Image copyright Phil Loach
J G Ballard
I was slightly disappointed with this book. Ballard is a wonderful writer: it is full of pithy sentences and has an interesting premise, but I felt that it lacked suspense and an emotional hook. Its emotional detachment meant that I didn’t really care what happened to any of the characters. However, I understood why it was written that way, as it underlines the social engineering aspect of the high rise experiment. In fact, I read that J G Ballard’s first draft of the novel was written in the style of a social services report.
The novel is set in a huge high rise building, which is populated by affluent, professional people, such as doctors and orthodontists. However, their middle class manners soon break down as the building descends into promiscuity, hedonism, tribalism and violence. There is no catalyst for this entropy, nor is it as a result of any ideological force; it is almost as though disintegration is written into the fabric of the building. The high rise is an entity with a self-destruct mechanism built-in: like a ticking time bomb.
As a student, I lived in a ten floor tower block near Hulme in Manchester. At the time, I ascribed the residents’ degenerate behaviour to our youth and access to cheap alcohol. However, while reading High-Rise, I began to wonder if the building was also in some way to blame. As in J G Ballard’s novel, there was a tribalism and antagonism between floors, which manifested in raiding parties, theft and wanton vandalism. Strangely, the most disruptive floor was the one at the top of the building, which we put down to the predominance of male students; they would engage in senseless chaotic acts, such as wedging the lift doors open, or stealing clothes and throwing them out of the windows. However, this is as far as things went – the atmosphere in the halls of residence was one of stupidity and high jinks, as opposed to the brutality of High-Rise.
High-Rise is the antithesis of Le Corbusier’s ‘machine for living in’, where the architect envisaged that his pristine tower blocks would produce social order, rather than moral decay. The tower block in High-Rise becomes more like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe, a housing development in St Louis, Missouri, which became a hotbed of gang violence. Although, in the case of Pruitt-Igoe, it was the neglect by its owners, which precipitated the buildings’ descent into hell. At first, the residents protested about the lack of building maintenance, and the disintegration of the forsaken development’s physical structure, led to a rupture of its social fabric, culminating in a downwards spiral into chaos.
The same is true in High-Rise. Only here, the residents are not the poorest members of society, but supposedly the British class system’s more ‘civilised’ subjects; arbiters of sophistication and good manners. The enthusiasm with which they embrace the psychopathic elements of their characters, makes this a fascinating novel, although I felt no emotional investment in their survival.