After watching HIGH-RISE, I became interested in reading the novel by JG Ballard. While I enjoyed the movie, the novel was much more coherent and didn’t suffer from the lack of a strong throughline. Both stuck with me after finishing them.
HIGH-RISE documents the rapid decline of an ambitious 40-story London high-rise designed with 1,000 apartments and numerous services, including pools, gyms, schools, stores, and supermarkets. The story focuses on three men–Dr. Robert Laing, a divorcee living in the middle floors, Anthony Royal, an upper crust architect who’d designed the tower and now lives in relative luxury on the top floors, and Richard Wilder, a TV documentary journalist who lives in the lower floors. The residents are offered an autonomous environment where they need never leave, and indeed as time goes on they become increasingly isolated from the outside world.
While the building is designed to cater to their every need, it’s clear the residents are rats packed in a cage. Petty frictions and subconscious anger over noise, children, animals, elevators, parking spaces, and later electricity outages splinter the building into three groups–top, middle and bottom–which act out in petty acts of sabotage that escalate into organized violence amid a great deal of partying and rising collective madness. Laing, Royal, and Wilder all find themselves giving in to their basest impulses and embracing their inner animal, joining in the tribalism, depravity, and violence. As the groups exhaust themselves, all groupings break down until it’s virtually every person for themselves, and the residents survive (or not) on a virtually animal level. They’re suffering, but they’re fully alive, and they remain obedient to a strange but consistent logic that they must see it through to the end.
I often have a love-meh relationship with Ballard’s work. In so many ways, he’s brilliant, but his characters are often detached, acting as passive observers to incredible destruction or decline. In this novel, the characters are full willing participants in the mayhem, asking the reader to join them in the fun. HIGH-RISE is one hell of an engaging story, read with voyeuristic excitement, and with a strong theme that civilization is a thin veneer on humanity’s animal past. Ballard suffered as a child in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai in WW2, and was highly impressed by how a sudden world-ending event so quickly transformed the people he knew and how they lived and behaved.
HIGH-RISE is a short read, full of interesting ideas, and fascinating in its execution. Recommended.