Thursday, September 03, 2009

book review - High Rise - JG Ballard

“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.”

There is something horrendously real about High Rise. Perhaps it is because the sort of place that Ballard was describing with some sort of prophetic vision now dominates the skyline of the capital. The large tower blocks that are meant to be worlds in themselves with pools, gyms and essential supplies are now the sorts of places that litter the banks of the Thames and docklands. It was perhaps with Docklands firmly in mind that I pictured the events described in this disturbing book unfold.

If you had to recommend a starting place to anyone wanting to find out what Ballard was all about then this would be a very good one.

It encapsulates all that he was writing about. What would happen to normal people when their lives were pushed into some sort of cauldron? How would it look as society breaks down? He works with a canvas of a 40 storey tower block. But within the block there are different strata of society split by their height from the ground, with those at the top being the richest and most influential. The main character Dr Laing is based on the 25th floor providing a balanced view of the slide into chaos.

Once things start to fall apart the world of the high rise becomes sealed off and the move into violence, cannibalism and complete barbarity I not too long following. What Ballard manages to do is make it all seem relatively believable. It is of course looking at life in a mirror that is warped but it never becomes too strange to make it seem as if it could never happen.

It is that sense that given the right conditions that this sort of thing might happen, which is the key. Ballard takes relatively innocuous objects like lifts, car parking spaces and balcony views and turns them into something dangerous and significant. There are clearly losers in the collapse of social order in the high rise but it is hard to see who the victors are. By the end those who stay in the building have entered into some collective madness that would make it hard to claw back from.

But where Ballard is particularly chilling is in the idea that what you assume is happening in an isolated pocket of madness could in fact be a scenario being played out across the world. Some of his other books do make things a worldwide phenomenon like the drought but here it is the sense that no one really knows what is happening in or outside the high rise that is so disconcerting.

As an introduction to Ballard’s particular themes of the influence on social order of man made technology this is a very good starting point that cannot be recommended highly enough. It is a story with a start, middle and an end but the haunting images of the high rise play out in your mind long after you have finished the book.

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