Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Fandom Classics Part 217: Exit Through Canterlot

To read the story, click the image or follow this link.

Time for the first Fandom Classic review of June!  Wait... *checks date* it's seriously been twenty days since I did one of these?  Jeez.  To be fair, the end of the school year was a doozy, and this is a long story, but still.

Oh well; now I'm back to it!  Head down below the break for my review of TheBrianJ's Exit Through Canterlot, and make sure you savor it--though with any luck, it won't have to tide you over until July 10th.

Impressions before reading:  The only thing I know about this story is that there was a brief furor over it while it was being written--something about Canterlot having a zero-tolerance policy if I remember right, though I couldn't tell you what the problem actually was--and that the author deleted and rewrote part of the story after getting a lot of flak for it.  That by itself doesn't paint a particularly rosy picture going in... but I suppose fixing a problem is better than letting it fester, right?

Zero-ish spoiler summary:  Seeking an outlet for her rage after a disastrous Grand Galloping Gala, Octavia defaces a public sculpture.  But to her surprise, many ponies seem to enjoy her "art," and soon, her work is all over Canterlot.  But all is not well--her anger continues to simmer, and there are ponies who see her as nothing more than a vandal, and would love to see her brought to heel.

Thoughts after reading:  If I had to chose one word to describe this story, it would be "incoherent:" it tries to say a lot of things, but is blind to its own internal contradictions, reluctant to place purpose ahead of drama, and utterly unable to reconcile its bluntly spelled-out (and often badly thought-out) messages with its actual story events.

This is most obviously problematic with the big-picture themes, so let's start there.  Exit Through Canterlot explicitly tries to pass off two flatly contradictory themes--"art shouldn't have a message beyond its inherent aesthetic value" and "art can be a powerful tool for change."  The former is absurd, especially considering the medium it's presented in; a work of art arguing that works of art shouldn't argue anything is ridiculous in its own right.  But (un?)fortunately, that gets repeatedly muddled by the narrative's insistence on showing that Octavia's work--including her most stridently purposeful material--does have value to many.

Which leads into a semi-related issue: the story tries to present certain works of Octavia's as "pure" and others as tainted by her anger... but choses which are which in an entirely arbitrary manner.  Well, not arbitrary; the "pure" ones are her earliest works, so that the narrative can depict her falling ever further into her hate before bottoming out and rediscovering herself.  But at no point is there any particular explanation for why scrawling "FASHION IS FAKE" on the backscreen at Chic Trend's runway show is less hateful or more meaningful than spraying "UGLY ON THE OUTSIDE. UGLIER ON THE INSIDE" on the side of Rarity's house.  The difference is only ever really defended on legal grounds (apparently in Equestria, there's no law against defacing or destroying public property, only private property.  On a related note, the Equestrian legal system presented here is... interesting, in many, many ways), and yet, everypony who's not a designated nincompoop seems to magically grasp that the latter is hurtful and uncalled for, while the former is a daring statement that does nopony any harm.

Which brings us to another blatant bit of hypocrisy which the story is prepared to let go completely unchallenged: the comparison of Octavia's suffering at the Gala vs. Blueblood's at Flanksy's (yes, Octavia's street name is a Banksy pun) hooves.  A great deal is made of how the main six ruined what was supposed to be Octavia's night, and how they weren't at all sorry for it--and didn't even realize they'd done anything wrong.  This, every single character in the story agrees, is unacceptable; even if they were just trying to have fun, and even if Celestia brought them in hopes that they'd liven up the evening, it's not fair to Octavia that it was done at her expense--even if she was the only one hurt by it.

Of course, when Blueblood is the only one offended by Flanksy's art, that's because he's a ridiculous ponce, and he just needs to get over it.

This wouldn't be such a big problem if it was strictly from Octavia's point of view (on several other issues, PoV is used effectively to show the discrepancy between Octavia's feelings and those of ponies around her, so this is something TheBrianJ is clearly capable of doing), but both points of view are consistently espoused by the characters in the story, and both are often expressed by the very same pony, apparently completely unaware that "it's not fair to do something that hurts someone, even if everyone else likes it" and "the weight of public opinion should determine whether one can do something" are patently contradictory.  And it's not just the characters that can't manage any consistency: the narrative itself is also full of blatant, un-self-aware hypocrisy.  Consider this passage:
Normally, smiles on the faces of Canterlotians were accompanied by an asterisk, as they usually were the result of a pony putting down another or celebrating the release of some new fashion line. But there was something different about the smiles today: they looked genuine.
Now, consider that the narrative is telling us that this is the reaction to a defaced statue of Celestia with the word "IGNORANT" written over her cutie mark.  Apparently, that doesn't constitute "putting down another."  And whatever it is, it's certainly art of a more important sort than fashion, for reasons that never get elucidated--presumably because they don't exist.

