High-Rise by JG Ballard


I don’t want to give the impression that I’m just reading all the Hiddleston-related stuff but I kind of am. I read The Night Manager because the first episode of the series intrigued me but I read High-Rise because I didn’t know whether or not I wanted to watch the film.

I don’t.

I don’t entirely understand the book, to be honest. We have a lot of well-to-do people who find themselves, entirely by their own design, segregated from the rest of society and they immediately form a social strata within a social strata and all-out class war begins, with the outside world oblivious. Why does it begin? How does it get so bad so quickly? Is this really just humans being as bad as they really want to be when they perceive their inhibitions as being removed by their isolation?

It edges too close to horror for my taste. Murder, violence, cannibalism, vents, creeping around passageways in the dark, flickering lights, etc. I suppose it does hint at that quite heavily in the very first line:

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal, he was surprised that there had been no obvious beginning, no point beyond which their lives had moved into a clearly more sinister dimension.

That was the point at which I really should have guessed that this wasn’t going to be my sort of book. I’m good with violence up to a point – but maybe I cope with it better if it’s more stylised, more cartoonish. More unbelievable. Like the fights and battles you get in fantasy books. But eating a dog… well, I suppose it’s unbelievable but it’s visceral, it’s real, it’s horrible. And it gets worse.

I know I’m squeamish. I found this book compelling. I read most of it during a few lunchtimes at work (because it was just a little bit too much to read in bed in the dark in the evenings) and I really didn’t want to put it down to go back to work. I started comparing my work life to life in this high-rise. I mapped the social strata onto my own world and began to imagine everything breaking down in a similar way.

But I was also terrified of it. It’s so dark and claustrophobic and there are people creeping around and rioting and raping and eating each other. And all the characters are nasty people, or they become nasty people, at least. Tom Hiddleston can do all the angelic smiles and dance routines with cabin crew that he likes, Robert Laing is still not a person I want to go anywhere near.

And finally, another unsatisfactory ending. “Now that everything had returned to normal”? I disagree with that hugely. You’re sitting on a balcony eating a dog! In what way is that normal? No, I would have liked an ending that actually sorted everything out. Maybe it’s more unsettling to leave it with no real resolution. But that’s not something that really works for me. Your mileage may vary.


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