Reconstructing High-Rise

By Rick McGrath

A night patrol creeps along a dark hallway past a barricade of desks; a flash of white birds leap into the air like a fluttering flag of surrender; a dog lies drowned in the middle of a community pool... welcome to High-Rise, JG Ballard's deeply subversive study of a society in transformation.

J.G. Ballard has often told interviewers that his characters all seek a kind of highly personal psychic salvation, and that they will, if necessary, create their own self-defining mythologies and pursue them to their furthest logical ends, no matter how illogical it seems, or what the cost.

The seeming irrationality of it all is, of course, just part of Ballard's modus operahndi. As he told Greame Revell in 1983, "I would say that a lot of my fiction is, if you like, open-ended. I leave for the reader to decide what the moral and psychological conclusions to be drawn from my fiction should be. For example, in the case of Crash, High-Rise and The Atrocity Exhibition, I offer an extreme hypothesis for the reader to decide whether the hypothesis I advance (this extreme metaphor to deal with an extreme situation) is proven."

In High-Rise, Ballard has created an isolated environment for the close study of how an ultra-modern apartment block can transform its denizens into a new, aggressive society based on the premise that living in a motherly machine will allow your neurons to re-wire into whatever psycho state you've been unconsciously repressing in the "real" world -- that place Ballard believes is the ultimate fiction.

We have a story of transformation here, ladies and gentlemen, and aficionados of the bizarre and disaffected -- those looking for obsessive, outlandish social mayhem -- will not be disappointed: High-Rise has 40 storeys of shock corridor ahead.

The premise is fascinating: just after the last property in a 1,000-suite tower is occupied, the first little signs of social change begin to become public. A party is in progress. A wine bottle crashes and smashes all over a resident's balcony. Soon crazed, drunken, mob-mentality parties are breaking out all over the building, and now we're deeply into the action, led in shocked wonder as Ballard brilliantly describes the metamorphosis of group psychopathological desire into a new kind of childlike urban social model, a twisted adult mirror of Lord Of The Flies, with no resolution to any kind of recognizeable reality principle.

The Low-Down On The High-Rise.

Variously described as a spaceship, or a "Pandora's Box whose thousand lids were one by one opening inward", this giant housing structure is a marvel of technologies which Ballard credits for "freeing" its occupants. How can it do this? As a sort of giant robot "mother", the building has been designed to cater to all the physical needs of its occupants. But what of their psychological needs?

It is basically an isolation tank for 2,000 people, and as in Concrete Island, this removal from "exterior" social reality unfetters repression. Never one to worry much about scientific "proof", Ballard simply informs us, "the building took away the need to repress anti-social behavior." Like a seatbelt perversely gives you the freedom to drive faster.

On the level of characterization the building is, in Ballard's oddly amoral universe, a mindless liberator, an assembly of services, "a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly free psychopathology". This is what Ballard means by "extreme metaphor". No longer a simple building, it is in reality a "huge machine designed to serve, not the collective body of tenants, but the individual resident in isolation."

By opening up the necessary neural pathways to the reckless exploration of psychopathic desires, the high-rise allows this enclave of competitive, middle and upper class worker bees to sucumb to the demands of their inner needs, which, in this case, is explored in the physical acting-out of all the dark, driven activites of the lives of three of the high-rise occupants.

It is important to realize, however, that the building itself is the metaphor. High-Rise is a machine coddling a community, yet still catering to each individual's every whim. How might you react if this urban eden suddenly rejected you and your fellow population? The old social rules are quickly replaced, and individuals revert to inner cunning and extreme behaviour.

How do you understand High-Rise as an extreme metaphor? It could be tricky, because Ballard tends to be "open-ended" insofar as specific meaning is concerned. High-Rise represents a wide variety of themes -- social, political, psychological. Is it society, just waiting to regress, given the right circumstances? The state of politics, as the occupants divide themselves along class lines? Is it a Skinner Box on end, as Ballard explores the depths to which obsessions will reach? Some twisted variation of Lunghwa Internment Camp in Shanghai, where Ballard spent three years as a youth and witnessed unthinkable social upheaval while learning how to survive in a suddenly hostile environment? Probably all of the above. It soon becomes apparent what really interests Ballard are the abnormal antics of the high-rise inhabitants. Very quickly in the story the building becomes the landscape generated by the fears and anxieties, aggressions and hates, schemes and capitulations of the dwellers within. Its condition and usefulness is reflected the various mindscapes of the protagonists.

