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The premise is great, the landscape is overwhelming, but the delivery chokes
on 25 March 2016
This is a great premise for a novel. The idea to explore the effects architecture has on the human spirit (or, conversely, the effects the human spirit has on architecture) is outstanding and visionary. Starting with a high rise building able to accommodate two thousand people in a thousand flats, Ballard sets out to explore the gradual dehumanization that emerges from such a setup. The mechanization of the residents is traced out, the emergence of factions, the three social classes, the alienation that makes the residents not care about those living more than two floors below them, and the envy people have for those living above them, everything is up for grabs. The immense burden placed by the tons and tons of concrete wrapped around these people, these humans in a human zoo, slowly turning into vicious animals, is explored with a mind that is very comfortable exploring the brutal and absurd in a social setup. Ballard is certainly on solid ground when writing this.
In addition, his story entails incredible foresight, predicting how everyone would be obsessed with recording on video everything they do. How they would become dependent on a building complex that catered for them. How alienated they would become from the outside world. Remember, this novel was published in 1975, written possibly earlier than that. Ballard has an uncanny insight on the human condition, on how technology and modernity impacts the human mind, predicting the future in peculiar ways. The story of the high rise is the story of modern and post-modern humanity, a society being cramped into ever smaller, mechanized constructs, losing touch with nature, with reality. Everything becoming a microcosm with rules of its own, leading back to a state of primitiveness, all moral codes deconstructed and twisted to fit an emerging jungle that not everyone will survive.
And yet, outstanding as the premise is, the novel fails to live up to its full potential. The writing is obsessed with the description of rubbish, which after page forty, becomes repetitive. How many times can you mention the garbage sacks and the debris and the washing machines thrown out in the corridors? After a while, they cease to serve a purpose, they clutter the story (ironic, isn't it?). And the story -- it goes nowhere after the first half. The best parts are given one third in, and the rest is more of the same -- people roaming through the trash, getting increasingly violent, one of them trying to ascend the building to assert himself, another trying to dominate the building, and a third trying to find his place in the middle. It's all very symbolic, potentially gripping, but it takes place on a backdrop that emphasizes the debris, not the psychology. We don't move from act 2 to act 3. The plot moves but the story doesn't, and neither do these characters, even when they push their way from room to room and floor to floor. They're stuck in this recycled reiteration of the nasty high rise and its trash and broken furniture, a loop that begins to tire the readers instead of haunting them.
The fix would have been easy. Cut a big bunch of the description and stick to the action, letting readers imagine the effect of going through this apocalyptic odyssey through a place laid to waste, a place so clearly established in the beginning. Let us feel the effect of the high rise rather than force-feed it to us.
5 stars for the premise, two for the execution, three stars overall.
PS - I hope the movie focuses on the surreal aspects of the story, on the raw emotions, leaving the trash to serve as props and art design. When you start with a dalmatian dog being roasted on the spit on a balcony, and people are throwing stuff out their windows without giving a crap about what happens to those below them, everything goes. This could be a hell of a movie.