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High-Rise (2012)

High-Rise (2012)

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3.8 of 5 Votes: 4
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0871404028 (ISBN13: 9780871404022)

About book High-Rise (2012)

I was deeply disappointed by this book. Based on the idea alone, I could have easily given it a four-star review. However, the way the idea was executed was poorly done, and, in my opinion, extremely ignorant and regressive in some cases. I clearly have some strong opinions about this novel, so I'll begin with the few things I enjoyed about it (some spoilers):The notion of the occupants in the high rise regressing into a primitive state of being is the book's selling point. The collapse of all humanity and civility within the apartment building acts as a spot-on assessment of humanity's deeply imbedded and subconscious psychosis (this is Ballard's posit, as he clearly draws from Freudian psychoanalysis for many of the characters and occurrences in the novel). These aspects of the book were promising to me, but ultimately fell flat for reasons I will dive into shortly. This novel will translate beautifully into film, which is one reason why I picked the book up in the first place. I believe, with the star-studded cast, the film will actually surpass the novel's mediocre execution of Ballard's ideas. That is, only if the film does away with some of the excessive misogynist and sexist attitudes that the novel harbours. Here we go... As this novel went on, it became clear to me that, being written in the 1970s, and therefore in the peak of second wave feminism (and, let me add, the anti-rape movement), that Ballard was not concerned with any of these societal issues. Without having read any of his other works, I'm also limitedly inclined to believe he didn't like women very much. Or, at least, didn't conceive of gendered issues having much legitimacy in his work. This novel is riddled with sexism and misogyny, which is entirely dangerous when the novel is regarded as a 'thrill ride,' and 'highly entertaining.' Here are just a few of the problems I noted in relation to these issues while reading the book:- The focus on male narrators excluded any women from having any overt agency, and this was supported by Ballard's referral to the men in terms of last name (Laing, Wilder, Royal), and the women in terms of first name or in reference to their husbands. - The men in the narrative are consistently described as receiving euphoria from the breakdown of the building, as well as all of the included violence. None of the women are characterized in this way, and are rather described as sickly, weak, and non-responsive. This gender division wasn't appealing to me. - At one point, when a man has sex with another woman in front of his wife, and his wife seems indifferent, she is described as having "complete deference to the clan leader." So, in this state of primitive psychosis, the men are inherently 'clan leaders,' and the women are illustrated as things to collect and use at whim, while they exude complete passivity to the process. This is clearly problematic in terms of gender portrayal and value. - Moreover, the referral, at one point, of rape as a "valuable and well-tried means of bringing clan members together" is maddening. In this primitive state of being that Ballard is attempting to illustrate, rape is an accepted form of bonding between lead men, and the effect on the women is wholly disregarded, as they seem to be apathetic to it. Utilizing rape as such a blasé experience is not okay to me in any circumstance, especially one that is attempting to represent these occurrences as primal, thus inherently human. - At one point in the novel, Ballard switches between acknowledging a 'clumsy sexual act' as a 'brief rape' in the same sentence. I believe Ballard was attempting to depict the psychosis of Wilder in this scene, as he cannot tell the difference between sex and rape any longer (and apparently neither can the women - which, even with belief suspended, is not something that should be suggested). Instead, however, the use of the omniscient narrator negates this confusion as a belief of the man himself, rather illustrating this equation of rape and sex to be true of the subconscious human psyche (both in women and men). Reading this really disgusted me, as rape should never be equated with sex, and to paint rape as A-OK, even in the novel's dystopian setting, is alarming. - To further my last point, near the end of the novel the phrase 'sexual assault itself has ceased to have any meaning' is used. Again, when positing a commentary on humanity, to include such an ignorant depiction of rape as having no meaning, for men or for women, is despicable. I find it really hard to understand how any reader could find these occurrences within the book entertaining, or even disturbing in a good way. Sexual assault is a very real, very affecting/effecting occurrence to any one who experiences it, and the trauma that results from it is serious. This novel negates all real-world implications of these things, however, and simply uses them as narrative devices to further the plot, which is lazy and unappealing for me. I sincerely hope that the film adaptation loses these regressive depictions of rape and gender, as I do believe the core ideas of the book are valid, and have the potential to be incredibly thought-provoking. It just needs to lose the dated sexism and ignorant use of rape for narrative sake.

