The Short Version: A 40-story luxury high-rise just to the east of the city of London has finally reach occupancy – and over the course of three months, the tenants begin to shed their moral and social trappings and regress (or is it progress?) towards something altogether more violent, terrifying, and unrepressed.
The Review: Well holy shit. I did not expect this – I did not expect horror from this novel. And yet this book shook me, right down to my bones.
It begins with a hell of a bang: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within his huge apartment building during the previous three months.” I challenge you, if you’re aware that Tom Hiddleston is playing Laing in the film adaptation, to not hear this read in Hiddleston’s voice – and if you’re a fan of audiobooks, I should note that he’s just recorded a new version of this novel. It’s quite good and Hiddleston’s well-pitched British sneer actually helped inform the book – because this book, not unlike the plays of Harold Pinter, is very much English, to the point that I don’t think this story could play out in America, or at least not in the same way. Allow me to explain.
We’re introduced to this tower block, a 40-storey high-rise to the East of London (Canary Wharf or the Isle of Dogs, I shouldn’t wonder…), on the day that it reaches full occupancy – the last tenant has just moved in. This is the first building in a group of them, a whole complex that is to be built out and that is, currently, sitting half-finished. The block has two pools, a supermarket, a day school, a restaurant, a gym – everything you could ever need. The architect (or at least the face of the project) lives on the top floor, the day laborers on the lowest floors, and the in-between floors are roughly organized by ever-ascending societal structures. The block, whether on purpose or via a metaphor, represents the scale of wealth in its occupants – but where Americans are, I would argue, more brash and blustery and open about things, the Brits tend to be reserved, to speak in loaded pauses and short sentences that mean oh-so-much more. There’s humor to be found in this, for sure – but there’s also danger here. Emotions are repressed and when given an opportunity to let the most basic instincts run free… it’s the repressed person who will act out far more dynamically than the person who has been pretty open and crazy their whole life.
And right from the start, something about this tower block frees people to act… well, contrary to how they might otherwise. It begins innocently enough, with wild and raucous parties – drugs, drink, music, sex. You know, the 70s. So what if a party runs well into the next day? If it was a good party, who cares? But already, some switch has been flipped. Perhaps it is because the characters know what they are worth based on where they are in the block of flats – and they know that others, in turn, know too. Whatever the reason, Ballard lets things degenerate with startling speed. In fact, things fall apart so quickly that I honestly thought there might be some external cause, that there was some supernatural evil to the building or that Royal (the architect) was gassing everybody or something. But no – it’s just a kind of mass hysteria, which is perhaps all the worse.
Oddly enough, there is something otherworldly or super-natural about this tower block. As characters dig in, once the violence really begins and all social structures truly disintegrate, they find fewer reasons to leave the building – and those who do, upon their return, feel an odd compulsion to be back inside. As though the high-rise is the only place on Earth that actually makes sense. And it looms among the yet-to-be-filled skeletons of neighboring buildings like some sort of eerie monolith. I can’t help but put the high-rise right next to Hill House in terms of structures that, upon seeing them, terrify and yet compel on an animalistic level.
Inside the building, we loosely follow three individuals over the course of the story: Robert Laing, a doctor living in the middle of the building; Anthony Royal, the architect on the top floor; and Richard Wilder, a TV producer who lives on the 2nd floor. This structure actually disappointed me a little bit, as I enjoyed Laing’s voice (or should I say Hiddleston’s – it’s really a quite powerful thought, one that cannot be forgotten once you start thinking it) and thought that his character provided a perfect way to experience the horror of the societal collapse, as he’s perfectly placed between the two worlds. He knows Wilder, socially, but also plays squash with Royal. I felt like he could’ve been the reader-surrogate throughout – but I warmed up to Royal as the novel went on (and as I watched him realize he didn’t have as much power as he thought). Wilder is a more complicated character and his desire to ascend the high-rise is perhaps the most inexplicable of any development. Except I can’t quite say why. Of course it makes sense that he’s a hungry striver who wants more than he has, who wants to force his way into a new strata… but there was something more mythic about his attempt, his desire to confront Royal (and the fear that Royal has for Wilder’s ascent), that made me wonder if there was something deeper here that never quite made it to the surface. At times, especially when Laing recedes in the latter third of the book, I started to lose my hold on the novel and its reality – as though the deep critique Ballard was going for had slipped away a bit.
But I’ll also never, ever, forget the horror present here. It’s not scare-your-pants-off horror like Stephen King or something but instead a more insidious horror: the kind that you can see lurking just behind the eyes of everyone you pass on the street. Yes, it’s astounding how quickly society falls apart within the high-rise – and the scenes of increasing brutality (murder, assault, rape, sadism, etc) are delivered unflinchingly by the author. And perhaps it is just living in this time now, during the 2016 hellscape of an election cycle, but I could see this exact dissolution happening. I really could. We see it, in a less confined way, every day. Look at rich bros in a frat pulling horrible franks on those they’d deem outcasts, look at the Patrick Batemans of the world – but also look at the people who beat up black protesters at Trump rallies. Those people aren’t rich, they aren’t well-to-do. They are nothing more than tribal – and that, Ballard seems to be saying, is what we’ll all revert to when the shit hits the proverbial fan.
And we all will, too. There’s something incredibly haunting about the last moments of the novel, as Laing looks out at the second high-rise to receive occupants and sees the first power outage occur. He is excited to “welcome them to their new world.” That might seem innocuous at first but once you’ve gotten through the gauntlet that is this novel, that sentence will stop your blood in its tracks. And you’ll never look at a high-rise or a building project the same way, ever again.
Rating: 4 out of 5. On my shelves, this book will go in the horror section. There’s no other way to place it, for me. Ballard conjures the complete collapse and destruction of the social contract in such a way that it may well give you nightmares. But it’s scary both for the scenes of violence and the intrinsic spookiness of a building in the dark as well as for the way this societal collapse seems utterly possible. Few books capture the animal truth behind the facade of humanity that we’ve erected over millennia now – and even fewer capture just how quickly it can all fall apart. This one isn’t for the weak of heart (and, I should note, it does oddly drag at times) but it sure will keep you reading.