Finished reading J. G. Ballard’s High Rise a day or so ago. The first Ballard I’ve read, I enjoyed it. Wanted to hash out some thoughts on style and thematic choices I saw throughout.
The choice of three central protagonists is a somewhat obvious one, given that each is pulled from one of the classes the luxury building reverts to, and allows for the exploration of the attendant space. I was a bit disappointed that the three “point-of-view” characters were all of them men, and that, furthermore, the sole homosexual character and most of the women received little agency, appearing more as stereotypes or caricatures than anything else. That said, I didn’t sense a disdain or malevolence on Ballard’s part – the choice fits the arc of the narrative, so I guess you have to take it as it is.
Though written in ’75, the story reads as a product of our own decade – aside from a few distinct absences, eg, the internet; mobiles, there isn’t really anything cultural or technological that can precisely tie the novel to its point of origin. I have the creeping suspicion that has less to do with any prescience on Ballard’s part and more to do with the rather dystopic cast our own world has taken on. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that, despite the onward march of digital tech, the same primary concerns have been bothering us for a while. This whole late-capitalism thing didn’t come out of the woodwork, so to speak.
Looking around now, with the various devastations in the periphery zones (Near East, Africa) and sharpening class antagonisms at home, Ballard’s cavalier description of rape, violence, and murder also hits on a true note. The characters of High Rise, as the society they have known falls apart around them, seem to take it all in stride, not jamming up or freezing with distress. There is a particular lightness to the delivery that belies the content. Recurrent allusions to a more primal way of life, a march backwards through class, tribalism, and finally barbarism to the origins of a new society may be what lies ahead for all of us, if not necessarily in the accelerated way portrayed here.
The desire, stressed throughout the story, to prevent any external tampering, to deal with the worsening situation in the building only internally, opens up room for the allegorical. I think it would be a mistake to push it too far, but the absence of any outside authority could symbolise the post-moral landscape we’ve found ourselves in as a species – we can’t, in good faith, anticipate anything like a god to intervene for us; we, like the tenants of the eponymous High Rise, have to sort it out ourselves. Of course, this reading is problematised by the fact that, unlike God, external authority in the form of the police actually shows up, but in the end is prevented from making any difference anyways. Then again, it may simply have been a rhetorical requirement – to open up the world of the high rise would have been to deflate the insularity so well established. In order to hang together, the narrative of the space couldn’t abide outsiders.
Ballard dances a subtle line, hinting at the architectural source of the moral degeneracy, but never so strongly as to starkly blame the building itself. It’s an effective way of building tension without kicking the story over into an outright magical realism or “weird fiction” genre. Everything that happens, happens naturally, within the bounds of physics, if at times supra-rationally. Suspension of disbelief is left untroubled.
If there is one issue I take with the novel, it is at times repetitious. Similar turns of phrase, similar lines of thought. To be fair though, given the limited geographical set of the story, this was likely inevitable.
On the whole though, good fun! I hope the up-coming film does the source material justice!