2 Stars

Time’s Arrow

Times ArrowTime’s Arrow by Martin Amis was first published in 1991. It has been sitting on my to-be-read mountain since the 2002, I believe. It came up in a discussion back in 2001 with a particular Professor for Ancient Philosophy from K. U. Leuven.  Its seventeen years later and I certainly don’t remember what the conversation was.  I’m participating in a Keyword Challenge this year – I’m using it to read a lot of books that have been getting fat, old, and lazy on the stacks for a long time. In February the word was “Arrow” (likely for St. Valentine’s Day) but I thought of this lurker-of-shelves.

The novel is famous for being a narrative told in reverse. Time goes backwards from our normal way of perceiving it. Therefore, the novel begins at the end of the main character’s life.  The story is narrated by…. a narrator. The Narrator speaks as if he is separate and distinct from the physical character whose story he tells.

Is it a war we are fighting, a war against health, against life and love? My condition is a torn condition. Every day, the dispensing of existence. I see the face of suffering. Its face is fierce and distant and ancient.

There’s probably a straightforward explanation for the impossible weariness I feel. A perfectly straightforward explanation. It is a mortal weariness. Maybe I’m tired of being human, if human is what I am. I’m tired of being human. – pg. 93

So, the story is about a German doctor who participates in the Holocaust activities in Auschwitz. He escapes to Western Europe after the war ends and he then continues to America. He continues working in his profession but with new identities. In the style of this novel, though, all of this is told in reverse. We meet Tod Friendly at the end of his life and follow along as he gets younger, moves to NYC, moves to Western Europe, enters the war, partakes in atrocities, goes to med school, etc.

Telling a story in reverse is really not completely unique. I think a lot of reader-reviewers of this novel bring up works by Philip K. Dick (Counter-Clock World – 1967) and Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five – 1969).  I have not read either work, but I am told these are earlier examples, or have samples in them, of reverse chronology.  Amis, in this novel’s afterword, tells us that he came up with the idea and it was given more motivation after reading a book given him by a friend.

I think one is supposed to not so much “enjoy” this novel as be impressed with the temporal reversal. And then the juxtaposition throughout of love vs. heinous crime surely has some literary value. Throughout the novel, the Narrator puzzles over the main character’s love affairs and relationships. The relationships are never very successful and seem to be fraught with unhappiness or recklessness. As much as segments of the main character’s life are referenced via names and places, the Narrator and reader compartmentalize these segments based on the love interest(s). Irene, Rosa, Herta, et al.

The psychological ramifications of the main character’s wartime actions are mused over by the Narrator, but confusedly. Since we are going backward in time, the Narrator does not know why there exist these ramifications at all. And the main character goes to lengths to keep a part of himself/his past hidden from other characters. There are scenes and hints that there has been something of a realization of the horrors committed, but nothing more definite can be said. Obviously, the main character is a damaged character, but the reader does not feel any sympathy for him. A forlorn sorrow, maybe.

The interesting parts come into play with the little things. For example, since it all occurs in reverse, a bowel movement changes direction in this story.  Instead of paying people for goods and services, we take money from them. Walking and driving is done in reverse – without looking – no wonder the Narrator is amazed by this. Especially, the medical profession seems bizarre – they shove bullets in people, pull stitches out, break bones – all the healing and curative actions in reverse.

The dualism of the Narrator and the main character is problematic. Is this a soul that has been added to whatever is the main character? Is the Narrator a conscience? Is the Narrator the psychological split caused by the main character’s mental traumas? Is the Narrator just a vague storytelling device? It is not worked out thoroughly and none of these answers fit perfectly, which only exacerbates my annoyance with this novel.

Even if appreciative of the effort, I struggled to get through this. Maybe I’m too stuck in my timelines. I was bored, annoyed, I honestly wanted to hit fast-forward (rewind??!) a lot. And Freud….everything in the bedroom, the womb, the oven. Sometimes I wonder how we ever did a blessed thing before Freud told us why we did it. Germans. There is a heavy-hand of Freud in here, I am not even sure it is all intentional by the author.

This isn’t a good review. I feel only a little bad about that because it’s not a great book. It is a decent piece of literary effort designed to be read for experiment and exercise. And the shocking brutality in parts of it just feels superimposed on an already tedious conceit.

