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A Love Letter to J.G. Ballard's 'High-Rise'

Forty years old and soon to be turned into a film, Ballard's disturbing, prophetic novel will change the way you think about reality – and tells us much about Britain today.

af Joe Banks
29 juli 2015, 11:00am

The cover of J.G. Ballard's High Rise (via)

J.G. Ballard's 1975 novel High-Rise, soon to be appearing in cinemas in the shape of British director Ben Wheatley's film adaptation, is the story of a luxury tower block and the descent of its well-heeled residents into tribal warfare and wanton destruction. A dark modern fable of the kind Ballard specialised in, it is, among other things, an ingenious examination of the mutable nature of our sense of reality. The book opens and closes with the image of Dr Robert Laing, a thirty-something medical school lecturer and resident of the high-rise, out on his balcony, reflecting upon, "the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months". These events, that might be more accurately characterised as disturbing, are set in train when the services in the newly-built tower begin to stop functioning properly. The elevators fail, the rubbish chutes get blocked, the electricity cuts out. As these inconveniences mount, they start to fray the fragile civic fabric that had initially ensured the peaceful co-existence of the hundreds of residents living together in this huge vertical settlement and soon sends them on a journey of spiralling violence.

A sinister carnival atmosphere takes hold in the high-rise, a strange mixture of revelry, aggression and mutual suspicion, as tribal loyalties are formed among its different sections. With the melting away of the social order – based almost entirely, it turns out, on the smooth functioning of the machine-like building – a base set of primitive urges rise to the surface, a state of affairs quickly embraced by the more strongly constituted. Territory is guarded and fought for, the weak punished. Eventually, rape and murder become casual amusements in a hellish power game, the trashed corridors smeared with blood and excrement. With the worst of these excesses having subsided, Laing on his balcony is blithely satisfied, "that everything had returned to normal". The fact that he is squatting beside a pile of burning telephone directories, eating the hindquarter of an Alsatian dog he has roasted on a spit for breakfast, does nothing, it seems, to trouble this conviction.

"Reality is a stage-set," said J.G. Ballard, "that can be pulled down at any moment." This was a lesson learnt from savage experience. Born in 1930, he grew up in Shanghai, where he and his parents (his father was chairman of the Chinese subsidiary of a British textiles company) lived in an affluent, ex-patriate enclave of the city's suburbs. It was a place that looked and felt a bit like the Surrey of the time, with large villas, tennis courts and country clubs. An island of privileged calm, just down the road from a Shanghai which was otherwise a frenetic, Americanised city of cruel and garish venture capitalism. When the Japanese invaded in 1937, however, the comfortable existence of the Ballards, as well as the more perilous life of Shanghai's other citizens, was shatteringly overturned. No part of the city was immune from the chaos and destruction of war. After Pearl Harbour, the foreign concessions were occupied and he and his family were finally imprisoned alongside other ex-pats in Lunghua Internment Camp.

Tom Hiddleston as Dr Robert Laing in Wheatley's film adaptation

Here, the young Ballard saw human beings stripped to their barest elements: the casual savagery of bored Japanese soldiers as they beat to death a helpless Chinese rickshaw driver; the fear and powerlessness of his parents, grimly hanging on in the tiny room that they shared with the young Ballard and his sister until the end of the war. In these extreme and frightening circumstances, Ballard saw how people pushed to the edge will do anything to survive, will believe in anything. He would later recount in his semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun how his boyhood self even developed a perverse love of the war and came to embrace the life of the camp, as a kind of desperate stratagem for keeping his spirit alive. It was a brutal education that shattered all illusions – and it seemed to cause a wounding he would spend the rest of his life attempting to come to terms with, instilling a permanent scepticism about (in Joseph Conrad's term) the safety of his surroundings*: "I'm intensely interested in change – probably as a matter of self-preservation. What the hell is going to happen next?" He was 77 and a millionaire when he said that.

High-Rise, like just about all of Ballard's work, reverberates with the echoes of this childhood rupture in Shanghai. The formative experience of war and sudden social collapse not only shaped his obsessive imagination – his short stories and novels famously teem with images of abandoned airports, deserted hotels and drained swimming pools – it shaped how he saw human civilisation itself. It gave him the enduring sense that what we perceive as a stable, ordered world is in truth a fragile, improvised construction of convenient fictions around which we cobble together a makeshift sense of our own identity. The apparent solidity of civilised existence, particularly in the affluent, "suburban West" as he called it, disguises the flimsiness of human personality and the protean nature of our perceptions. The rules can change in an instant, the masks can fall from our faces, the roles we play become defunct. And like Conrad before him, together with this sense of the contingent, provisional nature of life, there is always the shadowy awareness that the human species is an animal with an immensely violent history, one that over a couple of million years of guile and brute force has struggled its way to a position of planetary dominance. For all our sophistication and enlightened rationality as modern people, says Ballard, we carry that history with us. In ways often imperceptible to ourselves, it plays a powerful role in shaping our motives and responses to the world in our daily lives. The ancient unconscious drives, including a taste for cruelty and the perverse, are always working away somewhere beneath the veneer of social convention, ready for any opportunity to come flaring to the surface.

