“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”
—- Opening Line, High-Rise, by J. G. Ballard
It’s getting tough to decide on the next book to read. While I was considering the options I came across a few interesting articles comparing and contrasting the fiction of the late J. G. Ballard and the recent London riots.
I have been a fan of Ballard’s work for decades. It didn’t take me long to decide to dive in, especially when I discovered a copy of one of his classic works, one that I had never read, High-Rise.
About forty years ago, Ballard wrote three hyper-real novels about the relationships between society, technology, urban life, disaster, sex, and the monsters of the id. I have already read the excellent, interesting, and underrated Concrete Island and the infamous Crash. So I decided to complete the hat trick.
There are three minor characters and also the hero of High-Rise. The point of view circulates among Dr. Robert Laing, a medical school instructor that seems to be fleeing from the responsibilities of being a real doctor – Richard Wilder, a maker of documentaries that becomes overly attached to his video camera, and Anthony Royal, an architect that lives in a luxurious penthouse apartment.
These three live in a single forty-story condominium tower. It’s a brand-new building, part of a series of skyscrapers going up in a half-built complex on the outskirts of London. The three characters are representatives of the three classes in the building… that map out to their height above the ground. Wilder is from the second floor, where the lower classes live – although in this case they aren’t actually poor – they are made up of airline pilots, stewardesses, and television workers – wealthy enough all in any other setting. The middle part of the building, the largest section, from the shopping mall on the 10th floor up to about the swimming pool on the 35th and are represented by Laing- all professionals and respected members of the city at large.
Only the super-wealthy business tycoons occupy the top floors. At the very apex is Royal, who is credited with designing the building, though in reality, he only did the children’s playground on the roof and a few elevator lobbies.
The hero, the true protagonist is the building itself. It has a life and evil all its own… you can almost hear it speaking.
Pretty quickly, it becomes obvious that all is not right in this brave new world. There are obvious frictions between the three classes which spill out when the children of the lower floors try to use the swimming pool on the upper levels. The real trouble begins with parties. The innocent hedonism quickly becomes out of control, with plenty of illicit sex and bottles being thrown from balconies.
The three classes start out going to war with each other, complete with raiding parties and running battles over which group controls the important resources, such as the elevators and the garbage chutes. This is no Marxian polemic, however, and the three groups quickly lose their cohesion until it’s floor against floor, then small groups of apartments, then… well… let’s just say, things don’t end well.
Which, of course, is how I like it. I really enjoyed the book.
Ballard writes about such horrific descents into evil and madness with an almost geometric precision and symmetry. The building is designed just so, the cars are parked in a careful order, the balconies are arranged so everyone can see into everybody else’s’ business… once you think about it, the horrific events are not only understandable, they are inevitable.
It’s the sort of thing someone that had spent his childhood in a Japanese prisoner of war camp might have written.
He seems to be doing the film with the tower set in the middle of an ocean. I’m not sure if that is a good choice – one of the most interesting aspects of the novel is how, as things became worse and worse in the high rise, the residents became more and more insular, until they became, by choice, completely cut-off from the outside world. Also, in the book, there are more high-rises going up. Laing watches the one in front of his apartment being finished and then occupied. Near the end, he sees power going off in several floors over there – it is implied that the same horror that has infected his tower is spreading to the next. Set the building out in the ocean and you lose these details.
But… little concern. I’ll still go see the thing. I doubt if they can come up with a way to give it a happy ending. At least I hope not.