High-Rise: A Novel Paperback – April 16, 2012
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There is so much substance packed into this 207-page book.
The entire story takes place inside a 40-story luxury high-rise that houses about 2,000 people – an ostensibly homogenous group of high-income individuals. But as tensions begin to arise between the wealthy dog owners on the top floors and the families on the bottom floors, the residents of the high-rise divide into three groups, driven by power and self-interest. The hostilities gradually increase as they assimilate into their self-imposed hierarchies within the building and devolve into chaos and anarchy.
Ballard cleverly positions the high-rise as both a literal structure and a social structure. But as the characters devolve into a Hobbesian state of nature, the most disturbing thing of all is that they admit to feeling happier. Finally able to exercise their most devious impulses, they slowly reveal more genuine versions of themselves.
Clearly lots of fascinating themes to unpack here – and no surprise coming from J.G. Ballard. Like a Lord of the Flies for adults, this was a dark and twisted read.
It wasn't for me. I would not recommend it. There weren't that many reviews for it on Amazon, but it was one of the few books that looked half decent that were written in 1975, so I gave it a try.
The occupants of the high-rise gradually devolve from civil professionals to violent marauders. As the buildings' utilities fail, its occupants come to prefer its squalor and lawlessness to the world of convention outside the high-rise.
Although it's written in the 1970s, Ballard's forward-thinking novel anticipates the voyeuristic nature of violence found on the Internet. He even considers the violation of privacy at the hands of "data processing" companies, or what today we would refer to as big tech companies.
It's a thought-provoking novel. Add it to your list.
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In addition, his story entails incredible foresight, predicting how everyone would be obsessed with recording on video everything they do. How they would become dependent on a building complex that catered for them. How alienated they would become from the outside world. Remember, this novel was published in 1975, written possibly earlier than that. Ballard has an uncanny insight on the human condition, on how technology and modernity impacts the human mind, predicting the future in peculiar ways. The story of the high rise is the story of modern and post-modern humanity, a society being cramped into ever smaller, mechanized constructs, losing touch with nature, with reality. Everything becoming a microcosm with rules of its own, leading back to a state of primitiveness, all moral codes deconstructed and twisted to fit an emerging jungle that not everyone will survive.
And yet, outstanding as the premise is, the novel fails to live up to its full potential. The writing is obsessed with the description of rubbish, which after page forty, becomes repetitive. How many times can you mention the garbage sacks and the debris and the washing machines thrown out in the corridors? After a while, they cease to serve a purpose, they clutter the story (ironic, isn't it?). And the story -- it goes nowhere after the first half. The best parts are given one third in, and the rest is more of the same -- people roaming through the trash, getting increasingly violent, one of them trying to ascend the building to assert himself, another trying to dominate the building, and a third trying to find his place in the middle. It's all very symbolic, potentially gripping, but it takes place on a backdrop that emphasizes the debris, not the psychology. We don't move from act 2 to act 3. The plot moves but the story doesn't, and neither do these characters, even when they push their way from room to room and floor to floor. They're stuck in this recycled reiteration of the nasty high rise and its trash and broken furniture, a loop that begins to tire the readers instead of haunting them.
The fix would have been easy. Cut a big bunch of the description and stick to the action, letting readers imagine the effect of going through this apocalyptic odyssey through a place laid to waste, a place so clearly established in the beginning. Let us feel the effect of the high rise rather than force-feed it to us.
5 stars for the premise, two for the execution, three stars overall.
PS - I hope the movie focuses on the surreal aspects of the story, on the raw emotions, leaving the trash to serve as props and art design. When you start with a dalmatian dog being roasted on the spit on a balcony, and people are throwing stuff out their windows without giving a crap about what happens to those below them, everything goes. This could be a hell of a movie.
The big premise came from behavioural research into how rats behaved if too many were packed into a confined environment. At a certain level of crowding there was a step-change in behaviour with a more anti-social relationship taking over. Ballard liked reading this sort of research to gain ideas for his books. The Guardian has a good article on this, which is easy to find on the web.
Ballard will also have liked the fact that Samuel Beckett used to set some of his stories in confined environments, so he could play around with all the possibilities. But Beckett didn't factor in how the confining environment could change the nature of the things inside it. One up to Ballard.
Ballard also had an added topical angle because tower blocks were environments already seemed to be changing human nature. Tower blocks were being thrown up around Britain at a rate of knots from the early 1960s and at the time he wrote this they were being linked (in the tabloids) with ever more lurid accounts of anti-social behaviour (reduction of maintenance grants was more the issue). A few years later and these tower block estates were being demolished.
Concrete Island, written earlier, was also about regressive behaviour caused by a confined or limited space. The idea that human nature was environmentally determined and that humanity now had the power to massively affect human nature, but not the wisdom to understand all the implications was a staple of horror stories from the late Victorian era onwards. It is a simple, straightforward story, but it's also pure genius.
