I’m finding it’s good to read a J. G. Ballard novel every few years. More frequently might not be healthy, but thoughtfully dispersed they offer a dazzling view into a disturbingly recognisable world that throws everything else into the shade. After reading ‘The Empire of the Sun,’ I really got the impression that Ballard knows he’s probably the only person who thinks and feels the way he does, but he still wants to share his demented priorities and passions. All he asks is that his readers suspend their disbelief; the fact is that his obsessive, destructive characters may not resemble anyone I know, but they do seem to reflect the reality of their creator and so feel frighteningly realistic, even as they … well, you really have to read the books to find out exactly what they do but it’s pretty grim, societally unacceptable and almost certainly extremely unhygienic.
With ‘High Rise’ he throws you into this world from the wonderful first sentence: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Lang reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.‘ It feel like a statement of intent; the Hollywood rule is that you can do what you like to men (and certainly to women), but you must never alienate your audience by killing the dog. Ballard is having none of it.
In fact, a different dog is involved in the first mysterious violent event we learn of, near the start of the three months which take the tower block from aspirational community to apocalyptic hell hole. It turns out that when man’s base instincts are unleashed the last thing he needs is a best friend. Then again, the power dynamics of conventional relationships are presented throughout the novel as factors that will either shatter or sustain the survivors of this destructive experiment in modern living.
Although surrounded by death, it is the exploration of life that permeates the novel, as violence permeates the claustrophobic setting. Life as a communal activity, life as an individual’s fight for survival, the inner psychological life and the ways in which life cannot be quantified or contained. Throughout the book, the high rise itself seems to be alive, exerting terrible pressure on its captive inhabitants, simultaneously attractive and repulsive. (It’s one of those Ballard things. Reading the book, I found nothing attractive about the tower, but the inhabitants themselves are clearly seduced, unable to leave and increasingly caught in a dependent, destructive relationship with the physical structure itself. Imagine Jack Torrance in ‘The Shining’, without any ghosts or history, but also without the snow to offer any excuse for staying.)
The book is short and the premise simple. The inhabitants of a modern, self-contained building start to go through their own stages of societal evolution, or devolution, depending on your point of view. As the title demands, there are layers to the story. I read somewhere that the three main male characters embody different levels of the psyche, with the building’s penthouse-dwelling architect as the superego, the brutal, unstable documentary film-maker who originally lives in the lower levels as the id and the dog-eating Dr Lang as the ego. It’s an intriguing interpretation and a testament to Ballard’s craft that it really doesn’t cover half of the weirdness of his novel. And if you’re wondering what role women play in this model, like I say, you have to read the book. Just be aware that its very Freudian and very disturbing (or possibly not Freudian at all, but still disturbing. Like I said, there are layers).
I wouldn’t want to stay for too long in a J G Ballard novel, but they really are invigorating places to visit. After a long bath, a lot of fresh air and a decent amount of exposure to the more normal world, I’m looking forward to venturing further into the works of one of the most original writers of the last century.