John Gardner, “Grendel” (1971, 1989); Jen Lee, “Vacancy” (2015); & JG Ballard, “High-Rise” (1975, 2014)

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Grendel’s journey throughout the book is to weather the outside world and defend his own semi-nihilistic philosophy. Although his ways do come from some sense of morality (for example, his disgust with the human’s capacity for hypocrisy and lies, as demonstrated by the Shaper’s deft ability to craft and create both), he decides his ultimate purpose is to create and also deny meaning to others, especially wannabe heroes like Unferth. He even denies it to himself – when he finds beauty and empathy in Wealtheow, he intentionally forces himself to attack her not only to belittle his nemeses, but to prove to himself above those petty feelings (but they leave their mark, for sure.) But for him to be on defensive, he has to recognize that others exist – and that is also the underlying basis for his decisions, the constant need to find some way of communicating with people in the ways he can’t with beings like his mother. Nothingness is not necessarily a blank slate, after all – it can be a reaction, a conscious decision to remove things from one’s life, and while Grendel often observes nothingness around him in nature, his own acts are deliberately made to be the antithesis of the Danes in one way or another.

From his first encounter with them, Grendel decides to be what Hrothgar and his band think of him – a malignant natural being, or an angry spirit (and at various points, he even tries to play both roles among different humans.) Since he is, for the most part, unable to communicate with them verbally, he uses the definitions thrust upon him as his mode of expression – violence becomes his language. He can even justify it, being told by the dragon and later telling himself that his violence inspires the Danes to even greater things, even if Grendel himself finds many of these things (like the eternal warring and powermongering) distasteful. As ultimately destructive as their interactions are, Grendel feels a part of something in his battle against the Danes, in some kind of conversation, the kind he can never have with his mother (who ironically seems to be the only one with genuine concern for Grendel, despite his never ending condescension) and the mindless animals whose actions he explains to the readers.

The great challenge for Grendel following his meeting with the dragon is keeping the bits of his stance he agrees with while defying the others – and especially seeks to balance the inherent meaninglessness of everything while still having full control of his life. Being an instigator is his main method of proving that despite the dragon’s claim of omniscience, that there might not be an inevitable end for him. He loses that sense of control when Beowulf appears, ending his reign in a way he could never foresee (and by someone who shares the need for violence, but in a way that Grendel does not abide by, seeing him as insane) – and Beowulf is conflated with the dragon because of this, becoming the embodiment of the ideas Grendel wanted to defy. The dragon (and by extension, Beowulf) is a kind of Satan figure in Grendel’s life, offering the possibility of evil but taking it out of Grendel’s hands – but even at the end, Grendel will not allow his self-direction to be taken from him, turning his defeat into a stupid mistake, an “accident.” It could happen to anyone, he taunts his animal oppressors in the final lines – but it happened to him.

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I’m personally quite fascinated with what legacy our modern society will leave, especially in the theoretical future without us. Vacancy isn’t necessarily about that, but every image in it is based around a very similar idea, at least – in the background, the abandoned locales, and the hand-me-down clothes worn by all the animal characters. Most interestingly, through the circular sequence of the events – starting in the suburbs, going to the wild, and ending in the suburbs – we see how the world left behind has become an integrated whole, our hollowed towns becoming yet another ecosystem with its own rules. The only thing separating our homes from nature is our human perception of difference – take that away, kick down the wooden fence, and suddenly it becomes a continuum, as it probably always was (after all, animals like raccoons have treated it as such for so long…)

Simon, the dog, he hasn’t quite figured that out at first. He seems only a recent oprhan, desperate to find a new family to join, but not quite able to make the transition. He sees the opportunity once the two wild scroungers appear, following them into the wild world just beyond his familiar one – desperate to prove himself as an adaptable, wild animal himself. But he’s still, at heart, a pet, and even beyond that a creature bred far away from eating rotten garbage off the dirt. It’s not that he wants to leave what he knows, but that he thinks he has to – with the separation of ecosystems gone, with no one else left protect as a guard dog should, there is a void he feels he has to fill. He does that, eventually, but not in the way he thought – him and his wild companions find that the abandoned remnants of human society are as good a home as any. It’s all an animal’s world, anyway, and at least it holds some aura that protects them from the dangers of the woods (the wolves talk of the danger of the suburbs, but is it just a memory, or is there something else still there as well?)

