Within a week of reading The Traitor Baru Cormorant I watched the whole of Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, the new episode of Rick & Morty: Never Ricking Morty, and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Four pieces of fiction about fiction. Meanwhile Plandemic was igniting social media and making me think about why we believe what we believe. My thoughts were pushed from one to another so that these unrelated experiences became a five-pointed star holding within it conspiracies, rewritten history, and literary devices made literal.
Why does anyone tell a story? The character Baru Cormorant in Seth Dickinson’s fantasy novel lives within layers of story spun around herself as camouflage, cocoon and prison. The empire of the book tells a grand story that anyone can recognise as the knife-edge of colonialism editing the history of the conquered. Familiar from the letters of Rhodes, speeches of Churchill, and poetry of Kipling. Baru Cormorant tries to unpick the story, but first she needs to become its author. The book is about conspiracy and power, betrayal and betrayal and betrayal.
“This is why I chose to write about the problem of powerful stories.” writes Seth Dickinson, “They work. Our world is full of them, and they continue to propagate forward. We must confront them.”
Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood has been described as ‘ahistorical’ but that would only be half-way to the truth. It is anti-historical. In imagining a group of filmmakers creating a diverse smash-hit film, Hollywood the show makes good on the promise of Hollywood the legend. When a young director begs a producer to let him cast Anna May Wong in a lead role he says, “Movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be.”
Hollywood is story as wish-fulfillment. History rewritten just as the film within the show is rewritten from tragic to hopeful as that same producer asks, “Is that what we want to say about the world?”
Meanwhile Tarantino tells an anarchic tale in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… History unraveled and rewoven for a character study of two men who may be at the end of their careers. Sitting on a tv lot Rick Dalton cries while describing the plot of a paperback novel he’s reading to a precocious child-(method)actor. But while Hollywood and Traitor have a certain feeling of responsibility, for Tarantino story-telling is about saying something that only he can say. Having an unconstrained voice. It’s indulgence and freedom. It’s his.
Rick & Morty has that same ego-driving the story. In Never Ricking Morty the characters are trapped in a literal narrative device. They point this out themselves. They point everything out themselves as they try to break, subvert, and escape the möbius strip of story. In this the meta-narrative isn’t about taking control of the story, or rewriting history, or having freedom… the story is about breaking story. Rick & Morty runs along the edge between nihilism and meaning. Dan Harmon has talked extensively about Campbellian structure and tropes. Well, I say ‘talked’ but I mean ‘ranted’. Harmon is one of those people who thinks he’s a piece of shit and also better than everyone else. He thinks tropes suck and also that he’s a master of them. He’s not wrong. In Never Ricking Morty the ‘rules’ of story are broken and ripped away to show… nothing? Storytelling is meaningless illusion.
Plandemic is its own kind of storytelling, existing only as a counter-narrative – a shadow-story of distorted shapes cast by the light of intense scrutiny on the real story. Conspiracy Theories exist because the mainstream story does not convince everyone. Sometimes these independent thinkers have spotted real flaws, sometimes they’ve misunderstood something, and sometimes the story being ‘mainstream’ is all the fault they need. Trust No One. Even before Plandemic‘s surge and subsequent purge, people were writing about the rise of Conspiracy Theories. And they were usually getting it wrong by making the same mistake as the theorists: linking different phenomena together into a grand psychological narrative.
The conspiracy theorist, the debunker, and the observer are all competing storytellers wrestling over the meta-narrative while claiming Facts.
Fiction doesn’t claim Fact, but it does claim Truth. And you can see the same fight play out over and again as audiences offer or revoke their suspension of disbelief to the tellers. They fixate on details, they chant, “well, actually” and they compose sweeping essays tying unrelated experiences into a single theory.
Maybe you could stick colourful pins in a cork board and graph meta-fictions on axes of ego and idealism. You could pick out constellations and clusters, but it wouldn’t mean much. Why tell a story? That can only really be answered in each telling.