High Rise, By J.G. Ballard, 1975
“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 past three months.” So begins High Rise, J.G. Ballard’s fascinating, bizarre, insightful and sometimes frightening tale of an urban dystopian microcosm.
High Rise tells the story of a newly opened, fully self-contained, 40 story apartment block built on the outskirts of London, corporately owned and administered by the residents. Moving to an apartment on the 25th floor seems, at first, the ideal escape for Robert Laing – a chance for some privacy and solitude following the collapse of his marriage. The building, however, quickly turns into a savage and surreal nightmare as the 2000 residents, spurred by the building’s failing infrastructure and total lack of external authority and control, become progressively more violent and primitive. Things really get interesting when they begin banding together in barbarous tribes and gangs and waging a wild and bloody war throughout the building by night, while still attending their jobs as accountants, executives and film editors during the day.
As strange as it sounds, the strength of this book lies in its believability. The erosion of living standards experienced by the characters, and the corresponding changes to their psyche are presented in such a well thought-out, almost reasonable and absolutely readable fashion that the completely implausible events that take place within the high rise seem to become perfectly normal, inevitable, even fated.
As with many dystopian fictions, High Rise concerns itself heavily with the feeling that, as William Steinhoff put it “something in modern life has gone wrong, that human beings were not meant to be so ill at ease with the world, and that the explanation of the puzzle is somewhere to be found in politics”. Throughout the novel Ballard ponders this sensation of unease from various angles, illustrated by the different characters his narrative follows, and the continuously changing, but always socially driven shape of the turmoil erupting within the high rise.
The book is also, however, often darkly humorous, and a genuinely good read despite its heavily social and political overtones. A must for anyone living in the CBD.