My first encounter with J. G. Ballard wasn’t with a Ballard novel. It was through music that has been described at various times as ‘Ballardian’. This amounts to synthesizer and noise experimentalists whose anti-music was redolent of the industrial wastelands that arose in the UK at the end of the 1970s: The Normal, Throbbing Gristle, and Cabaret Voltaire. So even though the images of brutalist architecture, supermarket trolleys in canals, and urban decay were familiar, none of that familiarity spoiled High-Rise.
High-Rise documents the lives of the well-heeled residents of a newly built luxury tower block in an unnamed city in Britain in, presumably from the original publishing date, the early 1970s. It starts with the main protagonist, a new resident, eating a dog, and then spends the remainder describing how things came to this. The plot largely revolves around people’s lives – professional, personal, physical – breaking down into insanitary conditions, warring factions, rowdy parties, and a lessening connection with the world outside. It is, then, what you might call a mixture of lock-in and hate-in. All the while a hope pervades these becoming-animals to seize flats higher up the block in an obvious though nonetheless amusing and mixed metaphor. Asocial climbing, if it can be called that – a materially destructive and wasteful class-war. The uncollected garbage heaps in the book bring back a 1970s Britain that was choked by extremes of industrial action by workers that paradoxically sought better living standards.
My familiarity with the themes (and a partial read of the bizarre The Atrocity Exhibition many years ago) meant that the read-through of the first few pages made instant sense. The unrelenting concentration of its dystopian language therefore makes this a must-read for anyone who wants to fill gaps in their post-punk knowledge. For some, the unbridled pessimism will even be hilarious. Not a book though for anyone looking for a plot that conveniently illustrates a moral or says ‘at least’ in some way.
I got my copy for £1 from a charity shop. It’s unusual to see this novel secondhand, but Ballard’s novels do seem to come up from time to time, and they can be in excellent condition like mine. Since reading High-Rise, I’m now looking forward to reading Super-Cannes.
Excerpt from page 29:
Watching from Charlotte’s balcony, Laing waited as the first of these incidents took place. Standing there with a pretty woman, a drink in one hand, he felt pleasantly light-headed. Below them, on the 9th floor, a children’s party was in full swing. The parents made no attempt to restrain their offspring, in effect urging them to make as much noise as possible. Within half an hour, fuelled by a constant flow of alcohol, the parents took over from their children. Charlotte laughed openly as soft drinks were poured on to the cars below, drenching the windscreens and roofs of the expensive limousines and sports saloons in the front ranks. These lively proceedings were watched by hundreds of residents who had come out on to their balconies. Playing up to their audience, the parents egged on their children. The party was soon out of control. Drunken children tottered about helplessly. High above them, on the 37th floor, a woman barrister began to shout angrily, outraged by the damage to her open-topped sports-car, whose black leather seats were covered with melting ice-cream.
A pleasant carnival atmosphere reigned. At least it made a change, Laing felt, from the formal behaviour of the high-rise. Despite themselves, he and Charlotte joined in the laughter and applause as if they were spectators at an impromptu amateur circus.