It used to be a habit of mine a couple of years ago that whenever I wanted to have a fast and easy read which required no brain-work whatsoever, I read a book by Ben Elton. I read most of his novels over the years, and though they left me with no lasting impressions and I have no intention or craving to ever re-read them, I still think that most Ben Elton novels are worth one reading.
One of the characteristic features of an Elton novel is that it’s usually about some big social issue or a media hype: Elton wrote about reality shows (Dead Famous), about talent shows (Chart Throb), about drug usage and abuse (High Society) and about the importance of environmental protection (Stark and This Other Eden). I’m sure you get the point.
Gridlock, which was the second novel by Elton, also deals with the theme of man abusing his environment (this seems to be one of the hobby-horses of the author). In this novel the „main character” is a city which becomes absolutely unlivable and uncontrollable because of the heavy traffic. The heroes of the story are the spastic Geoffrey, and Deborah, a young woman who was hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing and who has to spend her whole life in a wheelchair. Geoffrey is a brilliant scientist who invents a device for creating cheap and green energy. Naturally, Geoffrey’s invention is coveted by American and Arabic businessmen with an interest in the oil and car business and they come up with plans to kill Geoffrey so that they can lay their hands on the plans of his invention which are worth millions and which Geoffrey wanted to use in order to make public transportation more environmentally friendly.
In the meantime, in the other storyline we can witness various political games: one party is on the verge of announcing yet another big road-construction plan, while the other party is lobbying for the improvement of public transportation services, arguing that more roads will only lead to more traffic and in the long run they won’t help to solve the problem of unmanageable traffic jams in the big cities.
I won’t reveal the ending, for I’m sure the novel already seems rather didactic based on what I’ve written so far. And you can rest assured: the novel doesn’t only seem didactic: it is didactic like hell. Sure, the story is fast-paced and the novel is far from being boring, however, Elton often stops in the middle of some intriguing episode and engages in a several pages long commentary or argument about the harmful effect cars have on the environment, about the necessity to protect the earth, or about the importance of urging people to use public transportation.
Ben Elton very often puts what are clearly his own thoughts into his novels in an offensively direct fashion, and especially in his earlier novels – such as Gridlock – all his moralizing and his didactic arguments can get quite irritating. However, if you manage to ignore these, you get a rather entertaining and easily readable novel which might be a good choice in situations when you don’t have the chance or the willingness to concentrate on your reading material with all your brain power.