Extremity or Superlative?
J G Ballard's High-Rise
by L. J. Hurst
High-Rise was the last of a trilogy of urban novels (Crash and Concrte_Island were the first two), written by J. G. Ballard in the early part of the 1970's. Although none of them was sold on their science fictional aspect, High-Rise has proved to be one of the most prescient novels of urban change written by an English SF author, as events have seemed to make its predictions come true.
Long before it became an item of party politics and financial scheming, Ballard set his novel in a redeveloped London docklands. The High-Rise block of flats of the title is described as: "one of five identical units in the development project and the first to be completed and occupied. Together they were set in a mile-square area of abandoned dockland and warehousing along the north bank of the river" (page 8) Is this not what has happened? "For all the proximity of the City two miles away to the west along the river, the office buildings of central London belonged to a different world, in time and space" (page 9) Ballard saw that the new development must be imposed on the existing world, separate and distinguishable: "The massive scale of the glass and concrete architecture, and its striking situation on a bend of the river, sharply separated the development project from the run-down areas around it, decaying nineteenth-century terraced houses and empty factories already zoned for reclamation" (page 9)
Not only did Ballard describe the new developments that would come, he also saw that the flatblocks of the sixties would become homes for the bourgoisie rather the rehoused eastenders, as has also tended to happen.
However, the novel then is not about the clash of the new and the old, the development and the decay. The novel is set within the development and then within one building of the settlement. The last paragraph of the novel makes this clear: "Laing looked out at the High-Rise four hundred yards away. A temporary power failure had occurred, and on the 7th floor all the lights were out. Already torch-beams were moving about in the darkness, as the residents made their first confused attempts to discover where they were. Laing watched them contentedly, ready to welcome them to their new world" (page 204) Laing will never cross the quarter mile, his welcome will be in spirit only; where the residents are is in a new state of mind, one with which Laing has come to terms.
Ballard makes no attempt to hide this state of mind. It is expounded clearly in the first sentence of the novel: "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" (page7)
The only questions we might ask is What is the dog, Where is it from? And perhaps, is Laing so happy with his situation that he finds it merely "unusual" that he has to eat dog meat? and he can "reflect" on it?
High-Rise describes the collapse of the residents of a luxury tower block into barbarism, whereby some live like Neanderthals, others hunt through the deserted and boobytrapped corridors and piping, and yet others form tribes and weird societies slaughtering their visitors. To this extent it got the development of the eighties wrong: the yuppies might have flaunted their wealth, they might have been keen on rudeness and becoming hog-whimperingly drunk and unpleasant but their brutuality never physically went beyond street fights and offensive haircuts. It is also difficult to defend the social lives lived at the end of the novel as an allegory or satire on the uncaring eighties, although the novel bears some relation to the time.
In places, though, the novel is much more a satire than might be allowed, and Ballard's constant identification of minor characters by their occupations - "an ambitious young orthodontic surgeon", "a television producer named Richard Wilder", "the imposing figure of a cost-accountant from the 17th floor", "a retired physical-training instructor", "the middle-aged wives of a stock-exchange jobber and a society photographer" - is a reflection on the simultaneous personal power and anonymity of the members of a growing social class. (What is missing from the element of prediction, though, is that the age of these characters is wrong. They are too old to be yuppies. And their jobs should have been as futures traders in the stock exchange).
Although this novel is more elaborate than most of Ballard's novels, particularly in that it has three characters as its interest, and uses multiple points of view, the events of the story are rather crude: civilisation breaks down, large numbers of people are killed, as the story ends some people become troglodytes living in little forts on the side of the building while a group of bloody matriarchal women take over the penthouse apartments and butcher the few men remaining who make it to the top.
The novel follows three men: Royal the architect who has, consciously or not, engineered the whole thing, who first leads his own gang but who is eventually shot to expel him from his rooftop flat; Wilder, a domineering film maker who explores the building as it is reverting, and who eventually makes it to the roof only to discover that he has secretly craved being butchered by these substitute mothers; and Laing, a lecturer at a medical school who gives up going as he discovers something in him much more at home with barbarism and a sort-of indolence, than with the world outside. (It is a haunch of Royal's alsatian that Laing is eating when we first meet him).
