Living The High Life


Sammy Slabbinck

Later, as he sat on the 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. Now that everything had returned to normal…

J.G Ballard High-Rise 1975

Surely one of the darkest yet funniest openings to a novel in English fiction, J.G Ballard’s cautionary tale on civilisation and its discontents shows, in typically ambiguous fashion, that our inner natures could revolt against the conveniences of modern existence and the alienation implicit in our sanitised, mediated (un)reality.

Written in the hard-edged concrete-and-glass style of the late sixties and early seventies and hot on the heels of the experimental and spectacularly deranged  The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, High-Rise, is with Concrete Island from the same period a return to a more traditional narrative framework. Eschewing the fractured, clinical and compressed ‘novels’ of The Atrocity Exhibition and the hallucinatory cadences of Crash (a prose poem of twisted metal, broken glass and wound patterns), High-Rise follows the three main characters, Dr. Robert Laing (a reference to the author of The Divided Self) who lives on the twenty-five floor; Richard Wilder a documentary film-maker down near street level on the second floor and the buildings architect Anthony Royal who lords it over them all in the fortieth floor penthouse as the amenities within the luxurious, self-contained high-rise block starts to break down, causing the affluent, well educated residents to wilfully and joyfully participate in the destruction of the building and revert to tribalism and barbarism. Always subversive, Ballard wickedly suggests that the only possible way to be free is to regress, discarding all civilised constraints and acting upon our deviant impulses and innate cruelty.

Royal detested this orthodoxy of the intelligent. Visiting his neighbours apartments, he would find himself physically repelled by the contours of an award-winning coffee-pot, by the well modulated colour schemes, by the good taste and intelligence that, Midas-like, had transformed everything in these apartments into an ideal marriage of function and design….Royal would have given anything for one vulgar mantelpiece ornament, one less than snow-white lavatory bowl, one hint of hope. Thank God that they were at last breaking out of this fur-lined prison.

Ben Wheatley’s stylish film version of High-Rise, starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons and Sienna Miller and produced by Jeremy Thomas who was  responsible for David Cronenberg’s film version of Crash was released in 2015.



35 thoughts on “Living The High Life

    1. Well you know me and my tastes can be a little odd on occasion. This was one of my very first posts, I saw the movie today, it is good but I really love the book. The premise is excellent (though you have to suspend disbelief and not ask yourself why the residents just don’t leave the high-rise, they are happier reverting to savagery). I am in kind of a trippy mood, must be the spring, come winter it will be all austere bleak stuff again.

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  1. I wondered about the film. I really like the book and usually stay away from film adaptations of books I like for fear all the visuals in my head will be ruined by the sets and actors chosen for the roles. Although, these actors are some of my favorites. Anyway, I always thought half of the fascination was that none of them left either. Those opening lines would either put you off or suck you in. The image is spot on perfect for this post too.

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    1. Thank you…I am ambivalent about the film. It’s a good movie though opinion is split, but it leaves a lot of loopholes compared to the book and others things are left out. The trouble with Ballard adaptions is Ballard never does character in the traditional sense, they are types.Ballard does ideas. He is very quotable but it sounds odd on screen. As for the not leaving it has certain similarities with Bunuel’s movie The Exterminating Angel about dinner party guests unable to leave the house and also the movie Themroc about a blue collar worker who revels against society and turns his flat into a cave and leaves in incest with his sister. Apart from influences in movies it is important to remember that Ballard grew up in a Japanese POW camp, an experience he said he enjoyed. Anyway I don’t think any movie could truly capture his deeply subversive and gleefully amoral take on the world.

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      1. How did he end up in a Japanese POW camp? He was there with a parent/parents caught there in the war? And as for enjoying it, wtf? This of course explains. A lot, however…

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      2. He grew up in the International Settlement in Shanghai… a very middle class expat life….with the Japanese invasion he was interned with his parents for i think 3-4 years. Maybe enjoy is the wrong word, he realised that civilised behaviour is just a thin veneer, when push comes to shove our real nature comes to the fore. He also said he was free there. After the war there moved back to England, but he found it dull and parochial. His main influences were always the visual arts and surrealism.

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      3. I tried to reply to this comment… you may have been fiddling with reposting it at the time, not sure. I have my own theory that our ‘true nature’ is unique to each of us. Other wise how can we explain the extremes of selflessness and selfishness? For they both exist in abundance.

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      4. I never fiddle Meg… the very thought. I think Ballard would say that in extremis, either pain, hunger, sleep deprivation etc that we would all act the same and revert to our primal animal natures. Following Freud he argued that civilisation is built on suppression of those atavistic instincts and at a great cost, hence the more civilised we become the more unhappy we are. Hence civilisation and its discontents. The fur-lined prison. He once said he seen the future and it was boring. I think the recent upheavals could be down to boredom more than anything else. The technocrats have shown us the future and it is safe and bland and perfectly boring. In Ballard’s universe his characters long for the end of the world, the breakdown of civilisation, as it is a return to a more real world. Not saying that I agree with him but it is certainly pause for thought. Ballard is not a humanist. Nature always gets her revenge.

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      5. Hmmm….I like arguing with you…by the way despite his far out nihilistic vision and generally misanthropy, Ballard was by all accounts one of the nicest writers around…he single handed reared his three young children (his wife had died very young), lived in the same small semi in an unfashionable West London suburb (after his death he left millions to his grown-up children) and was unfailingly generous to whatever random interviewer from small magazines that turned up on the doorstep. Other writers never had a bad word to say about him. A true gentleman. I wish I had called him, he listed his phone number and everything and would apparently chat away to admirers of his work who called him.

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      6. That’s really amazing. It speaks volumes that he even chose to raise children with an outlook like that. I like arguing with you too. You always have so much ammunition in your arsenal

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    2. The adaptation is rather good at imagery that most people will imagine in similar ways, such as the rubbish bags piling up on the communal landings, but it’s hard for an adaptation to not spoil some imaginings, such as faces and decor. I imagined the story in far gloomier light, for example.

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  2. Interesting. I think I’ll have to check the movie. It reminds me of my trip to NY last year as I walked through Madison and Park Avenues and wondered about all the penthouse millionaires and movie stars high above the gritty street.

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    1. Thanks Em, I am currently working on another article on J.G Ballard that makes High-Rise seem like a Sunday afternoon picnic. I worry that there is too much Cake and not enough Death on my site…sorry that is my morbid sense of humour.

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      1. I wrote about a dream I had last night, and the more I think about it, the more it felt like being in one of your surrealist paintings. 🙂 If only I could paint it.


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