The Dim-Post

October 16, 2015

Three unsatisfying novels

Filed under: Uncategorized — danylmc @ 9:34 am

High Rise by J G Ballard. Published in 1975. For a novel about a huge luxury apartment building descending into violent anarchy, High Rise is a surprisingly dull book. The entire plot is in the premise. There’s a huge luxury apartment building and it descends into violent anarchy. The end. You don’t read Ballard for the story though, or the characters (they are all residents of the apartment building, and they all become violent anarchists). You read his work for the prescience. The unique insight into society and the human condition. How does that stand up forty years after publication?

Ballard did what literary novelists are supposed to do – he looked at an important social trend: the unrest and rise of violent crime in the 1970s and he decided it was linked to modernity: increased urbanism and the intrusion of technology into our lives. As these things increase so will the savagery, High Rise predicts. Fortunately Ballard was completely wrong. Violent crime peaked in the 1970s and has been trending down ever since, even as technology becomes more ubiquitous and all that modernity Ballard feared became all-encompassing. There’s nothing quite as obsolete as a book that gambles everything on being ‘prescient’ and loses the bet.

Also, I like this Zadie Smith column about Ballard.

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin. A Chinese science fiction novel – first in a trilogy – that won the Nebula prize this year. I think this is the first novel I’ve ever read by a Chinese author, which is a bit embarrassing. I thought (a) that the modern history of China makes it an awesome setting for paranoid sci-fi novels, (b) I struggled with the Chinese names, and found it impossible to distinguish between three primary characters called Yang, Ding and Wang. (c) The writing is very poor. Not sure if that’s a problem with the translation or the original text, but it was so shoddy I abandoned the book half way through, which is very rare for me.

Submission by Michel Houellebecq: Gained notoriety when Houellebecq featured on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the day the magazine staff were murdered by Islamic terrorists. The premise is that a mainstream Muslim political party wins power in France in the early 2020s and the country converts to Sharia law. The spectre of an Islamic France haunts that nation’s politics, particularly on the far right, but Houellebecq’s joke is that the conversion process is actually a painless, pleasant experience for the country in general and France’s intellectual elite especially. Mostly they are all delighted at the prospect of having polygamous marriages with multiple submissive teenage wives. (There is a funny book to be written about a polygymous marriage in which the participants are all as selfish and hateful as Houellebecq characters, but it would require strong female characters so Houellebecq is not the person to write it.)

But the book is only about this in a very peripheral way. Mostly it’s about a middle-aged academic having a mid-life crisis. The academic specialises in Huysmans, a 19th century French novelist I’ve never read, and know nothing about (except that his masterpiece A Rebours is supposedly the unnamed scandalous novel in Dorian Gray). That book obviously means a lot to Houellebecq – his very first publication was a study of Lovecraft called ‘Against the world’. Much of Submission is about Huysmans and A Rebours, and assumes knowledge of and a pre-existing interest in him, and the rest of it is the usual Houellebecq misanthropy: rants against feminism and capitalism and socialism and ‘the suicide of the west.’ I’m not sure if this is the worst Houellebecq novel I’ve read, or that I’ve read too many of them and I’m basically just tired of his bullshit?

27 Comments »

  1. “increased urbanism and the intrusion of technology into our lives. As these things increase so will the savagery, High Rise predicts.”

    Violence may be decreasing, but technology does enable some pretty nasty non violent savagery – lots of hate and bullying, especially of women, revenge porn, etc.

    Comment by Dr Foster — October 16, 2015 @ 10:00 am

  2. I, too, was underwhelmed by High Rise when I read it – but do you think it’s a case of “modernity produces savagery because urbanism/technology” or that “people will turn to savagery to escape the stifling boredom/conformity of modernity”? A sort of proto-Fight Club, if you will? Because Ballard continued with his “violence and disorder lurk in the most advanced places” schtick long after the social trends you point to had reversed – think Super Cannes or Millennium People.

    As for Houellebecq, John Crace in The Guardian produced a great “digested read” of Submission, which confirmed my suspicion that it wasn’t something I would waste reading hours on: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/04/submission-by-michel-houellebecq-digested-read

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — October 16, 2015 @ 10:22 am

  3. That Crace summery pretty much nails it.

    Comment by danylmc — October 16, 2015 @ 10:28 am

  4. Have you ever liked a French book?

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 16, 2015 @ 11:02 am

  5. Some of the early Asterix comics are okay.

    Comment by danylmc — October 16, 2015 @ 11:07 am

  6. I’m surprised you haven’t looked at Huysmans, also a bit surprised that you call Ballard ‘literary’.

    Comment by Rick Bryant — October 16, 2015 @ 11:23 am

  7. Have you ever liked a French book?

    Here’s Danyl in January this year, showing off his reading chops.

    The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère: Carrère wrote a biography of Phillip K Dick called I am alive and you are dead. It’s my favorite literary biography; I’ve reread it a few times and always felt bad for the author that this book wasn’t better known, and that he hadn’t made it as a writer (because if he’d published more books I would have heard of them, right?) Then I stumbled across this Paris Review interview with Carrère and learned that he’s one of the superstars of contemporary French literature. (I assumed he was a Hispanic writer working in the US.) Anyway, The Adversary is his best-selling true crime novel. It is amazing. I’m going to read everything else he’s written.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — October 16, 2015 @ 11:38 am

  8. I’m going to read everything else he’s written.

    I have not actually done this

    Comment by danylmc — October 16, 2015 @ 11:43 am

  9. I have not actually done this

    Yet another broken promise that you have made to us. At this rate, I won’t be able to believe anything I read on the internet.

    I’ll bet if Graeme Edgeler promised to read everything Emmanuel Carrère wrote, he’d actually do it. Why can’t you be more like Graeme Edgeler?