Recommended with reservations. For strong readers, for those who are looking for a sort of edgy quirky read. For readers who need a book to fill a category re: Holocaust or German doctors. Niche reading at best.

2 stars

Advertisements

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion

Temple Golden Pavilion

“The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” – Yukio Mishima

This is actually the second time I read this novel. But since one cannot step into the same river twice, I suppose, this is also my “first” time reading “this” novel. Written by Yukio Mishima (1925 – 1970), it was published in Japan in 1956 and was translated into English in 1959. I read the Vintage International edition, translated by Ivan Morris.  It is a literary fictional re-telling of the life of Hayashi Yōken, a Zen Buddhist Acolyte, the arsonist who burned down the original Kinkakuji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion). Hayashi Yōken committed this horrible act in 1950 and six years later, this novel was published.

The main overarching point that I want to assert regarding all of this is that no other author in the universe ought to have written this novel. Yukio Mishima is precisely the one that would, could, and did write this. Allegedly, Mishima met with the young monk once the monk was imprisoned. Somehow this is accepted as near-fact, though, I do wonder how Mishima was allowed this access?  I do not doubt he was, though. Mishima was enigmatic, overwhelming, significant. He was also a member of the samurai class; even if this was already 1950.

Take note, I think if all the dates can be trusted, Mishima was nearly the same age as the young acolyte – allegedly, Hayashi Yōken was 22, Mishima was 25.

Mishima was not one who would stop a rumor, I suppose, were one to circulate. But he might be pleased to give contradictory reports, just to see what would happen. He seemed to enjoy the spotlight, but also knew to keep his cards close and covered. The alleged interview with the mad monk may have been worthless and useless. Or it may have be everything. Or, most likely, it was nothing to most people, but everything to Mishima’s insightful, perceptive, literary eye.  All of this is to say, this could be one-hundred percent rubbish created by Mishima who enjoyed making idols and knocking them down and shocking his readership. It could also be totally peppered with truths and the reader is at a loss for any tools to distinguish what is true and what is not.

Hardly could there be another author who would dare and who would care in the same way as Mishima to write this notorious novel of this national tragedy. Not to mention, using some of the material of the story for esoteric considerations of beauty and nihilism. So, when it is all said and done, I am not entirely sure what Mishima actually thought of the event. It was horrible and shocking and he loved that it occurred because of its horror, is what I think.

Moving from Mishima to history and the temple itself, it should be noted that this event occurred not too distant from WWII. The Nanking Massacre started in 1937, the Pearl Harbor attack was in 1941, and, of course, the Hiroshima bomb in 1945.  While the boy was likely isolated to an extent by his life at the temple, the war doubtlessly crept into every nook and cranny and had profound effects on everyone.

My concern, what confronted me with my real problem, was beauty alone. But I do not think that the war affected me by filling my mind with gloomy thoughts.  When people concentrate on the idea of beauty, they are, without realizing it, confronted with the darkest thoughts that exist in this world.  – pg. 48

The temple known as Kinkakuji was originally built in 1400 or so. And after the young acolyte committed arson, it was painstakingly rebuilt and it is likely rebuilt to restore the original glory of the early temple, and not simply that of the 1950s. I think that even as recent as the early 2000s, highly detailed repairs were being completed. I would be interested to know if Mishima knew of these efforts, what he thought of them, etc.

Mishima changes the name of the acolyte to Mizoguchi, a boy afflicted with a serious stutter who is also the son of a Buddhist priest. Hayashi Yōken was allegedly diagnosed with schizophrenia and eventually died from tuberculosis. Mishima has Mizoguchi narrate this story.  As a narrator, Mizoguchi is entirely self-centered and self-occupied.  If this is something that Mishima intended, I do not know. However, it is difficult to truly sympathize or empathize with Mizoguchi, although he often seems simple and awkward enough to merit some mitigation for his thoughts/actions.

“For what purpose do I live? At such thoughts people feel uneasy and even kill themselves. . . Just to exist was more than enough to satisfy me.  In the first place, doesn’t uneasiness about one’s existence spring precisely from a sort of luxurious dissatisfaction at the thought that one may not be living fully?” – pg. 100

Readers who may take an interest in this story because they want to watch the development of Mizoguchi; from a young boy with his ill father, to an acolyte obsessed with the Temple, to a madman with a nihilistic spark [sic!], will be disappointed. The slope that Mishima takes us on is not steep and daring and breakneck.  If such development is present, it is very subtle. The story is indeed told in episodic fashion, mainly in a variety of relationships that Mizoguchi has with his Superior at the Temple, his fellow acolytes, and his fellow schoolmates.

