Books Read in 2014 – 60. High-Rise – J. G. Ballard

Genre: Dystopia, anti-heroes

Narrative Style: Third person three different perspectivesUnknown

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1975

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Robert Laing quickly spots the careful class demarcations when he moves into the high-rise. Whilst ostensibly for the rich, it quickly becomes apparent that some are not as rich as others. These demarcations follow the floors with the lowest on floors one to ten and so on. When the electric start to fail, panic and violence quickly ensue. Before long, everyone has returned to a savage state and society has completely broken down. 

This has what is perhaps my favourite opening line ever – “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.” This raised my expectations quite highly. The plot then moves through those three months. Unfortunately they don’t quite live up to this powerful opening line.

The story is told from the perspective of three men – one from the lowest ranks, Wilder; one from the middle, Laing; and one from the top, Royal who is one of the architects of the high-rise. Before civilisation starts to break down, there are already petty jealousies and rivalries about who can use which swimming pool and which lift. This seemed realistic enough and it was easy to see how such grudges might escalate into something bigger.

However, I wasn’t convinced by the triggers for the escalation. Very quickly, it seemed, people were no longer leaving the high-rise and hunting in packs for people from the other floors. Once that had happened, there were very few places for the narrative to go. Nothing else really happened and it felt like events levelled out. They didn’t really get any worse and there was clearly no way for them to get better.

That wasn’t the only problem. I couldn’t really decide what point Ballard was trying to make. I suppose that the high-rise was meant to represent a microcosm of society with the three levels representing upper, middle and working class but because these were all from the same class, the point didn’t quite work. At the end. only Laing is left eating his barbecued dog suggesting perhaps that the middle classes are the ones that will survive and then because they wait it out passively. I’m not sure what sort of moral lesson that is supposed to be.

This is as much about masculinity as it is about class and the three men show different ways of being male. Wilder, as his name might suggest, is very much ruled by his sexuality, Laing is more refined, preferring to wait and see what happens and finally Royal is a leader, at least for a while, by virtue of his money and his penthouse apartment. This also relates to stereotypical versions of masculinity and class e.g. the beastlike working class male. The women in this novel are underdeveloped, there to largely be raped or rescued depending on the man in question. That also was disappointing.

Ultimately this was an interesting idea which was well-written but just didn’t quite work for me. This is the second Ballard I’ve read lately that has left me a little cold but I’m sure I will be tempted again as the initial ideas just sound so interesting. They have made a film of this, to be released next year and it maybe that it will work a little better as a film. I’d certainly be keen to see what they do with the material.

Books Read in 2014 – 58. A Kind of Loving – Stan Barstow

Genre: Romance, Masculinity

Narrative Style: First Person, Chronological11816034_f260

Rating 3.5/5

Published: 1960

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Vic Brown is looking for the right woman and when Ingrid catches his eye, he thinks she may be the one. What starts off romantic quickly becomes lustful and Vic is caught between his longing for sex and his knowledge that he doesn’t like Ingrid that much. Then the worst happens: she gets pregnant and he has to marry her. 

I had seen the film A Kind of Loving about twenty years ago and I really enjoyed it so I was looking forward to reading it. And it was quite enjoyable. There were just a few annoying little things that kept me from giving it a higher rating.

Vic Brown is a typical man of the fifties. He is young, employed and has money in his pocket. His narrative voice is quite charming and flows along nicely. He is cultured and wants to make something of himself. He is on the cusp of manhood, thinking himself to be the only one of his friends who hasn’t had sex (this turns out not to be true) and also wanting a loving wife who would also be a friend.

At the beginning, he adores Ingrid from a distance, thinking himself in love with her. And at first, they get on well enough. However, when Ingrid lets him go a bit further than he expected, he becomes confused as to whether he still likes her or just lusts after her. He vows not to see her but she drags him back in. He finds that although he should behave better towards her, he does not because he is caught by his lust.

There is no doubt that Imogen is shoddily treated by Vic. She is similarly caught in the mores of the day, wanting to discover her own sexuality but also knowing that it wasn’t approved of. One of the difficult things about reading this was not to give her a more modern psyche and make her voice stranger and louder.

When she gets pregnant, Vic agrees to marry her and then has to move in with her and her mother because they haven’t the money to find their own place. It is here that Barstow really gets to criticise the current morality. Ingrid’s mother is monstrous, attempting to control her daughter and determined that it must have been all Vic’s fault. She very nearly destroys any chance they have of making any sort of loving out of their situation.

The ending is quietly optimistic and Barstow buts his faith in the younger generation being able to sort out their own lives without the interference of the older generation. They move out of her mother’s house and into their own space, giving their future at least a fighting chance. But it isn’t a cloying they all lived happily ever after ending either. The moral being if they mess it up at least they’ll know who to blame.

So to the things that stopped it being rated higher. I always find it a bit difficult to read a novel like this because I can’t help hoping for the female character to fight back a bit and Ingrid was a bit of a drip. There were strong women in this book but they both used their strength to control everything and everyone so they weren’t exactly positive. And while I obviously understand that a novel is definitely of its time, that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to read. The final thing that annoyed me was Vic’s choice of bint as a generic term for all women. I really dislike the word. And while he uses it in much the same way as you might use bird, it still really got on my nerves.

Books read in 2014 – 19. The Absolutist by John Boyne

Genre: Historical Fiction, War

Narrative Style: First person narration, Moves between 1919 and Tristan’s memories of the war

Rating: 5/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Tristan Sadler has decided to deliver letters written by Will eclecticchallenge2014_300Bancroft to his sister in Norwich. Will was shot as a coward but Tristan knows the truth of what happened and hopes to be able to tell Will’s sister his deepest secrets. 

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge: War. 

Having previously read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I should have been more prepared for the onslaught on the emotions that this book provided. At the end, I was devastated. My mind kept playing over the details of the ending as if I could somehow change the narrative and give Will and Tristan a better ending.

The narrative begins with Tristan’s arrival in Norwich to give the letters to Will’s sister Marian. He had trained and fought with Will and it soon became apparent that he had loved him very much. Marian wants answers as to why Will died and proof that he was not a coward for laying down his arms and refusing to fight. the absolutist

At first it seems that Tristan’s great secret is his homosexuality and the physical acts that he and Will shared. Understandably at this moment in history, and in the army, this was something that both men found difficult to deal with. However, the truth of the matter was much more painful and dark. And although I had worked out exactly what Tristan had done, that didn’t lessen the trauma of actually reading about it.

The themes of this book run through many war novels – the nature of bravery, what makes a man, the effect of brutality on the psyche – but I don’t think I have ever read a novel that tackles them so directly. Before Will lays down his arms, another character, Wolf, is murdered by the other soldiers when he finally hears that he will not have to fight. The treatment of those who wished not to fight and those who could not was appalling – much worse than I’d realised. The treatment of Marian and Will’s parents is equally deplorable.

In the end, although Tristan’s behaviour was also deplorable, I had a lot of empathy for him. Boyne’s characterisation and use of historical detail is so good that it is possible to see past the terrible act he commits and see the man and the reasons behind it. Easily the best book I’ve read in an age.