February 17, 2008
J.G. Ballard: High-Rise
I was horrified to read in a press release for J.G. Ballard’s recently published memoir Miracles of Life that “this book will be his final work.” A stark announcement, directed by Ballard’s diagnosis in 2006 of advanced prostate cancer which had spread out through his body. It made me consider how simultaneously renowned yet overlooked he is, as much a household name as uncommercial novelists get to be, yet never troubling the prize lists or news pages. I also knew that his most famous book, Empire of the Sun, was his least representative. Time for a long overdue revisit then.
I’ve read a few of his novels before. The best of these was The Unlimited Dream Company, a barking mad but enormously impressive fantasy of a man who becomes a pagan god and flies through Shepperton, enfolding the populace into his body and causing vines to burst through the pavements everywhere he spills his seed. But received wisdom has it that Ballard has hit an off-patch of late, with his last four books – Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People and Kingdom Come – telling the same story over and over: of the violence, sex and depravity which underpins human psychology in the most ‘civilised’ places, and breaks through the surface at the least opportunity.
So I went instead for High-Rise (1975), one of his most acclaimed works, and which turns out to be … about the violence, sex and depravity which underpins etc. etc. Of course many authors write about the same things through their career – Martin Amis said of Graham Greene: “the perspective is like a shadow moving across a lawn” – but rarely so interchangeably. On investigating more of Ballard’s later books, I found that Running Wild and Rushing to Paradise also have a similar theme, though not quite so identically executed. The website Contemporary Writers calls him “one of Britain’s most original writers.” Well yes: … and yet.
But let’s try to judge High-Rise as the feat of true originality it was at the time, rather than as the model for six of his next eleven novels. The setting is a tower block of the type which had become fashionable in Britain in the preceding decade: “streets in the sky.” While in reality many of these were so cheaply built as to be hazardous to the health of the council tenants who were trapped in them (see Our Friends in the North for a superb dramatisation of this), in Ballard’s world the high-rise is efficient, elegant and crammed with wealthy professionals: it “challenges the sun itself” and “plunges the streets behind into darkness.” This affluent paradise, however, is no more healthy than the council slum flats of the 1960s:
By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting aspects of their lives would take place. Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.
Now Ballard clearly wants us to believe the second sentence follows from the first, but I don’t buy it at all. We know his experiences as a child in an internment camp in wartime Shanghai left him acutely aware of how easily the veneer of civilization can slip away, but where’s the evidence that this can – not just equally but more deeply, as he seems to suggest in so many of his novels – apply to particularly comfortable peacetime societies? The residents of the high-rise divide into factions, the upper, middle and lower levels of the building representing the class divisions in British society. There is violence, with animals killed, vehicles vandalized and intimidation and assault in every stairwell (the lifts having become practically unusable). Is it because “this was an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence”? Is Ballard deliberately reversing what we really know to be true, as when one character observes that “a low crime rate is a sure sign of social deprivation”? Is he digging the reader in the ribs by giving the three main characters transparent names like Royal and Wilder?
It is often beautifully written, and there is a peculiar poetry in Ballard’s dedication to detailed descriptions of “the massive scale of the glass and concrete architecture” and of the destruction and psychosis which follows. Nonetheless there is no getting away from the fact that for the bulk of the book, it is very boring to read, which you might think quite a feat when such outlandish activities are being portrayed. Part of the problem is that once the central idea is established (the extract above, which distills it, comes from page 36) then most of the scenes that follow could be read in any order – or not at all – with no loss of effect, before we come to the closing chapters, where things do pick up again quite impressively.
All of this doesn’t make High-Rise a complete failure, because it’s necessarily interesting to see where the idea first came from which would so obsess this fascinating writer for much of the rest of his career. Its attention-seeking opening line (“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog…”) is justly famous. And the story is open to multiple interpretations of the analogies it supports, and it makes for pleasant mental exercise simply to establish the links of causation which Ballard omits (because the ones he provides sure don’t stand up to examination). One review of High-Rise quoted on the cover says, “Everything seems to demand attention and analysis,” and this is true – and it’s perhaps the book’s greatest achievement, when reading it for the story (which we know the outcome of at the start) doesn’t do much to drive the reader on. Another review calls it “an eerie glimpse into the future.” This is true also: one day all Ballard novels would be like this.