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Whatever quick-acting apocalypse left these animals in a human-free world did the majority of the work blending the town and the woods together – even when beyond the fence, the evidence of our existence forms permanent new pillars of the wilderness. A crashed plane blends in with the autumn trees, abandoned buildings become places to hide, and garbage and belongings that hold little meaning blanket the ground. There are certainly other boundaries, in-between places, but we seem to have left behind much, reshaped the world in our absence. We can see the visual remnants of our lives in almost every panel, and while still subtly highlighted, through the colours alone we can see how those remnants are simply part of the landscape. In the land, and in the animals, the memory of our time remains.

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Once a Ballardian societal breakdown begins, it usually continues on as you’d expect, but part of the angle in High-Rise is how quickly it happens. It doesn’t seem like the escalating violence and hatred found in the tenants was a particularly grand shift in those people – quite the opposite. From the moment the plot kicks in, pretty much everyone (especially the trio of characters we follow) seems anticipatory, giddy, about the possibility of their petty annoyances being used to justify greater and greater destruction. There are external elements brought in, too, the idea that the crush of always being surrounded by an all-encompassing mass humanity (the whole thing doesn’t kick off until all two thousand or so apartments are occupied) is a contributing factor, and scenes of the tenants interacting (mostly by tossing their trash downwards) on their numerous leeringly used balconies establish a distinct lack of privacy. But these, while sometimes interesting, seem more and more like asides as the novel continues. No, despite how oppressive and divide-enforcing the design of the complex is, what really instigates the mini-apocalypse is what the tenants themselves bring into the building.

This is fairly obvious from those characters we follow – Laing and Royal both have plenty of baggage they bring in from the beginning (the former’s divorce, and the latter’s accident as well as his unique position as the designer of the high-rise itself) but those are used primarily as excuses more than anything. These background details serve as feeble justifications for eschewing society in order to force themselves into the roles they imagine themselves in – trying to find some sort of definition to their lives that only a lawless land could provide, a differing but philosophically related need for control. Royal, in particular, remembers how he’s always wanted to build a zoo, hides himself away from the people to stay in the company of animals (his dog and the gathering mass of gulls), but returns when he determines that he has successfully created his zoo after all (only to have it all taken away when he realizes the animals don’t stay in their cages.) They reflect each other in scale determined by their home floor – of course Royal wants to lord over everyone at the top of the high-rise, while Laing on the lower (but not bottom) floors seems perfectly fine trying to jockey for power among a small group of abandoned people – but he’s the one who makes it through to the end, as his lower ambitions are more achievable in the chaos.

More broadly, as a corralled cross-section of middle class life, many of the tenants are treated as some degree of non-entities – names eschewed for job descriptions or social roles. This seems not only to kind of show what kinds of people we are dealing with generally, but also helps reinforce the class hierarchies – the upper class jewellers and executives with their endless parties above, and the decreasingly less prestigious working people (often with the social butterfly-crushing burden of children) as one descends. When the degradation sets in, many of them throw away their obligations to anything outside the pointless tribal warfare of the apartments (and Laing is used to demonstrate this as he slowly argues himself out of never leaving the apartment) – so in effect, many of them remove the only defining characteristic the book gives them, and then what? They become anonymous mobs, with the hazy recollection of their former positions informing their behaviour, abstracted beyond memory – and while the hierarchy remains, it becomes ingrained rather than something tangibly delineated by occupations and money, prejudice both random and encoded in their DNA. Eventually, a great number of them then become corpses in a swimming pool, the logical conclusion of their identity -erasing devolution.

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