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Building Community

Class struggle, packs of wild dogs, group hunting, cannibalism, luxury high-rise apartments. J. G. Ballard has a way of using state of the art convenience as a device to deconstruct humankind to a primordial level.  In his novel or possibly novella, High-Rise, Ballard uses the human desire for convenience to undo the population of a massive apartment complex.

When the last of the 2,000 tenants enter the high-rise it seems as though a perfect community is being established. The grade school, multiple shopping centers, restaurants, grocery store, liquor store, swimming pools, gym, and observation deck/garden effectively remove the need to venture into the outside world. But things take a dystopic turn when simple acts of social disobedience such as partying too hard, or failing to dispose of garbage correctly begin to create friction between residents. From here Ballard just keeps doling out the worst of human nature. It becomes apparent very quickly that even though the 40 story high-rise is supposed to be a self-sufficient community, there is a division between the upper, middle and lower class tenants conveniently represented by the floors they live on.

Ballard chooses three point of view characters in Richard Wilder, the 2nd floor documentarian, Dr. Robert Laing, the 25th floor professor, and Anthony Royal, the designer of the high-rise who resides in the 40th floor penthouse. It’s difficult to describe any of these characters as a protagonist as all of them are portrayed in a pessimistically human way.  As with the rest of the tenants, their morality becomes questionable when the living situations within the isolated labyrinth deteriorate. Small annoyances are met with vile retaliation such as having pets defecate in offender’s hallways. Women are sexually assaulted by men from rival floors. Defiant war parties rise from the depths to the upper levels leaving destruction in their wake. Apartments are fortified for siege and tenants refuse to leave the structure for fear of being ransacked. It may be hard for some readers to understand just how things slip so far without police intervening, but Ballard focuses much of his attention on mob mentality and man’s capacity to destroy itself. At many points throughout the story, Laing expresses his desire to leave his office and return home early so he can see what madness has transpired over the course of the day. Instead of fearing the self-destructive nature of the tenants, he becomes enraptured by the chaotic reality that replaces his post-high-rise existence.

To say that High-Rise is monothematic is an understatement, but it isn’t a criticism. Ballard intentionally writes his characters as being negatively susceptible to the technology and commodities that surround them. The freedom and ease with which they can destroy themselves is always a major theme in his works. High-Rise can be thought of as an adult Lord of the Flies. The themes of groupthink, irrational reactions and morality/immorality are all prevalent in both, the only difference being there aren’t really characters that readers will support heavily in High-Rise.

High-Rise reads quickly and brutally with a strong sense of cynicism. At times it can be graphic, but Ballard isn’t out to shock readers with vivid descriptions of murder or violence, he leaves that up to you. – Kevin Corcoran, Interlibrary Loan

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