Many of the episodes that Mizoguchi undergoes are, in a sense, difficult to read through.  He is not a comfortable individual and it seems that he is unable to discern the normal from the abnormal. Bizarre situations fascinate him and affect him strongly.  Mishima suggests that Mizoguchi is a fully-aware of the evilness or sin in his actions.  Mizoguchi seems, at points, to revel in the sin, to perform the evil action just to bring evil into the world – as if it is a thing of beauty. The way Mishima presents all of this is weird, because Mizoguchi does not seem to want to commit any particular sin for the sake of that sin. Instead, he just wants to do anything evil, any sort of immoral act will suffice.

Was one obliged to pay back one’s debts in the face of a world catastrophe?  I was tempted to give Kashiwagi the tiniest hint of what was in my mind, but I stopped myself – pg. 208

Kashiwagi is a character possessed of a big personality that strongly affects Mizoguchi. Its clear that Kashiwagi is a toxic relationship for the young acolyte, even if Mizoguchi is unable to discern this.  If Mizoguchi had toyed with self-loathing feelings and dabbled in a variety of profanities, it is after Kashiwagi’s influence that Mizoguchi embraces the truly destructive. Mishima likes to juxtapose these two characters and both and neither are his some-time mouthpiece throughout the novel.

“Why does the Golden Temple try to protect me?  Why does it try to separate me from life without asking it?  Of course it may be that the temple is saving me from falling into hell. But by so doing, the Golden Temple is making me even more evil than those people who actually do fall into hell, it is making me into ‘the man who knows more about hell than anyone.’ ” – pg. 153

Unfortunately, Mizoguchi’s obsession with the Temple seems to cloud his judgment and he is unable to discern who or what is influencing him.  To top it off, he has no close confidants or role models to look toward.  There is no one to turn to in the hopes of pulling him back onto a better path.  So the question is not always “what is the evil influence?” but sometimes:  “why can’t Mizoguchi find, create, and maintain close relationships?”  Of course Mizoguchi would tell us it is due to his stutter. Sometimes he believes the Temple – and all that it represents – forms a blockade between himself and others.

There are definite sordid and profane moments in this novel.  Mishima likes to look at the concepts of evil, beauty, war, religion, relationships and show them both at their best and worst. Sometimes Mishima comes across as quite nasty.  At other points, Mishima seems to crave purity and and beauty more than anyone. This book is not for gentle readers.  It is not an easy read – even just textually, though there are only ten chapters in this novel, there are several whole chapters that really slog, especially when Mishima allows Mizoguchi’s mental meanderings to go wide-open.  It can get boring and rambling.  Nevertheless, though I have read this twice, I don’t like this book. But I know I will probably re-read it in the future. Its a good book that is really tough to enjoy.

2 stars

Ice

Ice by Anna Kavan; Penguin Classics

Ice by Anna Kavan; Penguin Classics

Ice was published in 1967 and is the author’s final published work before she died. Anna Kavan (1901 – 1968) lived a fairly eventful life, but struggled with drug addiction and mental illness. Reading about her, I immediately managed to get her and Anais Nin conflated into one person. Totally unfair and awful of me, I suppose, but there you have it.  I started this novel with the feeling that “there is nothing about this book that appeals or interests me in any way. Likely I won’t enjoy it.” I hesitate to call this work a “novel” because it is so far outside of the typical definition that I am not sure that the definition can apply. I also suspect this would not really bother the author. Allegedly in his biography of Kavan, Callard quotes Kavan as knowing fully that her work was on the edges of the fiction-spectrum; she herself says it is not supposed to be realistic.

I had never before met anyone who owned a telephone and believed in dragons. It amused me, and also contributed to my sense of the unreal. – pg. 35

Reviews/comments of this work frequently reference Kafka. They suggest that this is Kafka-esque. I’m no fan of Kafka whatsoever and, frankly, do not find Kavan to be an imitation of Kafka. After reading this work, I do think Kavan stands on her own and deserves to be treated without some cheap comparison to Kafka. I think, maybe, I see more similarities with Ernst Junger – believe it or not.

