The Short Version: Charles and Sarah, a present-day yuppie couple, have just bought a condo in Williamsburg, right on the water. It should be the perfect next step in their relationship and their lives… but what seems perfect quickly begins to destabilize the not-so-perfect couple. Will their new place break them? Or will they retain their individuality even in the face of a midlife crisis?
The Review: Expectations are a silly thing. If we work hard, we’re taught, we can expect to be rewarded. And we expect that, with those rewards, we will find greater happiness. Or we expect that our neighbors will fulfill the terms of the lease they signed when moving in – which might include things like not being obnoxiously loud at 3am, not doing drugs in public, not renovating the apartment without consent. And then there are the expectations that come from, say, cover and jacket copy of a book or the blurb and trailer of a movie – things that cause us to imagine that the plot and environs of a tale based on very little at all, and leading to expect something we’re never actually going to get.
So it was with Condominium. The cover and the title alone conjured images of J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, a novel whose horrors are still rather present in my memory – and the jacket copy seemed to imply something crossed between that novel and the slightly-silly-but-still-totally-spooky Horrorstör. But while I do think Falatko is conscious of Ballard’s inspiration on this book, he’s not trying to write an update or even an homage. And he’s not actually writing a horror novel, despite the trappings in the early going. Instead, he’s interested in the terror of adulthood, of gentrification, and of the very real impact these things have on our mortal souls. All scary in its own right – just not the sort of thing that gets shelved in the horror section, you know?
Charles and Sarah, the couple who’ve just bought this condo, are a pretty ordinary sort of couple, for the most part. He’s a finance bro, she’s a bored assistant at a super-boutique indie press. They’re thinking about marriage but not really, yet. They’ve been together for a while now and the thing that’s getting to the both of them is the fact that their adventurous youth seems gone, now. Perhaps it was the purchase of the condo itself, a seven-figure investment that comes complete with views of the city, gleaming kitchen, hardwood floors, high ceilings, and all the mod cons. As someone who recently moved (renting, admittedly) into a new apartment in a new neighborhood, I understand how a new place can alter your perception of yourself – we very nearly avoided moving into a place that was way fancier than we felt we “ought” to be living in at this point in our lives, because we worried that it would alter our sense of being too much. So as I watched Sarah and Charles start to crack under the unexpected pressure of this beautiful new apartment that neither of them seemed to feel they deserved, I understood what was going on and what Falatko was aiming for.
The problem is, I was still hanging onto my expectations for the novel – and Falatko, it seemed, was hanging onto certain things in the first half of the novel that he would later give up on. The early going of this book is creepy. There’s an odd neighbor, who seems to be stalking Sarah but who is also just basically a character out of an episode of Psych: he shows up to complain about things he thinks the couple is doing, he’s always cleaning up cigarette butts at the smoking station, and they can’t seem to make it from their apartment to the elevator without running into him. And much musing is given to a “non-functional beam” in the apartment that straight up seems to move. Charles’ fear of the balcony seems like tremendous foreshadowing, as does a coffee explosion and Sarah’s night terrors.
But all of it, in the end, is looking only at what Bowie called “the terror of knowing what this world is about.” Charles is missing his glory days, when he and his best friend (a ne’er-do-well of the highest LES/East Village caliber) and said best friend’s sexpot of a girlfriend would (among other things) snort some heroin and go crazy on the town. And Sarah is realizing that she’s nearly completely financially dependent on her husband and doesn’t want to be an “old” just yet. It was the scene where Charles & Sarah meet the ne’er-do-wells in a bar – and end up snorting some heroin together, a terrifically questionable idea considering Charles is a self-proclaimed recovering addict. It has the end result of kicking the latent addiction entirely, but it also is the moment that the book began to pivot for me – and, I daresay, the author too. It was the first time I felt really engaged with Charles and Sarah as people as opposed to characters in a scary story and I got onboard for the rest of their story, leading up to one hell of a redemptive party to close things out.
Still, I couldn’t help but feel like the novel couldn’t shake off its desire to be actually scary. When the true nature of their creepy neighbor is revealed, it felt like somebody turning on the light to show that the scary monster is nothing more than a coat rack – but it also felt like exactly that, as though we were meant to have been spooked and thinking that something supernatural (or at least Weird) was going down, and that reveal felt a little out-of-sync with what the book had, by that point, become. I found myself wondering what Falatko’s actual point was, with this book. Was he writing about gentrification? Were we supposed to be on the side of the yuppies who own the building, on the side of the fake-yuppies (Charles and Sarah, who have more cred than their neighbors, ostensibly), or on the side of the people on the street we occasionally run into who express varying sorts of dismay at the change in their neighborhood? Perhaps you have to answer for yourself, based on your expectations of the world.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. It’s a little uneven pretty much throughout the entire book, as though the novel doesn’t know what it wants itself to be. But Daniel Falatko conjures up the terror of growing up, of a thirtysomething’s identity crisis, of gentrification and missing the city you arrived into – and despite the book failing to meet my initial expectations, I course-corrected myself quickly enough to genuinely enjoy much of it. This isn’t anywhere near as bleak as High-Rise or the work of the Brat Pack – but, then, neither is Williamsburg in 2008, you know?