Several years back, I did a post about in-jokes. My point was that in-jokes not everyone will get are fine in fiction, but the more the more important the joke is to the story, the worse it is if people don’t get the joke.
I thought of that while reading PHONOGRAM: Rue Britannia by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie because the entire story is like an in-joke that’s vital to the story and completely incomprehensible. The book is about 1990s BritPop and as someone who knows zilch about that, I found the story didn’t work for me on any level.
It’s not automatically bad to give readers a world they don’t understand. Lots of authors write books make that alien world a plus — they open it up and explain it to readers. Or take Big Bang Theory: when Sheldon’s big research project crashes I don’t have to know the science because what’s important is how miserable he feels. Likewise I don’t need to know anything about music in High Fidelity because what’s important are the characters and how they feel about it.
In Phonogram, the music is the story, and the creators make no attempt to explain it. And not in the sense that it’s background for the main plot or character arc—we get long, detailed conversations about different bands and albums and songs, and whether they’re any good and what does it say about someone that they think that album was original, and apparently we’re supposed to take the discussion as an end it itself. I have the same reaction to the conversations that I do when TYG and some of her IT friends start talking esoteric tech stuff—I stopped listening.
It doesn’t help that the protagonist, David Kohl, is a prick, or in his words a “phallocrat.” A smug womanizer and phonomancer, which is some kind of sorcery using pop music, an interesting idea that’s never clearly explained. And apparently someone’s trying to resurrect the demigoddess who ruled BritPop, which aside from the metaphorical aspects (trying to resurrect music for nostalgia: bad!) will have nasty effects on David.
The trouble is, outside of being a prick, David has no personality other than his deep passion for BritPop. But I don’t share the passion, and Gillen does nothing to make me connect with him. Nor does the story universalize it — make it something anyone who has an attachment to some era of music could identify with. It’s just BritPop (much as Polarity struck me as about Brooklyn hipsters rather than artistic poseurs in general)
In fairness, it may be that BritPop has enough of a following that I’m just the odd man out for not getting it. And even if it is a specialty taste, it’s cool we live in a market that can cater to such a specialty. But that said, I still didn’t like it.