Most reviews also begin by stating that there is an unreliable narrator who is surviving in a dystopia. Narrator. The Narrator. As I read this work, throughout I had the nagging feeling, which was stronger at some points than others, that there is no separate narrator. The word that I put on all of this story is schizophrenia. Now I am aware that some readers may gesture at the last chapter as if that proves there are at least two characters. I dispute and firmly hold my position that there is one character. If there are any characters. The majority of the work, to me, seems like a study in atmosphere. I use that word a lot when thinking of Ice and it is because it is, as Christopher Priest calls it, “virtually plotless.” So, instead of storylines, the reader must focus on small scenes, chunks of disjointed settings.

I had a curious feeling that I was living on several planes simultaneously; the overlapping of these planes was confusing. – pg. 56

How disjointed? Very disjointed; here is how I imagine it. There are lakes frozen across solidly. It is still and cold. And then there are rivers on which flow chunks of ice, mini-glaciers that are a lot like white stepping stones loosened by the current. So, on each chunk the setting is just the same ice as on the solid lake. But one is a congruent, solid mass. The other is a broken off fragment. A lot of this novel is full of fragments. They appear to have come from one solid mass, but we cannot see that lake of ice, we can only focus on each individual chunk being tossed around in the river.

The “characters” in the novel have similar focus points. For example, the narrator focuses often on the Indris animals. Why? No outstanding reason, I think. Or, perhaps as a stark and jarring contrast from everything else in the scene. Also, the girl’s wrists – focused on a great deal, repeatedly.  I might suggest, too, that a common symptom of mental illness is fragmentation and disorientation to the point of increased inability to establish a whole picture of reality.

In any case, it is nearly absurd to discuss a novel as a novel that is so disjointed and has such jarring focus points. This is why I think the discussion must always look at atmosphere and tone.

This work contains some excellent prose.  There are turns of phrase, so to speak, that are so lovely to read, one wants to read them aloud. They describe with such ease the confusion and mayhem that the story is running through – it hardly seems fair that any author should be able to have this skill. However, I am not sure that the work as an entire piece has the payoff for the reader. No doubt, the sentences here and there are marvelous, but overall the work is symbolic, difficult, and maybe maybe maybe….. empty. I am unsure.

Much of the writing is repetitive. I find this is typical in any author using symbolism. They want to drive the symbols deep into the reader’s psyche. Also, this repetitious “pseudo-storyline” combines with an overwhelming, but nearly undescribed sense of doom that is coming down like an unstoppable curtain – but only in the corners of the mind – creates a super intense atmosphere. The “ice” of the title is the final doom of the planet, but rarely can it be seen head-on. Usually in this work it is referred to as if caught from the corner of the eye, or some remnant of a nightmarish dream still latent upon awakening.

The intensity and tone of this work is very well done. Overall, this is an intense work – an intensity that comes very much outward toward the reader. Continually, it reminded me VERY MUCH of many elements in the video for the song I Follow Rivers (2011) by Lykke Li [The music video, directed by Tarik Saleh and filmed on the Swedish island of Gotland, features Li in a black robe and veil chasing a man (actor Fares Fares) through a snowy landscape.] – I feel that Tarik Saleh would have captured the tone/atmosphere in Ice very, very well.

All that was left was the ceaselessly shrinking fragment of time called “now.” – pg. 177

Overall, what will readers get out of the time invested in this novel? It is unique in some ways that make it valuable to know about. However, it is also jarring and gruesome at times – particularly in its matter-of-fact moments. The avant-garde style of absolutely transitionless slips into daydreams/mirages/memories/hallucinations are worthy of notice. I suspect this is evidence of Kavan’s heroin usage. In other words, the ability to describe blackouts, mental confusion, hallucinations as experienced. There are some neat ideas that come as “scenes” or “brief segments” of writing. But I do not know that overall there is a take-away that is necessary or integral. Its not for all readers, certainly, and maybe most strong readers would have no interest in it. So perhaps the takeaway is the study of a heroin-addicted schizophrenic. It can be a frightful thing in these pages….

