High-Rise by J.G. Ballard

Toby Frost

Well-Known Member
Jan 22, 2008
Two thousand middle-class professionals live in a custom-made block of luxury apartments. Despite their privileged circumstances – or perhaps because of them – psychosis sets in. Minor incidents over power failures and elevator use become violent. Parties turn into orgies and riots. Soon nobody leaves the building by a kind of unspoken mutual agreement, and the inhabitants regress, first into gangs and tribalism, and finally into complete savagery.

For a lot of his late career, J.G. Ballard seemed to write the same book over and over again: the same basic arguments come up in Cocaine Nights, Super Cannes, Millenium People and arguably Running Wild without a lot of variation. However, this is perhaps his best attempt to make that point. The high rise is the opposite of Gormenghast Castle: where the castle’s ancient stone forces people into ritual and conformity, the high-rise’s modern architecture and individual-centred living allows them to go berserk. The novel deals with three characters, representing the (comparative) working, middle and upper classes of the high-rise, and their dreams of gaining, acquiescing to and retaining power. (Interestingly, they are all men. Ballard hints at a different – and perhaps even worse – form of tribalism emerging among the women residents).

Perhaps I am getting soft, but High-Rise is pretty grim at points, as much as anything I’ve seen Stephen King or George R R Martin come up with. Perhaps this is because its horrors are exaggerations of things we all know, rather than full-scale disembowelments. There are no vampires and branding irons here, just vicious beatings and broken toilets. Or perhaps it is the calm, steely way in which Ballard charts the degradation of the high rise: Ballard’s cold prose and the lack of an obvious hero give the impression of an experiment being described as much as a story being told. It’s occasionally grimly amusing, especially in the way that some of the inhabitants cling to petty remnants of their middle-class lives whilst trying to slaughter their neighbours (one eats a dog later on, but remembers to season it first). Ballard was writing this in 1975, but it still feels “right”, even without the iphones and Nigella cookbooks: imagine beating someone to death with a bottle of balsamic vinegar and then devouring them with blueberries and Prosecco, and you have the right idea.

High-Rise is not a work of realistic fiction. Not only do respectable middle-class professionals murder one another at the drop of a hat without police intervention, but they can even afford to buy flats in London. It reminds me of The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons, where an ultra-modern haunted house reflects the fears of its inhabitants, and The Lord of the Flies by William Golding (it may also have partly inspired the computer game Bioshock and Games Workshop’s wargame Necromunda). However, there is nothing overtly supernatural or futuristic in High-Rise. For all its violence and obvious impossibility, it works according to its own strange rules. Perhaps it’s best seen as a kind of surreal semi-satire: not exactly a warning, but a realistic concept taken to its logical, crazy extreme.

Would I recommend it? Definitely, if you've got a strong stomach and aren't expecting a very happy ending. "Going up in the world" will never be the same again.
I must get this. I read Ballard's Vermillion Sands years ago and instantly fell in love with his ability to weave stories of completely normal and very modern people into totally surreal landscapes and still have them be eminently believable
For a lot of his late career, J.G. Ballard seemed to write the same book over and over again: the same basic arguments come up in Cocaine Nights, Super Cannes, Millenium People and arguably Running Wild without a lot of variation. However, this is perhaps his best attempt to make that point.

Agreed. Something about the premise of the high-rise makes this a more clearly allegorical, if horrific examination of human nature. The layout of the building, with its hierarchy of floors. The enclosed environment. In some of his other books, I get the feeling Ballard is doing little more than indulging in egregious misanthropy. High Rise is certainly misanthropic, but it's also more than that. Of the five Ballard novels I've read, I'd agree that High Rise is the essential one.
My main issue with Ballard, apart from his making almost exactly the same point in a number of books, is this: in High-Rise and others, he seems to be saying that even respectable, civilised people have a deep, secret attraction to chaos. This seems pretty obvious, when you consider that most computer games simulate violence in some way and that one of the stock figures of romance is the angry, sulky bad boy. But nobody really wants to be dropped into the Normandy landings or to date a sullen thug. So what is Ballard saying that's new?

I think is has to be that his characters don't want a simulation: they want the real thing. That's why the inhabitants of the high-rise really kill and rape one another and don't just pretend to. But at that point, I think Ballard's wrong, at least usually wrong. Otherwise, every queue would turn into a brawl. Life would be like 28 Days Later. So, I think he must be arguing that that urge for chaos only comes out in the right circumstances. The high-rise convincingly provides those circumstances (in the story). The other books, to my mind, don't provide those circumstances convincingly enough.

While High-Rise is a very good book, I think Ballard was much better as a short story writer.
I didn't see this review when it was posted, but it's a great review and makes me want to seek it out. I love Ballards short fiction and should tackle some of his novels.
I haven't read the book, but I just saw the film on an aeroplane journey. It is a bit bleak and offers little hope. The film is still set in the mid-seventies and really had that "Abigail's Party" feel about it. I think the film is only "based" upon the book though. It makes more of the satire and class struggles between the lower and upper floors, with the architect himself living in the penthouse.
That actually sounds like a pretty faithful adaptation! Strange film to show on an aeroplane flight, but I can think of more inappropriate Ballard adaptations, at least in terms of title. I was interested to see that the film kept the 1970s look, very deliberately. Much like the recent computer game of Alien, that ties it (in my mind) into what was a very good decade for new and strange SF. However, it could give it a rather kitsch quality. I always imagined it being set right now, and being very immediate. After all, it's concept seems pretty relevant today.

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