Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Book Review - J.G. Ballard's High-Rise

High-Rise by J.G. Ballard
Published by: Liveright
Publication Date: 1975
Format: Paperback, 208 Pages
Rating: ★
To Buy

Two miles downriver from the City of London right on the Thames there's a new complex surrounding a small lake. On one side of the lake is a new medical school and television studio. On the other side there will be five identical high-rises reaching forty stories into the sky. The architecture by Anthony Royal may be brutal, creating a concrete landscape, but for Doctor Robert Laing moving from Chelsea into his 25th floor studio apartment in the first completed building, three floors above his sister Alice, he feels like he's traveled forward in time. He's now living in the future. The high-rise has a glut of conveniences, with a 10th floor concourse having a supermarket, bank, hair salon, as well as a swimming pool, and the 35th floor having fine dining, not to mention there's a school for the kids living in the high-rise. It's a small vertical city that has everything Laing needs. In fact with all the bored housewives and rumors of a brothel higher up the building is a sexual playground for the recently divorced Laing and his upstairs neighbor Charlotte Melville might just well be his first conquest. But when he arrives at Charlotte's he finds the unwelcome presence of Richard Wilder, a documentary filmmaker who lives down on the 2nd floor with his wife and two kids. While Laing and Wilder both work just across the compound soon they both feel reluctant to leave, a feeling which seems to be spreading. Soon there are breakdowns, garbage chutes not working, lights going off, elevators behaving erratically. Skirmishes arise between neighbors, whole floors band together to attack other floors further up the high-rise. Time becomes irrelevant as the violence escalates. Bodies start to pile up, canine, feline, human... Will anyone escape the lure of the high-rise and the desire to kill? As the first power outage hits the second building one wonders if the insanity will spread.

Usually I like a good rant. In fact back in high school when I first started writing reviews, though usually about art, I found that it was easier to write a negative review than a positive one. Because sometimes it's really hard to put your finger on what works but it's so much easier to know what doesn't work. Despite years and years of writing, let's not discuss how many years please, I do still find it easier to write a negative review, though I hope I've gotten better at communicating what makes something work for me, because I truly want to read only good books, but that is just a utopia that I fear will never exist unless I were to spend a year just re-reading my favorite books. All this brings me to High-Rise... this is a book that deserves the biggest longest rant I can give and yet, for the longest time, I just couldn't be bothered. It has been over a year and a half since I read this book and it has languished on my shelf for books I need to review. It's sitting there waiting. Waiting to be sold. Because that's right, the second this review is done off it goes to Half Price Books in the hopes that I can get something back for my time and energy. Such wasted energy. Even writing this now I'm like, why bother? I seriously don't know where this lassitude with regard to all things High-Rise comes from. I read this for my book club and most everyone really liked it. But I'm here just going, no. All the no for this book. Perhaps my differing opinion has led to me dragging my hells? Who knows. Yes, High-Rise has an interesting and plausible concept that is somehow timeless yet it just fails utterly in the execution. There are no characters likable or fascinating enough to be invested in. At no point did I relate to the situation or the people and therefore I just checked out.

A big turnoff is the treatment of animals. You know the website Does the Dog Die? where those who can't handle animal deaths go to vet (ha ha) a movie? Well, here it wouldn't just be one dead dog, it would be Laing roasting one on a spit for dinner. Yes, seeing as this flash forward happens on the first page I should have known what was to come. Yet somehow I thought that was just setting the apocalyptic tone and wasn't going to be something so graphically carried throughout the book. I was wrong. Reading so much of what happens in the high-rise actually made me physically sick. And it wasn't JUST the animals, women and homosexuals were treated just as badly. And I'd like to make it clear, I'm not saying the women and homosexuals are animals and should be treated that way, J.G. Ballard is. The women have two purposes, one is that the more women a man has in his harem, the more power he has. They are just a status symbol. The other purpose they serve is sexual release. Women are constantly being raped here. This book should just have a trigger warning placed on the cover. And while I see what Ballard is doing with showing what happens with the breakdown of a society, he seems to take glee in it. Violence just for the sake of violence making it impossible for the reader to become desensitized. While I should applaud Ballard for creating such a visceral book wherein violence never loses it's potency, I just can't because it made me sick. It's like that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex undergoes the Ludovico Technique, violence of this level just creates nausea in me.

And yet Ballard could have subverted this male dominated narrative and created a more balanced story. At the denouement of the book we learn that there's been a band of women roving the high-rise lead by a children's book writer. They have not only been protecting the children but meting out punishment on the men. Where is this in the rest of the book!?! Where is this story? Yes, it basically redacts what was happening in his narrative, but it's so quickly mentioned and pushed aside that you can't be 100% sure that this is what Ballard meant or what really happened. There's this "Blood Garden" (the title of the only chapter this is dealt with) and the women bring their victims there? Oh, and this is also when cannibalism makes its way into the story. I also forgot to mention the incest. Seriously, why would anyone read this book? But this little hint of female empowerment turns everything on it's head. Up until this point it's been a bit of a testosterone fueled slog to read the book, and I can't help thinking, what if this second plot line about the second sex been introduced earlier? What if the female narrative was parallel. Yes, you get a bit of a nice surprise to learn what else has been going on when the men were too busy with their conquests, both in turf and women, but it's too little too late. Yes, you could say that this opinion, in fact all my opinions of the book are based on me being a female, but that doesn't account for the fact that this book is badly paced, badly plotted, and could have been so much more.

Because the crux of the problem, the book's failing, isn't violence or women, no matter how much I have issues with that, it's in a sameness to the three main characters. So much of the book is a metaphor for the struggle between classes and this is born out in our leads, Richard Wilder, 2nd floor and working class, Doctor Robert Laing, 25th floor and upper middle class, and finally, Anthony Royal, penthouse and upper class. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, each man lower down is trying to jockey for a position higher up in the building. In fact Richard Wilder's obsession to get to the 40th floor leads to his death in the blood garden. But what annoyed me was the sameness of all three men. They basically all behave the same and that's just stupid. Yes, you could say that this shows that despite class, rank, status, whatever, everything boils down to men and their mommy issues, but that literally makes this book too darn simplistic. This universality is a point that is made so quickly that it's constant repetition makes the book boring. In the end there is literally no way to tell these men apart. Sure, let's say that is what Ballard was going for, going back to my previous statement, this does not a compelling book make. Stereotypes, tropes, avatars for the everyman can not be at the center of a good story. They are a character without character. They give you nothing and therefore the book is nothing. A book needs a payoff, or at the very least a hook. Violent male archetypes/stereotypes aren't enough. Again, you could say all this was Ballard's point. He meant to make a statement with High-Rise. Well, you know what makes a better statement? A book you want to read and analyze and discuss, not torture porn.


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