Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: Condominium

Condominium Condominium by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If you look just past your peripheral vision while you’re reading this, you can almost see someone changing the television dial (by hand) from a Dan Rather report on Jimmy Carter to a new episode of The Rockford Files. That’s largely a compliment; this is one of those books that seems really to capture its moment. It virtually smells of the mid-1970s.

In other words, this is analogue fiction. You can hear the pops on the LP as the needle works the grooves, and you can see the deep professionalism of the writer. If there’s a clear descendent of this work (not necessarily of MacDonald’s better-known work) it isn’t fiction so much as the consistently excellent Law and Order or CSI episodes, the ones where you see competent writers creating scenes efficiently as part of stories that, however near the formula they are, still bring surprises.

The trouble with this, though, is that it really comes across as a series of impressive scenes rather than a compelling story. To its credit, it takes as old news that the world is corrupt, and it avoids the easy move of casting someone in the role of villain-in-chief. Everyone is at least a little guilty, and even the most reprehensible are multi-dimensional characters with decent motives and a measure of concern for others.

The price of that virtue, though, is that there isn’t much to get invested in. Will the tenants be on the hook for the doubled monthly assessments? Will the shady developer wind up having to confront the people he’s wronged? Will the middle-aged realtor regret getting involved with the hunky guys she’s attracted? Those separate concerns are what’s at stake for the whole, and they aren’t especially compelling as a collection. The dozen or more micro-dramas are – will this character come to terms with what retirement has cost him in terms of self-identification, will that one find a way to reconcile his work for the communal good with his personal happiness – but they flash by too quickly through the method of the novel.

I’ll come clean: I stopped reading around a quarter of the way through. It isn’t quite that I got bored by it. Any scene I chose to slow down and focus on brought fresh evidence of MacDonald’s skill; there are always a handful of key details that establish character and context, and the language never gets cold. It’s just that there are a lot of other things I want to read (including some of MacDonald’s Travis McGee novels) and there’s only so much time I can indulge in my 1970s nostalgia.

So, I am lifting up the tone arm in the middle of the song, and I am sliding the album back into its paper sleeve. Now if only I could find where I put that Yes record…

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