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. This is one instance where I'm painfully aware of the inadequacy of a star-rating system for books. To give Ballard's High-Rise three stars does very little to capture its strengths, but more importantly, its ultimate failure as a novel. I'm going to try and do that in my review here, but just in case my rambling goes right off the rails, check out Jeffrey's spot-on assessment here.What brought me to this book is an endless fascination with "group in peril" stories that look at how quickly our civilized veneer can be stripped down to our lizard brain impulses. Great writers have shown us that human beings as a species seem to be hard-wired to regress to a primitive state when confronted with the total absence of social rules and obligations. In Blindness, Saramago's characters revert to their most primal and baser urges when forced to confront the fallout of a plague of blindness. William Golding manages to show this very same regression to a primitive state in Lord of the Flies when there is a profound absence of law and order and other recognizable earmarks of "civilization" in place. Using the example of a bunch of British school boys stranded on a deserted island, Golding shows us it doesn't take long for humans to throw off the shackles of civilized conduct and resort to a more brutal "survival of the fittest" approach. Blindness and Lord of the Flies are two great novels that ruthlessly give us a nightmare portrait of human regression that is frightening because of its very realism and believability. And this is where Ballard fails in his attempt because there is no realism or believability in his tale. It is strictly an exercise in description. Create a sprawling high-rise edifice, make it a contained society with all the luxuries of a modern city, populate it with 2,000 tenants, and then, with no tangible reason whatsoever have these people begin to transmogrify into a bunch of cannibalistic savages within the course of a few months. As Jeffrey points out in his review: "the outside world is perfectly normal. Civilization is existing just fine. There is no cataclysmic event that has ruptured the natural order of things. To return to the world of order is as simple as leaving the building."So yes, the zombies haven't risen up, the aliens have not landed. There is no pandemic flu or super volcano eruption. Beyond the concrete walls of the high-rise, people are going to work, shopping for groceries, putting their kids to bed. Yet within the concrete walls, what you have is a total post-apocalyptic decline into delusion and depravity and for what? This is just too cheap and easy for me to respect. If you're going to make humans go there, I want a reason. Show me how it could really happen. Alright, no question the novel fails that litmus test. Do I give Ballard the benefit of the doubt here anyway? So he doesn't trouble himself with a realistic scenario, but maybe that was never the point. Published in 1976, maybe Ballard was going more for an allegorical vibe on the dehumanization of modern city living. Maybe this novel is his statement on the rise of urban disconnect -- as we cram more and more people into their self-contained units, living elbow to chin, something fundamental to our higher-brain humanity is being eroded away. This is a book that also has characters who start out very class conscious. When the breakdown begins, fractures open and tribes form along class lines. Yet, strip civilization away, and we all go feral in the same way no matter how much money is in our bank account. Succumbing to our lizard brain seems to be the true great equalizer. If you so choose as a reader, you could go all LIT 101 on this sucker, but at the end of the day, I can't really be bothered. I'm reminded of the frustrated actor who cries out: "but where's my motivation?" Yes, where is the motivation in this story? What exactly is motivating the characters to behave in such a depraved way? Without that motivation, the other "elements" of the story that may or may not be there are lost on me. I do not care to engage. So why three stars? Ballard's writing is very good. The execution of this novel may have failed for me, but I still recognized his prose as effective. He put me in that high-rise where I could smell the stink of putrid garbage and human waste. I felt a little on edge at all times, like the fillings in my teeth were vibrating. There are several well-described scenes that chilled me to the bone (view spoiler)[especially the last one of the abandoned wives on the roof as they circle around Wilder to make a meal out of him as the children play with a pile of bones. (hide spoiler)]

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This novel is a cross between Lord of the Flies and Absurdist Theater. Another entry in Ballard’s obsessive cataloging of the thin barrier separating humanity from complete savagery and the compliance of technology in breaking of that barrier. The absurdity of the situation (break down of order in a high rise that everyone refuses to leave) and the sensory realism make a disconcerting and affecting blend. An onslaught of sensory details and the darkest cooks and crannies of human malevolence. Little goes unexplored with voyeurism, violence, cannibalism, incest, and much more. Ballard’s novels can lose me, but the focused surrealism of this, Crash, and The Unlimited Dream Company, while grisly, have a savage uncomfortable appeal.

