Review: High-Rise by J.G. Ballard (1975)


I read this book for my lifetime challenge: Year 1975

Well that was interesting. This book is on the “1001 Books to Read Before You Die” list and the blurb had me curious. It’s described as “Lord of the Flies for adults”, in which life in a high rise breaks down and the tenants begin to attack each other based on social strata (here social strata= the higher up in the high rise you live, the higher your social standing). I like thrillers and horror novels, and this isn’t a long book, so I thought I’d give it a try.

This is not a thriller or a horror novel. Those plot is thin, the ramblings more existential, and, most of all, there’s no logic to it what happens. However, I did enjoy it. Review under the cut.

The hardest thing for me to get past was the lack of inciting incident. If this were a thriller, you’d expect there to be some sort of power outage, terrorist attack, or maybe an illness that quarantines the high rise, and that forced entombment causes the “Lord of the Flies” chaos to ensue. Ala the Towering Inferno perhaps.

But there’s nothing like that. When things start to go south in the high rise, it’s for no particular reason. The tenants still go to work every day and come home again and then weird little riots begin to happen at night and get worse. Eventually people stop leaving the building, but nothing is preventing them from doing so. Even at the end, when the place is filled with the dead and garbage and there’s no food, the characters don’t just leave. (This is unlike the island scenario of “Lord of the Flies”, where the boys are stranded.) Ballard justifies this by having his characters go off the rails so that they are first fascinated by, and then compelled by, life in the high rise and they basically forget the outside world.

Speaking of logic, towards the end, you would expect the police or family members to show up to check on the high rise (they do early on, and are reassured and sent away, but not at the end, which is inconsistent). The orderly part of my brain had trouble with these aspects of the story. However (breathe), this story is more of a metaphor or thought-exercise, one supposes. And perhaps the point is that it’s the character’s choice to be part of this. In any case, don’t expect to find logic and realism in this story.

Now on to the meat of the happenings in the high rise (so to speak). We see the action from the POV of three different men. The architect, Royal (hint hint), lives in the penthouse and is king of the hill but physically frail. The second man, Wilder (hint hint), is a big and burly man who gets it in his head to ‘scale’ the high rise and become king himself. The third man, Laine, is sort of an everyman that mostly stays out of the fray and just wants his own little fiefdom in his apartment with a couple of females.

This is a very male-driven book and, I’d even say, Mr. Ballard, you had a fucked up sense of women. The women in the book are alternately weak, sex toys, whining, clinging, or a scary tribe that threaten the men. How about this gem?:

She had accepted him as she would any marauding hunter. First she would try to kill him, but failing this give him food and her body, breast-feed him back to a state of childishness and even, perhaps, feel affection for him. Then, the moment he was asleep, cut his throat. The synopsis of the ideal marriage.

Okay then! Surprisingly, this misogyny did not particularly bother me because the men were equally pilloried in the book, infantile and brutish. I suppose the main thrust of the book, so to speak, is the ultimate brutality of man. Wilder in particular, becomes a zoned out animal by the end, forgetting his previous life in the primitive “joy” of the high rise jungle, using his strength and subjugating others, using women as he comes across them in a thoughtless way.

The psychology in the book appears to be something like this: when the tenants begin to sense that things are getting weird/dangerous in the high rise, they are secretly excited about this. It appeals to their primitive “blood and circuses” side. They willingly engage in the nightly riots often thinking of them as “games”. They don’t want to leave the high rise, even as things get worse and worse, and eventually they forget there ever was a life outside it. They accept the filth, lack of food, danger, etc. in a kind of haze, reduced to the most elemental functions and somehow this is “freeing”. Laine is “happy” to be reduced to this bare existence. Is this a comment on the complexities of modern life being too much to endure? How we’re all cavemen under the make-up? Not sure I buy it, but okay.

I dunno. There have been lots of post apoc novels that have explored how brutal man becomes in a “kill or die” reality. This book isn’t that. It’s softer and yet, because there’s no cause for it, crueler and more damning too. But I did enjoy it. The language is often dark and poetic. It may not be plotty horror, but it’s definitely creepy with a capital C. The visuals of the high rise in its decay (you can practically smell it) are something that will stick with me.

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There is no audiobook version

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