“An Angry Bull Loose in a Video Store”: Jesse Hilson Reviews Steve Gergley’s Novel Skyscraper

Anyone who has shown up for a new job at a large, intricate organization and tried to get their bearings in the workplace will be able to relate to the germ of the idea behind Steve Gergley’s new novel Skyscraper. A 23-year-old man named Dan Simmons’s would like to play video games and watch action movies all day but an ultimatum from his father forces him to try to get a job with Infinity Systems Corporation, an entity inhabiting a 127-floor skyscraper in the middle of rolling fields in upstate New York. Right away the surrealistic tools in Gergley’s toolbox are on display: the exaggerated setting out of a Terry Gilliam movie, the seemingly infinite delay of plot progression out of Kafka, the bizarre characters with much to say, if only you can keep up. Some jobs are sink or swim and require new hires to master a lot of elaborate information and tacit rules in a hurry. Dan Simmonds must use his wits to survive being plunged into another world, the fantastical world of the titular “skyscraper” which is bigger on the inside than the building itself, a kind of hostile work environment that won’t let you clock out, even if you haven’t even made it to your first job interview yet.

Dan right away crosses path with Katie, a grouchy receptionist who has either been working for ICS for ten years or, as we’re told, mind-bendingly, “this is only her second day on the job.” Time and space defy subjective understanding inside the building; on the upper floors of the skyscraper are mansions where the filthy rich management live, and in the sub-sub-basements disobedient employees are locked up in cages overlooking “the magnetic cliffs.” Surveillance in the building is everywhere, and security staff are always watching. ICS has its own social media platform called Tetra where internal communications are conducted and employees create “pages” to interface with each other in augmented reality. Dan has an appointment on the 96th floor with Ms. K, a kind of mysterious manager figure pulling all the strings who only conducts interviews from a bathroom stall, and his job interview keeps getting pushed back as he gets drawn into Byzantine quests that no video game or action movie could have prepared him for.

The lore of the nightmare workplace that gets unloaded onto Dan, and us, on their first day in the skyscraper is thicker and denser than a three-inch slab of pound cake. It simultaneously boggles the mind and induces a kind of narcotic effect of boredom that is not quite boredom. Katie the receptionist, guiding Dan through the branching corridors and tacit etiquette of ICS, is given monologue after monologue in the novel; I couldn’t count, but a large percentage of the book’s 362 pages are taken up with lengthy paragraph after paragraph of Katie chattering away with outré gossip and rumors and personal histories of the skyscraper’s denizens. The Netflix series Midnight Mass was weighted down with characters speaking in extended riffs about religion and morality and the like; Skyscraper’s mileage may similarly vary with we who might prefer action to incessant speaking. But then Elmore Leonard the famous crime writer coached fledgling writers by telling them not to write the parts that readers tend to skip, and dialogue is harder to pass over.

As relentless as Katie’s monologues can be, where there is action, the imaginative fun of Gergley’s inventive world-building is unquestionable. Stories-within-stories careen back and forth like the mine cart pursuit in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I imagined Gergley having a ball as he tried to dream up other floors of the skyscraper inhabited by sinister characters with implications Dan Simmonds couldn’t afford not to hear about on his first fateful day of exposure to the world of ICS. A zest for active storytelling was on display in the involuted side quests that unfolded like swarms of self-pollinating fractals. 

In terms of genre guideposts, Skyscraper is as unpredictable as an angry bull going wild in an old-time video store and knocking VHS tapes off the shelves—tinges of vivid horror, sci fi, fantasy, erotica, comedy all get blended into an eccentric, protean mix that shifts tones as rapidly as a minor David Lynch creation at its most raw.

Criticisms of the novel might include the aforementioned reliance on Katie’s monologues, as well as the sometime immaturity of some of Dan’s interjections. As a protagonist Dan is supposed to be a rather flat, somewhat predictable 20-something “couch potato” by his own description, and he is no match for the unholy machinery behind the walls of this workplace, no matter what arcane knowledge Katie the grouchy receptionist can pour into his ear. The skyscraper of ICS is populated with plenty of beautiful female NPCs (and some not-so-NPCs) and Dan often lets the little head do the thinking instead of the big head. Understandable, and it provides some spice to the story, but it felt like several opportunities for Gergley to sculpt Dan into a higher-resolution, more complex character were missed.

Still in all, when this novel got going I tore through it at an above average rate of speed. At times, finding pleasure in reading a novel can be a challenge. Skyscraper was a short respite from the downtime of “no reading”: a zany, propulsive experience. This book will pull in those of us looking for a daunting quest-narrative that allegorizes the media-addicted young person’s intro to the confusing, dilemma-bound adult world of work.

Skyscraper, by Steve Gergley. Montague, Michigan: West Vine Press, March 2023. 314 pages. $18.76, paper.

Jesse Hilson is a freelance newspaper reporter living in the Catskills in New York State. His writing has appeared in Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, Hobart, Expat Press, Apocalypse Confidential, DFL Lit, Heavy Feather Review, Excuse Me Mag, and elsewhere. In 2022, his novel Blood Trip was published by Close to the Bone and a poetry chapbook Handcuffing the Venus De Milo was published by Bullshit Lit. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @platelet60.

Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram and YouTube.