Q: Who Are These People?
A: "The Proletariat Of The Future".

Ballard, who usually likes to spice up his stories with wry sociopolitical commentary, does little to hide his initial disdain for the repressed, blinkered denizens of these expensive vertical "caves". He purposely fills the high-rise with a wide range of successful and unsuccessful professional and media types (perpetrators of The Fiction), those with "a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine". Prime examples of Ballard's obsession with the "death of affect" in modern society. Ballard smugly lumps them into what he calls the "orthodoxy of the intelligent... a well-to-do and well-educated proletariat of the future boxed up in these expensive apartments with their elegant furniture and intelligent sensibilities, and no possibility of escape" (emphasis mine).

As noted by one of the characters, TV Producer Richard Wilder, "Living in high-rises required a special type of behavior, one that was acquiescent, restrained, even perhaps slightly mad". But there's more. According to the novel's only psychiatrist, Adrian Talbot, "the model here seems to be less the noble savage than our un-innocent post-Freudian selves, outraged by all that over-indulgent toilet-training, dedicated breast-feeding and parental affection -- obviously a more dangerous mix."

Dangerous, and uncaring. And targets for Ballard's sarcastic arrows: "people in high-rises tended not to care about the tenants more than two floors below them" is a typical aside, and he tosses in a new subspecies, called vagrants, just for good measure: "bored apartment-bound housewives and stay-at-home adult daughters who spend a large part of their time riding the elevators and wandering the long corridors... migrating endlessly in search of change or excitement". Most apartment-dwellers are also insomniacs, we learn, and all of them in High-Rise are essentially the same, prisoners of an eventless world of solitary confinement in a social structure nurtured by a live-in machine.

So Ballard gives us his benchmark: 1,000 apartments filled with overly-coddled, intelligent, wealthy, bored, socially-successful tenants. As long as the building satisfies their needs, they're happy to mind their own business. This happy state lasts mere hours. Then the high-rise begins to frown. Power outtages. Elevator malfunctions. Graffitti. Alcohol. Random violence. Add to this the vertical division of the high-rise into a class system, and the stage is ripe for mayhem: "an apparently homogenous collection of high-income professional people had split into three distinct and hostile camps". From floors one to nine live the "proletariat" of film-technicians and air hostesses. The 10th floor is commercial, and from it to the restaurant and swimming pool on the 35th floor is the domain of the middle classes -- "self-centred yet basically docile members of the professions... puritan and self-disciplined, they had all the cohesion of those eager to settle for second best". Ouch. The top five floors house the upper class, "a discreet oligarchy of minor tycoons and entrepreneurs, television actresses and career academics". Career Academics? Ballardian humour there. Aside from the irony of including academics, this group sets the pace for the building... and kept the middle class in line by offering the "carrot of friendship and approval". Some things never change. Or do they?

The Gang's All Here.

The novel's plot revolves around the activities of three major characters, all tainted with Dickensian names: Richard Wilder, "television producer... a thick-set, pugnacious man who had once been a professional rugby-league player...", who lives with the other proles on the second floor; Dr. Robert Laing, recently-divorced doctor of physiology looking for solitude, who hides in middle class obscurity on the 25th floor; and Anthony Royal, wealthy architect who was part of the complex's design consortium, who holds court in his opulent penthouse.

And although Laing, the observer, is the novel's only surviving male character – no doubt Ballard himself, as he has publically stated that High-Rise was in part driven by his attempt to explain the cruel ways of God to himself in the years following his wife’s sudden and senseless death -- the other two points of the triangle are thematically and structurally necessary, as Wilder and Royal inhabit the extremities of the vertical world of High-Rise. Stuck in their grooves, unable to evolve as the new society evolves, Wilder and Royal dance inexorably to their long-anticipated, desired ends.

