"High-Rise" by J.G. Ballard (1975)
"Alternatively, their real needs might emerge later. The more arid and effectless life became in the high-rise, the greater the possibilities it offered. By its very efficiency, the high-rise took over the task of maintaining the social structure that supported them all. For the first time it removed the need to repress every kind of anti-social behaviour, and left them free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses. It was precisely in these areas that the most important and most interesting aspects of their lives would take place. Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly 'free' psychopathology."
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you've probably noticed that I'm a big fan of J.G. Ballard. I would list him among the most influential and talented authors of the last century, and despite the creation of an adjective ("Ballardian") in his honor, I think it's a shame that he isn't more widely read.
1975's High-Rise is the eighth of his novels, coming after earlier efforts like The Wind from Nowhere, and The Drowned World, but before his later, best-known book, 1984's Empire of the Sun. Crash, another novel reviewed here, came out before High-Rise, in 1973.
In High-Rise, modern man - in the guise of physician Robert Laing - finds himself deconstructed within the confines of a high-rise apartment building. Laing is one of three main characters in the book, the other two being Richard Wilder, a filmmaker, and Anthony Royal, the architect who designed the high-rise which they inhabit.
Once the high-rise reaches maximum occupancy, the society within it becomes stratified into three levels relative to the floors they inhabit and the services they enjoy, and after this point they begin a long, slow slide into barbarism. The modern world gives way to something more medieval, the middle ages give way to a world of warring tribes and nomadism, and by the end of the book people are eating each other - all without the authorities having the slightest idea of what's going on.
This is definitely the most sociological novel I've read in some time, and I think Ballard's use of the high-rise as a metaphor for the modern world works very well. My only complaint is that Robert Laing isn't a very interesting character, and the narratives of Wilder and Royal aren't given quite enough time to develop properly. Wilder's ascent of the high-rise is a nice attempt at mythologizing their situation, but it would have worked better if he'd had a little more depth, and if he hadn't been absent from so many of the earlier chapters. Laing could have easily been ignored in favor of the dialectic between Wilder and Royal, and the result would have been a more gripping power struggle between the upper and lower classes.
Still, High-Rise is an excellent book, and far better than the recent movie adaptation. It also shares many themes with Crash, Ballard's exploration of modern technology as applied to human sexuality. Crash, however, is a lot more disturbing. It's also much better.