“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.” – High Rise, Chapter One.
Every writer longs to at one point have their name become an adjective. The ability to reliably produce work that is simultaneously both sui generis and the sire of a legion of pale imitations is about as close to immortality as a writer can hope for. J.G. Ballard was able to reach this literary apotheosis, though much like Kafkaesque and Orwellian, Ballardian is not an upbeat descriptor. Defined by the Collins English Dictionary as “resembling or suggestive of…dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments”. High-Rise, released in 1975, came at a time when the author’s infamy was at an all-time high thanks to the release of Crash: a novel concerned with sexual potential of car crashes and one which is highly unlikely to ever be the subject for Book at Bedtime. High-Rise was a different beast, a nightmarish social satire which sees the well-to-do residents of a newly built high-rise regress into a level of primitive savagery that makes the wild boys of Lord of the Flies look like Rhodes Scholars.
Unlike Golding’s cautionary tale, Ballard eschews both morality and even conventional logic. Indeed, it presents a world where it seems absurd even to ask if doing something may be morally wrong or right. It’s even misleading to talk about a descent from civilisation; the people in Ballard’s book don’t really fall at all. There’s no gradual undoing of propriety as there is in Lord of the Flies. The residents of the tower block flash into action without hesitation. The tensions in the high-rise, which are predicated on such small factors as power outages, pool visitation rights and access to the children’s playground on the roof, stratifies the building into a vertical class system: those at the top are on top basically. The building itself seems to be emitting a malign psychic influence on the increasingly demented residents; each of whom slowly gain insurmountable aversions to the concept of leaving the building in any circumstances. Starvation preferable to the rules and structure of the outside world.
What is arguably most disturbing about High Rise (and indeed Ballard’s particular brand of dystopian fiction) is that the violent anarchy that subsumes its characters is not precipitated by any external calamities à la Mad Max or The Walking Dead. Indeed there are no zombies or nuclear holocausts or even any pulverizing poverty to attribute the ensuing societal collapse. Rather, the primal violence portrayed in High Rise and elsewhere in Ballard’s oeuvre comes purely from within, from a perceived fundamental hominid need to blow off steam through unrestrained barbarity.
Ballard’s detached wryly telegraphic style takes this technically absurd premise and makes it sing. There’s something in the way he writes this thoroughly nasty little parable that goes beyond mere perverse titillation into something more genuinely disturbing and oddly revelatory. Whilst no humans would ever act the way that Ballard’s characters do, there’s something in the manner which they “succumb to a logic more powerful than reason” that holds up a dark mirror to the isolating realities of the atomised world that the internet and push button conveniences have created. High-Rise’s excesses reflect that the modern world is more unhinged and illogical than we would like to admit. The novel’s spiky humour, outrageous satire and borderline dystopian horror might be deliberately alienating (if oddly compulsive), but Ballard’s warnings of the frailty of civilisation in the face of ever increasing technological saturation remain potent and striking.