As Ballard has often said, the modus operandi for all his characters is to first survive, then to adapt and ultimately to control and dominate their severely-altered landscapes. This desire to "self-create to success" is expressed in the various survival strategies of Laing, Wilder and Royal, and their ultimate doom is foretold in their more various forms of self-expression -- Wilder is political, violent and cunning, but his "real needs might emerge later"; Royal is an artsy-intellectual snob facing the results of his own social "experiment"; Laing is clever, detached, lazy, boring and practical. Let the lessons begin.

Wilder: A Camera For A Gun.

There is a telling moment halfway through High-Rise when Richard Wilder, the id-like former pro rugger player, reflects before his final assault up the war-torn building. He "hoped to be a midwife to a new society forming", that his actions, "had given people a means of escaping into a new life, and a pattern of social organization that would become a paradigm of all future high-rise blocks". These, of course, are the obsessive dreams of the man whose anger and frustration starts the whole seismic social shift when he drowns an afghan hound in the 10th floor swimming pool during a power outage.

Wilder, the TV producer, early on reads the signs of impending change and decides to shoot a documentary himself on the trials and tribulations of life cramped into such a singular structure. More Ballardian irony. A resident of the lowly 2nd floor, Wilder is afflicted by a phobia in which he feels the weight of the building crushing down on him. His desire to "shoot" the building with his camera becomes part of a "calculated attempt to come to terms with the building, to meet the physical challenge and to dominate it". Sounds like this character is right on track.

As the first waves of escalating violence ebbs, Wilder is caught up in his delusion of fate, and decides to make his assault to the top of the building. By doing so, he severs all ties with his withdrawn wife and children, and by so doing reveals his deeper, more sinister pathology: "By leaving Helen he would break away from the whole system of juvenile restraints that he had been trying to shake off since his adolescence". Needless to say, the psychic conversion experienced by Wilder as he breaks away from his "restraints" will escalate as he rises through the building.

In his last rôle, Wilder becomes a sort of Green Beret hunter/stalker, strategy-smart and using a trained dog as a partner. He successfully clears the last hurdle of resistance on the 37th floor, and escapes into the now-deserted upper levels. Just before the final assault, and armed with a pistol (and his ever-present cine camera), Wilder pauses for a rest. When he awakes, he has regressed from purpopse-driven adult to play-acting child, and completes the irony of his liberation by darting with his gun through the empty corridors and apartments, playing a shock trooper in door-to-door fighting. By chance he stumbles into Royal's refurbished apartment. "He wandered round the refurbished rooms, almost expecting to find his childhood toys, a cot and a playpen laid out for his arrival". Spooky. But hey, he's "happy". After accidentaly meeting with, then playfully shooting Royal on the last steps to the roof, Wilder steps over the prostrate body and into the sunlight at the top of the building. Naked, small children are playing in the sculpture garden, and Wilder strips off to join them. He is soon surrounded by a coven of women -- all of whom he knows -- and then recognizes his wife, tending the fire below an empty spit. The women move in. "In their bloodied hands they carried knives with narrow blades. Shy but happy now, Wilder tottered across the roof to meet his new mothers". What a good litttle boy.

Royal: Architect Of The Isolation Machine.

Anthony Royal is the de facto "king" of High-Rise, an object of desire and fear, although Ballard treats him more like some kind of mad scientist, toddling around his laboratory and waiting for his social Skinner Box to reveal its data. Ballard is cagey about Royal, and only drops the most subtle of hints about his true agenda. "He was all too aware of the built-in flaws" of the high rise, and his imperial manners reveal, "he seemed to be checking that an experiment he had set up had now been concluded". Enigmatic as always, Ballard doesn't let us in on the nature of Royal's "experiment", but one might assume it has to do with some fantasy of control and dominance. Or, like Wilder, something more subversive... an act of violence as the precipitant for a new order. A snob, full of prejudice and yet fascinated with the antics of those who live "downstairs", Royal is Ballard's most ethereal character in the novel, a successful, self-made man who "always wanted his own zoo", and who sketched many designs of zoos, one -- ironically -- a high rise whose birds could fly...

Royal's birdman proclivities are emphasized by Ballard, who introduces a flock of predatory seagulls as part of Royal's ongoing symbolism. Gulls, of course, are scavengers and are associated with death as well as the the liberating aspects of flight. A metaphor for the novel? The gulls are on the roof of the high-rise because they've been attracted to all the garbage tenants are throwing out of their windows, but Royal mythologizes them, "they had flown here from some archaic landscape, responding to the same image of the sacred violence to come".