I give this two stars. It is not easy to rate this sort of work at all. My somewhat “low” rating is because, at the end of the day, though I will remember pieces of this novel, it will never resonate with me on the same level as a number of other novels will. Further, I cannot think of a single person I would want to recommend this to. Sadly, this makes it seem like I do not appreciate Kavan’s efforts.

2 stars

Carved in Bone

Carved in BoneI have been reading a lot of….. pulp novels lately. Or trying to, I guess. I have just been feeling like reading that sort of book; gritty, basic, fast-reading. However, I still do try to be somewhat selective. I mean, I try to choose novels that there is a chance I might enjoy on some level. Well, I kind of suspected from the start that I would not like this one, but it had just enough about it for me to give it a chance.

I do not have a lot of good to say about this novel. I probably should say nothing, then, right?  And maybe what I will say will be more telling about myself as a reader than about the book. Other readers surely enjoyed this book and probably disagree with my sentiments, which is fine, because I do hope people read books that entertain them.

This is the first in the Body Farm series of novels, it is the only one I have read.  It was published in 2006. “Jefferson Bass” is the penname for co-writers Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson.

To start, the first sentence of this review I wrote the word “pulp,” but I wanted to write “low-brow.”  I did not, however, because I thought that might be off-putting to readers of this entry. Well, the truth is, this is low-brow stuff. And if that offends a reader, I guess maybe they can come and holler at me about it. To continue…. it is pretty basic writing level. A long time ago, I used software called Word Perfect; a word-processing software.  You could have it scan your writing and it would judge it (what criteria?) and categorize it on a writing level. 8th Grade, High School, Undergraduate, Doctoral, etc. Something like that. I do not remember all of the details, I think it would give it a numeric score and that gave a range of levels. I certainly do not remember what the numerical breakdowns were, but this novel would get a rather low number. The sentences are structurally and grammatically correct.  They are just not complex or far above basic reader level. Of course, this is what makes the book a speedy read.

The main character is both pathetic and yet vaguely interesting. He is just this side of bumbling oaf. His “witty” remarks are often bad puns or seem like forced retorts. He does not think fast on his feet.  And he has got all sorts of family and personal life drama. If this character, Dr. Bill Brockton, were someone I knew in real life, I would find him intolerable and insufferable. The only good thing I can say about him is that he does know his science-stuff.

The plot is heavily related to the setting.  This novel takes place in East Tennessee Appalachian Mountains, and hammers each and every stereotype and trope that ever fell off of those highlands. Personally, I have never found anything charming about backwoods, mountaintop, Appalachia. I have no interest in things categorized as “Redneck,” “hick,” or “country.”  I was raised on water and I love water. Mountains make me unhappy, generally. Any weird backwoods Southern activities that go on in mountains usually make me disgusted. Put it this way:  if you are no fan of The South, this novel will do nothing to change your opinion.  If you love The South, this novel will make you cringe because it grinds on all the worst aspects of all of the stereotypes.

Finally, the crimes and the forensics.  Well, the Body Farm concept is cool and awesome and a little underused, actually in this novel.  I think the science and the factual data is authentic and honest; I’m not someone who has studied these things, though.  However, though the main character is a forensics guy on this case, I feel like he does more actual detective work on the case than anyone else. And, as mentioned above, this is not the guy you want running a case.  There are subplot storylines that are kind of gruesome and grubby – they do work effectively to flesh out (pun!) other characters and the setting, but its too much gore and gross.  Sure, crime is awful and hideous, but there seemed to be so much of the same crime heaped and heaped on.  Even the main crime is so….stereotyped.

As a comparison, fair or not, I preferred the Kathy Reichs’ novels.  Many of those take place in Montreal (a place I love), so perhaps I am overly-biased. Now, I actually found book two of this Body Farm series in my stacks of TBR novels. I realized I did not have book one, so I bought this novel. I think I will probably read book two, but I cannot think I will read beyond that.

In fairness to readers:  this novel has scenes of rooster fighting, tobacco consumption, and shotgun usage. So, a normal day in The South……

2 stars

The Carter of La Providence

The Carter of La ProvidenceThe Carter of La Providence (also known as The Crime at Lock 14 and Le Charretier de la Providence) by Georges Simenon is one of the Inspector Maigret novels. I believe it was the second one.  It definitely is the second one I have read and I have mixed feelings about it. It was first published in 1931 in Belgium.