It sometimes happens, that my suspension fails and so my disbelief prevails, unchecked. I realise that it then becomes MY failure, rather than the authors, to attribute a signifier of connoissaince. Thus it happened here: I tried and tried, but ‘I’ve giv’n it all shes got Captain, an’ I canna give her no more’.Two thousand residents in an expensive high rise in London ‘short circuit’ and turn feral. As to what shenanigans they get up to: nobody explains it better than Mark in his wonderful review, who lists the breadth and range of their peccadilloes with the panache this gripping read deserves. But where was I during the ride?Well, right from the beginning my mind got stuck in a groove: the one where the needle lodges in the LP and thats it: loopy loop land. First, the irony of the fact that what we are dealing here is the creme de la the crème of British society: high flyer professionals, heralders of the last bastion of Englishness: stiff upper lip and all that. That precisely this social class should lose the plot and go underclass.....well, OK, why not. But, we have to bear in mind, the rest of the world outside the high rise is functioning as per normal: there is no social breakdown or any external unrest/change which would precipitate such Lord of the Flies-esque behaviour. No postapocalyse or Armageddon here. Ok, fine. But then, these people, you see, OWN their expensive apartments (although more on that later). So, for no discernible reason, a group of upper class toffs go on a bender and destroy their property (its actually a miracle the high rise is still up at the end of the novel, after the grinder it gets put through). Whilst they’re hellbent on destruction, all two thousand somehow telepathically decide not to call the police, the fire services, the gas company or hell, even the army, as they battle it out internally. Oooookkkk. But still. There is the small matter of the 99 year lease which Laing signs at the beginning of this Caligulan orgy. Now, I don’t know how property works in other parts of the world, but in London particularly this peculiar lease business means that you might own your house, but not the land it lies on: hence the lease. It is no minor mystery what happens when the lease runs out. Theoretically, your paid up property reverts to the landlord. Solicitors who want to clinch a sale say this probably won’t happen and yadayada, but here is what I know for a fact: last year, an apartment in Chelsea, which would normally have been priced at a cool million, was selling for£175,000 because it had a lease of three years. Interesting.Nehow, these landlords are pretty keen on maintaining the properties (which they recharge to the tenants). The idea that the high rise management absconds and the landlord lies low during the ‘siege’ is risible. Just. Cannot. Happen.And so I couldn’t cross the threshold of disbelief. If only there were a different caveat to it all: a war scenario, a post apocalyptic domain of reference: anything, please, to justify and give meaning and really character development to the wanton, baseless anarchy raging throughout the high rise inferno. Which, in itself, rolled out like a movie reel: one breathless action scene after another of interminable violence.

J. G. Ballard is a bit of a one-trick pony. Every novel I've read of his (and I've read quite a few) features the same type of characters going through the same type of breakdown, usually engineered by a powerful psychotic antagonist or a dystopic setting, with always a pessimistic end result. The Drowned World explored this in a planet where the polar caps melted; The Drought went the opposite way, thrusting the characters into a mad world with no water; Super-Cannes showed what happened when bored I.T. workers turned to a crazy guru; and with High-rise, Ballard's men and women turn a sophisticated high-rise into a savage jungle when their petty grievances push them into forming tribes.Ballard's narrative is always so removed, creating the feeling that you are visiting a vision rather than reading a proper novel. His stories work better as nightmares, with their inevitable implausibilities - but fantastical imagery - rather than coherent narratives. It's hard to believe that over 2,000 people in a high-rise would agree to become cannibals and proto-humans rather than move out A.S.A.P. when the shit hit the fan. But if you ignore those little snags, it's actually a somewhat poetic reading experience. And I can't believe nobody has turned this novel into a film yet; it would translate beautifully onto the big screen.

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