Reading J G Ballard’s High-Rise (1975) quickly put me in mind of Golding’s Lord of the Flies from 1954. The resemblance goes beyond mere dystopia. Both are about civilised man’s predilection to run wild when deprived of his creature comforts. For both Ballard and Golding, the veneer of social cooperation is tissue-thin.
I don’t want to labour the point because there are obvious differences between the books. Golding wafts his schoolboys off to a tropical island whereas Ballard maroons his adult male protagonists in a suburban London tower block. To begin with at least, both locations smack of the paradisiacal. But, just as Eden had its serpent, so Ballard’s suburbia houses an underlying menace:
The spectacular view always made Laing aware of his ambivalent feelings for this concrete landscape. Part of its appeal lay all too clearly in the fact that this was an environment built, not for man, but for man’s absence.... The cluster of auditorium roofs, curving roadway embankments and rectilinear curtain walling formed an intriguing medley of geometrics - less a habitable architecture, he reflected, than the unconscious diagram of a mysterious psychic event. [Ballard 1975: 34-5]
For me, massive high-rise developments bring to mind the disastrous social experiments of the 1960s in northern cities like Sheffield and Manchester. Streets of slums wiped away in favour of jerry-built slums in the sky. Ballard’s London high-rise is very different. This new-built development of a thousand apartments is for affluent buyers only; professionals at the very least (Laing, for example, is a lecturer at a medical school), preferably stockbrokers and above. It remains a social experiment, though. The size of the apartments, and naturally their cost, increases the higher up you go. The architect himself, Anthony Royal, occupies the penthouse. The utopian idea was for the residents at all level to come together in the communal areas like the shopping mall, the swimming pool, and the Royal’s rooftop sculpture garden. In practice, even as the last of the residents moves in, the middleclass has subdivided itself into three - lower, middle, and upper - and never shall the twentieth floor, let alone the ground floor, aspire to the fortieth. What was meant to be a single community has become an amalgam of a thousand islands.
These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed. [Ballard 1975: 46]
Royal has built himself a vertical kingdom, with courtiers and even courtesans. To be able to be the top of the pile means that someone must be at the bottom, and the lower orders always have the potential to become unruly.
In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology. [Ballard 1975: 47]
It begins with a fifteen-minute blackout on just three floors. Residents isolated on the tenth floor concourse stampede. Some are briefly marooned in the lift between floors. Somebody, for reasons unknown, drowns a dog in the communal swimming pool. From that point the veneer cracks, faultlines spreading from the centre like a spider’s web. Inhibitions slip, the garbage disposal shutes become clogged, people smear dog shit, parties run on for days, a man dies.
Class turns against class, floor against floor. People defend their territory to the death. No one leaves the high rise. No one calls the police. Their world turns in on itself, becomes self-contained.
The true light of the high-rise was the metallic flash of the polaroid camera, that intermittent radiation which recorded a moment of hoped-for violence for some later voyeuristic pleasure. [Ballard 1975: 133]
The second problem is the decision to quite crudely divide the protagonist into three, each character, in consequence, inevitably lacking. We have the sexual coward Laing, who shuts himself away when things fall apart, we have Royal the aesthete, the king without a crown, who again does nothing to protect his masterwork. Our third protagonist is Richard Wilder, a “thick-set, pugnacious man who had once been a professional rugby-league player.” Wilder is a TV producer, something of a maverick, who lives with his unnaturally passive wife and two young sons very low down on the pecking order on the second floor but aspires much, much higher. Wilder is a predator, a hunter-gatherer. Combined with Laing and Royal, Wilder makes up the complete man in Ballard’s imagination, possibly the man he himself aspired to be. When it all goes wrong in the high rise Laing and Royal hide away but Wilder goes hunting, his principal weapon a hand-held cine camera. Every other resident undergoes complete social meltdown; Wilder sets out to make a television documentary.
Wilder ends up a naked, painted savage. Royal dreams of flying away with the sea-birds that visit his rooftop garden. Laing lives with his sister in an ideal sexless marriage. In the end the contagion passes to the neighbouring high-rise. Laing, about to feast on spit-roasted dog, watches “contentedly, ready to welcome them to their new world.”
It’s a great dystopia, a thorough working out of Ballard’s thesis that “In the future, violence would clearly become a valuable form of social cement.” But we are now forty years on and violence has not become any sort of social cement. And so we are left with the question which must be asked of all dystopian novels which haven’t come to pass - does it work as literature? And in the case of High-Rise, given the flaws discussed above, the answer has to be Not Quite. It’s well worth reading though.