Having grown up on an island and amidst rivers and lakes, having wiled away many an afternoon watching boats come through locks, I did appreciate the setting of this story. But I like the setting much more than the story itself. Simenon also made the weather lousy.  So, not only is the story set on the Marne Canal in Northern France, it is raining, muddy, and generally dismal. A perfect location for the bulky, sulking main character:  Inspector Maigret.

There were two or three patches of sky where the sunlight still lingered, but the rain was coming down more and more heavily. -pg 49

Maigret is as expected – rock-solid.  He ponders a lot and does not share one bit of what he is thinking.  He seems demanding and grumpy.  Maigret interrupts people when they talk, stomps around in the mud, and thinks heavy thoughts. So, if murder was not grim enough, when Maigret is added to the storyline, things get heavy.  Why do I like Maigret? Well, probably because unlike Poirot or Lord Wimsey, Maigret is the noir figure. Unlike Whimsey’s hyperactivity and Poirot’s “little gray cells,” Maigret seems to use brute force to conquer mysteries.  But not physically.  It is as if Maigret confronts mental challenges with a bull-like resistance and then overpowers them. From Maigret, I can see derivatives in Stuart Kaminsky’s Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov and Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther characters.

Unfortunately, Maigret kept a little too much to himself this time around. I feel that because the reader was not privy to most of Maigret’s deductions, it made Maigret’s movements seem very random.  Further, the actual resolution seemed a bit too convoluted. Or something. Its just not a resolution that I found reasonable.

Also, the basic ingredients of the story did not appeal to me. Old weird people on a “pleasure boat” seemingly idle, drunken, and pointless sicken me. Bohemian leeches, hang-ons, bored socialites… none of these people are ones that I want to have anything to do with. Still, I admit that they add to the heaviness of the setting; the novel feels full of sluggish muddy elements. A character is describing one of the yacht-riders to Maigret:

“A dead weight.  A beautiful woman who is incapable of existing except on a couch, smoking cigarettes and drinking sweet liqueurs.  She started the day she first came on board and has been doing it ever since. . . . Oh sorry:  she also plays cards. I think it’s the only thing that really interests her.” – pg. 56

This is good writing. From this description I can really picture this creature. I was not around in the 1920s/1930s, but it seems like this sort of character was everywhere.  I imagine such a person to be something like a flapper-chick who has gone rotten and just oozes over chaise-lounges and smokes endlessly.

The resolution seemed a little less resolving – and maybe that is Simenon’s fault.  He set up some wonderful red herring-suspects and he gave us a truly weird character swirled in the middle of the muddy locks to wonder about. But the solution seemed almost unrelated or cobbled together.  I just didn’t like it. Came too quickly, from out of nowhere, and did not go in a more expected direction, I guess.

Overall, it’s not really a good read. However the unique setting and the brooding Maigret manage to make the story worthwhile. I want to read more Maigret, but this one is unnecessary. Its a shame because…. locks….

2 stars

Deep Storm

Deep StormI finished Deep Storm by Lincoln Child today. It was first published in 2007. This is the first novel I have read by Child, though I think I own a couple of other ones.  Overall, I was not impressed by this novel.  Also, since it is not at all Child’s first published work, it is also difficult to be very giving in the rating. In case you do not know, this novel is a techno-thriller/adventure-pulp story – it also is science fiction. But the science fiction is a little different than, say, Star Wars-style.

Overall, I feel this novel is lazy in some places.  The novel came across to me as if the author wanted to write a techno-thriller – a topic that he does know a lot about – but the story aspects he just threw together a bit carelessly. The story takes place on and very much under an oil rig in the North Atlantic.  On a routine drill, weird signals and malfunctions occur.  The Navy is somehow made aware and scientists, both military and civilian, are called in. A huge cutting-edge facility is built on the surface of the ocean floor deep below the oil rig. Efforts to continue research are made.  Until crew start getting ill.  Dr. Peter Crane is summoned by the chief civilian scientist to come aboard this confidential mission and help determine what is making the crew ill.  Part of the reason Crane agrees to the whole thing is that the scientists entice him with the cryptic talk of what they found below the sea. For the first half of the novel, there are many hints to Crane and the reader that it is actually Atlantis.  Honestly, I would have preferred if it were Atlantis rather than the alien route that the storyline took.

