This week, our Free Culture Book Club finishes reading The Banjo Players Must Die.

The cover for the book

To give this series some sense of organization, here are some basic facts without much in the way of context.

  • Full Titles: The Banjo Players Must Die: Or, Why the Universe Kind of Ended, and Whose Fault Precisely That Is
  • Location: https://github.com/JosefAssad/thebanjoplayersmustdie
  • Released: 2007
  • License: CC-BY-SA
  • Creator: Josef Assad
  • Medium: Novel
  • Length: Approximately 63,000 words
  • Content Advisories: Classism, bestiality “jokes,” coarse language, a greater than normal amount of body humor, jokes about self-harm, public masturbation, death cult, accent-mocking, a homophobic joke

This should go without saying—even though I’m going to repeat it with every Book Club installment—but Content Advisories are not any sort of judgment on my part, just topics that come up in the work that I noticed and might benefit from a particular mood or head space for certain audiences. It’s to help you make a decision, rather than a decision in and of itself.

The Banjo Players Must Die

Here’s the book’s blurb.

A few centuries into the future, not much has changed about the basic characteristic of civilization, which is incompetence and boorishness. Wishing to end the world, the angels are left to their own devices by a God more concerned with new prototypes of bigger boobs for the next universe. Ramses, obsessed with hamster love, is selected to be the prophet of doom in a travesty of a selection process and leads humanity after much travail to Heaven. Which, as matters turn out, has been somewhat overrated. And the mysterious intergalactic race of banjo players flees on.

I’ll warn readers to review the content advisories again, on this one. The book especially treats sexual assault casually without any clear reason.

Oh, but since I can’t find an “official” release of this version of the book—the website doesn’t appear to have anything useful anymore, and the one copy of the book that I could find had a non-commercial license—I uploaded the copy that I generated to the Internet Archive. My version has imperfections, and doesn’t seem to warrant an in-page viewer, but for many of you, downloading my mediocre PDF will beat trying to convert TeX to something more reasonable.

What Works Well?

It takes four-fifths of the way through the book, but the narrative finally at least takes a moment to acknowledge that it doesn’t approve of abusing animals. It doesn’t stop making jokes about it, but at least it can bother itself to identify it as bad behavior, instead of only playing it for laughs.

What Works…Less Well?

The joke about tight uniforms seems emblematic of a lot of the problems that I have with this book’s humor. The author wants to tell a joke about an unforgiving argument damaging a man’s genitals. However, despite many repeated jokes showcasing cruelty to and torture of animals and even occasionally woman, the narrative treats this singular instance as possibly going a step too far. And I say emblematic, because a lot of the book presents itself as having a dangerous edge, but whenever it has the chance to “punch up,” it pulls that punch, or suddenly promotes empathy. And that weakens everything around it.

Similarly, the jokes increasingly feel lazy. It didn’t exactly have sparkling wit before, but more than a page discussing defecation feels more like a discussion among toddlers than a book’s quality material. And not to act like a complete jerk about things, but…

…otherwise this would have been a long and tedious book.

I can’t blame this author for this sort of joke, since it all but pervades post-modern fiction. However, joking about how long and tedious the book feels, knowing full well that the audience agrees, shows a disregard for the audience, and helps to explain why I have no patience with the story: Had the author merely seemed poorly constructed, I can live with that; many come to this book club to find works in need of some TLC. However, when a work wants to alienate the audience “for fun,” and doesn’t do so to make a point, then it doesn’t get a presumption of good intentions.

And again, the banjo players…exist and annoy people?

Opportunities

I wouldn’t expect much interaction. Assad appears to have committed all his changes to the book’s repository on one day, ten years ago, with no significant activity on GitHub since 2017. Even his personal website seems abandoned, with just an e-mail address shown.

What’s Adaptable?

This section of the book introduces us to Andersson & Andersson, Wolfird Bovine and Pediatric.

Next

I need a palate cleanser after this book derailed me, so I will bend a rule and cover something recently released into the public domain, a selection of songs written by Tom Lehrer.

While we wait for that, what did everybody else think about The Banjo Players Must Die? I may have made my opinion a little too clear…


Credits: The header image is the book’s cover, presumably released under the same license.