Imagine, if you will, the condition of the Olympic athletes’ village in Rio De Janiero for the 2016 Olympics. Constructed expressly for the 2016 Olympic Games, the apartment towers looked fine from the outside…but the actual fitness for occupancy was another matter entirely. Deficiencies included blocked toilets, electrical issues, leaking pipes, collapsed sinks, water-logged ceilings, filthy floors and more. Many delegations refused to stay in the dorms, opting instead for motels or other accommodations.
Ballard’s High-Rise suffers from the same issue. High-Rise is the literary equivalent of a multi-story residential unit being constructed in haste without any regard for building codes or long-term consequences or habitation. The premise is intriguing and everything looks fine until you actually move into the book…and that’s when doorknobs come off in your hand and you find black mold in the grout.
Written in 1975, the plot of the story is simple: 2,000 people move into an exclusive high-rise, the first 40 story tower of a four tower development. The elite inhabit the top floors, the upper middle-class inhabit the middle floors, and the bottom floors are inhabited by the grasping middle-class and professionals looking to scramble up the social ladder. Tensions quickly build in the high-rise, resulting in escalating conflicts between various strata of the building, then individual floors and finally singular residents.
High-Rise finds itself in allegorical territory, with Ballard making disapproving statements about class division, modern obsessions with status, postmodern social alienation, the fragile nature of modern romantic and familial relationships, etc. The closest literary comparison I can think of is The Lord of the Flies…but it’s a comparison that does a disservice to Golding’s seminal work.
Whereas Lord of the Flies serves as an allegory, it also tells an actual story, replete with characters, conflict, and a resolution. None of that is present in High-Rise. The characters are at best one-dimensional placeholders and at worst they are clumsy stand-ins for Ideas…see the laughably named Royal, the building monarch who rules from the 40th-floor penthouse, or the equally transparent label of the bestial Wilder, who lives on the lower level but spends his time at the end of the story raping and pillaging as he ascends the tower, his “heavy genitals” exposed, wearing nothing but unzipped cutoff shorts and heavy lipstick warpaint scrawled across his “barrel chest.”
There isn’t a story so much as there is a series of vignettes that link together various descriptions of the nasty things ugly people do when locked into a hellish environment of their own creation. None of it is believable—apparently, 2,000 London professionals and Important Members of Society just disappear and nobody thinks to come over to the high-rise looking for them.
The tenants of the tower can free themselves from the self-imposed Darwinian nightmare at any time but don’t. All that Laing, Wilder or Royal needs to do is step outside of the building, and the nightmare ends. Contrast this to the setup in Lord of the Flies where the microcosm of the island, and the conflict that drives the story, exists because there is no escape. There is nowhere for Ralph, Jack, and the rest to go; the geography and story force the characters to meet in a head-on collision, whereas the residents High-Rise can simply walk out the front door. I mean, who wouldn’t want to spend their days roaming the unlit stairwells with a club made out of a table leg, foraging for canned food or a dog to skin and eat, and then capping off the night by finding a neighbor to rape and brutalize?
The fatal flaw of High-Rise is that the reader has no reason to become invested in the story. Outside of a premise that shows promise, the unlikeable characters and an unbelievable story make High-Rise uninhabitable from the very first chapter.