Review of ‘High-Rise’ by J G Ballard


One of Ballard’s finest dystopian novels, High-Rise, takes a community of a forty floor apartment block and narrates the collapse of its middle-class British social ethics and morality, evolving into a renascent primal violence fueled both by the sub-conscious urge to destroy all trappings of modern civilization and create a protectionist, yet isolated, commune.

It is the story of many characters, each one of them, like Laing and Wilder, overseen by the high-rise’s architect, Anthony Royal, who is “hovering over [them] like some kind of fallen angel.”. A architectural dream, the high-rise is utterly self-sufficient with its stores, its banks, its pools and schools. Yet for all that, the hive mentality that should seamlessly bind the inhabitants together once the last buyer arrives, swiftly decays into a brutal set of schisms that is more base than any perceived animal urge.

Like the characters of both Strangman in “The Drowned World” and Ventress in “The Crystal Forest”, Royal is similarly portrayed as a white hunter, sociopathic and controlling with his “Alsatian and his white hunter’s jacket”, his “expression was an uneasy mixture of arrogance and defensiveness.”. The ugly, brutish, voyeuristic impulse is personified in Richard Wilder, TV newscaster by day, thug for hire by night. A man who falls utterly for the delusion that “their real opponent was not the hierarchy of residents in the heights far above, but the image of the building in their minds, the multiplying layers of concrete that anchored them to the floor.” In him does Ballard instill the symbolic action of ascent; his attempts to climb the layers of the high-rise to knock King Royal off his throne ultimately a futile scramble to a death at the hands of women, “a posse of middle aged avenging angels”, for whom base instinct means reversion to protection of infants once their confused role as beaten, starved playthings, by turns sexually submissive, is finally overcome as they remove males from their circle.

Before this, the action crosses from the aggravated thoughtlessness of neighbours coupled with failing service functions of the high-rise to a murderous urban concrete island (essentially crossing from the possibility of a anarchic state to the reality of such a state) with the death of a jeweler (his death is never explained by Ballard). From this point onward the thousand-plus residents descend into  madness where “new order had emerged, in which all life in the high-rise revolved around three obsessions – security, food and sex.”

Ballard moves us randomly up and down the (initially) tripartite building with chaotic aplomb; his narrative is controlled by the dysfunctional elevators, blocked by the broken chairs, cupboards, desks that jam the stairwells. Yet he is able to punch holes through the stagnant squalor to reach into the fused psychosis of a failed hive. Inside the dying neuronic brain, flashes of light illuminate numb horrors, lurching from one macabre scene to another like grotesquely guided puppets. Apartments are ransacked, smashed, inhabitants metamorphose into a maniacal state. Ballard shows us one “painting a a bizarre cosmetic mask on the face of a dead account-executive, dressing the body like an overblown drag-queen in voluminous silk nightdress. Given time, and a continuing supply of subjects, the dentist would repopulate the entire high-rise.”

At times, Ballard has to step outside the tumultuous weary rage of the high-rise and give us his own philosophical explanations of what is happening. It is a retelling of an urban ‘Lord of the Flies’, it is an angry, bitter condemnation of the uncivilized human condition, where “a new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life…the sort of resident content to do nothing but sit in his overpriced apartment.” until “living in high rises required a special type of behaviour that was acquiescent, restrained, even perhaps slightly mad. A psychotic would have a ball here.”

At the end, this is all it is…a ball where the swirling masques and riotous dance of death and insanity among a vast, self-contained silo is something you might see in 2000AD’s comic strip publications of Judge Dredd’s Mega City-One city blocks. Ballard is seeking to prove, like many authors both before and after him, that the human condition requires liberty within its social contract; that the limits of a boundary lead to a failure of ethics and morality as resources become constrained, where, ultimately, nature takes over and ensures survival of the fittest through whatever means are permissible. In some kind of decadent, Caligula-esque parody he concludes his investigation into the high-rise by having his clerisy not only deracinated but actively contumacious in their vicissitudes. As he notes with a hint of satisfaction at the last:

“the ultimate goal of the high-rise, a realm where their most deviant impulses were free at last to exercise themselves in any way they wished.”

A powerful novel.

Categories: J G Ballard

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