All of these people contribute to the new world: Royal has designed the building with all its opportunites for friction - Laing and his neighbours argue about the waste disposal chute shared by their flats, for instance; and Royal, for at a time before his dethronement leads a royal party, almost a hunting party; Wilder, the coarser man (similar to Parsons in Nineteen Eighty-Four), we discover has actually been the cause of some of the social breakdown; early on a dog has been drowned in the public swimming pool during a power-cut as people are standing close by, later we are told that Wilder, who was in the pool when the lights went out, pulled the dog under, and later he enjoys threatening people about the building on his way up, only to meet his eventual nemesis or satisfaction on the roof; and Laing, who like many of Ballard's heroes copes, is a much more passive person than the rest.
One of the sub-texts of High-Rise is the notion of defensible space - the building does not supply enough of it - Laing and his neighbour blame each other for the problems with their communal garbage shute - and public areas like the lifts and carparks outside become areas for battles over social stature and convenience, and eventually dominance. The lifts provide an example of this: "When at last an elevator arrived, the doors opened to reveal a solitary passenger, a thin-shouldered and neurasthenic young masseuse who lived with her mother on the 5th floor. Laing immediately recognized her as one of the 'vagrants', of whom there were many in the High-Rise" (page 38) The women present on the landing pull the girl from the lift and assault her before letting her escape to the stairs.
Wilder, in his transits, meets the girl later: "Expertly she pressed the control buttons, activating the heavy doors. Within seconds the elevator was carrying them ponderously aloft. The young masseuse smiled at him encouragingly, alive now that they were moving. 'If you want to go higher, I'll show you. There are a lot of air-shafts, you know. The trouble is, dogs have got into them - they're getting hungry ...'" (page 77 ellipsis in original) "He (Wilder) left behind the young masseuse, endlessly climbing the service shafts and freight wells of the High-Rise, transits that externalised an odyssey taking place inside her head" (page 77)
Here explicitly is a Ballardian message: the exterior that has been sought is a mirror of the interior landscape. This is never stated so clearly of the main characters but it is implied.
To return to the point of defensible space, though, it is the girl's coming from the 5th floor that marks her out for assault - in the hierarchy of the building the lower floors are lower in class and caste. The lower floors are noisier, they are alleged to contain a brothel, dog owners from the heights swap to the lower lifts so that their pets can relieve themselves in the elevators serving the lower floors; then, as social interaction breaks down, the assaults begin - the lower classes provide natual victims in the group mind of the High-Rise.
When the upper floors want a reason to hate the lower they find it in morality (the brothel, for instance), but they cannot find it directly in class. To hate the lower floors, the snobs of the higher have to impose very fine class distinctions - everyone in the building is at least lower middle-class, and there is a reasonable chance of a TV director or newsreader being married to an airline crew member.
This breakdown does not go on forever, though, and the High-Rise does not become like the world of The Time Machine, with a caste of predators and a class of victims. Other things work themselves out: and it becomes clear that it is worlds of gender and psyche that eventually decide the fates of the characters: one group of women communally inhabit the blood garden on the roof; Laing lives in solitude; Wilder is impelled to go higher and to submit himself to the slaughter of the women in the blood garden even as he reverts to an infantile state. Only the fate of the third character, Royal, suggests that individuals have traditonal flaws. Royal is almost a tragic figure, because he aspires to control and direct life within the High-Rise and he eventually discovers, fatally, that what he has conjured up will destroy him.
A self-contained world, it is difficult to see the breakdown
of the building as any sort of
direction to breakdown outside (that is, the chances of reading this as
satire are slim). It is difficult
to sympathise with any of the characters. The women's butchery
co-operative is most difficult to
defend, particularly to a man, but they could have reasons for wanting
their revenge, and the men
do not have a lot going for them. Nevertheless, as another of Ballard's
psycho-pathology, this covers and reveals another aspect of the modern
world. Now there has
been a paperback re-publication (March 1990) of The Drought,
how fearful should we be of
J G Ballard High-Rise (Jonathan Cape 1975)
Elaine Morgan Falling Apart: The Rise and Decline of Urban Civilisation (Abacus 1978)
David Pringle Earth Is The Alien Planet (Borgo Press 1979)
It is worth including Elaine Morgan's book here, because if you can get it, you can compare one that got it right, with one that got the future wrong. She saw London collapsing and the regions growing. The reverse has happened. The pressimist is nearly always proved correct.
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© L J Hurst 2006