Underappreciated Masterpieces: J. G. Ballard’s 'High Rise'
I was sold on <i>High Rise</i> (1975) after the first ten words: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog…”
I was sold on J. G. Ballard’s High Rise (1975) after the first ten words: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog…”
I didn’t care what the second half of that sentence would turn out to be; I was already there, sitting on the balcony. It’s not that I don’t like dogs, really, but more that here was a book that clearly had no qualms about its world, had the confidence to disarm probably half of its possible readers with the bleak and unnerving image of a human casually eating a dog on a balcony. If this is where Ballard began, I knew there would be hell to pay in what came after.
High Rise, as the title portends, concerns the lives of people living in a 40-floor high-rise apartment building and sharing common areas such as a gym, grocery store, liquor store, pool, etc. The book follows several different protagonists through the landscape of the building during a time in which something is wrong and getting worse by the minute, though no one seems to know precisely what. When the book begins, the sound of cocktail parties and jubilation fills the building’s halls; men and women conduct their lives under the throes of daily work and casual sex; people come and go from the apartment into the larger world for work and return at night alongside their neighbors. Ballard is very good at establishing an ambience of life among people with an almost Victorian sense of exposition—each character has their daily manners and conversations, amid which small interruptions begin to bleed in.
First, an unknown man gets into an altercation at the pool with a group of children. It is a strange and restrained scene that lets the reader know there is something wrong with some of the people here. The next night the electricity goes out on several floors for no apparent reason. In Ballard’s world, that bit of darkness is all humanity needs to be pushed over the edge. Increasingly thereafter fights break out on various floors throughout the apartments. Things are thrown from balconies onto the world below. Some elevators fail and others are taken over, blocking access for the families on lower floors to the more expensive and exclusive ones above. Tribes begin banding together to protect their territory, food, and valuables. By page 40, violence and rape abound within the building, establishing in its confined territories a kind of survival-of-the-fittest world of living hell.
Most gripping about Ballard’s portrayal of his isolated arenas is how even-handedly his characters report the mania that surrounds them. No matter how high the boiling waters rise, the narrators remain logical, within their means, progressing from one psychopathic act to the next, as if this dystopia were a fact of life, as if there were no other choice but to continue. As the terrain gets darker, the stakes of life change, as do the manners of survival and social norms.
It’s rare to witness such a balanced report within an environment where almost anything can happen, and Ballard makes it seem natural, matter of fact. A swimming pool of skeletons feels comfortable alongside men screening videos of their brutality in a theater covered in blood. The prose is bright and steady, like an IV drip through which the reader continues feeding right alongside each character, delving deeper and deeper into a world as it is ripped.
So, besides the violence, how does Ballard manage to make this book so unnerving? I've read a lot of novels full of brutal descriptions of grotesque arenas, but there was something else to High Rise beyond its circus of slow degradation. The book’s most central power seems to come not from how its world unravels but how clearly and steadily the narration holds the reader as he descends. From the start, the conceptual framework of the book (citizens within a communal living space gradually become unhinged unto total chaos) provides the reader with a feeling of a laboratory experiment, less a narrative where we are supposed to change or care, and more like a documentary through which we are made witness to a condition of the world amidst us all. This isn’t a parable or even a nightmare; it’s a possible future. The narrators could be our children, their children, or ourselves.
Equally unnerving is Ballard’s use of media to provide a kind of normalizing effect within the book’s world. In a state of total chaos, people wander the trashed floors and hallways recording videos of people being attacked, of women being made slaves by men hungry for power, of pets running rampant in the corridors. One character records himself hiccuping and barfing as a woman moans for the sole purpose of playing it back and filling the air with sound. Even though they have descended into complete perversion, the building’s residents are desperate to continue documenting themselves. In the era of the selfie and Facebook and Twitter, this dementia feels all too real.
Meanwhile, the world beyond the high rise goes on as if the terror inside did not exist. The narrators make little effort to reach out for help, as if they love the new power structure. On the flip side, when cops show up outside the building, they just park and do not enter. The contained hell is symbiotic with the peace that walls it in. Perhaps the most compelling thing is how, in the face of all the awful shit that happens, the narrators continue, searching abandoned rooms for liquor, television, sex. Even on the roof, where countless birds wait for the bodies to become food, there is not a yearning for a return to normalcy or even survival as much as to uncover what lies at the end of this one hall, what that person locked in his or her room alone might be doing, how his or her shriveling body might soon feel. The inaction of humans is as unnerving as any action.
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