Date finished: March 29th 2016
J G Ballard and I don’t have a great relationship. That is to say, I tried to read Crash once in which awful people get off on crashing cars and there are lots of skin-crawling metaphors for sexual intercourse in the sheering chrome of slow-motion car smash-ups. I read American Psycho and managed to get through the grotesque, over-the-top murder scenes, but Crash was beyond me. It was an exercise in pretentiousness by a man who wanted to alienate as many readers as he could so the few who got to the end could feel smug about it.
But there was no denying Ballard was inventive and subversive, and I like that in an author, so I decided he deserved another chance. High-Rise was his most lauded novel, and the concept sounded intriguing. The release of a film based on the novel clinched the deal for me, so I picked up a copy and set off.
The basic premise of High-Rise is that a huge, self-contained tower block has been designed by architect Anthony Royal, a reclusive individual who resides in the top penthouse. Robert Laing, an aloof man who sees himself as an outsider, and Robert Wilder who feels downtrodden living at the bottom of the high-rise represent a sort-of middle class and lower class respectively, whilst Royal, at the top, represents an upper class (all the characters are wealthy to afford living in the high-rise so they’re all middle class really). After a few months in the self-contained apartment block with its own supermarket, restaurant, school and gym/swimming pools, the residents start to change, becoming strange and hostile. All-night parties are common, despite the relative wealth of all the tenants, and people stop going to work. Class divides begin to form between those in the bottom, middle and top thirds of the high-rise. The tenants begin to sabotage their building and fights become commonplace. And yet, no one wants to leave. Slowly but surely, the residents begin to strip themselves of their humanity, reverting to a primitive, tribal-like state of nightly warfare and survival, building to a grim but inevitable conclusion…
The concept of High-Rise is undoubtedly interesting, and Ballard has cleverly thought through all the conveniences and systems that a self-contained tower block would need. The social divisions that emerge are well thought-through and provide an interesting allegory for society outside the high-rise. But there’s something a bit too clever about it all, and Ballard is often more interested in waffling on about his pseudo-Freudian theories of tower block psychology than working on his characters or plot. There’s a certain futility about stripping your characters of humanity when you established so little about them in the first place that it’s hard to tell they’ve changed. The potential for narrative and even events seems to have been squandered, and before long this fictional experiment investigating the post-psychology of middle class tower-block residents starts to feel badly overdone. Even on the rare occasions something actually happens, Ballard ruins it with his bland, aloof prose and needless self-analysis. In the last couple of chapters, presumably realising that things are meant to happen in novels, Ballard throws a bit of that much-vaunted device – plot – into the mix and it works nicely. But it’s too late to save a novel that mostly revolves around repetitive descriptions of declining building standards and interchangeable characters being vaguely awful to one another without consequence.
Ultimately, Ballard’s fiction deals with society’s deviants, and this is sure to arouse interest in some (Chuck Palahniuk fans spring to mind, and perhaps fans of the nihilism of Albert Camus), but personally I simply find myself unable to sympathise, get into the mindset of, or even be vaguely interested by people who are stripped of all humanity, or engage in car crashes for sexual pleasure. High-Rise is an idea with potential, but Ballard is so focused on the psychoanalysis of these deviants that it comes as a grave sacrifice to plot, character, narrative and any number of other traits that make up a conventional story. To me, High-Rise is most compelling when explored as a metaphor for Thatcherite aspiration – the richest residents on the highest floors doing everything they can to prevent the residents from lower floors from getting to the top where they profess things are better, and the ultimately decay of such a system. Unfortunately, having been written in 1975, this probably wasn’t what Ballard was trying to say although it’s certainly a valid reading of it’s significance to modern society.
High-Rise is certainly a story with potential, even merit, but its cack-handed execution and its simultaneous over-analysis and underdevelopment call to mind the work of an first-year creative-writing undergrad, not a bestselling author of transgressive fiction. Perhaps myself and Ballard simply aren’t destined to get along; the bad relationship between the two of us seems set to continue.