high riseAnarchy in the sky, but could it ever happen? When all responsibility is taken over by the management, would people revert to childhood, trash their homes and services, and resort to drunkenness, violence and aggressive, opportunistic sex. Would the lack of external constraint release our basic emotional animal selves?

These are the questions, being asked in J.G. Ballard’s novel, ‘High Rise’, which my daughter, Esther, gave me for my birthday. He describes the latest concept in inner city living for young professionals: new high-rise apartment blocks designed to take over all the responsibility for domestic life. Not only are all the utilities and services provided by the company, but the blocks also contain their own recreation facilities – swimming pool, gymnasiums, restaurants, cinemas, a play area for children and meeting and event space for their parents, and their own supermarkets, shopping centre and banks. Each tower block is a self contained town; 1000 full equipped homes in the sky with views over the city. There is no need to go out except to work, but nowadays many could work on-line from their apartment. It is a new concept in living; an architects dream that within weeks turned into a nightmare.

It starts innocently enough with noisy ‘get to know each other’ parties. Bottles are tossed over balconies, casual liaisons formed and then broken. Then within days, delays in getting elevators lead to tensions.  Those living on the top few floors have their own express elevators, epitomising  a vertical gradient in status and income, the richer celebrities and top executives on the top, the professional classes in the middle and the nurses, air hostesses, shop managers, bank officials towards the bottom.  This leads to factionalism and eventually conflict.

As the inhabitants lose control, so the building itself starts to fail, first the electricity – whole floors are blacked out for a time. The garbage disposal chutes become blocked. People dump their rubbish in the foyer or throw it over the balcony. The cars in the front few rows of the car park are wrecked by falling bottles. Then the elevators fail and the stairwells are blocked by rubbish, the water supply is cut off, the sewage system fails and  swimming pools become open sewers.

People form themselves into gangs, raiding parties that trash the apartments on the upper floors, attacked the inhabitants, rape the women. There is no food, the shelves in the supermarket have been cleared. People resort to killing pets that are by now running feral throughout the building and cooking them over open fires lit from broken furniture on the balconies.  The furniture that is not burnt is used to barricade the apartments and stair wells.  As the violence escalates, people are killed and most likely also eaten.

Into the chaos, comes  Wilder, a self appointed war lord, his loins bare, his insignia emblazoned in lipstick across his chest, accompanied by his entourage of followers and sex slaves. The apartment town achieves a kind of stability, organised by violence and fear, as strict rules are established, punishable by death.

High Rise is a disturbing and unrealistic dystopia. Realists might question how people go  to work as normal during the day, but always return to their urban jungle at night, why many find the gang warfare and permissive sex exciting, why nobody informs the authorities and when asked, denies there is any trouble. Even the newsreader who reads the one o’clock news every day says nothing of the anarchy at home. The way Ballard wrote it, they just don’t care anymore, but wouldn’t their upbringing have equipped them with the self imposed constraints to live together?  Isn’t that what civilisation and socialisation imply?

I can’t imagine that Ballard meant High Rise to be taken literally. It is science fiction, what-if, a metaphor to think about, but close enough to other examples of societal breakdown in Berlin, Stalingrad, the Congo, Ruanda, and more recently in Mosul and Aleppo. Axel Munthe wrote how during the plague in Naples, when all civic control had broken down and people were dying in their thousands, the survivors were openly having sex with each other in the city squares, on fountains, benches, everywhere. Trauma disconnects the thinking brain so that people can behave  like animals and follow their basic emotional drives until somebody asserts strict control, which they follow without question, like Bettleheim’s Musselmen, the walking corpses, who marched to their death in the gas chambers in Buchenwald or the followers of ISIS.

But when people first moved into the tower black, they were not traumatised, they could still think. The trauma came later. So what caused them lose control? Was it some kind of mass hysteria, like an unstoppable contagion? Helen Wilder said it was the tower that made them behave so out of control, but it is difficult to see how or why.  Why would everybody become so irresponsible just because they were living in a luxury high rise? There would surely  be some who wouldn’t.

I cannot agree that High Rise is JG Ballard’s best novel, though there are echoes of the Japanese camp in ‘The Empire of the Sun’ The themes of vandalism, sectionalism and flagrant sexuality are somewhat repetitive and disturbing. The high rise society deteriorated too rapidly The best metaphors have to be credible. This is too divorced from reality to suspend disbelief. The metaphor is flawed.

Ballard wrote High Rise in 1975, at around the time, high rise tower blacks were being constructed in every major city in Britain.  His apocalyptic vision has not been realised, but only this year the vulnerability of high rise buildings to fire has been exposed in West London.

 

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