Before David Mamet painted the real estate industry as filled with nothing but Dorian Grays in painting form with Glengarry Glen Ross, there was J.G. Ballard to remind us that real estate, not money, is the root of all evil in men. And what better manifestation to iterate that than real estate in its most mutant and classist form: the high-rise? Modern in construction and amenities, the fascination with this new “futuristic” architecture reached a fever pitch in the mid-1920s (High-Rise was ultimately published in 1975). A literal representation of what it meant to get to the apex of materialistic existence, there was no more coveted structure. Maybe there still isn’t–at least not in major cities like London and New York where the hierarchical complex, both actual and figurative, of the high-rise puts an accented point on class disparity in the western world.
Where eating Alsatian dogs and not ever bathing once seemed like the antithesis of the entire “luxury” concept behind the high-rise, designed oh so lovingly by architect Anthony Royal, whose physical non-prowess is just one of many things mocked about him behind his back apart from having a younger wife who cheats on him, it now seems like completely normal–nay, preferred–behavior. Within the confines of this microorganism of its own making, rules apply in the same way as they do in the outside world, except without any of the artifice of pretense.
Commencing as the one thousandth apartment has been rented in the forty story building of Ballard’s realistic imagination, the center of our focus begins with Robert Laing, who lives on the twenty-fifth floor (prime middle class territory), noting the crashing sound of a bottle of sparkling wine falling from the thirty-first floor and onto his balcony, his favorite part of “this over-priced cell” he had bought specifically for the purpose of recovery and anonymity after his divorce. That the wine was sparkling is, of course, a deliberate choice on Ballard’s part, seeking to play up the frivolity of the rich upper class that enjoys the best of everything the high-rise has to offer (including the supermarket right inside the confines of the edifice). Still, Laing would rather not get involved in the resentment toward the upper floors–it just so happens that the placement of his apartment puts him very much in the middle of it all. Thus, “despite all Laing’s efforts to detach himself from his two thousand neighbors and the regime of trivial disputes and irritations that provided their only corporate life, it was [his apartment] if anywhere that the first significant event had taken place.” That event being the broken bottle exemplifying that “people in high-rises tended not to care about tenants more than two floors below them.”
Royal, naturally, was just such a person uncaring of those below him, yet “was intrigued by life in this vertical township, and by the kind of people attracted to its smooth functionalism. As the first tenant, and owner of the best and highest apartment, he felt himself to be the lord of the manor.” Ah, there’s that word–the most blatantly feudal of all: lord. And once a man gets the idea into his head that that’s what he is, it’s almost impossible to unravel that skewed thinking.
But below Laing is documentarian Richard Wilder (of course the artist is a broke ass, right?)–who wants to try to put Royal and the others in their places–the primary catalyst for turning the aggression of the lower floors into something physical and rabid. At first merely interested in garnering further material for the documentary he’s making about the high-rise, Wilder starts to lead the crusade against the top floors in beastly and violent ways. For, as Ballard viewed technology, manifested in the “convenience” of a high-rise, its ability to suppress and eradicate natural human instincts and urges over time would always be bound to lead to physical violence in the end, when the psyche could no longer withstand such repression. And so it goes that it must come to fruition in those Lord of the Flies-type ways (there it is again, that word: lord). Save for the fact that there is no Ralph among them–they are all Jacks seeking to take power by discombobulating the entire island unto itself that is the high-rise.
As Laing’s story fades into the background because he is the ultimate thriver and survivor in the high-rise as a result of his passivity and self-sufficiency, his place in the novel is to open and close the tale–somewhat ironic considering his fixed place in the middle. And while things remain “civil” at the outset of the narrative before reaching a crescendo of barbarism that soon becomes the expected norm, it is said that “…the real internal atmosphere was that of three coexisting armed camps. A complete hardening of positions had taken place, and there was now almost no contact between the upper, middle and lower groups.”
Obviously, Ballard’s metaphor for class division in America takes on living, breathing form in the high-rise, which, in modern times, doesn’t even really have a middle–just a bottom and a top and a wide gap in between (try not to think perverse thoughts after reading that sentence). In this climate characterized by a constant craving to rise to the top by any means necessary, the modern apartment structure becomes just as feral as any wild pre-civilization setting. Accordingly, the more the conditions of the high-rise devolve and social barriers are systematically broken down with the same rapidity as the electricity, appliances and elevators of the lower floors, the more revelatory in decay the residents become. For, on some level, we are all secretly wishing for “society” to deteriorate in a chaotic fashion so that we can just fucking be done with this bullshit of a rigged game. In this way, Ballard delves into the core not only of the animal instinct within every human that no amount of “civilized,” state-of-the-art domicile can raze, but also the subconscious desire of humanity to self-destruct–whether as a means of starting from scratch or simply achieving the true convenience of non-existence.