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.


  1. Interesting post, John. I’ve not read Ballard before, although I’ve seen the movie Empire of the Sun (and loved it) and have Kingdom Come in the queue (bought the hardcover half-price about a year ago). This one, High Rise, intrigues me simply because I did my undergrad degree in planning and Ballard’s description doesn’t exactly fulfill the urban sociology theories that were rammed down my throat for so many years about these kinds of residential developments. Architecturally, they lacked human scale, so perhaps it could be argued that these buildings caused people to behave in inhuman ways — but even that would be stretching it.

    Do you have a favourite Ballard?

  2. Over on this side of the pond, the high rise projects are being demolished. There was too much crime and the strongest ones preyed on the weakest and the good.

    Now, the new experiment is mixed development housing. Working and professional people and poor people on welfare. It’s the hope that the poor people will be encouraged to study or work to get out of poverty.

    Over here, we think of people in the UK as more civilized. It’s hard to picture them as behaving badly.

    Maybe it’s too many PBS shows with upper class people.

  3. I read a few Ballards a few years back and while ‘Empire of the Sun’ and its sequel ‘The Kindness of Women’ arent his most representative they were far more enjoyable to read than ‘Crash’ (although his introduction helped set a better perspective for the novel) or ‘Cocaine Nights’.

    I’ve heard good things about ‘Atrocity Exhibition’ and would like to try that.

  4. Yes jem, I stalled on Crash now I think of it. The Atrocity Exhibition is utterly bizarre and at the time was even more controversial than Crash, perhaps because of the famous piece in it titled “Why I Would Like to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (published in 1968, but predicting Reagan’s rise to presidency).

    Kimbofo, my favourite would probably be The Unlimited Dream Company, and to be honest there aren’t that many more I’d like to read. Since reading High-Rise I’ve looked through his catalogue and once I rule out all the ones similar to High-Rise and the dystopian ones (I gave up on The Drowned World too a few years ago) there aren’t many left.

    However I am reliably informed that when I read Empire of the Sun it will immediately become my favourite. I have a copy and am looking forward to it soon.

    The architecture points are interesting, k. and Isabel. I don’t know what Ballard is trying to say here, but if his later books are anything to go by, it’s not so much the tower block itself but the notion of the self-contained community to which he attributes the loss of social restraint. But then most of his books are about the effects of extreme settings (droughts, floods … er, motorway central reservations) on the human psyche. I suppose it’s just that I don’t see such gated communities as extreme. Still, Sherman McCoy lived in one in Bonfire of the Vanities and look what happened to him.

  5. You’re right about him hitting a rather repetitive off-patch, John. I’ve read all four of his recent books, each time hoping for something more original and each time finding the same old mix as before, not very well written either. He has a few brilliant insights into modern living and what makes people tick, but there’s a lot of empty padding in between. I really should learn my lesson and stop reading the new ones. But some of the old titles are dazzling flights of imagination as you say. I didn’t know about the prostate cancer – tragic news.

  6. >>> Still, Sherman McCoy lived in [a gated community] in Bonfire of the
    >>> Vanities and look what happened to him.

    He lives in an (late Victorian/Edwardian) apartment block with a concierge, as I recall it, which is an environment related to, but not the quite the same as a modern gated community.

    I didn’t particularly care for either “The Drowned World” or “The Crystal World” (I think) when I read them in the early 1990s, but I was very impressed by the Ballard short story in the astonishing Borges et al anthology “The Book of Fantasy” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Book_of_Fantasy) and prompted by the reading of his memoir on Radio 4 last week, I bought “The Atrocity Exhibition” on Friday.

  7. You’re quite right Paul, I was thinking about that after I posted it and realised I had got it wrong. I had been thinking in fact of the character in T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, a book which has superficial similarities to Bonfire, but was a bit earnest for my liking. Anyway, yes, it was him who lived in a gated community, terrified of the outside world, not McCoy.

    Ballard’s short stories keep coming up, so I will have to look them out – there’s one included in the appendices to High-Rise, presumably as a tempter to the otherwise rather daunting (even in two volumes) Collected Stories. Maybe that’s where the best of him lies.

    Yes Nick, the cancer is well advanced, and is the reason why Ballard decided to write his autobiography Miracles of Life. It’s dealt with in the last two – very moving – pages. Intend to read the other 300+ soon and report on it!

  8. The accessibility of Ballard’s work is one of the things I find most exciting about him. Unlike, say, Borges or Burroughs, Ballard has never been interested in obfuscation or trying to play games with the narrative. His early days as a sci-fi writer means he’s always presented even the wildest ideas in this beautiful, fuctional prose.

    The news of his illness is very sad indeed and I’m just about to start on Miracles of Life. I also like the fact he has remained a scrupulously moral writer, kind-hearted and generous, and his fear of a world where never believes in *anything* (not in a religious sense, but a moral one) seems more and more pertinent.

    I’d agree that the run of books from Cocaine Nights to Kingdom Come are a bit samey but there’s still great ideas in there, nonetheless.

  9. “Ballard’s short stories keep coming up, so I will have to look them out – there’s one included in the appendices to High-Rise, presumably as a tempter to the otherwise rather daunting (even in two volumes) Collected Stories. Maybe that’s where the best of him lies.”

    Which story is in the appendices to “High-Rise”? I have an earlier edition of the book that doesn’t contain any ‘extras’.

    The short stories are where Ballard shines. They are beautifully imaginative and some of them, e.g. “The Drowned Giant”, are nigh-on perfect.

  10. When I think of J G Ballard, it’s his early fantasy works that come to mind –
    The Drowned World (1962)
    The Drought (1964)
    The Crystal World (1966)

    Frankly, I think he made a mistake when he moved from sf-fantasy to mainstream.

  11. Thanks Gil. Maybe I should try some of his early stuff, the novels as well as the stories. I did get bogged down (swamped?) in The Drowned World a few years ago and never finished it, but one of the others might be worth a punt.

    Adr., the story in the new edition of High-Rise is ‘The Intensive Care Unit’ which I think is from the collection Myths of the Near Future. It also contains an interview with Ballard which also features in the new editions of the Cocaine Nights ‘series’.

    Gavin, yes, there are good ideas in there, but sometimes I wish he’d just given us the ideas and not bothered with the rest of the books!

  12. I really liked The Drowned World. It had a sort of psychogeographical nature to it that I think is a thread running through Ballard’s work. Wonderful imagery.

    Oddly enough, I also liked Kingdom Come. When I read it I hadn’t read any Ballard in an age and I was unaware he’d basically written the same novel four times in a row. I was working at Canary Wharf, and doing so made it vastly more resonant. Genuinely powerful.

    I would come out of the tube into a shopping centre, walk through underground tunnels into a lift that carried me above the city to my office, all without once stepping outdoors. At lunchtime I would go back out, into that shopping centre, as there was nowhere else to go. The novel seemed frankly prescient. As I read it, I seemed to be inhabiting it.

    Looking back, I’m grateful for that. I think the chance of the circumstances in which I read it made it much more enjoyable for me than many others.

    I’d missed this old review. I’m planning to read Concrete Island soon which is why this got my interest; High Rise may well follow that. I think there is some truth that his whole career (even the earlier purer sf works) he was grappling with the same themes. It may be a question of picking the titles that resonate most and reading those, rather than other similar titles.

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