High-Rise by J.G. Ballard - Book Review - Kristopher Cook

High-Rise by J.G. Ballard

In Ned Beauman’s sensational introduction, he quotes from J.G. Ballard in a 2013 Guardian article that describes a new London housing development as going a bit High-Rise. This proves how far the plot of this book has gone to reach the crest of the English lexicon.

First released in 1975, the premise centres on the idea that a building can impact its occupants. A recent study has shown this to be accurate, just not to the extremes of this book.

Following the construction of a new state-of-the-art housing development, the architect Anthony Royal is the first to move in. Taking his position in the top floor’s penthouse apartment, this sets the tone for the class-structured layering of tenants below.

Among them is Robert Laing, a recently divorced doctor and medicinal-school lecturer. Moving into an apartment on the 25th floor, thanks to a recommendation from his sister Alice who lives on the lower realms.

Looking up at the endless tiers of balconies, he felt uneasily like a visitor to a malevolent zoo where terraces of vertically mounted cages contained creatures of random and ferocious cruelty.

J.G. Ballard, High-Rise

As the plot progresses, the building starts to take a grip on its residents. First, they begin to abandon their jobs and responsibilities outside of the complex, ensuring many of them become anti-social and boisterous. Then, they begin to disown the rules of normal societal behaviour, leaving the building in a state of disrepair.

High-Rise / Low-Life       

Ballard has his own unique take on a science-fiction seduced dystopian landscape. Although the land around feels relevant to the times, descending into chaos brings forward a new world.

In Cocaine Nights, this was transformed through the surrounding area, whereas in High-Rise, it’s the building’s setting that begins to mutate.

As the construction falls deeper into slum territory, the residents begin to take sides. This first comes in the form of floors – blockading walkways and disconnecting elevators to reroute traffic, then into social class order.

It’s at this point that High-Rise begins to come into its own.

In a sense life in the high-rise had begun to resemble the world outside – there were the same ruthlessness and aggression concealed within a set of polite conventions.

J.G. Ballard, High-Rise

Royal himself is portrayed as a controlling sociopath, from how he designed the building all the way down to how he addresses his wife. He also keeps close control of his white Alsatian whilst maintaining an ‘uneasy mixture of arrogance and defensiveness’.

The residents below the 20th floor, view Royal somewhat as an aristocrat, living the high-life in his penthouse apartment, literally propped up by the other residents. However, above this threshold, Royal mingles with the apartment owners more easily due to their professional statuses; doctors, teachers, lawyers, etc.

Technological Design

Much like Crash, High-Rise also looks at the interconnections of technology and society. And in a similar Ballard style, the answers are pushed way into the extreme.

In our modern-day living, we overlook the involvement technology has on simple tasks; grocery shopping, watching TV and listening to music, all the way up to the more complex structures, such as; life-support machines and space exploration.

Equally, through this overseeing, the danger of reliability on technology becomes compulsory: A la screen time addictions and social withdrawals.

Anarchy in the UK

As the housing complex quickly descends into chaos, the mood within changes. From the tranquil functioning of everyday life, the residents take it upon themselves to cause as much carnage as possible.

By dividing the floors and later their social standings, they move towards a feeling of self-preservation. And when it’s every family for themselves, the stress levels are amped up, as is the violence and anarchy around them.

When this survival instinct kicks in, think zombie apocalypse, so does the need for rationing.

First, there’s a selfish stockpiling of goods (where have we seen that recently?) and then the need for control over resources. In the case of the building, these come in the form of the elevator, the swimming pool, the supermarket and finally, the roof garden.

By amassing these resources, the residents are trying to survive and show dominance over others, putting them at the top of the food chain.

In a sense, it feels a lot like a retelling of Lord of the Flies, in which a group of ordinary individuals must fight to survive their circumstances. Instead of being stuck on a stranded island, they’re stuck in a development complex by unknown forces.

Closing Thoughts

High-Rise is an enjoyable Ballardarian adventure that takes aim at the British class structure and the accumulation of wealth. As with many of his books, there’s a keen intertwining of technology and society, along with the deepening reliance we have on it. This help to create a unique dystopian blend of both satire and horror.

If you’ve read any of Ballard’s previous books, you’ll know what you’re getting here. If not, then this is an excellent place to start.

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