High Society by Ben Elton

highsocietySome time ago, mostly during my university years I read several novels by Ben Elton, so I presume I must have liked his books quite a bit, otherwise I wouldn’t have read so many of them. Anyway, a couple of years passed since then, and now I mostly remember that a Ben Elton novel is an excellent choice when you’re waiting for an exam to start; or when your brain is muddled for some reason and you find it difficult to think clearly; or in any situation when it’s impossible to really pay attention to a book but you must pass the time somehow. By the way, I always suspected that Elton’s novels are disposable, but I wanted to find out for sure if this is really the case, and I had some time on my hands when I wouldn’t have been able to pay attention to a „proper” book anyway, so I went ahead and re-read one of his novels. I chose High Society because I had some vague recollections that I used to consider it as one of Elton’s better efforts.

As it turned out, I was right – Ben Elton is indeed rather amusing in his own frightfully pedantic, spoon-feeding way, and he can weave a plot with wonderful ease (so this is a book I would normally read in one sitting because it’s virtually unputdownable), but the novel is absolutely transparent, with no depths or intricacies, and a second reading offers exactly the same results as the first. (In a way this is okay – I could at least pass some time with the book again.)

So, getting down to High Society then. The protagonist is an unknown backbencher who comes up with the radical idea that all drugs should immediately be legalized in England because everyone is doing drugs anyway, and if people could get them legally, crime rates would drop by 90% and also, the state would get a lot of tax money. The main plot-line follows the actions and fights of this backbencher who wants to get support for his bill, and with a lot of work, he slowly manages to make the bill popular – but this is not how the story ends.

Besides a whole lot of parliamentary debates and political manoeuvres, there’s a bunch of (awfully instructive and tale-like) other plot-lines where we get acquainted with several characters whose life was ruined by drugs one way or another. For instance, there’s the English chick who tries to smuggle some drugs from Thailand to England for the first time in her life, and gets caught. Then there’s the popular rock singer who destroys his health and career in about two years because he consumes an unbelievable amount of drugs. And then there’s another young girl who runs away from home and ends up being a crack whore within just a couple of days.

I try not to be unnecessarily ironic. Of course my heart’s not made of stone, and I’m aware that dreadful things can happen to human beings because of drug-taking and because of the crime and violence associated with it – but I can’t stand Elton’s brand of preaching and spoon-feeding style without irony. Because Elton’s characters are not really characters, and his stories are not really stories – in his novels, the characters and stories are just illustrations Elton uses in order to make me understand what he thinks is wrong with today’s drug politics and how he would like to change the drug-related legislation in England. (I’m not mixing up Elton and his protagonist – it’s only that I always feel when I read one of his books that his novels are never really about the beliefs of the characters but about the beliefs of Elton himself, which he – for some unknown reason – moulds into the shape of a novel.)

And naturally, I understand what Elton says, but I’m not exactly satisfied because I prefer reading about „real” characters in a novel, and not about puppets whose only function is to illustrate some point the author wishes to make. Anyway, I suspect that I get much more easily irritated by didactic-preaching literature nowadays, so considering my current taste in books (which is, of course, subject to change) I would say that Elton’s novels are not only disposable – they can be skipped right away. I’m pretty sure this is what I’m going to do in the future.

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Gridlock by Ben Elton

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.