14 November 1975
J G Ballard
Jonathan Cape £2.95
Reviewed by Martin Amis on New Statesman
Towards the end of Auden and Isherwood’s The Ascent of F6, Ransom, the Oedipal, megalomaniac hero, is about to scale the last heights of the mountain when he is told that the local demon will be awaiting him on the summit. Ransom climbs on alone, and as he reaches the summit unharmed – his great moment of personal and public triumph – he sees a small hooded figure on the crest, facing away from him. He approaches the demon, it turns – and it is his mother. Folding on to the ground, Ransom feels his life begin to drain away, as the demon sings him a tender lullaby which is also his dirge. J G Ballard’s High-Rise is a harsh and ingenious reworking of the F6 theme, displaced into the steel-and-concrete landscapes of modern urban life.
The high-rise, with its 1,000 overpriced apartments, swimming-pools and shopping concourses, is what Ballard calls “the vertical city”, and to begin with its residents observe conventional class and territorial demarcations (“upper”, “lower” and “middle” levels), showing resentment, expediency and disdain for their fellow citizens in much the same way as life is run in the outside world. Soon, though, the enclosed nature of the building has encouraged and intensified these aggressions beyond any clear analogy with external society. After various piracies and beatings-up, the class system within the high-rise deteriorates as readily as the building itself, becoming a filthy warren of violent, apathetic or paranoid enclaves. Drunken gangs storm through the blacked-out corridors; women are found raped and murdered in defused elevators; disposal chutes are clogged with excrement, smashed furniture and half-eaten pets. Eventually the high-rise takes on that quality common to all Ballardian loci: it is suspended, no longer to do with the rest of the planet, screened off by its own surreal logic.
Ballard being Ballard, though, High-Rise is no ordinary stroll down atavism lane. The mental journey undertaken by these colonists of the sky is not a return to “nature”; it is a return to the denurtured state of childhood: “For the first time since we were three years old what we do makes absolutely no difference,” enthuses one of the affluent anarchists. Ballard’s stranded characters have always been more than half in love with their lethal and unnerving environments, and the delinquents of the high-rise are soon completely defined by their new psychopathological “possibilities”. One of the most ghostly and poignant scenes in the book has a middle-echelon psychiatrist attempting to leave his barricaded slum and return to work at his medical college; he gets as far as the car-park before the shrill clarity of the outdoors sends him running back to the affectless and soupy warmth of the high-rise, satisfied that he will never try to leave it again. In the closing pages, as hauntingly wayward as anything Ballard has written, the retrograde logic of the high-rise is fulfilled, when the passive, derelict women emerge as the final avengers.
I hope no one wastes their time worrying whether High-Rise is prescient, admonitory, sobering and whatnot. For Ballard is neither believable nor unbelievable, just as his characterisation is merely a matter of “roles” and his situations merely a matter of “context”: he is abstract, at once totally humourless and entirely unserious. The point of his visions is to provide him with imagery, with opportunities to write well and this seems to me to be the only intelligible way of getting the hang of his fiction. The prose of High-Rise may not have the baleful glare of that of Crash or Vermillion Sands, but the book is an intense and vivid beastiary, which lingers unsettlingly in the mind.