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — October 16, 2015 @ 11:56 am

  10. I read Huysmans Against Naturea few months ago. I quite liked it. But It did kind of feel a bit like the novelisation of a WoW character’s interior décor choices. Parts of Iain Banks’ The Quarry felt similar (when the narrator Kit is writing about the HeroSpace game).

    Comment by RJL — October 16, 2015 @ 11:57 am

  11. I agree, The Three Body Problem read very badly in English. The Story of the Stone reads so-so, and Confucius reads very well. Maybe things are going downhill.

    Comment by BP — October 16, 2015 @ 12:25 pm

  12. I haven’t read any Houellebecq but I have googled his image.

    Comment by NeilM — October 16, 2015 @ 12:50 pm

  13. @Andrew I generally stick to the Guardian digested reads, or to the digested digests, which take up even less of my busy day.

    Comment by richdrich — October 16, 2015 @ 12:52 pm

  14. Which brought me to read this: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/11/call-me-dave-by-michael-ashcroft-and-isabel-oakeshott-digested-read

    The most amusement I’ve had out of the comments section of this blog since xxxx inadvertently revealed what yyyyy had actually been convicted of.

    Comment by richdrich — October 16, 2015 @ 12:58 pm

  15. I’ve read a few of Ballard’s novels in the past, but i can’t say I greatly enjoyed any of them. Endless arid descriptive passages, no convincing characters or interesting plot. However reading that Zadie Smith article with her passing mention of Sade, the penny dropped. Ballard’s books are not novels at all. They are performances where he puts the small set of ideas that interest him through endless permutations, as Sade does with sex acts. As with Sade, one should not attempt to actually pick up and read a Ballard book – it will only end in boredom.

    Comment by trollusk — October 16, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

  16. Why do you do this to yourself?
    Since I finished a BA in French lang & Litt, I haven’t forced myself to keep reading any author with whom I disagree.
    Life is too short to be reading Houellebecq if you don’t enjoy the exercise!

    Comment by anarkaytie — October 16, 2015 @ 1:20 pm

  17. Why can’t you be more like Graeme Edgeler?

    We could all benefit from this aspiration.

    Comment by Grant Buist — October 16, 2015 @ 1:34 pm

  18. “or that “people will turn to savagery to escape the stifling boredom/conformity of modernity”? ”
    Careful, isn’t this what folk where saying before WW1?
    Thankfully, these days we have bungee jumping, base jumping and wing suits to give adrenaline rushes to those who need them.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — October 16, 2015 @ 2:44 pm

  19. Some of the early Asterix comics are okay.

    I’m not too up on the sequence of Asterix. I’m guessing that the “How peculiar these foreigners are” xenophobia that so embarrasses French intellectuals only kicked in later, when the Gauls took up globetrotting.

    Comment by Joe W — October 16, 2015 @ 5:49 pm

  20. I gave up on The Three Body Problem about a third of the way in.

    Comment by Corokia — October 16, 2015 @ 7:15 pm

  21. “Some of the early Asterix comics are okay.”

    In my opinion they don’t really start to get good until “Mansions of the Gods”

    “I’m not too up on the sequence of Asterix. I’m guessing that the “How peculiar these foreigners are” xenophobia that so embarrasses French intellectuals only kicked in later, when the Gauls took up globetrotting.”

    “Asterix and the Goths” is, what, the third book? And the xenophobia is in full force already. However, ironic as it would be to see xenophobia as something peculiar to the French, we in the Anglo-Saxon world have our fair share of public figures whose entire entertainment career consists of constantly bemusedly discovering that actually, people in other countries aren’t like the English at all!

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 16, 2015 @ 7:25 pm

  22. Anyway, try some Zola.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 16, 2015 @ 7:26 pm

  23. However, ironic as it would be to see xenophobia as something peculiar to the French…

    I guess it would be ironic, but it’s not what I was suggesting. It’s just that in keeping with their destiny as the true bastion of Western culture, French intellectuals believe themselves to be above such pettiness. Hence their historic scorn for Anglophone parents who saw Asterix as a better class of comic book. Anyway, here’s a rather more adult Italian appropriation of Asterix & Co.

    Comment by Joe W — October 16, 2015 @ 8:34 pm

  24. Ballards ‘Empire of the Sun’ is an excellent book, unique and haunting but not a novel or French.

    Comment by Knob Endt — October 16, 2015 @ 8:45 pm

  25. To be fair, French intellectuals as a group usually are above such pettiness (with a dishonourable exception for somebody like Montesqieu who, whatever else you might say about him, was unquestionably an intellectual).

    I always preferred Tintin to Asterix, even as a kid – while they both have their problems with xenophobia Tintin progressively got better while Asterix progressively got worse. Of course Tintin is Francophone rather than French but if they’re willing to claim Simenon, Rousseau and Jacques Brel, then why not rope in Herge too – certainly none of those Belgian comics could have prospered without a French audience.

    Comment by kalvarnsen — October 16, 2015 @ 10:17 pm

  26. Three body problem was a difficult read at first, but I’m glad I stuck with it, and especially glad I read Ken Liu’s translator’s note where he explains his attempt to convey as much as possible of the style of the original Chinese, even knowing that this would be weird and off-putting to western readers. Ken Liu’s own short fiction is very good.

    Comment by Burt Schank (@burtschank) — October 17, 2015 @ 12:26 am

  27. I’m a Ballard fan – and I’ll admit there are flaws aplenty in his writing. However, I don’t think he should be judged on prescience. I think of him more as a fever-dream chronicler of the mundane (perhaps because I read The Atrocity Exhibition first) where the joy is in the detail and the period feel. And when I look at him like that, he seems pretty cool

    Comment by deegee — October 17, 2015 @ 12:34 pm


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