The setting is a brand new, brilliantly architected high-rise residential building on the outskirts of central London. I could not stop myself from seeing Canary Wharf in my head, but it could just as easily be Battersea or Vauxhall. The building is the first of its kind, but several more are being built around a central lake.
The selling point of the building is that the middle-class tenants will inhabit a self-contained universe with everything they need laid on inside the building - shops, sports facilities, schools, etc. They have no need to go outside except to go to their well-paid jobs, which they do securely insulated in their cars parked at the foot of the high-rise.
There are two shopping malls in the building, on the 10th and 35th floors. These malls provide points of social inflexion between the tenants. The floors below the 10th floor are inhabited by younger, less senior middle and line managers, TV producers, air hostesses, etc. Being younger, most of the children in the building live at these levels. On the top five floors live a slightly older, more mature group of wealthy jewellers, surgeons, actresses and senior professionals, including the architect of the building. All that is missing here are the investment bankers and hedge fund managers, but this is 1975, eleven years before Big Bang in the City. In between live a layer of middle managers, stock jobbers, tax accountants and dentists.
Things go wrong in the building infrastructure; there are teething problems. All too quickly the social order breaks down as the three groups of tenants start to resent each other. The children from the lower floors are banned from the upper floors, including from their schools and the playground built specially for them on the top floor. The dogs from the upper floors are terrorised in return. People throw rubbish and empty bottles onto the verandas and parked cars below.
This is the genius of the book. Everyone in the building is a member of the professional classes and yet they still manage to find social distinctions enough to divide themselves into competing tribes. Soon it is every man for himself, as we follow the activities of a representative of each of the social strata – a homicidal social climbing (literally) former professional rugby player now TV producer, a physiology lecturer and the architect himself.
The problem with the book is that there is not really enough plot to last the full 270 pages, so it does become a little repetitive. Nevertheless the satire is deadly and, although the book is set in the 1970s when brutalist architecture was at its height, it is still relevant today.
In fact I would argue that it has become even more relevant today. Since Thatcherism and Reaganomics and the Big Bang in the 1980s, the upper-upper-middle have got richer and richer, while the rest of the middle classes have stood still or gone backwards. There may yet be hell to pay for this and do not just mean Donald Trump, UKIP and other political fringes. There is also the Boris Johnson inspired boom in high rise luxury apartments in London (I can see all the cranes out of my window as I type this.), most of which are currently being bought by foreigners as an investment. When this investment proves to be a sham and property prices collapse, there will be ugly partially occupied middle class slums all over London. Who knows what will go on in the corridors and lift shafts of these model homes? Who knows what teething problems these buildings will present to the brave few who actually move into these speculative rush-jobs?
Read the book. Go see the film. Or stick around in London and wait for the real thing. Four stars for Mr Ballard for prescience.
With the dramatic upheaval in Ballard’s literary reputation since then and the recent film, it is a bit difficult to cut through the hype to get to the core of the book.
Ballard was not by nature a novelist, he started out writing short stories, then a trilogy of books pitching the world into some disaster or another. Then there was the dystopian urban trilogy of Concrete Island, High-Rise and Crash. Concrete Island was short for a novel stranding an architect in the gap between motorways. High-Rise uses three narrators to allow for a higher word count, but even so this is a relatively short novel. The book famously opens with someone eating a dead dog.
The story then jumps back to describe how small niggles led to the tower block descending into tribal violence, madness, ending up like the Killing Fields as designed by Le Corbusier.
Written during the seventies, when we were being told to shelter under a table to protect and survive the imminent nuclear apocalypse, with Sven Hassel and Skinhead paperbacks selling well.
I read this as a fable, giving flesh to the implications of casual discrimination and rivalries. Although there is plenty of violence, and a little sex, it is described in a matter of fact fashion. Despite the horror the author never dwells on it unduly and it is open to the reader what actually transpires at key points. By the end most of the residents have probably starved to death.
Ballard grew up in a Japanese internment camp, and trained as a doctor, so he is dispassionate about our bodies or our society falling apart. In life there are few heroes, and few villains, most people are somewhere in the middle going where society takes them. In this case it is pretty dark, and as with all of Ballard it is intended to serve as a wake up call to discard the casual hatreds of the tabloid press etc before they destroy us.
Arguably this is the pinnacle of Ballard’s writing, but it is a catalogue of atrocities, so not for the faint hearted or for outright horror fiction fans. But if you are looking for an odiferous account of a society in collapse then this remains monumental.
The High Rise in question is the first of five upmarket apartment blocks being developed on wasteland near a river. Each contains forty floors of accommodation and is divided into three sections by amenity and service levels. The higher the level an apartment is on the more desirable it is seen to be. Each third is regarded by the residents as the lower, middle and upper social classes, with the penthouse apartments the ultimate in achievement.
