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High-RiseHigh-Rise by J.G. Ballard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I did like parts of Ballard’s HIGH-RISE very much, I find myself with mixed feelings about the novel.

On the one hand, it is undeniably brilliant. The high-rise is the perfect setting for an examination of civilization in general and our social strata in particular, how everything is held together by a delicate truce that only just barely keeps our resentments and prejudices at bay. But when the power starts to fail and the building’s automated systems give out, that delicate truce is tested, then strained, then demolished altogether. Some have called HIGH-RISE a metaphor for our socioeconomic class system, and I can certainly see that, with the building’s warring factions eventually dividing themselves into its lower levels (as personified by the aptly named Wilder), upper levels (the equally aptly named Royal, also an architect of the high-rise), and the middle levels (Laing, perhaps named after the Scottish psychiatrist who wrote extensively on the subject of psychosis, from which pretty much everyone in the novel suffers). But the theme goes deeper than class warfare into a deconstruction of civilization itself. The residents of the high-rise begin to devolve, loyalties shrinking from strata to floor numbers to small, close-knit clans of neighboring apartments; residents paint tribal symbols on their bodies, some can no longer speak outside of animalistic grunts, and others hunt the hallways at night for food in the form of stray house pets and, eventually, larger game. In the end, there are even hints of a war between the sexes. It’s all quite brilliant.

On the other hand, the writing style Ballard employs is one that distances the reader and makes it very hard to connect with the material on an emotional level. Events are routinely summarized rather than dramatized, which makes it all feel a lot more casual than perhaps it should, and also, for this reader at least, made events harder to retain in my memory. By the time one of the characters encounters some dead bodies, I was surprised to learn that residents had started killing each other. Not because it isn’t the natural progression of the devolution occurring within the high-rise, but because we had not yet read about anyone getting killed. This enforced distance from the events of the novel makes it very hard to connect with anything except on an intellectual level, which I think may not be enough.

So, four stars from me for being a brilliant and timeless novel that’s well worth reading, but one that’s marred by an awful lot of telling instead of showing.

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Night Film

Night FilmNight Film by Marisha Pessl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this novel, but with a few hefty caveats. An intoxicating mix of detective fiction, borderline supernatural horror, and cinephilia, with homages to directors from Hitchcock to Kubrick to Argento (who, like the enigmatic filmmaker of the novel, Cordova, once utilized a closeup of his own eye in one of his earlier films), Pessl’s NIGHT FILM lies just on the outskirts of brilliant. The plot held me tight as it peeled back its onion-like layers to reveal more and more of the mysterious Ashley Cordova and her filmmaker father, despite a handful of dry spots in the lengthy narrative. I found most of the characters fascinating, and the use of multimedia aspects, such as reprinted pages from fictional websites and magazines, added an enjoyable illusion of verisimilitude.

Unfortunately, one of the big drawbacks of the novel is that our point-of-view narrator, investigative journalist Scott McGrath, is not especially colorful or even all that bright (twenty-something drug dealer Hopper, who assists in his investigation, turns out to be a far better detective than McGrath). He’s driven by an obsession with Cordova that is simultaneously not explained well enough to the reader and not big enough to be such a driving factor in his life’s work. Worse, he’s a deadbeat divorced dad right out of central casting who constantly puts his work before his obligation as a father to an adorable moppet, alternately abandoning her or putting her in danger, which is something we’ve seen so many times it’s already a painful cliche. The novel is told in first person, which leaves us stuck for 600 pages in the mind of the least interesting character.

Although Pessl knows how to turn a phrase on occasion and can sometimes conjure exactly the right word to transform a good description into a perfect one, I found myself mostly unimpressed with her prose. She has what I found to be an unfortunate and annoying habit of forcing italicized words into almost every sentence, as if she doesn’t trust to reader to understand by context which word should be emphasized. It makes for bumpy reading.

Luckily, I found the novel strong enough to overcome both those caveats, and I do recommend it for fans of smart, brainy thrillers. There’s an ambiguity to the tale that might turn off some readers, but I found it pleasing. After all, as Cordova himself says, it’s not the truth that matters, it’s the stories we tell each other, and the stories we tell ourselves.

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Happy Birthday To Me!

Yesterday I turned 47 — um, I mean I had my ninth annual 39th birthday. It came on a weekend this year, so I pretty much started celebrating Friday night and didn’t stop until Sunday night. Celebrating doesn’t mean what it used to, of course. Once upon a time it meant staying out all night drinking with friends. These days, it’s pizza for dinner and a shot of whiskey.

Anyway, my lovely wife gave me these two books as gifts:

TheMonsterShow OnMonsters

I wonder if she’s trying to tell me something?

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Happy Valentine’s Day to you and yours! (And remember, if you don’t have a Valentine this year, be your own Valentine and love yourself!)