Thursday, August 2, 2012

100 Books #70 - J.G. Ballard's HIGH RISE

Look at this novel's entry on GoodReads, or at least at its user reviews, and you'll find dozens of people saying that High Rise is basically Lord of the Flies with a cocktail hour, but I find a bit more than that going on. Specifically, I find that this book feels more like a tribute to H.G. Wells and The Island of Doctor Moreau* with a dash of Jose Saramago's Blindness thrown in for extra flavor.

We start off the novel in a flash-forward to its ending, with one of its triple protagonists (and the most typically Ballardian-as-I-so-far-understand-that-term), Robert Laing, finishing off a meal of a roasted Alsatian dog on his balcony amid the high rise's presumable last convulsions of self-destruction. He might well do as an Edward Prendick stand-in (Prendick being the unfortunate who washes up on Doctor Moreau's island), rational, reserved, scientifically trained, somewhat familiar with his new host's reputation but presuming that in arriving he has reached something that can pass (or more than pass) for civilization, only to learn to his horror that not only his first but also his second and maybe even his third impressions are horribly wrong; his host, Anthony Royal, the Moreau-esque architect of the high rise seems a bit eccentric for choosing to live in his creation (albeit in one of two penthouses), but rational enough for all that, until things in his creation start to deteriorate and, far from deploring his fellow-residents' abandonment of civilized standards of behavior, he is covertly encouraging it, all but rubbing his hands together in glee at the prospect of his captive population's devolution into savages, if not outright animals. For his last act, he plans to take his Alsatian and a pack of other dogs down into the depths of the building, a-hunting, and to open up all the high rise's windows to let in the teeming flocks of gulls and other birds that have attended him on the roof over the last year. And yes, there's even a Leopard-Man, Richard Wilder, a TV news man who starts off with the aim of making a documentary about the high rise but finishes stalking its corridors in improvised war paint, brandishing a spear, raping and pillaging (pretty much literally) his way up from the second floor to the 40th.

And as I said, High Rise almost reminds me more of Blindness. Say, Blindness with sighted people, and sighted people living in luxury at that. The comparison might not seem a logical one to make, but stick with me here. In Blindness, victims of a sudden and inexplicable plague are quarantined and left to fend for themselves in a disused mental institution. The rest of society sort of pokes food at them now and then but they're otherwise isolated and unsupervised and helplessly revert to an animalistic proto-society centered around resource-grabbing, bullying and despair. And, like in High Rise, this proto-society winds up living in amazing squalor, the kind of squalor that only hundreds of newly-blind people who can not even find the toilets, much less keep them working -- or, in the case of High Rise, two thousand maniacs who have vandalized all the sanitary systems in an early wave of passive aggression and then in a later wave of real aggression and savagery just start letting the sacks of garbage pile up everywhere -- can be squalid. Both novels are books you can smell.

But instead of innocent victims of an inexplicable plague of "white blindness", High Rise features a self-selected population of well-to-do tax accountants, doctors, lawyers, airline pilots and television executives, living in more splendid isolation, but isolation just the same, their tower of luxury condos cut off from the rest of the world by acres of parking lot, food and liquor poked through to them via a floor of shopping in the building, all their needs accommodated on-site (swimming pools, an elementary school, the aforementioned shopping level) -- and, with no municipal authority aside from what they invent themselves, these people also revert to a state of low-level tribalism, the pet-owners versus the parents, the upper floors versus the lower**, the common areas and especially the elevators the battlegrounds.

All of this is ultimately and essentially Anthony Royal's creation. Revealed as a secret hater of the uniformity, simplicity and elegant functionality of mid-20th-century industrial design, he has created its apotheosis in this building and is gratified to see that his hatred is justified; all that sameness and ease and tedium drives people insane, and he gladly goes along for the ride, strutting around in his white suit with bloody handprints on the hips and chest, his take on a new executioner's uniform, even as Wilder hunts him from below and Laing disappears into the middle floors, Ballard's typical passive spectator saying "Huh, well. How about that?"

And yes, there are elements of Lord of the Flies, too, of course, in the demented, gleeful perversity exhibited by these three and all the other residents of the building, most of whom are only designated by their occupation and floor, e.g. the newspaper columnist from the 37th***, as they explore the "limitless possibilities of the high rise."

Thus, with High Rise, Ballard proves that you don't need an environmental catastrophe to bring out the strangest and worst in people; sometimes you just need an enclosed space with minimal supervision**** and too many resources held in common. Which is to say that Ballard totally outdid himself here.

Frighteningly enough, he also made all of this seem plausible. Very much so.

My friends who are Ballard fans (and really, I seem only to have two kinds of friends, Ballard fans and people who just haven't read him yet) seem mostly to name this as their favorite of his novels, if not their favorite novel ever. Certainly it's my favorite of what I've read so far -- and it's going to be pretty hard for the Master to top himself. But we'll see. I have a few yet to go, after all!

*Interestingly enough, the film director/screenwriter Richard Stanley wrote both the 1996 film adaptation of The Island of Doctor Moreau and the upcoming one of High Rise.

**Even before all the really interesting stuff happens, a new class system has developed in the building, with the residents of the upper floors literally looking down on the middle and lower floors' residents, even though the outside world would homogenize the lot of them as privileged upper class white bastards.

***So we first come to know each other, in this modern civilized world, and so, mostly, we remain. How much do you know about your neighbors? And how much, do you suppose, do you merely think you know? And how much do you care?

****Readers who object to the non-presence of police or emergency services are missing the point. Part of the residents' madness is their commitment to keeping it all "within the family", counting on the awe and envy in which they believe the rest of the world holds them to keep curiosity at bay. From the outside, as Royal notes at one point when every single floor has erupted into furious, angry partying on the balconies, the luxury high rise looks like it's just one swingin' good time that never ends. And everyone keeps showing up for work, more or less decently groomed despite the lack of water and electricity, right up until the very end, to maintain the facade and the fiction that everything's just fine and don't you wish you were as awesome as we are.

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