Wednesday, September 07, 2005

31. Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard

Concrete Island book pictureI'm sort of surprised at how much Ballard I've ended up reading this past year or so. I always had a negative feeling towards him. Not based on anything substantial but just because his name came to me surrounded by all that "alternative" hype when ReSearch published The Atrocity Exhibit and Crash the movie came out (which I kind of enjoyed). Now I've read enough of his early work to feel that I have a decent handle on his style and some of the themes he deals with.

Concrete Island is the story of a succesful London architect who loses control on the freeway and drives his Jaguar over the edge, crashing in an isolated island underneath a huge interchange. He is mildly injured and in a bit of shock (or perhaps insane; it's often hard to tell with Ballard's characters) but it's not a big deal until he tries to get off of the island. It turns out that he's trapped. There's no obvious way out and on the only road he can reach, the motorists are driving too fast and won't stop. He acts a bit rashly, makes some mistakes and ends up looking pretty disheveled, which makes people even less likely to stop.

It is of course a metaphor for the isolated modern man as well as a condemnation of society's separation (or, considering Ballard's morally neutral tone, a confirmation of man's nature). The storyline does get more complex, but ultimately he's addressing many of the same themes he deals with in his first four apocalypse novels: man's psychological distance from civilization, the flimsiness of bourgeois trappings, etc.

It's a quick read, very dark, even cruel at times. His description of the island (it's fairly complex, being the remains of an old neighborhood) is excellent. It's a small study and engaging, but it will not make you very happy.

Monday, September 05, 2005

30. Ghost Story by Peter Straub

Ghost Story book pictureMy S.O. picked this one out from the library. She'd heard a good recommendation a while ago and had wanted to read it. I was dismissive at first. I read The Talisman that Straub wrote with Stephen King and really enjoyed it, especially the pulp narrative elements, but I sort of considered Straub to be a "mainstream" horror author and most of those that I have tried to read, I've found pretty boring.

But I got stuck bookless and read the first chapter and found the writing style to be rich and entertaining, with some depth there. My S.O. had a bit of trouble getting started but then after the first third, she blazed through it, barely able to put it down. So I erased my previous uninformed opinion and read the book.

It's a story about a small town in upstate New York and 4 old, succesful men who have a dark secret in their past and are starting to have all kinds of freaky nightmares. They get together regularily and tell each other ghost stories, stories that they won't admit to each other seem to come from out of nowhere. The plot sounds a bit hoary, especially the dark past, but it becomes much more complex and multi-layered with all kinds of things of gripping stories going on in an interconnected web. Even better, the evil (and I don't want to be precise because the fun is in the discovery) isn't just some vague menace, but has methods and characteristics that make it quite interesting.

Also, as I found on my first read, the writing is good. There are many well-developed and varied characters. Even better, he captures the claustrophobia of a small town. In the few times I've spent in small towns in upstate New York, they all had this old, sort of closed-off feeling, like an unopened chest of drawers in an attic somewhere. He really conveys that feeling, of nostalgia and innocent times past mixed with fear and social segregation and cheating and all the usual small town evils. In some ways, the town itself is almost evil by definition and the evil that comes to it secondary.

This book is not perfect. There are some inconsistencies in the plot and one of the major protagonists has a questionable presence in the story at all, but it's thoroughly entertaining and quite dark and creepy. It's a great summer time read and definitely the kind of book that deserves to be a bestseller in that it appeals to the masses without being stupid and easy. Quite fun, I recommend it.