But for all his posturing and anticipations, Royal suffers an ignoble ending. After being shot by Wilder, he somehow manages to descend to the 10th floor, where he is discovered by Laing. Taken into the swimming pool area, which now doubles as a graveyard/dump, Royal slowly shuffles off to die: "he was moving towards the steps at the shallow end of the swimming pool, as if hoping to find a seat for himself on this terminal slope". Experiment completed.

Laing: Cause Without A Rebel.

I've already suggested Laing may be Ballard in disguise, as his little cave in the wall does have Shepperton written all over it, but... he could also be an ironic takeoff on R.D. Laing, the radical Scots psychiatrist. Laing is the least exciting, but perhaps the most mentally deviant of the novel's trio of main protagonists.

While Royal and Wilder come to us bearing the burden of their "class", Laing is Ballard's invisible man -- a tenant who wishes anonymity in the crowd. In fact, he only buys his apartment on the advice of his sister, who points out that the high rise is perfect, as Laing can easily hide in a group of social clones. Laing immediately likes life in the high rise, and once in its embrace he begins to disassociate from his past: "London belonged to a different world, in time as well as space". Safely ensconced within the building, he felt he "had travelled 50 years forward in time", and, as a result, his "life in the high-rise was as self-contained as the building itself".

Like Royal, but unlike Wilder, Laing rarely leaves the building once the social changes begin, although he does leave once to examine the unfinished lake in the centre of the five-high-rise complex. It is not a pleasant journey, as "The absence of any kind of rigid rectilinear structure summed up for Laing all the hazards of the world beyond the high-rise". In fact, as Laing forces himself down the steep gradient of concrete into the center of the oval lake, he felt as if he was descending into a "forbidden valley" -- all of which "helped to expose a more real vision of himself".

Of the three protagonists, Laing is the most self-obsessed with the creation of a new, isolated world which he can control and dominate. Near the end of the novel, when the worst waves of violence have passed, and those who still remain in the building were well on their way to completing their transformations, he slips even further away: "Laing had decided to separate himself and his two women from everyone else... he knew he was far happier now than ever before... he was satisfied by his self-reliance... above all, he was pleased with his good sense in giving rein to those impulses that involved him with Eleanor and his sister, perversities created by the limitless possibilities of the high-rise". Is it surprising to discover that the two women treat him like "two governesses in a rich man's ménage, teasing a wayward and introspective child"? His power is complete.

Funky stuff, but just a taste of the more sinister ending Ballard only hints at: "all this, like the morphine he would give them in increasing doses, was only a beginning, trivial rehearsals for the real excitement to come". And the pathologies concur. Already the building is beginning to "heal" as everything is beginning to return "back to normal" -- a classic overstatement. The transformation is complete; the stage is set for the next step. And Laing, now truly in control of his two "patients", will look forward to a new future with a truly free life, rather than a free lifestyle. Quest completed. Heckuva neighbour.

The Women of High-Rise: Low Concubines And High Priestesses

While the action of High-Rise is dominated by the men, the women play a very real role as indicators of the "post-Freudian" state of the building's politics. By the end of the story, after suffering through as ignored wives or casual sex partners, two of the women -- Laing's sister, Alice Frobisher, and a hard-drinking TV critic, Eleanor Powell, have gravitated to Laing's side and appear to be happy to take on the role of "women" to the solitary doctor in his rectilinear desert. Polygamy and incest -- are these guys mormons? By the end of the story the rest of the women, including Charlotte Melville (mistress of Wilder), Helen Wilder, Anne Royal, and Jane Sheridan, have occupied the top floors and have started refurbishing it for their own uses, which appears to be a group home for a coven of canniballistic babes intent on dealing with the male competition by eating it. Or were they merely large white birds that Wilder imagined were women?

The Never-Ending Circle: Beginning At The End.

