Book Review: High-Rise by J.G. BallardThe first J.G. Ballard book I read as a teenager and the one I would recommend to those curious enough to want to start reading his works. The themes of High-Rise resonate through nearly all of his later novels-the real logic behind the isolated enclaves of late capitalist consumer society gated communities, luxury holiday resorts, shopping malls brought to the surface; their brightly lit but soulless affluence reduced to dystopias of violence and perversity. Like his earlier SF disaster novels it’s apocalyptic but the societal collapse is contained within the microcosm of a 40 story high-rise of the very near future not on the planetary level; but the novel is still SF, a speculation about the negative possibilities of the future. The book has violence aplenty but lacks the obsessively explicit or deliberately repetitive feel of Crash. Unlike The Atrocity Exhibition it’s structured conventionally with a plotted beginning and end and solid characters, although a hallmark of Ballard’s style is that idea and image comes before in-depth character study.
The setting is of course a newly developed high-rise complex for the professional middle classes, a ‘vertical city’ situated in London’s Docklands. All amenities are self-contained within the block with a shopping centre, a bank, restaurants and swimming pools-nobody need leave the building except to attend their workplaces. Minor irritations and infractions (noisy parties, the absurd resentments of the tenants, power cuts, etc) escalate gradually into brutal gang warfare between the different floors, remorselessly leading to a complete breakdown of any form of structured society, amongst the graffiti strewn corridors and staircases, broken escalators, piles of garbage and smashed furniture. Three characters dominate the novel: Dr Robert Laing, who works in a nearby medical school, who withdraws into his own private world of survival, like all the inhabitants of the building, quite happy existing as a lone hunter-gatherer: The macho Richard Wilder, ex-rugby player and TV journalist from the lower floors attempting to make a documentary about the high-rise, that ends in a quest to reach the 40th floor, his persona reduced to that of masculine savage, his useless cine-camera clutched like a shamanic totem. Anthony Royal, the architect of the whole complex, living in the top-most penthouse, regarding the high-rise as a social laboratory, but like Dr Frankenstein becoming a victim of his own experiment.
Some more literal minded readers may quibble that the scenario of High-Rise is an impossibility; eventually the outside world would become aware of the breakdown of law and order and the police sent in. (Maybe eventually they do but long after the events accounted in the novel) But this is missing the point as the book should be read as speculative fiction not social realism; an ambiguous warning about the negative possibilities latent in our commodified, technologically dominated society. It’s real concern lies with the psychological affect of the building itself.
A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere. This was the sort of resident who was content to do nothing but sit in his over-priced apartment, watch television with the sound turned down, and wait for his neighbours to make a mistake…people who were content with their lives in the high-rise, who felt no particular objection to an impersonal steel and concrete landscape, no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organizations and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusions, using them for their own purposes. These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed…By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting aspects of their lives would take place. Secure with in the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.
Published in 1975 the above passage from High-Rise is even more relevant in the early 21st century and highlights his genius. We now truly live in the strange and disturbing world J.G. Ballard began to map out in his fictions of the 1960’s and 70’s.