynamic, almost the complete flip of conventional love interests in fantasy writing, but in the books that dynamic isn’t as clear. It doesn’t help that the magical bond that ties Yennefer and Geralt romantically seems a bit more vital in their book relationship, whereas in the game its understated. Of course, the follow-up short story collection would expand on their relationship in many ways.

All of this is to say, while Yennefer has become a well-known beloved character in the franchise, her introduction story is merely ok.

Final thoughts

This “short log” is nearing 4,000 words, so I’m completely betraying the goal I had with this log.

I’m glad I re-read The Witcher’s introductory short story collection. Even with a more critical eye, it’s still about as good as I remember. If anything, this process has only revealed to me what I already knew on a subconscious level. There are kernals of greatness in the storytelling that propels me to keep reading just in case there’s another nugget worth reading, but among those good moments are an abundance of dreary politics, ineffective descriptive text, and way too many characters to keep track of. Knowing this could enhance my reading experience moving forward, since I’ll know when I’m entering one of those slog sections that it’s a known weakpoint of the series. I hope this awareness will make the good moments that much more significant.

 

4/5

Standard