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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.
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on 1 October 2012
This is an excellent, disturbing and visionary novel which shows Ballard on absolute top form. The residents of a tower block - the `High Rise' of the title' - find that within the building's confines, society begins to crumble and their notion of humanity becomes more and more feral. At the beginning this takes the form of petty disputes, but soon the residents of each floor form themselves into packs and battle for control of the lifts and stairwells, and even launch raids onto other levels. Amazingly some residents still go out to work in the real world each morning, sprucing themselves up and leaving within periods of pre-arranged amnesty, but they're back before dark to enjoy the rampages and wildness of this vertical, concrete jungle. From the opening page, where a man roasts an Alsatian over telephone directories on an apartment balcony, Ballard creates a compulsive dystopia.

In a way it's a novel about class, but not in the traditional British sense - here every character is middle class and professional. (In fact numerous nameless characters are introduced, the only thing we get to know about them is their job title - "airline pilot", "accountant", "TV director".) Rather than Upper Class, Middle Class and Working Class; the high flyers occupy the top floors, the upwardly mobile own the middle while the lower middle class find themselves jammed into the bottom of the building. When battle comes it's between these distinct social strata. (Wilder, one of the characters from the lower floors, spends most of the book trying to ascend the levels, as if his destiny awaits at the top of the social order.) However, even these demarcations start to break down, and what emerges is a new society, one that is chaotic and wild and violent, but with its members bound together tighter than they've ever been before.

With a fantastic internal logic which makes every incredible event seem real, this is rich, powerful and even sometimes moving novel. I've often thought it was amusingly curious that after `The Empire of the Sun' came out, those for whom it was a pleasing introduction to Ballard would have looked for his next best known novel and come to a little thing called `Crash'. After Spielberg-friendly drama, descriptions of twisted metal suffused with semen must have raised some eyebrows. I'm a big fan of `Crash', but think that `High Rise' is just as good and would serve as a far more accessible introduction to all the brilliant weirdness Ballard was capable of.
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"High Rise" begins with the observations of Robert Laing, a medical man and academic living in a select apartment block, who watches the community around him regress back to a hunter-gatherer culture. His name clearly alludes to the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, who wondered in the 1950s and 60s if mental illness might be traced to family and community dysfunction, not necessarily to physically-based causes (see The Divided Self). Indeed, the entire narrative that quickly unfolds in "High Rise" is a fantasy apparently based on certain theories associated with Laing.

Clearly, there are some weighty ideas underpinning Ballard's book.

The novel is about three men who live on three different floors of the tower block - one low, another in the middle, another in the penthouse - each thereby representing a position in the tri-level internal social structure of the inhabitants. Besides Laing on the 25th floor, the story follows the experiences of a muscular former sportsman (now TV producer) from the 3rd floor who works his way up the building named "Wilder" (suggestions of a wild man and survivor), and the architect who tries to rule and control the building from his penthouse named "Royal" (overtones of royalty and kingship).

As well as alluding to Laing's theories, the figure of Royal is a dreamer along the lines of the influential modern architect Le Corbusier: because Royal likewise sees architecture as a way to regulating people, a physical means for social engineering. His plan is to have his high rise building run as an oligarchy, with the people on the privileged upper five floors in charge. (Shades of Plato's Republic here?) But it doesn't pan out that way.

Nowhere in Ballard's book is the visual style of the high rise building described, although the author is clearly refering throughout to the debates centering on Brutalist architecture movement of the 1950s to 70s. This was a blocky functionalist style of urban architecture associated with residential towers and civic centres, which (inspired by Le Corbusier's "Unite de Habitation" tower in Marseilles), aspired to develop new lifestyles for residents. However, as in Ballard's book, most Brutalist residential projects were prone to rapid urban decay, with festering social problems, including rising crime rates and the emergence of gang violence.

Brutalism's defenders argued that the problems were mostly class based, Brutalism being associated with Council Housing projects. But Ballard's book, which fills the building with professional occupants and their families, suggests that the Brutalist social experiment will result in decay irrespective of class and privilege.

