Review: High Rise, JG Ballard (Jonathan Cape, 1975)

Ballad’s dystopian wonder opens with one of the most arresting lines in 20th century prose fiction.

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.

This is not simply premonition of the dog eat dog world of 80s Thatcherism; it’s a man eat dog world, with a hint of cannibalism too.

The high rise of the novel’s title was inspired by the brutalist masterpiece that is Balfron Tower in East London.  As inspirational as the building may have been, an inspiring living environment it wasn’t.  Famously the architect Erno Goldfinger lived for a short while in the penthouse apartment before moving back to a more comfortable home in Hampstead.  In the novel, Goldfinger becomes the throughly sinister figure of Royal and, of course, in the Bond novel of the same name an arch (the arch?) Bond villain.

But this is not simply a novel with a high rise back drop.  This is a novel of disintegration. The two thousand strong community, what Ballard called a ‘vertical city’, psychotically retreats from the outside world and turns their frustrations towards each other. The building becomes an enabler.  The solidity of it preventing any sense of connection between the neighbours.  Indeed, the inhabitants’ lives become fractured and distorted and they decend into tribal warfare replete with body markings and savage intent.  Any humour is quickly replaced by the tacit awareness that we are peaking into a Freudian landscape, and at times the novel becomes completely uncomfortable to read.

It’s a gripping tale.