Ballard tempts fate in High-Rise by setting the story up as a flashback, which means we actually start at the end (so much for suspense), and then Ballard muddies the waters slightly by extending the second ending to a sister building. High-Rise may have one of the best introductory sentences (and paragraph) in all of Ballard’s novels. Like the dread that accompanies Orwell’s opening "clock struck 13" sentence in 1984, Ballard sets the story on edge in the first sentence when he calmly intones: "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." Only Ballard could offer us the image of a doctor eating a dog on a balcony and calmly reflecting on events. Yes, one could casually say, "unusual events", and it is with this curious bit of understatement that Ballard then proceeds to tell the twisted tale of Laing and his neighbours as they embark on a perverse logic of freedom extended very, very far into the surreal. And this opening paragraph closes with Laing, "on this balcony where he now squatted beside a fire of telephone directories, eating the roast hindquarters of the Alsatian before setting off to his lecture at the medical school". Wow. Reminds me of a few of my profs at university.

The Reality Of Fiction: The Paradox Of Freedom.

As the sociology of the inhabitants moves up the uncivilized spinal column to increasingly violent levels, Laing, Wilder and Royal dream and plot, observe and partake in the events as they unfold, while Ballard spices the pot with a veritable encyclopedia of perverse and forbidden activities, including random acts of senseless violence, torture, cannibalism and incest, mostly drug- and hate-fuelled, and described in what by now has become Ballard's patented, meticulous realistic style, with liberal use of irony and black humour to "flatten" out the jaw-dropping antics of the relentless action.

In fact, it's almost as if Ballard had set out to confound the sensibilities of those ultimate voyeurs, his readers, with a purposefully dry and logical account of what any "right-thinking" reader would consider to be outrageously anti-social behavior. Unlike the middle-class of Millennium People, who run amok in self-indulgent destruction, the tenants of High-Rise seem to be caught in a vortex which has no apparent beginning, and which escalates along a relentless geometry of violence until the new order, the new freedom, roughly forms itself from the ashes of the old. The horror of meaningless acts piled high with Ballard's trademark detatched omnipotent narrator. High-Rise can both shock and exhilarate its reader, and its insistence that the “ends justify the means” reinforces Ballard’s geometry of violence: personal salvation is a lonely, harsh, and demanding mistress, whose lonely logic is impeccable and implacable, no matter where it leads.

Where it leads me is to the power and paradox of High-Rise. Brilliantly described, seemingly insane, yet strangely compelling and appealing, High-Rise has the unsettling effect of being attractive and repulsive at the same time. If freedom is a paradox insofar as the rules of society mean we all live "free" in a self-regulated prison of civilization, then what is the freedom that the tenants of High-Rise so actively desire? Is it, as Ballard describes, the freedom to act as a self-centered individual in a violent society based on the power of force and strength? Is it the pleasure-seeking pathology of the Id now supplying reality to the Ego? Is it designed to destroy the media fiction of normal society and reveal our inner feelings as the ultimate reality?

As a novel, High-Rise is more of a cool description of fact than an exercise in moralisms or social predictions. These people do not devolve from being professionals, with their "cool, unemotional personality", into noble savages. As in all Ballard novels, the action resolves into the fate of one protagonist -- in this case, Laing. Laing survives because his driving psychic force is self-preservation through isolation and passivity. Mentally shattered by his divorce, seeking to withdraw from human contact, Laing's psychic state is what we see in his landscape of experience. Wilder, the extrovert, clashes with the cerebral Royal and they both perish. Our suspension of disbelief is that we accept no one ever tries to leave the place. High-Rise explores and reveals Ballard's ideas about the quick mutability of reality, and the kind of mental state most likely to adapt and succeed in times of extreme and rapid change in an isolated environment.

Is High-Rise one of Ballard's greats? It certainly appears to have fulfilled its challenge: it is a highly successful metaphor for an extreme situation. Given an opportunity to re-enact Ballard's vision, would a hi-tech building have this effect on today's professionals? Probably not, but High-Rise is eerie, not realistic; it finally becomes a symbol which exists on its own terms, and adds an interesting extension to the themes of social withdrawal explored in Concrete Island and Crash, which form Ballard's trilogy of urban "techno-disaster" novels. If you haven't read High-Rise for awhile (or at all), read it... for three hours you'll get to vicariously act out pretty well every anti-social impulse anyone has ever had... and do it in the company of professionals.

Rick McGrath
© May 2004