Book reviews by Mobilism's Book Review team
May 12th, 2019, 2:15 pm
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Title: High-Rise
Author: J. G. Ballard
Published: 1975
Genre: Fiction > Science Fiction > Dystopian Modernity
Rating: ★★★★

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Manufacturing a Dark and Barbarous Consent.

This is one of Ballard's mid-period books, where he's supposed to have moved away from his early, more overtly science fiction works of a post-apocalyptic nature. Instead, his mid-period work seems to concentrate on dystopian contexts in the very near future, just "five minutes ahead". Ballard seems especially interested in charting out the effects of technology and modern environments on the frail human psyche, and High-Rise seems to be a perfect example of this description. It's a short, fast-paced psychological thriller that brings out the horrific qualities of man’s depredations from an unexpected angle, and where the modern setting itself plays a key and active role. Even the first line startles. It sets the tone perfectly, as if Ballard is intent on enlightening the reader on society’s basest instincts in as off-handed and casual a manner as possible.

The setting is a sophisticated, self-sufficient modern apartment complex, a high-rise a short ways away from the outskirts of London in 1975. It's one building in a massive project consisting of four or five such towers and is the first to be completed. The story begins with the full occupation of the first completed building, tenanted by educated and cosmopolitan professionals from all walks of life. Through the viewpoints of three characters, the life of this small, wealthy community is charted from its vibrant genesis to its eventual moral and ethical degeneration.

What's remarkable is Ballard's style, and the sure-handed manner in which he subtly paints these changes that seem to come without any conspicuous demarcation but are clearly felt by all, both the characters and the reader. The setting turns dystopian, quite literally apocalyptic in nature as a veil is lifted off the comfortable status quo. An inexorable change is revealed, of old social modes reasserting themselves within a community of modern individuals. These roles point to a renascent violence that seems charged by a subconscious compulsion—later, almost wilful—to do away with modern accoutrements and resort to primitive, tribal communes.

Many novels trace the development of characters based on situations and settings in which they find themselves. With this work, there’s also a remarkably surreal, reverse aspect at play: the actions and changing temperaments of characters shaped by the setting themselves end up expounding on the nature of this modern edifice that is the high-rise. And this seems to point to Ballard's underlying criticism, that post-WWII modernity is an unstable state perverting the psyche in unexpected, usually negative ways.

There is an observation that Dorinda Outram makes in her work The Enlightenment that has always stayed with me, and it came to mind when thinking on this psychological thriller. She summarises in her introduction certain remarks by Horkheimer and Adorno from their Dialectic of Enlightenment published near the close of WWII. This passage is particularly apposite to Ballard's work:
Outram wrote:The Enlightenment relies on ‘rationality’, reasoning which is free from superstition, mythology, fear and revelation, which is often based on mathematical ‘truth’, which calibrates ends to means, which is therefore technological, and expects solutions to problems which are objectively correct.

But it is notorious that human beings often fail to arrive at rational solutions. Having given up non-rational ways of explanations such as mythology or revelation, the only way to resolve such differences was by the use of force. At the heart of the Enlightenment lurks political terror. Horkheimer and Adorno thus argued that the Enlightenment had left no legacy which could resist the technologically assured man-made death of the Holocaust.

Just as the gas ovens and trains represented one dark facet of the zenith of the Enlightenment ethos that contributed to a Holocaust, the high-rise in Ballard’s novel can also be seen to represent a paradox in the form of a modern technological triumph that disenfranchises its inhabitants and ultimately gives way to an encroaching barbarity, its own unique brand of “political terror”. Technology is usually seen as the mark of progress and advancement of civilisation. But Ballard’s high-rise completely inverts this notion when he places the natural vagaries of human nature in an environment accelerated by technology, an environment to which our primitive psyches have yet to fully adjust.

What's perhaps more disturbing than anything else is the tenants’ near-complete acquiescence to this barbarity, as well as the tacit agreement to keep the gradually escalating horrors away from the public sphere which, strangely, the insidious nature of the complex seems to foster. The novel’s end leaves a queasy feeling in one's gut, and you wonder whether Locke’s appealing sentimentality of man’s essentially reasonable nature is misguided after all, that it might instead be better to take Hobbes’ lessons on the ‘state of nature’ more to heart. This couldn’t be clearer as the spiralling devolution of a character is traced to an atavistic state so base and primitive that even the need for speech becomes difficult or unnecessary or pointless, or collectively all three.

Ballard writes very well. He narrates this particular story with a detached and clinical precision, detailing the relationship of each point-of-view character with the larger community and approaching their variegated thought processes in relation to their social classes and backgrounds. While his writing may be detached, the characters are not, despite some of them initially feigning nonchalance in the face of deteriorating circumstances. And neither is the mounting sense of unease and dread that afflicts in the reading.

It's an intense work that illustrates the clash of modern technological lifestyles on our animalistic dispositions, although the scenario Ballard presents is extreme, a frightening caricature. But as a cautionary tale on the disenfranchisement that our vaunted modernity can affect, it works superbly. The only caveat: if his other works are similarly unsettling and psychologically taxing, then one might require periods of convalescence between reads. And if this example is anything to go by, then the adage “a little bit goes a long way” couldn’t be more appropriate. Or perhaps I just unknowingly jumped into the deep end of Ballard’s psyche.
May 12th, 2019, 2:15 pm