2012 June 22 • Friday
Following Crash and Conrete Island, High-Rise makes three brilliant, bizarre and unique novels in a row from J. G. Ballard, sort of a trilogy of works about middle-class, suburban life mutating into strange, tribalistic, ultimately atavistic forms. (Ballard shares with Barbara Pym an ability and inclination to show hyper-"civilized" people behaving consistently and almost exclusively in "primitive" or tribal manners, as if sharing with readers the view of an otherworldly anthopologist.)
The residents of a new High-Rise are consumed by their building and their mysterious feelings about it once all thousand apartments become occupied. Floors battle other floors as neighbors form tribes. This loose society doesn't hold, though, and a violent anarchy takes over. People live among piled up walls of garbage bags as all services to the building fall away. No electricity, no air-conditioning, no food; the high-rise, designed to be a nearly self-sufficient community, contains a grocery store, a liquor store, gyms, a swimming pool, schools, playgrounds, a scuplture garden, all of which are abandoned or destroyed or converted to new, grisly uses.
As always in Ballard, the characters welcome these developments. Far from resisting their downward slide into apocalypse, they attempt to haten it. Their true selves are released from cages of repression; this appears to be the important theme of most of Ballard's writing. (While reading High-Rise I was reminded of Ballard's statement that there should be more sex and violence on television, not less.)
The story concerns three somewhat archetypal characters, one from the bottom of the building, one from the top and one from the middle. The resident of the low floor is a strong, virile man named Wilder. As his name suggests, he is the barbarian ready to storm the gate. At the top if Royal, one of the architects who designed the high-rise. The significance of his name is clear enough. In the middle is Laing, representative of the abiding, adaptive middle class, the least interesting but the most likely to survive.
The writing is brilliant, with numerous stunning turns of phrase and unexpected felicities. When one of the residents, an orthodontic surgeon, smiles he has "a mouth like a miniature cathedral of polished ivory". Royal has scars on his face—from a car accident, a significant event in a Ballard book—that "hung like a series of question marks over his stern expression".
The residents of the high-rise end up preferring night to day.
The book's first line is really great. (The whole first paragraph is breathtaking.) "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."