It wasn’t until seeing Ben Wheatley’s cinematic adaptation of High-Rise though that my interest was really piqued so I picked up a copy of the source novel and delved into a world only hinted at in Wheatley’s rather fine film.
Charting the story of three residents of the titular high-rise apartment block over the course of three months the opening sentence, concerning recent arrival Dr Laing tucking into the leg of a dog cooked on a primitive fire on his balcony, hints at what’s to come before we go back to see what led to this apparently unusual happening.
The three residents; Laing, representing the middle floors of the tower, Wilder, from the lower floors and Royal, architect and owner of the penthouse apartment, not only represent elements of traditional British societal class but also stand for sides of a more abstract personality embodied within and by the tower block.
The literal story charts the decline of life in the high-rise from wild parties to inter-floor arguments to a kind of tribal warfare climaxing in a total breakdown of the norms of society in particularly brutal fashion.
Here Ballard treads a line of explicitness in particularly impressive fashion. What we ‘see’ through the eyes of the three leads is certainly horrific, yet more is merely suggested building an astonishing picture of decline both externally and internally for the characters and those they encounter with virtually no taboo left un-suggested.
What adds to all this is how, for much of the novel, we are never quite sure if what we are told is actually happening or if it is some kind of mass delusion or even merely the delusion of just Laing, Wilder and Royal.
The fourth main character in the novel is the high-rise itself. Depicted by Ballard as a decaying beast with whims and moods as infrequent as those of its residents, it has the feel of a monster exerting some kind of hypnotic effect on those within while, in a vaguely symbiotic manner, being effected by them in return. Though we are left unsure whether it was the high-rise or the residents who are responsible for the process.
Beyond the literal story there is another level to things as, like all the best sci-fi (and despite the apparently contemporary setting it is definitely science fiction) High-Rise offers a message about the real world through its own twisted mirror.
While its message at the time was, arguably, a forewarning of Thatcherite Britain, it is just as relevant now when looking at the increasingly segregated society we could be heading towards in a ‘Brexit’ world where a horrific post-cultural creation like Donald Trump is in the running to be president of the USA.
In a less specific sense it looks at society as a whole and how, beneath the thin veneer we call civilisation and maintain through a kind unspoken mutual agreement, humans are just as, if not more, territorial and animalistic as any other species.
Ballard leaves us with the impression that no matter what we do mankind is destined to repeat this process time and again, stopping just short of suggesting a sense of mutually assured destruction, though such isn’t that big a leap to take following what is presented here.
As a novel then it is a gripping, tense, experience building in brutality, depravity and bleakness before a surprisingly subdued conclusion but as a wider allegory it still speaks volumes even forty years after its original publication and goes beyond even Wheatley’s famed excesses in both content and message.