My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s strange that English writing should have contributed a certain kind of adjectival author to literature. Obviously you can make a meaningful adjective out of any famous writer’s name, but the type of author I have in mind is more specific, one who usually 1. is devoted to the shorter forms; 2. has a ruthlessly coherent and singular suite of settings, characters, and plots; 3. writes in a readily identifiable signature style, often characterized by a deceptively dry mimicry of essayism; 4. eschews realism of content and deeply psychological characterization in favor of fantasy, allegory, or philosophy; and 5. tends to communicate a pessimistic or nihilistic metaphysic, often with a despairing quietist anti-politics. Kafkaesque, Lovecraftian, Borgesian, Sebaldian.
And to this lexicon, modern English literature has contributed “Ballardian,” a word that conjures a vision of atavistic modernity. The central idea of the Ballardian is that by covering the world in automated and mechanized processes, we have made obsolete the older fortifications of the fragile human ego—the soul, the self, reason, morality—and have released ourselves again to nature. Ballard crystallizes this dizzying idea in a set of iconic images that hover around his name: end-of-the-world scenarios wherein jungle or desert swallow the cityscapes, erotic frenzies amid the car-wrecks and Brutalist housing blocks, somnolent ritual violence in the sunshine among the bored and privileged in pastel resorts—all presided over by the voice of a wry, dispassionate analyst (Ballard’s early training was medical), who lets his passion slip only in bursts of lyricism or metaphor.
If I say that English literature is an unexpected source for such a corpus, it is because the writers of England—ground zero of industrial modernity—have tended either to raise protests against technology and urbanism (Blake, Ruskin, Lawrence, Winterson) or to attempt to humanize and naturalize them (Shelley, Dickens, Woolf, McEwan). Ballard’s method of following the logic of our mechanization ruthlessly to its conclusion, humanity be damned, has been more of a Continental or American speciality (e.g., see here for my comparison of Ballard to Marinetti). And the Shanghai-born Ballard was, like so many of the less melioristic modern English writers (Conrad, Eliot, Lessing, Ishiguro), from somewhere else. His influence accordingly has been felt across media, not concentrated in literature and certainly not the mainstream of literary fiction nor in one national tradition: think only of Neuromancer, Blade Runner, Watchmen, Joy Division, and all that has followed from them in and beyond their respective forms or genres.
The concept of High-Rise, an eminently Ballardian novel, is simple: the titular building has just been erected outside of London and, as the story begins, it has reached “critical mass” or full occupancy. Its residents range from the lower-middle-class denizens of the bottom floors (service-tier workers in media, finance, medicine, education, etc.) to the professionals of the middle floors (doctors, lawyers, professors) to the rich of the upper floors (executives, senior academics, surgeons).
Soon a class war breaks out among the three factions and open violence ensues: children are threatened and pets slaughtered, people are harassed, robbed, raped, and eventually murdered. Services break down, garbage lines the corridors, different factions control different elevators, and one of the building’s swimming pools becomes a mass grave. Through most of this, the characters continue to go to and from their jobs, keeping a secret of the war zone they live in. Ballard’s suggestion is that they enjoy it too much to want it to end: living in a space that has absolutely freed them from nature and labor has liberated them to recreate the proverbial jungle.
The novel’s line of development is a de-evolution (based on a teleological model of history, implicitly sexist and Eurocentric), as post-industrial society returns to clan society, which itself gives way, the conclusion implies, to prehistoric matriarchy. At the end of the novel, the building’s surviving women, who had served as a harem for one or another apartment-block warlord for most of the story, commandeer the men. In literary terms, Ballard, using the allegorical and technical features of the modern novel and portraying the most up-to-date forms of technology and sociality, concludes his fiction in a time before the Oresteia .
Ballard provides a protagonist from each of the building’s three classes: Wilder, a filmmaker from the second floor; Laing, a psychiatrist and professor on the 25th floor; and Royal, the building’s architect, on the 40th floor. The middling Laing is at once the main protagonist and the least active, a passive figure who tends to follow the direction of events. The macho Wilder, by contrast, seeks to conquer the building by ascending to the very top, while the ethereal Royal, a scarred car-wreck victim who seems to have limped out of Crash, plots the perfection of the upper floors and the subjugation of those below. As biblioklept notes, the men’s names are flagrantly allegorical and they seem to stand in for Id, Ego, and Superego—appropriately, since Ballard, at least at this point in his career, construed his work as a Freud-inflected reorientation of science fiction toward what he called “inner space.” The absence of an actual working class seems to be part of Ballard’s point: in a post-industrial society, the absence of any class that has contact with material reality is itself the spur to regressive violence.
As social prophecy, High Rise superficially seems dated, governed as it is by the midcentury topos of the psychosocial problems posed by the affluent and administered society, before the New Right in the Reagan/Thatcher years took advantage of the dystopian mood and de-administered society in ways that the ’60s avant-garde had not imagined. But if you squint at the novel and replace the vertical material space of its high-rise with the horizontal immaterial space of the Internet, an all-out brutal and atavistic war between factions of the professional and cultural middle classes starts to sound like a reasonable prediction.
High Rise, though, might have been shorter by half: the novel’s concept and the descriptive prose are almost enough to convey its vision without an extended treatment of repeating events, cluttered with exposition and traditional novelistic free indirect discourse. Ballard, as he admitted in many interviews, treats characters like psychic functions and social types, not inwardly rich figures; thus, they are only interesting to observe for so long. Ballard’s prose, though, is as neo-Decadent as ever, richly sensuous in its description of the disgusting and campily self-aware in its own melodramatic approach to the breakdown it describes:
By contrast with the calm and unencumbered geometry of the concert-hall and television studios below him, the ragged skyline of the city resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis.
However much Ballard may see himself as in the tradition of Wells or Orwell, issuing not predictions but warnings, he plainly enjoys staging, over and over again, spectacles in which we discover the roiling violence and archaic desire not so much beneath as within our most advanced social constructs. He can be a kind of psychic relief to read, as you find all your most hideous thoughts echoed with precision and beauty. And the whole novel should almost certainly be read as outrageous comedy, of the nervous-laughter variety.
Not the least of Ballard’s attractions is that his work, loveless and gorgeous, tends to disconfirm most of today’s schoolteacher arguments about how fiction can be good for you, can improve society with critical thinking and empathy (our endless, nauseating justifications for literature are perhaps a symptom of literature’s now resting almost entirely in the hands of educators). The erstwhile medical student is not interested in curing the human condition but in helping us to know it for the terminal state it is: ruined, violent, technological, primordial, ritualistic, obsessive, visionary, erotic—Ballardian.