Book Review: High Rise

J.G.Ballard’s High Rise tells the story of the residents of a luxurious forty-storey high-rise. They begin acting out petty grievances but these small acts soon culminate in vivid acts of violence. The start out dropping glass bottles onto each other’s cars and having lots of loud parties, but by the end they have descended into an ‘orgy of violence’. Readers can delight in dead dogs, random beatings, and generally repulsive behaviour.

It is not the excessive violence I find personally objectionable; it is the fact that it is mindless and unmotivated. I can understand humans will act in questionable ways when they are pushed to the limits, when there are scarce resources, when they are protecting someone they love. But Ballad’s characters have absolutely no motivation. Apart from one crucial factor – they live in a flat.

‘By it’s very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintain the social structure that supported them all.’ Ballad writes. ‘For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulse… 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.’

This paragraph seems to be inserted rather randomly in an attempt to configure the bizarre violent acts as conceivable responses to the environment, an environment which is impersonal and unconnected by the outside world, rather than merely ridiculous. I live in what is essentially a flat. St. Catz is in many ways the kind of phantom structure that haunts Ballard’s text. Although we have three floors rather than forty, we are nevertheless an example of modernist, purpose-built architecture with some nice windows. Luckily, I have managed not to kill anyone yet.

Maybe the simple reason everyone starts trying to kill each other without any real reason is because they are all just so nasty. This is perhaps too harsh a description of Richard Laing, the protagonist, but he is hardly particularly likeable. Most of the characters are power-hungry and very eager to jump into violence.

Of course the text is not intended as a realist rendering of social interactions, but an exploration of key cultural fears about how technology and environment can provoke us to behave in nasty and unimaginable ways, as well as the classic question of what really lurks behind the quiet, restrained civility that society forces upon us. Yet the novel is entirely unconvincing. Once this occurred to me, I could not take the novel (or any of its rather dire conclusions about the state of the human condition) seriously.

Another question that perplexed me: why didn’t people just leave? The high-rise begins to break down, with power cuts and facilities closing, even food shortages as supplies are no longer transported to the supposedly self-supporting tower block. If Ballard is unafraid to delve into the darker side of human nature, our capacity for violence and our relish for power, he fails to recognise fear as a crucial motivator. There are parents and children in this tower block, dogs are drowned –clearly not an ideal place to bring up your kids.

Nevertheless, the novel provokes interesting questions: like why did I bother reading to the end? Something kept me going, and something other than the sheer stubbornness of being determined to get to the end of a book I’d already paid for. Uncomfortably, I have to ask, was it the allure of violence? And if human nature is what I like to believe it is, why do we take bizarre pleasure in watching others in pain?

Of course, part of me was intrigued to see just how far Ballard would push his protagonists, and if he would ever provide a real reason why. Maybe I have missed some vital point, but I still can’t quite understand why people choose to behave so barbarically towards each other. The high rise functions as an imaginative space where we can enact our darkest and most disturbing dreams, but two questions pique my interests. One, do we even have these desires? Do we really want to hurt each other, for the sake of violence? Then, there is the practical question: are we any more likely to try to kill each other because we’re living in flats?

The other day, my friend blocked up the sink. I thought about pushing her out the window, but luckily violence was avoided when she complied with my polite request to remove the offending rice. Ballard’s flats are a metaphorical space; it is not their architecture, the number of floors, or any physical feature, but the space they present that is distanced from society, providing a separateness that can easily become sinister. But when you start considering the practicalities, the whole thing becomes absurd and simply becomes a catalogue of random acts of violence for the sake of violence.

Image: Alan Levine