This is very much a men's book. It is not just about the disintegration of society. It is about the three men, narrating events from their viewpoint, and while women and children are involved in these events, their own perspective on the disaster that unfolds is not presented. What we get instead is the men telling you what they assume the women and children think and feel. This raises an obvious weakness - women wouldn't be as passive and compliant as they are depicted. Would the feminists in the building become sex slaves without a fight? And history shows that young people adapt quickly to these hostile situations, forming themselves into feral gangs. The story may have been better if a youth gang was included.

Other readers compare Ballard's book to Lord of the Flies, but there is a stronger connection with the 1970 French film "Themrock", where a Parisian man turns his flat into a cave and starts to live as a neanderthal cannibal. (The Luis Bunuel film "The Exterminating Angel" is another potential source.)

This is the first Ballard book I've read and I am impressed that he engages with serious ideas here. As dystopian fiction goes, this should probably be bracketed with Zamyatin's classic We and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I get the impression from other readers' comments that many are treating this book as an escapist fantasy, but its more thought-provoking and relevant to debates about urban development.
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on 12 July 2000
I have just finished reading High Rise, JG Ballard's surreal and chilling study of social degeneration within the walls of a 40 storey apartment block populated by an ascendant order of professional classes. The novel makes for compulsive reading as Ballard propels his complicit characters through an apocalyptic gallop towards their primordial origins. The author fills the margins of his fiction with the accumalitive waste of modern existence, and its encroachment is so powerful that the reader can almost smell the rotting garbage and faecal climate of this surrealist tower block. The intoxicating violence and the strange allure of a human community radically re-ordering itself somewhere outside of the technological frontier make this a must for committed Ballard fans and new readers alike.
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on 24 March 2016
There is a great tradition of satire in English letters, from Swift to Orwell. Ballard is a worthy successor to these gentlemen. It was Orwell who pointed out that he was “lower-upper-middle class”. Ballard takes these subtle intra-class distinctions and gives us Lord of the Flies among the professional classes in 1970s London.
The setting is a brand new, brilliantly architected high-rise residential building on the outskirts of central London. I could not stop myself from seeing Canary Wharf in my head, but it could just as easily be Battersea or Vauxhall. The building is the first of its kind, but several more are being built around a central lake.
The selling point of the building is that the middle-class tenants will inhabit a self-contained universe with everything they need laid on inside the building - shops, sports facilities, schools, etc. They have no need to go outside except to go to their well-paid jobs, which they do securely insulated in their cars parked at the foot of the high-rise.
There are two shopping malls in the building, on the 10th and 35th floors. These malls provide points of social inflexion between the tenants. The floors below the 10th floor are inhabited by younger, less senior middle and line managers, TV producers, air hostesses, etc. Being younger, most of the children in the building live at these levels. On the top five floors live a slightly older, more mature group of wealthy jewellers, surgeons, actresses and senior professionals, including the architect of the building. All that is missing here are the investment bankers and hedge fund managers, but this is 1975, eleven years before Big Bang in the City. In between live a layer of middle managers, stock jobbers, tax accountants and dentists.
Things go wrong in the building infrastructure; there are teething problems. All too quickly the social order breaks down as the three groups of tenants start to resent each other. The children from the lower floors are banned from the upper floors, including from their schools and the playground built specially for them on the top floor. The dogs from the upper floors are terrorised in return. People throw rubbish and empty bottles onto the verandas and parked cars below.
This is the genius of the book. Everyone in the building is a member of the professional classes and yet they still manage to find social distinctions enough to divide themselves into competing tribes. Soon it is every man for himself, as we follow the activities of a representative of each of the social strata – a homicidal social climbing (literally) former professional rugby player now TV producer, a physiology lecturer and the architect himself.
The problem with the book is that there is not really enough plot to last the full 270 pages, so it does become a little repetitive. Nevertheless the satire is deadly and, although the book is set in the 1970s when brutalist architecture was at its height, it is still relevant today.
In fact I would argue that it has become even more relevant today. Since Thatcherism and Reaganomics and the Big Bang in the 1980s, the upper-upper-middle have got richer and richer, while the rest of the middle classes have stood still or gone backwards. There may yet be hell to pay for this and do not just mean Donald Trump, UKIP and other political fringes. There is also the Boris Johnson inspired boom in high rise luxury apartments in London (I can see all the cranes out of my window as I type this.), most of which are currently being bought by foreigners as an investment. When this investment proves to be a sham and property prices collapse, there will be ugly partially occupied middle class slums all over London. Who knows what will go on in the corridors and lift shafts of these model homes? Who knows what teething problems these buildings will present to the brave few who actually move into these speculative rush-jobs?
Read the book. Go see the film. Or stick around in London and wait for the real thing. Four stars for Mr Ballard for prescience.
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on 14 March 2016
I read this a few years back and wanted to revisit it before the film is released, as I always find that films never quite live up to their literary counterparts. I'm glad I did. This is such a visionary, dark and compelling novel that delves deep into the human psyche - and that of the idea of 'group morality' in a jarring, disturbing yet gripping way.

