The opening line of this 1975 novel is characteristic of Ballard’s black ice humour. Though not known for it there is always humour in Ballard’s work – a man who wrote a piece called Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan can’t be a total stranger to comedy. Usually people know him for the surreally possible, and exploring what effects technology will have on the human psyche.
In this way, High Rise is no different. Exploring the effects of huge 1000-apartment buildings on their inhabitants’ behaviour, Ballard switches between characters and floors of the high-rise, which is segregated into lower, middle and upper in a reflection of the class system.
As with the classic Crash, Ballard drops shocking transgressions into established situations. A man walks in on a woman lying calmly on the floor as a cat eats away at her flesh, people casually eat cat food and strangle pets. Communicating these scenarios in a deadpan way, as though they should be expected by the reader, is one of J.G Ballard’s crowning attributes.
The way he tracks decay, both physical and mental, is perfectly timed. Once quoted as saying the most beautiful thing in the world was a drained swimming pool, Ballard writes of piss-stained stairwells, elevator buttons smashed to pieces. It’s interesting that, though written in 1975, when high-rises were a relatively new concept, nearly forty years later we would see some of his predictions come true, in the anonymity of housing and a certain loss of self in modern life.
If you’re new to J.G Ballard, this is possibly a good entry point – halfway between the masterful Crash and experimental The Atrocity Exhibition, but not as obscene as either. A great book where the author is hidden in perfect plotting and set pieces, High Rise is almost a character study of the titular building, with the inhabitants acting as stuttering cogs.