Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog,

High-Rise, by J.G. Ballard


I grew up in Ballardia, more specifically on the Lancaster West Estate (which looks a hell of a lot nicer now than it did back then). Lancaster West is a large low-rise council estate with a couple of high-rises embedded within it, not far from the Westway which famously inspired Concrete Island. Ballard’s landscape is the landscape of my childhood.

Lancaster West LWE

The odd thing is like many writers whose name became an adjective I’ve actually read far less by Ballard than it feels like I have. His work is familiar to me both from life and from his particular stylistic consistency. Perhaps that’s why it took the release of a movie based on High-Rise by one of my favourite contemporary directors to prompt me to finally actually read it.

High-RiseHigh-Rise original

(That’s the cover I have and the first edition cover.)

High-Rise opens with the wonderfully disquieting words I’ve used as the title for this piece. It moves swiftly into flashback, with the early tenants moving into a new high-rise development. Among them is Laing, a psychiatrist (his name clearly a shout-out to then fashionable psychiatrist R.D. Laing).

The high-rise is the first of five in its development. It’s supremely modern. Its occupants are resolutely middle class or desirably glamorous: doctors; dentists; academics; tv producers; air hostesses; actors. In real life those of us who grew up on the estates were the urban poor, here Ballard inverts that. Here the architect lives in the building he designed.

The first sign that everything is perhaps not as it should be is when a champagne bottle falls from a party on a floor above and shatters on Laing’s balcony while he’s sunbathing. The more disturbing sign is his reaction:

After breakfast, Laing cleared the glass from the balcony. Two of the decorative tiles had been cracked. Mildly irritated, Laing picked up the bottle neck, still with its wired cork and foil in place, and tossed it over the balcony rail. A few seconds later he heard it shatter among the cars parked below.

Laing is annoyed that those above him pay no regard to his safety, but he pays no more regard to those below him. He doesn’t realise the implications yet, but the high-rise has become a microcosm of wider British society. Those on the topmost floors have their own dedicated entrance lobby and high-speed lifts (a common feature today in buildings with shared occupancy between rich and merely affluent). Everyone else rubs along as best they can, eyes rarely meeting.

This central two-thirds of the apartment building formed its middle class, made up of self-centred but basically docile members of the professions – the doctors and lawyers, accountants and tax specialists who worked, not for themselves, but for medical institutes and large corporations. Puritan and self-disciplined, they had all the cohesion of those eager to settle for second best.

The lower floors house the newer professions and occupations. the ones who work on tv behind the camera; the air hostesses. They tend to be younger than those on the upper floors, many have school age children while those higher up being older now have dogs instead.

Names here are meaningful. A key character from the lower floors is tv documentary maker Richard Wilder. He’s a larger than life hard-drinking womaniser seemingly modelled on Oliver Reed (and played brilliantly in the recent film by Luke Evans who seems to be channeling Oliver Reed’s spirit). Right at the very top is architect Anthony Royal (A Royal…). The two men epitomise the class conflict inherent in the building’s structure, with firmly middle class Laing caught squarely between them cosying up to Royal and slightly fearing Wilder.

It’s a mistake with Ballard to look for psychological depth. His characters are pawns of psycho-social forces quite beyond them, and Ballard doesn’t aim for naturalism. He’s exploring here the psychology of the underlying fascism of the everyday, as he does in so many of his books.

The high-rise becomes a pressure cooker bringing out the already implicit violence of the social order. Those on top resent those down below for their noisy lives and numerous children. Those at the bottom resent those at the top for their condescension and air of entitlement. Those between try to maintain strict proprieties while jealously guarding their own possessions and territory.

Before long a famous actress’s dog is drowned in the tenth floor swimming pool during a power cut. The pool has become a flashpoint of tensions between the classes, the upper floors wanting to bar the children from using it so their pool parties aren’t interrupted. Not long after a jeweller falls from the top floor to his death, or perhaps was pushed. Nobody calls the police.