The story focuses around Dr Robert Laing, a smooth, self-contained doctor who moves into a stylish, futuristic, self-contained high rise tower block after his divorce. Although sparkling, modern and glamorous on the outside, the High Rise soon reveals a darker nature - petty disputes break out over elevators, intermittent black outs cause bouts of violence among the residents of the lower floors and the upper floors and soon, a new societal order starts to form.

There's a distinct Lord of the Flies quality to what happens next - as the disputes become more heated and an air of barely repressed violence hangs over the high rise, floors of the tower form packs or clans and battle each other for control of the tower, even attacking other residents who aren't part of their floor and raiding flats on the upper levels. All the while, residents continue to attend work and other outside commitments without giving away any sign of what's going on inside the High Rise, actively concealing it even when a suspected murder takes place.

As conditions inside the High Rise deteriorate at alarming speed, there are incidents aplenty and eventually, life inside the High Rise becomes the sole focus and all consuming interest of its many residents. The book breaks down into three perspectives - that of Anthony Royal, the 'head' of the building and the architect who created it, Robert Laing and his descent from established, respected doctor to High Rise bandit and Richard Wilder, a documentary maker from the lower floor who is determined to reach the top of the tower and sees it as his 'Everest'.

I won't give anything else away but will say this - primarily a novel about class, it's rich with symbolism and beautifully worded dialogue. The inner monologues of the main characters go a long way in making the insane logic that the residents of the high rise seem to adopt en masse and I'm unsure how the film will capture this. This tale also has the best opening line ever that perfectly sums up the dark, twisting ride ahead that will end on a note that makes the fantastically abnormal seem surprisingly acceptable.
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on 13 April 2016
It would be easy to attack this book, to say it's unrealistic, that the characters do not feel rounded, and that not a great deal happens. To do so, however, would be missing the point.

As populations boom and cities grow across the globe people inevitably live closer together. Close proximity and rear window moments (as Hitchcock captured so well) are the stuff of existence from inner city housing estates in Chicago and London to slums in South Africa and shanty towns in Brazil.

What happens when a lot of people are shoved into a small space? What happens, in particular, if people decide that this is the way they want to live out of choice? (Though for most in the real world, choice does not come into it).

Step forward Ballard and this ideas-based book, first published in 1975 - at a time when tower blocks were shooting up in cities worldwide to help solve overpopulation. High-Rise teases out the effects that this environment (the inhuman tower block) has on the humans within it.

Regimentation and the disconnect with life on the ground spins into alcohol and drug addiction, amoral sexuality, random violence, chronic status anxiety and curiously impersonal behaviour. As Ballard puts it: "A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressure of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine in the neutral atmosphere."