This weltanshauung – a kind of compound of Thomas Hobbes and Sigmund Freud – is the foundation stone for the unique world of the novels, short stories and journalistic essays Ballard wrote during the long writing career he established in England after settling here once the war was over. After a series of post-apocalyptic novels in the '60s that owed much to the paintings of Surrealists such as Max Ernst and Salvador Dali – using environmental catastrophe of various kinds to evoke transfigured landscapes of the psyche – the subject matter that came to dominate his work was the psychological effects of the technologically-driven consumer age. With an intensity of vision rarely found in English fiction, he looked at the impact of developments such as the car, air travel, mass media, celebrity culture and the rise of computers, drawing out a more ambiguous, and sometimes more sinister, side to phenomena generally hailed by a self-congratulatory culture as the expressions of inevitable human progress. Such was his prophetic success in anticipating so much of the world around us today – not just specific technological developments, but something more elusive, an atmosphere, a latent logic – it is hard not to feel that Ballard possessed an insight into human psychology and social change in the modern world beyond the perceptual range of his peers.

The novels and short stories that outline this vision are not literal transcriptions of the world. Ballard was an eager advocate of science fiction at the start of his career as an alternative to the conventions of the 19th century realist novel, which he saw as being ill-equipped to deal with an emerging post-war society in the West that was "ruled by fictions of every kind – mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the preempting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen". Reality had become so hard to decipher in the external world, the inner world of the self so fragmented, that the author could no longer claim to faithfully reproduce it naturalistically on the page. Science fiction of a type that sought to explore inner, rather than outer space ("Earth is the only alien planet"), was a form that had a better chance of getting at the truth of late-twentieth century existence. No journeys to distant galaxies, no time-travel. The type of SF stories he approved of were "extrapolations of the immediate present, nightmares at noon earned from the abrasive dust of the pavements we all walk". He liked to think of himself as a kind of scientist and his stories as laboratories where he could test a hypothesis on his characters in extreme situations and see where it led.

He called these cool, analytical interrogations, "extreme metaphors", and High-Rise is just that. A self-contained, maximised image of the modern world, an extrapolation of emergent trends: "Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly 'free' psychopathology."High-Rise, 1975

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The upwardly mobile professionals that have moved into this new high-rise are drawn to it because of the detachment and anonymity it offers. It's a world separate from exterior social reality. Freed from the struggle for food and shelter, unconstrained by wider social obligations or inherited moral frameworks, people such as these in modern societies, says Ballard, are able to explore their own desires and obsessions to an unprecedented degree. With his image of these residents inside the carefully designed hi-tech high-rise regressing into a savage infantilism, he highlights two seemingly contradictory trends that are such defining features of today's consumer capitalism: on the one hand increasing order, rational expediency, homogeneity, control; and on the other, the thirst for entertainment and excitement, pornographic stimulation, excessive consumption, mediatised violence, spectacle, the fantastical appearance of unlimited choice and possibility for the primary, desiring self. It's a central theme in Ballard's investigation into the psychic confusion of the modern world. The interplay that occurs between violence and boredom, madness and passivity, sensation and blandness; locating these dramas in the shopping mall atriums, airports, business parks and apartment blocks that form the familiar backdrop of our lives.

Reading some of Ben Wheatley's recent interviews and from pictures that appeared online from the set, it's clear his film version of High-Rise is placed firmly, and with some relish, in the mid-1970s of the book's original publication. One hopes the sideburns and Ford Cortinas won't act as a nostalgic buffer, softening the power of the book's unsettling vision. The great writer of the present and the near-future would seem potentially ill-served by a retro period piece. But questions of adaptation aside – and Wheatley is a talented filmmaker who will surely serve up something that more than justifies the price of a cinema ticket – a new stimulation of interest in Ballard is to be welcomed. Too often classified as a bleak dystopian, his dark fables are driven by a powerful moral instinct and a passionate urge to engage with the world as it is. His role, he would say cheerfully and without any shred of sanctimony, was to be the man standing at the roadside with a sign reading, "Dangerous bends ahead. Slow down." In the vagueness of life as it passes, it is very difficult to accurately gauge how personal and societal norms are shifting. We could do worse at this time of "inner migration", as he called it, the "opting out of reality" made available to us by rapidly evolving technologies that push us ever deeper into our own heads, than to stop and take a look at what Ballard had to say.

It won't change the world, but the rich feast of his imagination may offer nourishment, and even some guidance, for the road ahead.

*"Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings."

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