Tuesday, 8 July 2014

High-Rise - J.G. Ballard

Title: High-Rise
Author: J.G. Ballard
Genre: Science Fiction
Published: 1975
Formats: Hardback/Paperback/Ebook

Available at:
The Book Depository
Amazon UK

“High-Rise” by J.G. Ballard is a dystopian novel written in the 1970s which details the collapse of society within a forty storey tower block. The plot follows three different people within the block who each live on different floors, one low, one in the middle and one in the penthouse. Each of these people represents a different level within the social structure of the inhabitants which is linked into how high up they live within the tower block. This fully self-contained community soon begins to fracture as resentments and irritations between different groups boil to the surface resulting in vandalism, abuse and violence.

The first thing that struck about this novel is that it has an incredibly memorable first line:

“Later, as he sat on the balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous months.”

Starting a novel with a scene from the latter portion of the plot like this isn’t new but the way in which Ballard did it left me re-reading the line a few times just to make sure I hadn’t miss-read it. In the end this, section regarding the dog was actually quite mild compared to what was to come with rape, murder and violence clearly present. It really did feel like a misanthrope’s dream which I have to admit can at times make this a tough read as it is hard to really like anyone at all.

However, Ballard’s writing was good enough to keep me reading as I could really see the garbage strewn rooms of the tower block and hear the sounds echoing down the corridors. The violence of the situations are also not just pure brute descriptions, there are some rather chilling moments which are expertly written such as one of the roof involving cannibalism.

One aspect of the story which struck me as being a weakness is that the three people whose perspectives we get are all men. Yes, women are involved in the story but their own thoughts, views or ideas are left unclarified. I think the novel would have been greatly enhanced by at least getting part of the story told from a feminine viewpoint.

I think my biggest issue with the novel however is that I just couldn’t believe that groups of intelligent, professional adults could descend into tribal chaos when the wider world is perfectly normal and still available to them. If there had been some sort of cataclysmic event or they were stranded somewhere then fine, but in this case people just need to leave the building to return to the regular society in which they have been treated well.

Maybe Ballard was just trying to find a way to create an allegorical look at modern urban development and its effect of society. Either way, it had me thinking about it and comparing his tower block with the rapid urban decay and social problems that ended up plaguing the UK’s real tower blocks. So on that front the novel works, but it would have been nice to also give me a plot that I could actually believe in.

Overall, whilst I found the book to be well written and interesting in how it looks at urban society I just struggled to suspend my disbelief in regards to the plot.


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