Jack moved to Los Angeles to pursue his dreams of becoming rich and famous. However, things didn’t work out like he expected. He’s stuck in a dead-end job at a doughnut shop and married to a prostitute named Karen who seems to resent him. When Karen turns up dead, he enters a depressive spiral, loses his job, and finds himself being stalked by a rogue cop named Ryan who’s convinced he’s responsible for the murder. When he finally begins to bounce back, working as a male prostitute to make ends meet, he meets a rich woman named Bella who takes a liking to him and just might make his dreams come true.
‘I don’t watch a lot of TV myself.’
‘Too lowbrow for you?
‘Not really, I just find other people pointless.’
This being Stokoe’s second novel, I found myself comparing it to his first. His debut, Cows, is infamous for how nasty and disturbing it is. High Life is in the same vein. While it’s not as consistent in its horrifying images as Cows, in some ways it’s even more disturbing as High Life is much more rooted in reality. High Life also has a more traditional story. While Cows bordered on the surreal in its plot, High Life is a noir murder mystery.
The main themes in Stokoe’s second novel are media saturation and the depths some will sink for money and fame, the high cost of living the high life. Jack drinks a lot and uses a lot of various kinds of drugs throughout the story, but the one thing that he can be safely said to be addicted to is celebrity culture. Whenever things are going wrong for him, he immerses himself in celebrity gossip. Reciting what Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt are up to is like a mantra for him, a way to keep himself grounded while increasingly horrible things happen around him.
This extends to his ambitions as well. Jack wants to be on TV, but he cares little about what role. He even prefers to be a presenter who does nothing but regurgitate the celebrity gossip he loves so much, as long as his face is on TV and the money is good. When he manages to wrangle that exact job, he goes to extreme lengths to make sure he keeps it. Even when he aims for more, it’s for a job as a spokesman for men’s grooming products. Yet again, he cares more about being seen and being paid than anything else.
In the wake of the scandals with Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood bigwigs, High Life seems more prescient than ever. While not really under the thumb of corrupt executives, save for a couple parts, Jack is controlled behind the scenes by his rich beneficiary Bella and the rogue cop Ryan. Both hold sway over him, the former her money and influence and the latter his police power, and force him to perform increasingly degrading and criminal acts. Of course, they’re usually of a sexual nature, and Jack himself isn’t above abusing the money and influence he acquires, even if it’s not much, for the exact same ends. Had this novel been originally released this year, rather than back in 2002, I would call this a little too on the nose.
As disturbing as this book gets, none of the extreme violence or sex feels gratuitous. For example, over the course of the story, Jack discovers he has a predilection for necrophilia. It fits someone with his worldview perfectly. He’s the type that likes a beautiful body on the television more than he does a real flesh and blood person. A corpse is the perfect compromise with that mindset. The body and the flesh is there, but the person isn’t. Granted, that doesn’t make the scenes of him screwing cadavers any more pleasant to read.
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High Life is often excruciatingly unpleasant to read, but it’s an excellently crafted novel. Stokoe’s prose is vivid and easily moves between painting scenes of the wealthiest in LA and the worst dregs of its streets. Its harsh criticisms of Hollywood have proven to be extremely prescient and more relevant than ever. It does all this and remains an entertaining, page-turner mystery if one can adjust to the extremely disturbing imagery.
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