unusual events

June 15, 2019

High-Rise has a brilliant opening sentence, which is quintessentially Ballardian: ‘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’. The savagery is displaced to a subordinate clause, yet because it precedes the subject of the sentence it disturbs everything in the bland details that follow. High-Rise is about a slick, ultra-modern 40-storey tower of a thousand living units designed for a middle-class technocracy of surgeons, TV producers and ad executives. It is the modernist dream of the house as ‘a machine for living in’. It is presided over by the enigmatic architect, Anthony Royal, in the penthouse at the top of the building.

Almost as soon as the building reaches capacity, however, the social fabric of the high rise begins to disintegrate. Communal areas become flashpoints as clans from different floors begin to emerge and fight over territory. Social stratification strictly matches floor level. The metaphor of social climbing is rendered literal. The novel is focalised through three main characters, each an emblem of these emerging ‘clans’. Threats and intimidation escalate into violence, theft and raids on rival territories by warring parties. When a body falls from the roof, no one reports the incident, because the residents have now fully entered into a kind of tribal ‘primitivism’, where a murderous logic must be pursued to its end. Residents stop going to work or leaving the building, regressing into hunter-gatherer behaviours, living on the last tins of dog food and water scooped from toilet pans. The book ends once the main narrator, Robert Laing, has pursued his embrace of this perverse trajectory to its illogical conclusion. He comes to rest, ready to return to the outside world, as if his journey up the high rise has finally released all of his neurotic, middle-class repressions. The last paragraph shows the first signs of the same violence beginning to overtake the adjacent tower. The cycle is starting again.

Roger Luckhurst
An introduction to High-Rise