Tuesday, 19 April 2016

On "High-Rise" by J. G. Ballard (1975)


Ballard has cast a relatively long shadow over my imagination, despite his fiction not actively featuring in it a great deal. My first encounter came from his autobiographical novel-cum-memoir Empire of the Sun. More significant was the influence of the terrific Doctor Who serial Paradise Towers, a sparkling 1987 tale from the pen of Stephen Wyatt which owes a huge debt to Ballard - and specifically, to the 1975 novel High-Rise. Another significant, much more recent, factor is the 2016 adaptation of High-Rise, still in cinemas and which, if it were not such an ironic turn of phrase, I would unreservedly recommend to the skies.

Such was my enjoyment and appreciation of the film that it cemented my desire to finally get round to reading the novel; now that I have finished it, I only regret leaving it so long.



High-Rise is one of those books that is both inexhaustible, and exhausting, to discuss. Inexhaustible because it almost cements its own genre, because there is no other book like it, and because it is much more slippery than it might first appear, with all kinds of hidden aspects to be delved into; but exhausting because one scarcely knows how to start or whether there is even the tiniest chance it can be properly, comprehensively summed up or written about. The story Ballard weaves is a frenetic, crazed dystopia, taking us from respectable realism about the well-heeled middle classes to a dreamlike, surrealist world in a relatively short page count. Is it dystopian science-fiction? A Kafkaesque musing on what is or isn't real? A black comedy? A modern Aesop's fable?

I've already mentioned the brilliance of the opening line (in my review of the film) - but it's worth drawing further attention to: "Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months." In less than forty words, Ballard gives us the setting (the high-rise), a taste of the premise and plot (its slow decline, "the unusual events"), its overwhelming clash of tones (the bizarre nature of "eating the dog" a mere throwaway, sitting alongside the respectability of dining on a balcony and the name "Dr Robert Laing"), and the framing-device ("later", Laing looking back on everything from his future vantage point). The slightly cold detachment - again evident in how little the dog is mourned; after all, practically speaking, it's just dinner - is typical not just of Ballard, but also of the way Laing views the world. In many respects, it's an even better first line once you know how the story pans out, because by the time you reach the end of Laing's journey the emotionless quality of this opening sentence is not so much an intriguing opening as it is a thing of pure horror.

There are all manner of such lines in this book, and it would not do to spend all my time on just the one. Ballard peppers the lexicographical landscape with atavistic word choices ("skirmish-ground", "cliff-face") as if from some Neolithic past, yet the story's opening explosion is one of "sparkling wine". There are numerous other gems - "the ragged skyline of the city resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis"; or my particular favourite, as the protagonist's interior monologue warns him, "careful, Laing, or some stockbroker's wife will unman you as expertly as she de-stones a pair of avocados". Just as in Wheatley's film adaptation, the plunging of one resident from a top-floor balcony to collide with the metal bonnet of a plush automobile far, far below is thrillingly, sickeningly done (both Ballard and, later, Wheatley anticipate how much we will be drawn to the sight, unable to look away: "and the residents gaz[ed] down as if from their boxes in an enormous outdoor opera house"). It's both terribly real yet also disquietingly stylized (Laing spots his own empty balcony, and "in an absurd moment of panic he wondered if he himself was the victim"). The structure itself, on a purely technical level, is a wonderfully neat achievement (3 chapters from Laing's POV, 3 from Wilder's, 3 from Royal's, then 2 of each, then 1, and then one final chapter devoted to Laing, bringing us full circle and showing us that he has the requisite skills to be a "survivor" in this kind of world - and, of course, that the entire cycle will start again).

But it's not all lurid moments and smart flourishes - for this is the product of a man who knew war at a very young age, who saw human beings at their most desperate in the interment camp at Lunghua, near Shanghai., and that trail of destruction seeps into all his work. Ballard's book is at heart a deeply uncomfortable look at society as a construct whose stability is only ever illusory, which can fray at the edges, disintegrate, or implode with only the merest provocation. In this respect, it sits alongside Lord of the Flies - with which it does share some parallels, although that comparison simplifies High-Rise somewhat, as it is both more viscerally disturbing yet also much, much funnier. There is "no obvious beginning" to the chaos; people who seem extremely professional and civilised give into the satisfaction of watching others be inconvenienced ("somehow the high-rise played into the hands of the most petty impulses"); and, as one of the residents crows so triumphantly, "for the first time since we were three years old what we do makes absolutely no difference". Here a comparison with Lord of the Flies *might* be instructive - where Golding made children into swiftly-grown-up warmongers (like the adults around them), Ballard espies in every adult the capacity to misbehave with wanton abandon just like a child might. Golding contends children are as warlike as their parents, if only given the right circumstances; Ballard shows us that the parents - who are far more likely to find themselves in the right circumstances - are as childish and regressive as their children. I know which I think is scarier.

Perhaps Ballard's most judgmental assertion is that this concrete world was "built not for man... but for man's absence". If, in literature at least, the lost paradise of Eden was where it all went wrong in the first place, the rectilinear other-world of High-Rise is where it all ends up. After all, the building's architect, Royal, is a weak, broken Lucifer, "hovering over us like some kind of fallen angel" in an Eden-like garden of his own devising, a garden that is eventually stained with blood. Much in High-Rise gets mythologised (particularly Wilder's symbolic ascent of the building, like a Herculean hero trying to scale a mountain). The humans are refashioned as beasts, creatures in a menagerie - Royal specifically compares the building to a zoo, and the residents urinate and defecate in each other's apartments like animals marking territory with their scents. Language itself seems almost to give up; Wilder can only grunt by the novel's end. There are a number of elements which make this story like a fable, a morality play, a cautionary tale.

But identified very, very explicitly alongside this proclivity to violence and perversion is the world of the late twentieth-century. Not just in the factual setting, but in every possible aspect of the iconography. Every modern convenience - garbage chutes and central heating and supermarkets and elevator shafts and private balconies - is present and correct (with the helpful exception of the Internet and social media; as director Ben Wheatley observed, such constant connection with the outside world would ostensibly ruin the plot mechanics of the isolated high-rise building - but even there, Ballard's description of "the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed" might call social media to mind...). The bright, colourful toddler-monster we call consumerism has gotten over the teething troubles of post-war rationing and begun to gorge itself afresh on the luxuries that surround it. And the solidity of such things is a solidity which Ballard knew - from first-hand experience - to be so utterly illusory, so impermanent as to beggar belief. The bristling anger to this fable of class warfare potentially means you could criticise High-Rise for being too "on-the-nose", for its central metaphor being too obvious. While I don't think this is even remotely fair, it's also worth saying that there are some things about which it is all too necessary to be direct, on-the-nose, obvious, and - well - angry.

Science-fiction can be set anywhere, any time, but J.G. Ballard saw Earth as "the only alien planet" and real fantastical tales as "extrapolations of the immediate present, nightmares at noon earned from the abrasive dust of the pavements we all walk". We don't just have to watch science-fiction on the telly: we're living in it. This awareness, too, paradoxically permeates the book - Crosland the newsreader seems like a constant TV broadcast himself; the residents witness the first death of a resident like tuxedo-clad opera-goers; Wilder wields his cine-camera like a battle standard, using art as a way to cope ("the fiction of this elaborate toy"); residents watch pornographic films projected on to the walls of devastated apartments; Royal relies on his "theatrical props". They are all, in fact, like "mannequins in a museum tableau".

Is it any comfort to know, to be reminded in such a way, that High-Rise is a story? When we look at our own world, and back to High-Rise, and back to our own world again, I'm really not sure it is.

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