‘High-Rise’ by J. G. Ballard – War in the Elevators

‘High-Rise’ by J. G. Ballard   (1973) – 204 pages

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‘High-Rise’ is a unique novel rescued from the 1970s which will soon be a major movie starring Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, and Sienna Miller.

About 2000 people live in the 40-floor high-rise luxury apartment building.  We readers don’t even find out what city or country the high-rise is located in, because the building is pretty much self-contained with its own supermarket, swimming pools, high-speed elevators, exercise facilities, restaurants, and liquor stores.  Except to go to work, the residents find little reason to leave the building.

We see events in the building through the eyes of the recently divorced doctor Robert Laing who has an apartment on the twenty-fifth floor.  This being the Seventies, Dr. Laing has an eye out for the ladies, and he often gets invited to cocktail parties usually hosted by the well-to-do childless couples on the upper floors.  The less affluent people on the lower floors are too busy with their children to throw elaborate parties.  Dr. Laing is in the middle, between the upper class residents above and the relatively lower class residents below.

Although the well-to-do upper class residents don’t have children, many do have expensive dogs, and they are usually extremely fussy and exacting about their dogs.  What irritates these people is when the residents from the lower floors bring their kids up to the pool on the upper floor, and the kids pee in the swimming pool.   Another source of dispute between the floors are the elevators which the residents on the lower floors can bring to a halt and make live miserable for those above.

Soon everyone is complaining about the shiftlessness of those on the lower floors or the arrogance of those on the upper floors.  The first violence breaks out when a dog from the upper floors is found drowned in the swimming pool.  Things degenerate quickly with skirmishes breaking out among the residents.  Those on the upper floors throw bottles down on the balconies below.  The lower floors retaliate by taking over the elevators.

The violence escalates, and soon there is all-out war between the floors.  There are punitive expeditions, and apartments are ransacked.   The electricity goes out sporadically for no good reason.  Fights break out in the hallways.  Cars parked outside are vandalized.    Soon the residents of this ultra-modern apartment building revert to primitive savagery.

This is indeed a brilliant idea for a novel, and I would give the author an A+ for plot.  The situation is original and intriguing.  However, I found the portrayals of the people in the novel somewhat disappointing, so I will only give the author a C+ for characterization.  The male characters are little more than stick figures.  The female characters, this being the Seventies, are little more than stick figures with breasts, hips, and thighs.  The person or persons who write the screenplay for the movie and the actors will need to flesh out real characters that the audience can identify with.

Read ‘High-Rise’ for its amazing plot.

Grade: B+ 

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Very interesting review. Funnily enough, I read this novel a couple of months ago and was vaguely disappointed by it. I couldn’t quite identify why I felt that way about it at the time, but I think you’ve nailed it in your review. The characters are just too clichéd. I’m still keen to see the film, though.

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    • Hi Jacqui,
      Yes, the four-word review of ‘High-Rise’ would be ‘Plot Heavy, Character Weak’. I hope the screen writers work hard on the characterizations, because it could be a great movie, if the dialogue is sharp.

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  2. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on October 22, 2015 at 10:47 AM

    I love Ballard, and I’m reading his short stories at the moment. But this novel is one I have on my shelves and haven’t yet got to. I take your point about characterisation – I don’t know that that’s always Ballard’s strength, but his plotting and his visions are wonderful!

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    • Hi Kaggsy,
      I know I’ve read one other Ballard, but can’t remember its story line. To be able to write original plots is no small talent. Ballard was one of the few writers who can walk the fine line between real life and science fiction.

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  3. I quite enjoyed this one and am looking forward to the movie, but you are right about the characterisation – slim to say the least!

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  4. I’m something of a Ballard fan, though I haven’t read this one despite it being one of his most famous. Still, characterisation is not it’s fair to say his strength. Setting, story, atmosphere definitely, but not character.

    Presumably the setup is a metaphor for wider society – the class system made manifest in a single building.

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    • Hi Max,
      When there are 2000 people gathered in a single building, there’s bound to be severe divisions between the people. Just think of the small towns that went to war against each other in England in the Middle Ages. Wars are something that don’t appear to be going away with modern society. I’m skeptical when it comes to advancement in people’s attitudes. Here in the USA,we’ve taken a giant step backwards with the Tea Party. I wish somebody had the courage to write a novel about that.

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  5. I have heard great things about Ballard, but oddly have never gotten around to reading him–perhaps because the one book I own by him is a gigantic, 1,000-plus-page book of short stories. The book is uncomfortable to hold! I love SF, and the premise for this does sound fascinating. Hadn’t heard about the movie, but that means this book will be around, yes?

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    • Hi Kat,
      I expect the novel will makes a comeback with the movie tie-in. The movie premiered at the Toronto film festival last summer to only so-so reviews. IMDB gives it a 6.8 which means they think it is pretty good but no masterpiece.
      J. G. Ballard is one of the few writers from the Seventies that has held his own critically.

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  6. I hadn’t heard about the movie: must investigate further. I read the book a few years ago, in the wake of the London riots, because so many people used the word “Ballardian” to describe what was happening. You say the novel isn’t set in any particular country, but surely it can only be Britain: the high-rise building is a metaphor for the British class system.

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    • Hi Kimbofo,
      Yes, you caught me there. I believe it does mention England fleetingly. But lots of countries now have high-rise apartment buildings and upper and lower classes, and every scene in High-Rise is confined to the apartment building itself. It could have taken place in many countries.

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