The building’s structures start to break down. Power cuts become commonplace; the bin chutes become clogged and rubbish starts to pile up around them; the area around the high-rise becomes covered in broken glass and refuse thrown from above. All of that is obviously something of a comment on 1970s’ Britain generally, but it’s also all familiar to me from the estate I actually grew up in (though Ballard takes it all to an illustrative extreme far beyond mere reality).

People band together according to their floors and carry out raids on those above and below them for food or retribution. Increasingly nobody goes outside, and most tellingly nobody calls for help (partly because that would destroy the concept of the novel, and partly because while it may seem that the social compact is breaking down in fact they’re hammering out a new compact forged from “spasms of cold and random aggression.”)

At risk of biographical detail, it’s hard to read all this without remembering Ballard’s own childhood experience of social breakdown in occupied wartime Shanghai. In his own words “I don’t think you can go through the experience of war without one’s perceptions of the world being forever changed. The reassuring stage set that everyday reality in the suburban west presents to us is torn down; you see the ragged scaffolding, and then you see the truth beyond that, and it can be a frightening experience.”

High-Rise shows us what sits under the ragged scaffolding. Early on Wilder sees his neighbours emerge from the lifts “aggressively like bad-tempered miners emerging from their pit-cages. They strode past him, briefcases and handbags wielded like the instruments of an over-nervous body armour.” At this point they’ve merely suffered some inconvenience, but the suppressed violence is already starting to show. Later they move “into a realm of no social organization at all”, forming “small groups of killers, solitary hunters who built man-traps in empty apartments or preyed on the unwary in deserted elevator lobbies.”

The inhabitants, free now to enjoy the “perversities created by the limitless possibilities of the high-rise”, are becoming who they always were. Once the new equilibrium forms, with those able to adapt having done so and those not dead, a new civil order begins to emerge. After the initial explosion of violence and monstrosity the new barbarism looks suspiciously like where everybody started, save with tasteful wallpaper replaced with fire pits and spit-roast Alsatians.

In a sense life in the high-rise had begun to resemble the world outside – there were the same ruthlessness and aggression concealed within a set of polite conventions.

There’s a lot more by way of social comment here. Wilder uses the disorder to literally rise in society. His early too rapid ascent is punished by an unequivocal upper-floor beating to show him his place. After that he moves carefully and strategically, a few floors at a time, moving ever upwards and ever closer to Royal who both fears him and is fascinated by him. Tellingly in order to progress Wilder has to leave his family behind; like every aspirational child of working class parents he quickly learns that to get where he’s going he has to lose where he came from.

Laing meanwhile plays squash with Royal so securing himself an occasional place at the top table, but his status is contingent and Royal never truly sees Laing as an equal. Laing’s an intermediary between upper and lower floors, but not accepted by or entirely comfortable with either. As I’m writing this I’m reading the first of Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. It’s notable how much the explicit iniquities of High-Rise are implicitly present in the St. Aubyn.

I should caution that High-Rise can be a difficult read. Ballard has a flat affectless style which lends a chilling normality to descriptions of chaos and horror. This book features murder, rape, incest, slaughtered pets (sometimes for food and sometimes for no clear reason at all) and for a slim novel it features an awful lot of all those things. It’s not gratuitous, but particularly if you struggle with scenes of animals being killed this might not be the book for you.

In the end I think this is deservedly a classic. The characters here slip lightly into psychopathy and savagery in a manner which isn’t remotely realistic (and doesn’t aim to be), but it doesn’t matter both because Ballard creates his own reality. While this specific scenario could never happen, Ballard’s point that even choreographers are only a few good meals from barbarism remains true.

Other reviews

The ever-excellent Joachim Boaz reviews this at his blog here. The no-less excellent Sam Jordison actually had a Guardian reading group readalong of this and his final article on it is here. As ever please let me know of other interesting reviews in the comments.


Filed under Ballard, J.G., SF

27 responses to “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog,

  1. Tredynas Days

    I read this some years ago, along with Crash and Concrete Island; you nail his deadpan violence perfectly. I lived for a few years near Shepparton, where B settled ultimately, and am off to Chiswick to visit friends tomorrow where he lived before that. The high rise blocks are still there, and so are the toxic hierarchies…

  2. The toxic hierarchies never leave us do they? It did strike me that the characters in the St Aubyn would find their niches in the high-rise quite easily.

    Concrete Island will likely be my next Ballard, though I don’t know when.

  3. Tredynas Days

    Good thought, to link St Aubyn; you’re right, they both skewer the same types. St A’s prose style, of course, is totally different – sort of clinically elegant. Don’t think JG was striving for that!

  4. Stylistically I admit there are some differences…

    Clinically elegant is a good way of putting it for St Aubyn actually. If I remember it I might quote it in my eventual review of that.

  5. Tredynas Days

    Feel free: I’d be honoured!

  6. Exceptional review, Max. I think you read this at just the right time. Funnily enough I listened to the audiobook of this just last week, for the same reasons you did. Though I hear the film isn’t very good…

  7. Thanks Lee. I rather liked the film personally, though I have to admit I’ve yet to see a film by Wheatley I didn’t like (I’ve only not seen his first so far). I’d certainly be interested in your thoughts on it.

    It’s faithful to the book in spirit, but not slavishly so, which I tend to think is important. Too much fidelity and you lose the unique strengths of cinema without being able to carry over the unique strengths of literature.

  8. I’m ashamed to say that the only Ballard I’ve ever read was about 40% of Crash when I was 20 or something. I really struggled with it and promptly gave-up; Ballard has kinda intimidated me ever since.

    I like your comments about the height of the High-Rise working as a metaphor for social hierarchies. It reminds me of a play I recently saw about the effects of austerity on the poorest communities. The only set decoration was a bank of fluorescent tube lights; these lights were perfectly ordered and safe at the top, but collapsing and flickering at the very bottom. This sort of visual metaphor appeals to me. Ditto the nominative determinism you mention (even if “Anthony Royal” sounds a bit Amis-like, to me…).

  9. I suspect Crash is probably at the more difficult end with him. I’d try The Drowned World which has some marvellous imagery and isn’t intimidating at all.

    That does sound nicely done in the play, and quite similar to some of what he’s doing here. Wilder and Royal to me make it plain these aren’t characters so much as archetypes. A bit Amis-like, ouch…

  10. I completely agree on fidelity to source material etc. Absolute fidelity can cripple a film adaptation, and is a bit idiotic really, although Polanski always apparently aims for that, as he sees it, right down to asking Ira Levin what type of material Rosemary’s dress was, etc.

  11. Great review. Ballard really captures the way there’s such a thin veneer of civilisation over human culture, doesn’t he?

  12. Ballard turned from the desolated landscapes and decadent resorts of his 1960s stuff,recreating them within modern urban cityscapes.I preferred “Concrete Island”,that I thought was a mysterious and vivid drama of forgotten places.It contained an effortless flow compared to the more structured “High Rise”,excellent though it is.

    I’m not sure what you mean by Ballard “doesn’t aim for naturalism”.In “High Rise”,as in much of his stuff,he explored “our” atavistic instincts.It’s at the core of the unrestrained happenings of his particular fiction.

  13. Jonathan

    I loved High-Rise when I read it years ago. Funnily enough I haven’t read much more by Ballard even though I’ve accumulated quite a few books by him over the years. His clinical style can be a bit off-putting, even though it’s quite suitable for the books he wrote.

    I intended to see the film but it didn’t quite work out. I will watch it eventually.

  14. If Levin didn’t describe the fabric I suspect it’s because he didn’t think it important. I saw Rosemary’s Baby again recently. It’s a very good film, not least in how the true horror isn’t the satanism but the fact that the way everyone treats Rosemary in terms of ownership of her body is only fractionally beyond the norm of how women were then treated anyway.

    Kaggsy, thanks, I think that is one of his greatest strengths.

    Richard, Concrete Island will likely be my next by him.

    Re naturalism, my point was that the characters aren’t intended as real people in say the way Toibin’s characters in Brooklyn are. The names alone are a clue at that, and the lack of motivation for much of what happens (particularly the failure of anyone to contact the outside world).

    Ballard is absolutely exploring “our” atavistic instincts, but he doesn’t attempt to create a credible scenario where they might come forth. He doesn’t place Wilder, Laing and Royale in a besieged city for example. He takes a normal setting, here a high-rise, places characters in it quite intentionally who wouldn’t be in a real life one (high-rises were for the working class, not the middle and upper) and intentionally avoided any true cause so as to underline the idea that the behaviours were always there just under the surface.

    I reviewed recently the first of Louise Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy, and I’ve also reviewed a while back John Christopher’s The Death of Grass. Both, particularly the Christopher, explore ideas of social breakdown in the face of catastrophe and try to create a credible scenario where that can take place. Ballard just says “this is who we are” and makes no attempt at justification.

    Jonathan, yes, his style works well for his material but it’s not by its nature inviting I admit.

  15. For someone who didn’t write realistically then,his stuff was bleakly realistic.He didn’t need absolutely credible scarnarios to be able to do this,just a brilliant vision to render them concrete and believeable.You cleared-up my query perfectly I think.

    “The Death of Grass” was only just acceptable I thought.He can’t be compared to Ballard.

  16. I agree with all of that Richard. I only cited Death of Grass as an example of a book where the author made efforts to a credible scenario. Ballard as you say didn’t need to – he could make them believable without that. I wouldn’t otherwise make comparisons – Christopher wrote a decent genre novel; Ballard captured uncomfortable truths in a manner that remains resonant today and will I think for some years yet to come.

  17. The title at the top is exactly the reason I decided to pass on this. I have another Ballard on the shelf to get to.

  18. I read this last year for broadly the same reasons as you did (as the film adaptation was on its way at that point). Oddly enough, I didn’t take to it very well even though I’d heard quite a lot about it beforehand so I knew what I was letting myself in for (well, sort of). It was the clinical style, I think. Also, I was struck by the following points in your review: ‘It’s a mistake with Ballard to look for psychological depth. His characters are pawns of psycho-social forces quite beyond them,..’ I suspect that’s one of the reasons why I didn’t particularly take to it. I guess I was expecting a little more psychological depth in the characters, maybe a bit more subtlety in the portrayal of the microcosm of society in the building (with the benefit of hindsight I suspect subtlety isn’t what Ballard’s about, certainly not here). Anyway, it probably wasn’t a book for me so I decided not to write about it in the end. You’ve captured it brilliantly though, and your critique has prompted me to reconsider my own responses to it – thank you. Great to read the comments too. Turning to Wheatley for a moment, I would definitely recommend Down Terrace. It’s so droll, full of darkly humorous moments – I think it might be my favourite of his films. 🙂

  19. Yes it’s alright,I understood what you meant.A better comparison to Ballard and “High Rise” of an author writing about people reverting to savagery in strained situations though,would probably be William Golding and his novel “Lord of the Flies”.It’s premise rests on a contrived credibility,but is convincing because it portrays humanities’ basest ancient instincts that have become hidden by modern social manners,even if the actual outcome is not.

    Of those authors and novels that deal with similar themes within the SF genre,and are comparible to Ballard,Robert Holdstock’s “Mythago Wood” comes readily to mind.Their stuff is really poles apart,and is far from the viscerial catastrophe of “High Rise”,but in the novel,he evokes “our” ancient ancestral memories buried within our respectable modern selves,that like “High Rise”, transforms it’s characters,which is why it is concrete and believeable.

  20. Guy, that’s partly why I put in the warning paragraph about it being a potentially challenging read and featuring slaughtered pets. For quite a few readers that’s just an absolute no which is fair enough so it’s worth alerting people to it.

    Jacqui, I think where most novelists have an element of the psychologist to them, Ballard has more an element of the sociologist.

    I’m a massive Ben Wheatley fan so glad to hear that Down Terrace is good. Kill List probably remains my favourite – so visceral.