Crane does not get a warm welcome. There is friction between the civilian scientists and the military presence. Furthermore, the medical cases are all distinct and Crane is given a frustrating amount of resistance in his attempts to find answers. Crane is an ex-Navy doctor with submarine experience so he, supposedly, pulls on some of that to assist in dealing with matters in the Deep Storm Facility.

The leader of the whole expedition is Admiral Spartan – that’s Richard Ulysses Spartan. I cannot even believe an author would attempt such a heavy-handed name. As I mentioned earlier, there is an effort to make Deep Storm about Atlantis – and then there is a big reveal in a different direction.  Using these monstrous Greek names is not witty, its obnoxious.

Anyway, there are several issues I have with the novel. One of them is the main character, Peter Crane.  For at least two-thirds of the novel, Crane is really quite useless. He bumbles around doing nothing and being daft – merely existing as a focal point for the author to tell the story. I mean, he just gets lost in corridors and keeps asking the same questions. I find it difficult to say he was even necessary to the story, which is odd because he is the main character!  He does not have much development, nor does he have much depth [pun!].  Crane is exactly what he is when we first meet him, with no hidden complexities. He might be a good doctor, but as detective he is a bum.

Secondly, there is a really quick chapter (just a few pages) wherein one of the original characters on page one returns and there is a cameo of a character named Wallace and an explosive interchange between the two.  We next meet Wallace aboard the rig, we do not know how he got there. Throughout the rest of the novel his motivations remain hidden, although while previously he seemed like a leader, in future segments he seems just like a goon. Its not great storytelling.

Another issue is with the character Hui Ping – she is a scientist. We have already been told that the Facility has hired only the top-notch scientists. Yet she does not know what a Faraday screen is. Aliens and technology are believable – but not a scientist not knowing what a Faraday screen is. The author makes sure to utilize this character several times: her knowledge of the layout of the facility is integral to the story and her awesome ability to do forensic computer things is vital as well.  She is also able to recognize patterns in data and analyze binary code. The whole lack of Faraday screen knowledge killed this character for me, though. Lazy writing, I guess.

Further, I think the layout and geography of the underwater facility ought to have been presented with a map or a quick schematic. After awhile, though Dr. Crane kept telling us what floor he was on, I lost track of what it all meant. When authors constantly remind you about location, I want location to be important and significant, not just filler.

Suffice to say, its adventure-pulp. There is a mystery and several bad guys and it is a techno-thriller. However, it is not the best effort by an author. Frankly, I was somewhat bored.

2 stars

High-Rise

high rise

High-Rise – J. G. Ballard

It took me a little while to get through High-Rise. Not for reasons one would expect; you know, crazed psychopathic human society degenerating violently. Instead, the writing kind of bored me or somehow did not sufficiently match the topic. I’ll be honest, I can appreciate the concept and the thrill of what this novel does. However, I am not going to rate it highly. Feel free to disagree vehemently in the comments.

High-Rise by J. G. Ballard was first published in 1975 in the U.K.  It is the first item that I have ever read by Ballard, though I do own a number of his works – to include a science fiction collection.  I have seen this novel categorized in a number of genres – from horror to science fiction, though I do not think I would use either. It is definitely a style of dystopian work. Here’s the thing:  many readers have made comparisons with William Golding’s (1911 – 1993) novel Lord of the Flies (1954).  I cannot make a single comment on this comparison because. . . . . I have not read Lord of the Flies.

High-Rise is less of a novel with a traditional plot – than a study of the degeneration of society. Ballard has an extremely negative view of humanity – and his characters quickly descend from rational creatures to primitive brutes. The entire novel takes place in a single 40-story building that is one of a number that are in some stage of construction in a development. The architect is Anthony Royal and he, too, lives in the building. Please note the last name of this character and where he resides in the building. Not subtle, Ballard.

The residents of the building have arranged themselves, through purpose and custom, into a stratification of social classes.  The top floors are obviously the over-wealthy.  They are extravagant and powerful and rather out of touch with humanity, generally.  The middle floors are those professionals who are quite successful, but yet still are not the “one percent” of the society. These people (and the floors they inhabit) could be further sectioned into subclasses, but generally, they are those who work for the “one percent” and who use/exploit the lower classes.

