Tuesday, 12 January 2010

High-Rise - J G Ballard

The third of Ballard’s informal triptych of social commentary is a bleak picture of total social disintegration. A brand new high-rise development (somewhere close to the river), the first of a number of such blocks, fills with residents. This is not a bog-standard, council built tower block, but a luxury development containing shops, swimming pools, a school, roof gardens, and all modern conveniences. On the evening that the last apartment is occupied, parties take place and immediately the genteel jostling for position begins. The gentility does not last long. Petty tricks and spitefulness degenerate into open hostility. Services are vandalised, electricity cut off, and tribes begin to form.

The early stages of this disintegration are given in greater detail than the later, reflecting the break down in communication. This is also highlighted by the use of different points of view, jumping from one protagonist to another, seemingly at random. Toward the end of the book we are left with descriptions of the building and its few remaining inhabitants without any attempt to explain. This is a far more effective device that a straight narrative would have been. Much is left to the reader to fill in the gaps, although the gaps do not really need filling. No explanation is given for the collapse (although it does seem to follow patterns found in studies of overcrowding in sealed communities).

This is the bleakest of the triptych and perhaps reflects most accurately the inner vision of Ballard’s memories of the Second World War. Whilst the setting is different, the social set-up, the isolated community, the social disintegration – all stem from the same experience. All the familiar motifs (especially the deserted, rubbish strewn swimming pools) are there, heading toward their purest expression in Ballard’s most autobiographical piece of fiction. Along with its eerie ending, this is Ballard at his best.