A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
If ever Vulpes Libris has a theme week on novels with arresting openings (and I think we should) I’ll already have expended my favourite candidate in High Rise. It really is up there with The Bell Jar, 1984, and Pride and Prejudice.
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.
These days, it is impossible to travel into London, which I do frequently, without being made aware that it is rapidly becoming, even more than it was before, a city of high rise living. The days of building towering premises for commerce and finance are, no doubt temporarily, over. All the tower blocks under construction now are to live in (or to buy and not live in – discuss, vigorously) – along the Thames, even in the shark-infested purlieus of South London. No city can keep its self-respect without a beacon tower – London with the Shard, Heron and Aldgate Tower with its ‘poor doors’, Manchester with the Beetham Tower, even Croydon with its new landmark tower in shades of My Little Pony pinks and mauves (must see if it has a name). It seems to me that planners should not gain their diplomas without a compulsory reading of High Rise.
So it’s not a spoiler (or if it is, Ballard started it on page 1) to say that High Rise is a short, elegant novel in which his dystopia of choice is the total breakdown of human civilisation in a tower block. The sort of breakdown that leaves an eminent academic physiologist eating an Alsatian cooked over an open fire on his balcony. So the novel takes us, in typical Ballard-ian style, through the process that gets us there.
I’m not sure what I’d have made of the novel if I’d read it a few months ago. I’ve had it by me for many months (sorry, book-lending friend), but what made me pick it up was that I’d finally seen the setting of his world and felt ready to put on protective clothing and enter it. Earlier this year, I’d been on holiday in Marseille, and visited Le Corbusier’s unité d’habitation la Cité Radieuse. It is a world heritage site, historic monument of France, and the testament to the architectural doctrine of Le Corbusier and his fellow-architectural post-war visionaries. It is being restored to its original glory, and on an open day we were able to visit several of its levels and features as a city in the sky. Everybody loves, even reveres it, its mixed apartments are much in demand, some families have lived there in great contentment since it was built in 1952. If only all high rise housing could be so wonderful. More recently, on an architectural tour of London, as we headed out East in the tour bus towards St Anne’s Limehouse, our attention was drawn to Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower in Poplar – much more problematic, and deep into High Rise territory.
Ned Beauman’s introduction to this edition makes clear the obvious, that developments like la Cité Radieuse and the Balfron and Trellick towers, and the grandiose vision of their creators to build a better world in the sky, are a direct inspiration for High Rise. The building has a philosophy. It is intended to provide households for the whole range of different living needs, from young flat-sharers, to working families, to busy professionals like Laing, to the indigent rich. The building contains all one needs to live there – school, gyms, swimming pools, shop, restaurant and liquor store. On its roof is some public space, a park and play area where all theoretically can come to enjoy the view, as well as a private penthouse. The architect, Anthony Royal, believes in it to the extent that he lives there (as Goldfinger briefly did in the Balfron tower). The tower is an integrated community in the sky, but it is, literally, stratified, with the least affluent (but still comfortably-off) at the bottom, and the richest at the top. This stratification, and the other dominant metaphor, that of people living on a cliff-face, drive a narrative of passive trouble coming from above (heedless disposal of stuff that rains down on those underneath) and from below, as residents of the lower floors struggle upwards to share the imagined privilege of those closer to the top, or seek revenge for their heedlessness. As the services that alone can make modern life tenable for 2000 people break down, tribes form, conventions break down under a veneer of normality. Residents like Laing resume their professional and working lives outside the building, while inside their personal lives have assumed a much more primitive aspect. Psychological and physical barriers go up, inside and outside the building.
All this is told in Ballard’s trademark elegant rapporteur style. He is speculating, reasonably, about what life might be like in a yet-to-be-regenerated East End, where an enclave of the affluent feels entitled to come and share living and working space with decaying industry and the working poor. He is a camera, or rather a network – an eye in every flat, lift, corridor or stairwell. But, cleverly and Virginia Woolf-style, he takes a point of view and tells the reader what s/he can see, then shifts to another. He refrains from omniscience, so that the reader is always in the immediate situation, with the people who are in it, while at the same time he conveys that this is a vast unified space, but a very complex one, where the sounds of battle drift up and down the stairwells and roll along the corridors like distant thunder. But all the detail goes into the skirmish in front of us. It is very, very cleverly done, and gives so much to think about – not least about the conditions that drive fight or flight, resistance or migration.
What do I think about it, optimist that I am? This is Dystopia, and Ballard, whose childhood experiences of a prisoner of war camp give him some authority here, develops it with the dispassionate accuracy of an architect preparing a set of drawings. His theory seems to be that human society, as the physical world, will always tend towards an increase of entropy – order if imposed is always at the cost of an overall increase of chaos, and any crack in that order will cause chaos to rush back in. But I sit here thinking in my whiggish way that surely the essence of the human spirit is to create civilisation, remove itself from chaos, to find a nest of comfort and security. The city imposes order, of streets, traffic lights, bus lanes, business premises where we tidily go to work, shops where we tidily get our supplies. This works for the majority. But Ballard may be onto something by reflecting that empathy comes from seeing our neighbours face to face, walking past their front gates, avoiding stepping on toes on the tube so that your own toes stay unstepped on. Maybe Ballard is saying that when people are stacked one on top of the other all bets are off.
I thought I’d love to live in La Cité Radieuse (if not in Poplar), until a slightly panicky long wait for the lifts down from the achingly elegant roof deck made me wonder what neuroses buried deep inside me might be revealed. Reading High Rise may have started to answer my question.
J G Ballard: High Rise. Introduction by Ned Beauman. London: HarperCollins, 2014. 172pp
First published 1975.
The film High Rise (2015) directed by Ben Wheatley, starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Luke Evans, opened during the BFI London Film Festival in October.