Naturally, the lower classes fill the remainder of the building’s floors. They are the noisy, hard-working people.  This is the floor with children, pets, housewives who are not merely arm candy, people who work hard for a living.  However, it should be noted that even these “lower class” people are not truly the lower class. One does not obtain residence in this building without at least having reached a relative height of society.

Instead of following the usual trajectory of plotline, Ballard focuses on several characters (one from each societal class) and shares chunks of their experience as the high-rise’s inhabitants turn feral.  We are first introduced to Dr. Robert Laing who is sitting on his balcony and is reflecting on the events that have already transpired.  In essence, the first few pages take places after all of the events of the novel. Anyway, Laing represents something of the “middle class” of this building.  He is recently divorced and was lured to this residence by his sister – who also lives in the building, a few floors above his.

Another character we meet is Richard Wilder. He represents the lower class of this building.  Ballard constantly reminds the reader of Wilder’s physical characteristics.  This repetition gets annoying quickly. The reader actually spends a lot of time with Wilder and in some sense, I was relatively disappointed with his ending. He is a documentary filmmaker and comes equipped with a camera. There is something creative and interesting about this – but I feel Ballard does not push this element anywhere. Anyway, Wilder’s goal is to supplant Royal; a goal which feels very wooden and stereotypical to the reader.

Ballard wants the reader to see how easy and simple it is for the façade of “rational, cultured” person to slip into brute primitive animal. However, I do not think this slide is so very quick and easy. And I do think Ballard sets up a number of “straw men.” The main one being that all the residents unanimously, but silently agree to hide the events from the outside world.  I do not believe for an instant that this could be done. Even if it could be done by agreement – accidents happen. The outside world, as it were, would push in. Curiosity, surveillance, questioning, investigation, random chance – all of this would prevent this story before it gets started. And I guess I just could not suspend the disbelief enough.

The second: that no resident leaves the building early on. Sure, it is likely and psychologically possible that many would stay in this deviant playhouse. However the fact that none leave is too much.

Third, and perhaps the most vexing, is that Ballard arranges his building with only damaged and corrupt people. In fact, it is not that they become crazed or destructive – they actually are already this way and events hasten on these characteristics. Does Ballard propose we call all humans, at base, destructive and damaged? But it’s simply not true, no matter how pessimistic and hostile we want to be in our assessment of humanity.

The writing kind of bored me. I felt it did not match the intensity of the events of the high-rise. And maybe that is the point; maybe the matter-of-fact normalcy of the writing tone juxtaposed with the extremity of the events is meant to show how “mundane” such wild things have become. But I doubt this – I feel that would be me overthinking the tone.

If Ballard wanted to push limits (and he clearly does) then he should have pushed limits. Sure, there are shocking scenes…. (okay, and I do mean really shocking. People eat dogs. Elderly women are beaten. And the supporting character Steele is truly difficult to read through)… but scenes alone do not push limits. It just piles gore on gore.  Depravity and dysfunction in different ways all become the same. A strong sense of degeneration and regression pervades the whole novel.  However, I feel the novel is also full of little tidbits that Ballard could have taken and examined.  I feel there is a lot of potential for making a tighter assessment or further developing a thread of this human degeneration. I can only think of one section that really looks at this situation:

Laing sat down among the empty bottles and refuse on the kitchen floor.  He gazed up at the derelict washing-machine and refrigerator, now only used as garbage-bins.  He found it hard to remember what their original function had been.  To some extent they had taken on a new significance, a role that he had yet to understand.  Even the rundown nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful was.  Laing pondered this – sometimes he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted. -pg. 176 (Chapter 16)

This was, for me, the most interesting passage in the novel.  And I wish I could share that the novel is replete with such analysis.  But it isn’t. Ballard did right by showing us the pent up aggression, the shifting alliances, and even the loss of language skills.  Yet, there was a lot that seemed a little too contrived even in this contrived lab experiment.

I think that the idea behind the novel is more exciting than its actual execution.  I think, though I disagree with, Ballard’s dismal view of humanity here is worth exploring and examining. But I struggled with the pacing and viewpoints and the writing. Admittedly, the idea of a “contained society” (in a human-made structure) going to hell sociologically is a fascinating one.  No doubt things would be this extreme, but they would not be this cardboard.

2 stars

Save