The Pequod Review:
Lord of the Flies meets American Psycho in J.G. Ballard's deliciously depraved novel High-Rise. From the book's opening sentence, it is immediately apparent that something has gone very wrong:
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.
Ballard's story circles back to describe the surreal events that take place over a three-month period in a modern 40-story luxury apartment building — "a small vertical city" in the center of London that contains nearly every modern convenience imaginable, including a gym, supermarket, bank, restaurants, etc. I don't want to spoil the plot's details (although the above sentence will give you a sense of the chaos to come) but suffice to say that the initially petty spats among the building's 2,000 affluent residents gradually escalate — or maybe degenerate is the better word — to the point of primitive savagery.
The book has some flaws that will matter more to some readers than others. Ballard's Freudian symbolism is quite crude, and certain character actions do not always make a lot of sense (nobody calls the police? or leaves?), to name just a couple. But if you can suspend disbelief and perhaps read this as fantasy or science fiction, it is a powerful and entertaining read. And Ballard's prose is full of carefully-polished observational nuggets:
Reluctantly, he knew that he despised his fellow residents for the way in which they fit so willingly into their appointed slots in the apartment buildings, for their overdeveloped sense of responsibility and lack of flamboyance.
Above all, he looked down on them for their good taste. The building was a monument to good taste, to the well-designed kitchen, to sophisticated utencils and fabrics, to elegant and never ostentatious furnishings. In short, to that whole aesthetic sensibility which these well-educated, professional people had inherited from all the schools of industrial design, all the award-winning schemes of interior decoration institutionalized by the last quarter of the century. Royal detested this orthodoxy of the intelligent. Visiting his neighbors’ apartments, he would find himself physically repelled by the contours of an award-winning coffee pot, but the well-modulated color schemes, by the good taste and intelligence that, Midas-like, had transformed everything in these apartments into an ideal marriage of function and design. In a sense, these people were the vanguard of a well-to-do and well-educated proletariat of the future, boxed up in these expensive apartments with their elegant furniture, and intelligent sensibilities, and no possibility of escape.
Without knowing it, he had constructed a gigantic vertical zoo, its hundreds of cages stacked above each other. All the events of the past few months made sense if one realised that these brilliant and exotic creatures had learned to open the doors.
It is nothing less than a joy to read such strong writing alongside a dark and subversive plot.