I was walking to work recently and I was thinking about J. G. Ballard, I’m not sure why. For some reason J. G. Ballard popped into my head, and I had a hankering after reading something by him, something I hadn’t read before. I was thinking about islands, books about islands and what motivates them and the themes they engender: survival, breakdown or absence of social structures, limited resources, enclosure, isolation. I had started to write a novel about a woman cast adrift on an island and was finding myself dissatisfied with the setting, with the cliché of it, the inability to write anything new on the subject. Then I thought about Ballard.
Ballard writes about islands. This thought hit me with an unexpected force. I have read a few books by Ballard: The Drowned World, The Unlimited Dream Company, Empire of the Sun, Crash. All these books involve islands of sorts, even Crash in which the ‘island’ is the motor car and within it and surrounding it a new kind of social order emerges. I had heard about Concrete Island – a story of a man who crashes on a traffic island and becomes trapped there – and, of course, High Rise in which the story takes place entirely within a tower block. All these are islands. I realised that reading Ballard could inform my work. Of course, thinking about Ballard and his personal history this island theme is no surprise, and perhaps rather than islands it is more that Ballard focuses on enclosed environments in which the normal rules of social order are shattered – and knowing his early childhood spent in a Japanese prison camp in Shanghai, that this subject is the primary fodder for his work is perhaps not too surprising.
They had High Rise in my local library, so that’s where I started. The story focuses on three men: Robert Laing, a doctor (there is often a doctor in Ballard’s novels – reflecting his training as a doctor which he abandoned); Anthony Royal an architect responsible for some of the building’s structure, a man who was injured in a car crash (yes!) and who Laing has been aiding in his recuperation; Richard Wilder, a TV journalist and some time friend to Robert Laing. The men are connected, and each live in distinct hierarchies within the high rise: Wilder on the lower floors, Laing in the centre, Royal in the penthouse suite on the roof. At the beginning of the novel, the last tenant of the high rise has just moved in and the building is now complete, self-contained. Within the high rise is everything the tenants might need: supermarket, liquor store, school, swimming pools, hairdresser. Almost immediately, Ballard sets up the sense that the high rise takes over from the ‘natural’ environment, and its design is somehow key to the events which then take place therein:
“The high-rises seemed almost to challenge the sun itself – Anthony Royal and the architects which had designed the complex could not have foreseen the drama of confrontation each morning between these concrete slabs and the rising sun. It was only fitting that the sun first appeared between the legs of the apartment blocks, raising itself over the horizon as if nervous of waking this line of giants. During the morning, from his office on the top floor of the medical school, Laing would watch their shadows swing across the parking-lots and empty plazas of the project, sluice gates opening to admit the day. For all his reservations, Laing was the first to concede that these huge buildings had won their attempt to colonize the sky.”
This is, perhaps, another pre-occupation of Ballard’s work: the way in which the environment shapes the people within it. At the point of completion, a change takes place within the high rise. Almost immediately, the social order begins to break down. There are parties which become increasingly wild, bottles thrown from windows damaging the cars parked in the car park below. Aggression towards women and children, a sense of violence in the air, breakdown of shared resources – elevators, waste disposal, air-conditioning. There is an aura of insomnia, with noise and parties going on until the early hours of the morning. Yet life continues almost as normal. People go to work in the morning in a civilised manner, and no one talks about what is happening in the high rise.
Prescience is a word which is often associated with Ballard, and this is no less true in relation to High Rise. I was stalled out of the book when I read the following paragraph, written in 1975, which seems to predict the world of social media and which reflects the polarisation of life within the high rise of the book, the point at which the building splits into three: the lower classes in the lower floors – the first to lose their lights and air-conditioning -, the middle classes in the centre playing the lower and upper floors off against each other, the upper classes at the top maintaining their semblance of civilisation whilst being the first to commit atrocious acts of violence. But before I go on, here is Ballard, ever prescient:
“Perhaps the recent incidents represented a last attempt by Wilder and the airline pilots to rebel against this unfolding logic? Sadly, they had little chance of success, precisely because their opponents were people who were content with their lives in the high-rise, who felt no particular objection to an impersonal steel and concrete landscape, no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organisations, and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusion, using them for their own purposes. These people were the first to master a new kind of twentieth century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.”
What follows is a descent into violence, sexual violence, degradation, starvation. Someone intentionally drowns a dog. The building turns into a free-for-all battle zone, with stairwells turned into war zones, barricaded against the ‘enemy’ being anyone from a different floor. The three men: Royal, Laing, Wilder become representatives of their zone. Wilder becomes obsessed with the idea of reaching the upper floors, confronting Royal who he perceives as the ‘king’ of the high rise. He reaches it once, only to be violently slung back to the ground with the rest of the waste. Yet he doesn’t give up. Laing hovers in the middle, cementing his territory, collecting his women and hunkering down. Royal is waiting for Wilder on the roof, anticipating the violence to come with a sick relish. As he describes here:
“Royal stepped down on to the roof deck. He enjoyed the hostile gaze of the birds sitting on the elevator heads. The sense of a renascent barbarism hung among the overturned chairs and struggling palms, the discarded pair of diamante sunglasses from which the jewels had been picked. What attracted the birds to this isolated realm on the roof? As Royal approached, a group of the gulls fived into the air, soaring down to catch the scraps flung from a balcony ten floors below them. They fed on the refuse thrown into the car-park, but Royal liked to think that their real motives for taking over the roof were close to his own, and that they had flown here from some archaic landscape, responding to the same image of the sacred violence to come. Fearing that they might leave, he frequently brought them food, as if to convince them that the wait would be worth their while.”
There is always an edge of violence, the descent into chaos and pure will in Ballard’s work, quite probably informed by his experiences in the prison camp. Whilst the unwillingness to talk, the unwillingness to escape from the high rise seems implausible, I couldn’t help feeling that it is this very fact that Ballard is seeking to warn us about. His own experiences have shown how the breakdown of the social order to which we cling – the ideas of justice, of civilisation, of honour and righteousness – are a thin barrier holding back our inherently violent nature, in which whatever we want is there for the taking if only we are powerful enough, violent enough, depraved enough to grab it. Yet though they may be seemingly mere sexual pawns in the men’s violent game, Ballard never underestimates the women and, in the end, they may become the ultimate rulers of the high rise…