J.G. Ballard's High-Rise explores the heights of unreason and the architecture of savagery
The visionary British writer, whose novel High-Rise has just been turned into a film by Ben Wheatley, investigated the links between the world we've built and extreme states of being
J.G. Ballard's High-Rise, published 40 years ago and soon to be seen on cinema screens in a film adaptation directed by Ben Wheatley, begins with one of the most arresting first sentences in 20th-century literature: "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."
High-Rise is the final part of a quartet of novels - the first three are The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash (1973) and Concrete Island (1974), with each book seeded in the previous one. Thematically High-Rise follows on from Concrete Island with its typically Ballardian hypothesis: "Can we overcome fear, hunger, isolation, and find the courage and cunning to defeat anything that the elements can throw at us?" What links all of them is the exploration of gated communities, physical and psychological, a theme that is suggestive of Ballard's childhood experiences interned by the Japanese in a prisoner-of-war camp on the outskirts of Shanghai in the 1940s (which he explored in Empire of the Sun, the autobiographical novel turned into a film by Steven Spielberg). It was, he always claimed, an experience he enjoyed.
The built environment is not a backdrop; rather, it is integral and distinctive in its recurring imagery - from abandoned runways to curvilinear flyovers and those endlessly mysterious drained swimming pools. Perhaps more than any other writer, Ballard focused on his characters' physical surroundings and the effects these had on their psyches. Ballard, who died in 2009, was also interested in the latent content of buildings, what they represented psychologically. Or, as he once obliquely put it, "does the angle between two walls have a happy ending?" - by which he meant that we project narrative on to external reality, that the imagination remakes the world. In Ballard's fiction, nothing is taken at face value.
In High-Rise and Concrete Island especially, Ballard examines the flip side to what he called the "overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography" that The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash mapped out. Under-imagined or liminal spaces, such as multistorey car parks and motorway flyovers, act as metaphors for the parts of ourselves that we ignore or are unaware of. His characters are often forced to assess their physical surroundings and, by extension, themselves, rather than to take them for granted.
Ballardian space - what he called "inner space", to differentiate it from the science fiction that concerned itself with distant planets and space rockets - is in fact a fusion of inner and outer space. There is no "out there" totally separate from his characters; just as there is no exclusively private, isolated inner life. His most psychologically fulfilled characters look to transcend their physical surroundings, however hostile, by embracing them.
The obsessive manner in which Ballard came to use the built environment in this way began with his short story The Terminal Beach in 1964, in which a man called Traven finds himself on an abandoned atomic testing site on a Pacific atoll after his wife and young son have died in a car crash. The abstract lexicon in the story evokes a prison - there are mazes, blocks, bunkers, cells, corridors, aisles. His mind jumps from one fractured event to another in a kind of short circuit. Time becomes "quantal" just like the blocks on the island. There is no past, no future - just an endless, eventless present. He chooses to stay there with the ever intensifying hallucinations of his dead family rather than be rescued (he hides from a search team when they come on to the island). Traven doesn't so much embrace his surroundings as become them.
In Concrete Island, Ballard maroons the architect Robert Maitland, Crusoe-like, in a triangular interzone of a motorway intersection, armed only with "a tool-kit, some architectural journals and six bottles of white Burgundy". The situation he finds himself trying to escape is an extended metaphor for Maitland's personal life, trapped in the dead space between himself, his wife and his mistress.
Ballard kept repeating his mantra that "In a totally sane society, madness is the only freedom". In the chilling novella Running Wild (1988), set in a suburban gated community in Berkshire, the lives of the residents are a paralysing middle-class carousel of ordered sterility. Ballard details how this terminal boredom leads affectless children to kill their parents - and get away with it.
In High-Rise, over the course of three months, a 40-storey block housing 2,000 residents - "a small vertical city" - descends from civilisation to tribalism to hunter-gatherer savagery (there is even a suggestion of cannibalism), in a kind of mass psychosis where they retreat from the outside world. Though Ballard was not a political writer in a narrow party sense, it can certainly be read as a premonition of the selfish Thatcherite society to come - a man-eat-dog society as well as a dog-eat-dog one.
High-Rise has a clearly Freudian element to its three protagonists. Richard Wilder (played in the film by Luke Evans) represents the id; Dr Robert Laing (clearly referring to R.D. Laing, the author of The Divided Self, and played by Tom Hiddleston) is the ego; and the building's architect, Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons), who lives in one of its penthouse apartments, is the superego. The tower block and the wider city are conceived of as living organisms, of having a consciousness of their own. "Like a huge and aggressive malefactor, the high-rise was determined to inflict every conceivable hostility upon them." The calming lines of the rectilinear tower contrast with "the ragged skyline of the city" which "resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis".
The residents actually enjoy the breakdown of the building's services, and the growing confrontation between the floors. But this is no class war - the residents are all middle-class professionals - it's territorial, atavistic.
There were many architectural inspirations for High-Rise - Le Corbusier's Cité Radieuse in Marseilles, the Montparnasse tower in Paris - but the closest model is probably the brutalist Balfron Tower in east London, not far from where Ballard puts his cluster of five blocks. Its architect, Ernö Goldfinger, like Royal, lived in one of the penthouse flats shortly after its completion, but moved back to Hampstead after only a few months.
High-Rise's producer, Jeremy Thomas, had been trying to get the novel filmed for nearly 40 years. An early Paul Mayersberg script set it in the middle of the desert in Arizona, and a more recent adaptation for the director Vincenzo Natali located it on a floating Burj Khalifa-like megatower - ideas that miss the central point that the building is mentally, rather than physically, cut off from the city; the structure turns its back on the metropolis by choice not circumstance.
For filmmakers it's a challenge to convey Ballardian space, not only because of the technical difficulties in rendering "inner space" but also because all his fiction is in a sense set in the near future - what he called "the next five minutes". David Cronenberg's Crash (1997) has probably managed this best, successfully relocating the Westway, a dual carriageway in west London, to an anonymous Toronto.
Wheatley's film, scripted by Amy Jump, is set in London in the 1970s, when the book is set. "It's a moment in design that looked to the future and was still excited about it," he says. "Now we mainly see dystopia or a white, shiny iPod future. The idea of a book looking to a future that has already happened and making a film looking back to the past to show a possible future was interesting."
Cloistered, self-enclosed environments like the high-rise were taken up again at the end of Ballard's career in another series: Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and his final fiction, Kingdom Come (2006). Here, Ballard looked at gated communities and the "nerve tonic of violence" that he claimed was needed in order to shock his characters out of the boredom brought about by consumer capitalism, where our most difficult moral decision is what colour kettle to have. These leisure complexes, business parks and shopping malls were now not just self-enclosed but often fortified, too.
Ballard argued that "people aren't moving into gated communities simply to avoid muggers and housebreakers - they're moving in … to get away from other people. Even people like themselves." In this way, Ballardian environments actively select for psychopathic traits and it's the egocentric Laing who is best adapted to the high-rise and who ultimately survives all the tower can throw at him. At the end of the novel he finds contentment as all the lights go out in another of the five towers, "ready to welcome them to their new world".