High-Rise – JG Ballard

This book was mentioned briefly in a science programme on TV. I can’t remember the science programme but the book is worth a read if you have nothing else. It’s set in a 40 storey apartment block. It’s about the divisions that arise amongst the residents as the services start to decay and tensions grow. The block is stratified by class, the richest to the topmost floors the poorest to the bottom. This is presented as a natural layering of people within a high-rise as the more expensive suites are always the upper floors. Interestingly enough though, the poorest here are not what I would describe as poor, flight crew, hairdressers, TV people. All office type workers, as we go up the floors so we run through the medical professions, more media people, then in the upper storeys we have the architect and other ‘top’ professions. Ballard identifies three strata and the story follows one person from each of these strata, a chapter or two on each before returning to the first again, but always the story moves on. Not a great deal is happening, but the social tension grows, one death early on then more as the high-rise society breaks down. One thing I noticed, apart from there apparently being no-one from a manual trade resident in the building, is that as things are breaking down an awful lot of people are recording the breakdown. Filming rather than helping. The book was written in the late 1970s and so pre-dates the mobile phone and YouTube, but it’s interesting that if the situation was to happen today then we would be able to follow it closely on the internet, we would be more interested in filming that helping others.

Another point which stands out quite prominently, and is perhaps a major weakness in the book, is the role of women in the book. None of the main characters are women, the few women who do appear are weak and ‘need’ to be dominated by the male main characters. Women are either mothers or objects of desire. As I got further through the book so this came much clearer, it was as if Ballard was defining the role of women in a society which starts to fail. Maybe that was the perception of their role in the 1970s when the book was written but thinking has changed significantly since then and I feel that had the book been written in the 21st century the women would have been defined with much more prominent and influential roles. As it is they are merely unrealistic shades of women.

It’s worth a read I guess, if only to see the way women are portrayed or visualised has changed over recent decades. Changing for the better no doubt, and continuing to do so. It’s also interesting to see how Ballard describes how the failure will be received by different people, though it is all a bit destructive, at no point is there any indication that anyone in the high-rise attempts to prevent the fall into savagery. It’s a bleak one-sided view of what could happen.

Initially I thought this book would make a good film, parts of it might, but it is stuck in a 1970s time-warp, maybe no surprise as it reflects the times it was written in, but that time-warp and those ideas are of that time. There is no point revelling in those past times.

It’s a sort of 1970s Lord of the Flies, set in a ‘modern’ Britain, but without the hope of a rescue at the end. Halfway through I had thoughts I might re-read this book in the future. Now I have finished it I am pretty certain I shan’t.

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