The story is told from the point of view of residents in each of the three sections. Richard Wilder works for a film making company and lives on the second floor with his wife and two sons. Doctor Robert Laing, a childless divorcee, has a studio apartment on the twenty-fifth floor. Anthony Royal, one of the architects behind the design of the building, lives with his aristocratic young wife in one of just two penthouse suites. He comes to regard Wilder as his nemesis.
The detached narration adds to the tension and enables the reader to cope with the increasing brutality of the unfolding drama. What starts as low level discontent, as services fail and disturbances caused by loud and lively partying become increasingly invasive, soon turns to confrontation. Those on the higher floors expect and demand preferential treatment in a building designed to offer access for all. As simmering resentments boil over there is regrouping around more radical and belligerent leaders. Each resident watches unfolding events voyeuristically, to some degree hoping to see neighbours they secretly despise debasing themselves.
In places the story makes little sense (why did so many residents stay?) yet it also exposes why man often behaves as he does. The same ruthlessness and aggression exists widely, concealed within a set of polite conventions. It is common to hide the flaws in a life from others, to keep up appearances.
Early on there are observations on the apparently homogenous residents who have populated the High Rise:
“By the usual financial and educational yardsticks they were probably closer to each other than the members of any conceivable social mix, with the same tastes and attitudes, fads and styles – clearly reflected in the choice of automobiles in the parking-lots that surrounded the high rise, in the elegant but somehow standardized way in which they furnished their apartments”
At one of the first parties Laing attends he observes that:
“never far below the froth of professional gossip was a hard mantle of personal rivalry.”
By the end, when the order of both building and residents has been subsumed, Royal observes:
“he had constructed a gigantic, vertical zoo, its hundreds of cages stacked above each other. All the events of the past few months made sense if one realized that these brilliant and exotic creatures had learned to open the doors.”
Perhaps what this story most demonstrates is that nothing in life is as secure as we may like to think. When breakdown occurs, the actions of those we thought we knew can be hard to predict.
A blistering deconstruction of supposedly civilised society. This was a fascinating, thought-provoking read.
The book starts of in a freshly constructed high rise (partly modelled on the London Barbican area, mixed with some overtones of Trellick Tower and Ernö Goldfinger) and broadly follows three protagonists - Robert Laing (a doctor from the 25th floor), Wilder (a TV exec from the 3rd floor) and Royal (the building's architect, vaguely modelled on Goldfinger himself, from the penthouse on the 40th floor) - through the dissolution of conventional order and an evolution towards an adult urban version of a Lord of the Flies world.
In order to keep the action fast paced, the author has the dissolution develop at an accelerated pace, which may appear somewhat unrealistic (a justified criticism) but the point is to demonstrate the societal dynamics (in a dystopian light), which the author manages to do wonderfully well.
The spiraling descent into a tribal society is fascinating to observe and - as to be expected from Ballard - relatively violent and not for the faint hearted. The writing is good and the author covers both the protagonists' introspective moments, as well as the general events around them. While the events start becoming somewhat repetitive towards the end this will probably not be a major issue for most readers, as the book's overall length is still reasonably compact.
The book - like other Ballard books - is a dystopia and will mostly appeal to people looking for food for thought, or alternative futures; it is certainly not intended for everyone, and will probably remain an acquired taste. If you would first like to understand the world around which the book was constructed (from a no-fictional perspective), I can only recommend Concretopia: A Journey around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain as a complement - it will explain some of what Ballard was trying to show in 'High-Rise', and also that some of his views were not as farfetched in hindsight, even if they never developed at such break neck pace.
The novel opens with one of the main characters, Dr Robert Laing, a lecturer in physiology at a London medical school, cooking and eating an Alsatian in his 25th floor apartment and reflecting on the sequence of events that led to his current situation. The novel then relates the events, beginning soon after Laing has moved in. The narrative focuses on three characters, Laing, Richard Wilder, a documentary film maker from the lower floors and architect Anthony Royal, one of the designers of the building, who resides in a penthouse apartment.
Along the way we are treated to descriptions of the progressive decline in the facilities and state of the once luxury building, and the increasing levels of anti-social and finally criminal behaviour of the residents. The increasingly disturbing events are described using strongly visual imagery and striking use of metaphor. Ballard focuses on the psychological impact of this concrete, technological environment on the inhabitants of the high rise and its role in the unfolding events. The tone of the novel is characterised by Ballard’s typical “flat affect” style, which perfectly suits the subject matter. Overall this produces a stark, powerful piece of work which I would highly recommend reading
The idea of the book, as I understand it, is that people being placed in conditions in which they have a lot of free time and does not need to struggle every day for living become bored and start breaking moral barriers. The funny thing is to think in the middle about what barriers are still not overcome, be sure to the end of the book this deficiency will be repaired. So people start to die to everyone's pleasure and satisfaction and all standards of culture rapidly degrade toward savage ones making finally the remaining population happy. Though there is some truth in this idea, it does not look convincing for me.
When anything good or bad happened to one I couldn’t care less.
I’ll put it down to me not being used to the authors style and give a few stars.