high rise

High-Rise – J. G. Ballard

It took me a little while to get through High-Rise. Not for reasons one would expect; you know, crazed psychopathic human society degenerating violently. Instead, the writing kind of bored me or somehow did not sufficiently match the topic. I’ll be honest, I can appreciate the concept and the thrill of what this novel does. However, I am not going to rate it highly. Feel free to disagree vehemently in the comments.

High-Rise by J. G. Ballard was first published in 1975 in the U.K.  It is the first item that I have ever read by Ballard, though I do own a number of his works – to include a science fiction collection.  I have seen this novel categorized in a number of genres – from horror to science fiction, though I do not think I would use either. It is definitely a style of dystopian work. Here’s the thing:  many readers have made comparisons with William Golding’s (1911 – 1993) novel Lord of the Flies (1954).  I cannot make a single comment on this comparison because. . . . . I have not read Lord of the Flies.

High-Rise is less of a novel with a traditional plot – than a study of the degeneration of society. Ballard has an extremely negative view of humanity – and his characters quickly descend from rational creatures to primitive brutes. The entire novel takes place in a single 40-story building that is one of a number that are in some stage of construction in a development. The architect is Anthony Royal and he, too, lives in the building. Please note the last name of this character and where he resides in the building. Not subtle, Ballard.

The residents of the building have arranged themselves, through purpose and custom, into a stratification of social classes.  The top floors are obviously the over-wealthy.  They are extravagant and powerful and rather out of touch with humanity, generally.  The middle floors are those professionals who are quite successful, but yet still are not the “one percent” of the society. These people (and the floors they inhabit) could be further sectioned into subclasses, but generally, they are those who work for the “one percent” and who use/exploit the lower classes.

Naturally, the lower classes fill the remainder of the building’s floors. They are the noisy, hard-working people.  This is the floor with children, pets, housewives who are not merely arm candy, people who work hard for a living.  However, it should be noted that even these “lower class” people are not truly the lower class. One does not obtain residence in this building without at least having reached a relative height of society.

Instead of following the usual trajectory of plotline, Ballard focuses on several characters (one from each societal class) and shares chunks of their experience as the high-rise’s inhabitants turn feral.  We are first introduced to Dr. Robert Laing who is sitting on his balcony and is reflecting on the events that have already transpired.  In essence, the first few pages take places after all of the events of the novel. Anyway, Laing represents something of the “middle class” of this building.  He is recently divorced and was lured to this residence by his sister – who also lives in the building, a few floors above his.

Another character we meet is Richard Wilder. He represents the lower class of this building.  Ballard constantly reminds the reader of Wilder’s physical characteristics.  This repetition gets annoying quickly. The reader actually spends a lot of time with Wilder and in some sense, I was relatively disappointed with his ending. He is a documentary filmmaker and comes equipped with a camera. There is something creative and interesting about this – but I feel Ballard does not push this element anywhere. Anyway, Wilder’s goal is to supplant Royal; a goal which feels very wooden and stereotypical to the reader.

Ballard wants the reader to see how easy and simple it is for the façade of “rational, cultured” person to slip into brute primitive animal. However, I do not think this slide is so very quick and easy. And I do think Ballard sets up a number of “straw men.” The main one being that all the residents unanimously, but silently agree to hide the events from the outside world.  I do not believe for an instant that this could be done. Even if it could be done by agreement – accidents happen. The outside world, as it were, would push in. Curiosity, surveillance, questioning, investigation, random chance – all of this would prevent this story before it gets started. And I guess I just could not suspend the disbelief enough.

The second: that no resident leaves the building early on. Sure, it is likely and psychologically possible that many would stay in this deviant playhouse. However the fact that none leave is too much.

Third, and perhaps the most vexing, is that Ballard arranges his building with only damaged and corrupt people. In fact, it is not that they become crazed or destructive – they actually are already this way and events hasten on these characteristics. Does Ballard propose we call all humans, at base, destructive and damaged? But it’s simply not true, no matter how pessimistic and hostile we want to be in our assessment of humanity.

The writing kind of bored me. I felt it did not match the intensity of the events of the high-rise. And maybe that is the point; maybe the matter-of-fact normalcy of the writing tone juxtaposed with the extremity of the events is meant to show how “mundane” such wild things have become. But I doubt this – I feel that would be me overthinking the tone.

If Ballard wanted to push limits (and he clearly does) then he should have pushed limits. Sure, there are shocking scenes…. (okay, and I do mean really shocking. People eat dogs. Elderly women are beaten. And the supporting character Steele is truly difficult to read through)… but scenes alone do not push limits. It just piles gore on gore.  Depravity and dysfunction in different ways all become the same. A strong sense of degeneration and regression pervades the whole novel.  However, I feel the novel is also full of little tidbits that Ballard could have taken and examined.  I feel there is a lot of potential for making a tighter assessment or further developing a thread of this human degeneration. I can only think of one section that really looks at this situation:

Laing sat down among the empty bottles and refuse on the kitchen floor.  He gazed up at the derelict washing-machine and refrigerator, now only used as garbage-bins.  He found it hard to remember what their original function had been.  To some extent they had taken on a new significance, a role that he had yet to understand.  Even the rundown nature of the high-rise was a model of the world into which the future was carrying them, a landscape beyond technology where everything was either derelict or, more ambiguously, recombined in unexpected but more meaningful was.  Laing pondered this – sometimes he found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted. -pg. 176 (Chapter 16)

This was, for me, the most interesting passage in the novel.  And I wish I could share that the novel is replete with such analysis.  But it isn’t. Ballard did right by showing us the pent up aggression, the shifting alliances, and even the loss of language skills.  Yet, there was a lot that seemed a little too contrived even in this contrived lab experiment.

I think that the idea behind the novel is more exciting than its actual execution.  I think, though I disagree with, Ballard’s dismal view of humanity here is worth exploring and examining. But I struggled with the pacing and viewpoints and the writing. Admittedly, the idea of a “contained society” (in a human-made structure) going to hell sociologically is a fascinating one.  No doubt things would be this extreme, but they would not be this cardboard.

2 stars


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