Readers, especially those of a certain twenty-something age living and hanging out in River North–or by the time of publishing, the West Loop–will be drawn to the premise of Condominium. A young couple moves into the sleek condo of their dreams, only to find themselves quickly warped by it’s strange magnetic pull. Their tension and discord is thickened by some strange new forces, including a suspicious neighbor and the return of a few dangerous old habits.
Like many stories of the rich and not-so-famous, Condominium also plays on our desire to peek into the social stratosphere. In one particular scene when Sarah’s carelessness causes a minor housekeeping disaster, If found myself cringing with equal parts horror and delight. A pristine kitchen, outrageously expensive flooring, a pot of tar black coffee. You do the math.
There is strong voice and a lot of energy packed into these pages, and right away the characters come out swinging. We meet Sarah and Charles on the Saturday they arrive at their new condo, as she unleashes a string of insults about the movers and he has a vision of their boxed-up life going up in flames. They feel conflicted about their newfound membership in the real estate elite, which sometimes works and sometimes creates confusion for the reader.
Charles is the breadwinner by far, working in the financial district and footing the bill for this golden condo. Sarah’s editorial assistantship barely covers her bills, and an arsenal of credit cards make up the difference. They love their new place but they are also frightened by it, and the adulthood it seems to stand for. Perhaps they are in over their heads, perhaps they are just learning how to swim.
As things go when you live at such precarious heights, it only takes a few wrong moves for things to start feeling shaky. A job changes suddenly, or someone goes a little too hard for a few too many weekends in a row. New surroundings start to feel disorienting and unfamiliar, and one falls back on old rituals and crutches to stay grounded.
While the story focuses mostly on Sarah and Charles, the cast of characters includes their work friends and frenemies as well. For Sarah, Jenny, and Ryan are entertaining enough to talk to provide office refuge, but much too basic to actually be friends. Charles (and Sarah, but mostly Charles) has Andrew and Ruthie, a ne’er do well couple who snort up their fun and always bring enough to share with the class, to the dismay of their recovering pal. And of course everybody hates Raymond, the lurking neighbor who drops by to stir the pot with his perfectly manicured hands. It’s not clear at first why he’s so interested in the new residents, but when the curtain is finally drawn back, you may find yourself looking over your shoulder after your next condo board meeting.
The story begins on one Saturday, and ends on the next. While I found the tight week-long structure helpful to shape the story, it left little room for that quiet negative space that can do so much for the depth of short books. Thank goodness for the beautiful and terrifying balcony, which provided literal and metaphorical air when our characters need to get away from one another or confront something on their own time.
In his allegiance to their breakneck bohemian rhythm, at times it feels like Falatko hands the car keys over to Sarah and Charles. They live a fast paced existence–jumping back and forth from adult to child, grungy to glamorous, responsible to careless, rich to scraping by–and a the end of more than one section I felt a kind of whiplash. I would have loved to be a fly on the industrial-chic wall on a “normal” day. With only a week to spend together, we don’t really get to that point.
Without giving too much away, I was intrigued and hungry for more development once we discovered Raymond’s real purpose in the building. It was almost hard to believe Charles and Sarah could as feel threatened as they seemed, while constantly flaunting their invincibility in the face of others’ opinions. And there was something I could not quite understand behind the way they treat Raymond. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve shut down an elevator creeper or two in my day, I just think maybe I missed the inciting incident that sparked their cruel sarcasm.
A character’s choices and consequences rest on two sides of an equation, and in some subtle ways I wasn’t sure things balanced out. I don’t know exactly what it’s like to meet a creepy new neighbor while living in a $920,000 condo, or to share responsibilities with a partner who triple out earned me, or to try and do heroin only occasionally. That being said, the unprovoked outburst or the strange interaction between two people who are supposedly close enough to share this heavenly apartment had me wondering what I had missed.
Once or twice I was distracted by a few left-field comments from characters, which did nothing to develop the story or inform us about the people talking. Often a writer will provide a lens through which to view remarks that are stereotypical or racist. The author can either give some helpful clues about the age, social status or background of the characters to frame that touchy dialogue, or else they risk throwing the reader off course. I felt my attention drift from the page as I wondered about the life experience and intention behind a comment that might have meant nothing.
In creating stories I think the writer is both architect and builder. The first one is focused on the design and the feel of a place, the second one must be thinking about how the residents will actually use it. Condominium is heavy on the design, but I found myself wanting to strip away the insulation and get a better look at the bare bones. Why is Sarah so angry? What is eating at Charles? We know it’s heroin, but we don’t really know why. Apart from an internal monologue in which Sarah wonders whether or not a nursery is in their long-term plans, I didn’t really get a sense for what kept them in orbit around one another in the first place.
I wondered how this book might read differently if I lived in New York, or were a member of this mythical creative class that somehow keeps one foot in the financial district and the other the world of the unpaid internship. I know people who make very big and very small money, people who have incredible views, and people who do drugs on the weekend. They are usually three separate people though, and it was a trip to read them all rolled up into one.
CCLaP (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography)