High Rise, by J.G. Ballard, tells a story of extreme social breakdown in a modern London apartment block designed to provide everything the discerning resident could desire. Although first published in 1975 it is disturbingly prescient, or perhaps timeless, examining the way man behaves when he is freed from the civilities forced on him by authority figures since childhood. There are Freudian undertones, a desire for obeisance and power, especially as regards the opposite sex.
The High Rise in question is the first of five upmarket apartment blocks being developed on wasteland near a river. Each contains forty floors of accommodation and is divided into three sections by amenity and service levels. The higher the level an apartment is on the more desirable it is seen to be. Each third is regarded by the residents as the lower, middle and upper social classes, with the penthouse apartments the ultimate in achievement.
The story is told from the point of view of residents in each of the three sections. Richard Wilder works for a film making company and lives on the second floor with his wife and two sons. Doctor Robert Laing, a childless divorcee, has a studio apartment on the twenty-fifth floor. Anthony Royal, one of the architects behind the design of the building, lives with his aristocratic young wife in one of just two penthouse suites. He comes to regard Wilder as his nemesis.
The detached narration adds to the tension and enables the reader to cope with the increasing brutality of the unfolding drama. What starts as low level discontent, as services fail and disturbances caused by loud and lively partying become increasingly invasive, soon turns to confrontation. Those on the higher floors expect and demand preferential treatment in a building designed to offer access for all. As simmering resentments boil over there is regrouping around more radical and belligerent leaders. Each resident watches unfolding events voyeuristically, to some degree hoping to see neighbours they secretly despise debasing themselves.
In places the story makes little sense (why did so many residents stay?) yet it also exposes why man often behaves as he does. The same ruthlessness and aggression exists widely, concealed within a set of polite conventions. It is common to hide the flaws in a life from others, to keep up appearances.
Early on there are observations on the apparently homogenous residents who have populated the High Rise:
“By the usual financial and educational yardsticks they were probably closer to each other than the members of any conceivable social mix, with the same tastes and attitudes, fads and styles – clearly reflected in the choice of automobiles in the parking-lots that surrounded the high rise, in the elegant but somehow standardized way in which they furnished their apartments”
At one of the first parties Laing attends he observes that:
“never far below the froth of professional gossip was a hard mantle of personal rivalry.”
By the end, when the order of both building and residents has been subsumed, Royal observes:
“he had constructed a gigantic, vertical zoo, its hundreds of cages stacked above each other. All the events of the past few months made sense if one realized that these brilliant and exotic creatures had learned to open the doors.”
Perhaps what this story most demonstrates is that nothing in life is as secure as we may like to think. When breakdown occurs, the actions of those we thought we knew can be hard to predict.
A blistering deconstruction of supposedly civilised society. This was a fascinating, thought-provoking read.