    Richard, I think I didn’t cite Lord of the Flies because while that deals in innate savagery it suggests more that growing up is in part a process of suppressing that savagery, of being educated into civilisation. With Ballard it’s not so much that we learn not to be savages, as that we learn how to hide it from others and ourselves. I’m not sure it’s quite the same (though what is, they’re only parallels and potentially useful examples after all).

    I never quite got to grips with Mythago Wood, possibly due to flawed expectations of what it was when I tried to read it. I should give it another go. Do you have a view on the sequels? Are they worthwhile or is it best treated as a stand alone?

  21. I didn’t cite Golding and Holdstock because their stuff is really like Ballard’s,but because I wanted examples of authors who not only dealt in themes as close as I could to his own,but were also his literary equals.It’s meant to be subjective.

    I haven’t read “Mythago Wood” for many years,but I should reread it.It has a haunting quality that’s really brilliant.The sequel “Lavonyass” isn’t bad,but was too long and tedious to maintain interest.

  22. I read this years ago when I devoured all of Ballard’s novels and short stories. I always remember when he was asked about his ‘unusual childhood’ he pointed out that it was, in fact, pretty normal for most children in the world.
    Sadly, the biggest change since he wrote it is probably the difficulty someone like Wilder would have getting a job in television in the first place!

  23. I know Ballard by name but I’ve never read him and I’m not sure I ever will. I’ll pass on the violence.
    I enjoyed your review though and I’m glad I got to know about High Rise. I like the idea of a novel recreating a microcosm in this building. It’s a bit like a scientist who fabricates an ecosystem to carry on an experiment.

    I don’t think Ballard is very popular here. Is he in the UK?

    PS: When I was reading, I kept hearing a song by the French singer Renaud. It’s called “HLM”, which is the French equivalent of “council estate”. It dates back to the 1970s and he sings about the people who live in this HLM: a policeman who could have starred in 1974 by Peace, a woman who works in advertising, a communist who’s actually trotskist, a couple of hippies who smoke pot …And the chorus keeps saying, “Oh putain c’qu’il est blême, mon HLM” (approximately “how bloody bleak it is, my council estate”) It captures well the atmosphere of the time in France, but somehow in the UK as well.

  24. Thanks Richard. I’ll put Mythago Wood on the TBR pile, but perhaps not the sequel.

    Grant, good point on Wilder, though it’s quite possible his background (which I don’t think is really explored) is simply suburban lower middle class or whatever. He’s working class in the context of the high-rise, but the high-rise has reimposed wider class distinctions on a fairly middle class population so outside it who knows what he’d be seen as?

    Ballard’s point on his childhood is a well made one.

    Emma, I don’t think you’d take to this particular Ballard, and possibly not to any. I wouldn’t say Ballard is popular in the UK, but the term Ballardian is fairly widely used (among the kind of people who reference literature anyway) and he’s recognised as having captured something fairly unique to him.

    The HLM song sounds spot on as a reference. I’ve a fair bit of French hip-hop (mostly out of Marseilles) and it’s a good form of music for this kind of literature, though the music is typically more consciously socially aware and pressing for change whereas Ballard is more exploring an underlying strain of inherent fascism under the everyday.

  25. I feel sure you’ll like “Mythago Wood”.Yes,leave the sequel alone until you’ve finished this one.There’s been too many of them in the series,and it seems sad that a industry has been made from a brilliant,uncommercial novel.

  26. Jeff

    You capture well the themes of class mobility and underlying violence. It’s very 1970s in an Abagail’s Party sort of way. Those all-important signs of social ascent. And yet it’s also very recent years in respect of the talk of social mobility in politics on the one hand, and the unpaid internships maintaining order on the other. Animal stuff if you accept that basic human living requirements are widely met in modern societies. The rest has a lot of ‘meaning’ and social comparison to it.

  27. Thanks Jeff. Very 1970s is fair, but yet it’s become rather timely again. As you say, we talk of social mobility, but close doors with unpaid internships. Ballard’s relevance is sadly not yet past.

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