Having written all that... well, I still haven't touched on the majority of my notes in the "muddled concept" folder, but I think the point has been made: Exit Through Canterlot is a story that can't decide what it wants to tell the reader, and might possibly want you to believe that the fact that it even did tell you something is bad.

The "incoherent" keyword extends to characters as well.  Some of this comes off as likely being a product of the story being written serially without a clear concept in mind from the start: the first couple of chapters play off Blueblood as a cartoonishly ridiculous fop whose pronouncements are wrong and absurd by definition, and when the story later tries to retcon him to a self-important but sincere defender of what he thinks of as "his city," it falls hopelessly flat.  Other cases are the result of poor narrative focus; the story would have us believe that Octavia was basically a calm and collected mare before the Gala, but never actually shows her as anything other than a simmering pot of rage (even before things start going sideways and the plot kicks into gear, she has not one, but two emotional blowups.  And this is the part of the story that's supposed to contrast with her later anger!).

The writing, meanwhile, is technically passable, but terribly repetitive.  Part of this is by design, as characters rehash the same arguments over and over for "added drama," but there quickly comes a point when watching Vinyl and Octavia talk in circles, again and again, with no variation of topic or talking points, becomes wearying.

On top of all of that, there's the lack of grounding to the story.  It's not well-grounded in MLP, certainly--the constant (albeit mild) swearing and non-utilization of the setting serve to ensure that, beyond using a few episode events as its setpieces, there's not much of anything tying this to the show.  Even beyond that, though, it seems to exist in a strange limbo, where jobs are totally optional (isn't it nice that multiple characters in this story can apparently afford to purchase a bunch of supplies and make art, for free, while having no other income, for months on end?), there are no legal repercussions for anything short of physical assault, and all public property is fair game for quite literally anything.  That all makes it hard to grasp the stakes of the story at any given moment; when consequences bear no resemblance to what a reader might reasonably expect from either the show or real life, without explanation, it's difficult to say just what the reader is supposed to care about until and unless it's actually spelled out.

Star rating:

Okay, one more obvious bit of hypocrisy that I have to get off my chest: Octavia's hot-blooded fury at anypony attempting to clean or alter her art--when she's literally painting on/over someone else's art in the first place.  This one's really more a matter of the character being idiotic to the point of self-parody than a narrative-level failing, as at least a couple of other characters do seem aware of the contradiction, but it's absurd enough for her not to be able to put this together (not just in the heat of the moment, but ever) that it mightily bothered me nonetheless.

Recommendation:  Unless you're hopelessly addicted to Vinyl and Octavia (hey, some people are!) and are wholly indifferent to story content beyond "has Vinyl and Octavia in it," I can't think of anyone I would suggest actively seek this story out.

Next time:  Luna, There’s a Sentient Race Inside Your Mane, by boardgamebrony


  1. I read this years ago and I loved it. But … yeah, especially in light of your points, it does have, shall we say, weaknesses.

  2. I remember starting this story, but I didn't get very far into it. Unfortunately, I don't have an impression of why I stopped reading, but given the circumstances I read most of what I do, it was probably because it didn't immediately grab my interest but didn't immediately have anything blatantly wrong with it, either.

    Based on your description of it, I wonder if it's one of those "let the story write itself" experiments, which I don't think work on a conceptual level, but maybe some authors can pull it off. Shame to see a miss from this author, though, because he's very capable, a nice guy, and thoroughly willing to put in lots of work to revise his stories. I've only ever had good experiences with him on the editing front.

  3. This is one of those stories I've always been interested in reading sooner or later, and now I'm thinking maybe it's just better to drop it...

    1. Same here. Mostly, I just wanted to know what the meaning of the title was.

    2. It's a reference to Exit Through the Gift Shop, which is about Banksy I guess. :B

    3. Same here. Strong cover art got it on my TBR list. This review knocked it off.

    4. Similar... I don't remember what got it on my RiL (likely the cover art and a strong short story showing from the author in "The Diary of an Evil Pony"?), but this helped me decide to trim it.

    5. Oh. Well, thanks for answering that question, PP.

      I thought it was some really profound meaning. I'm actually quite disappointed now.

  4. About that quoted passage...
    Frankly I wasn't even expecting you to have further context for what the narration was responding to. The baffling conflation of the merits of fashion and harming others is enough, or the puzzling assertion that nobody gets genuine happiness, or at least pleasure, from either; even granting the put-down side, however insubstantial the narrative considers fashion, how does that contradict its ability to make someone happy? Couldn't it just as easily apply to any number of other things that, while maybe not the most weighty or meaningful, get a similar response--getting an ice cream, the release of a book, a break in the clouds?

  5. I did enjoy this story, but mostly because I felt that Octavia's hypocrisy served to highlight the inherent hypocrisy in street graffiti itself. Indeed, other than her work on the park, I don't think that any of Octavia's other actions was actually portrayed in a positive light, being shown instead as a hateful reaction to a perceived injury.

    Then again, I started reading this right as it started being published, so I might be misremembering things.