Ballard obviously takes this to extremes to drive home his points - and one senses a mischievous humour as he lets life in the tower unravel. He's clearly having fun when he's writing this, as well as pointing two fingers at governments of the day who thought this system of human organisation was the way forward.

It has since proven not to be, yet as the world's population continues to soar, closer living - often in such blocks - is a fact of life. Just think of the pressures of life in London or New York. Move into the suburbs or beyond for something close to "normality" - a house with a garden - and you are then faced with whacking commuter transport costs. So the choice to live in the city in an apartment - especially those pitched as offering a somehow "sophisticated" lifestyle - is tempting.

And, yes, some people are selecting apartment living even when other options are available. The tower block has an allure - a packaged 'personality' (delivered on the signing of the mortgage paper). Welcome to your yuppie apartment... you're moving up in the world (literally).

Ballard is not - as he said in interviews - interested in characterisation. He is interested in social situations and the psychological effects of those situations on people.

As he does with a different set of circumstances in The Drowned World, his dystopian vision of a flooded planet once the ice caps have melted, Ballard plays with these ideas - how the environment affects psychologies.

Ballard is a master of this. High-Rise delivers.
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I haven’t read this book in years, but seeing as a film of it is coming out I thought it was about time I reacquainted myself with the story. First published in 1975 this isn’t as controversial like ‘Crash’, which was published a couple of years before, and personally I would say that this novel isn’t as well written.

In part of a new development of luxury apartments in a high rise block this is something that especially where I am in South London, are becoming more common as old office tower blocks are converted into living spaces. As with his later more famous novels that dealt with gated communities this you can clearly see was a forerunner for them as the same sort of issues are observed. Even in the first paragraph of this book we are told that things are now back to normal, although as we see Dr Laing is crouched on his balcony, a pile of telephone directories being used as a fire, and roasting a dog.

Taking place over a span of about three months we see how this new building which as well as apartments has a supermarket, school and swimming pools becomes a battle ground. It starts off with little things, petty squabbles, a few nuisances, and some teething problems with the building, but this soon escalates. Told through what three men experience in the main this does make this a bit sparse and thus a building that is fully occupied doesn’t feel like it here.

Although an interesting read this does have a number of problems, as although there is violence and sexual needs and desires this isn’t really how you would expect a large building falling into anarchy would be. You would expect more violence and so on, as well as people just leaving, but a lot of this doesn’t really happen and no suitable explanation is ever given. As we read here the first differentiation between people is where they are placed in the building, with obviously the richer at the top, but then this changes into something much more tribal, such as ‘Lord of the Flies’, albeit with adults.

In all this does make for an interesting read, but there are a number of problems throughout this that will make you question some events. Despite that this does make for a good read and is full of ideas.
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on 16 September 2015
Fantastic. A dark and beautifully drawn portrait of the slide in humanity within a self contained concrete palace. This dystopian future is typically well observed in the way perhaps only Ballard can. What I adored was the creation of enclave within the High Rise. The inhabitants being so invested in their place there that they remain, even in the face of death and squalor. The degeneration is both repellent and fascinating; and this is a book that I think will stay with me forever.
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on 7 April 2016
In the early days of London's Docklands, the architect had designed a tower intended to be a self-contained community. With its supermarket, gymnasia and schools, it should have satisfied the domestic demands of all its residents, so that they need only leave it to work. Inside it developed a lifestyle of hedonism. Like an Edinburgh tenement, however, it was designed on the principle that the rich and privileged lived at the top, the plebs at the bottom. It was poorly built, too, and when the lights and services began to fail, the people at each level blamed another level. Freedom became anarchy, hedonism violence, and eventually civilisation broke down. Ballard's grim fable is not so much dystopian as misanthropic. Viscerally so. But Ballard is not a novelist in the classic mould: he tells rather than showing, and creates neither convincing characters nor dialogue. This is a long short story, and the faster you read it, the better.
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