Tuesday, 3 May 2011

High-Rise, by JG Ballard

Our book group, temporarily called the Dystopian Alliance (we change the name every month to suit the book) dissected JG Ballard's High-Rise last week.

This is how book groups work sometimes. Often we get excited about a new release - Franzen's Freedom for instance, or next month's Hitch 22 - at other times we delve into the obscure past. Well, obscure for me anyway.

I'd read a couple of Ballard's books. I think most of us had read at least one, but the 1975 towerblock hell of High-Rise was new to us. None of us are sci-fi geeks so we couldn't remember the Doctor Who episode it supposedly inspired either. And none of us were bothered one way or other that there is a film version supposedly in the pipeline: the Wikipedia entry has some detail on that.

Mostly I think we enjoyed the book, but the discussion itself was more fun than the novel. High-Rise imagines a society that breaks down. An upper crust tower block in central london becomes cut off from the outside world, the residents become dissatisfied and break up into groups, factions, and start fighting each other. Literally, fighting. People are beaten up. Dogs are drowned - we particularly loved this detail. Lots of dead or consumed dogs. And what emerges is a sort of primitive, Lord of the Flies type society in which the strong dominate.

It struck me as being entirely bleak and pessimistic. Typically 70s in that sense. There was an obsession about  piles of rubbish: of black bags piling up. Which reminded me of the bin men strikes that must have been happening about the same time. This was a vision of the world that emerged from the pessimism of a British empire in decline. It is also heavily influenced by Ballard's personal experiences in a concentration camp in Shanghai. But it also reminded me of The Wire and the lawless society that exists in the estates of many cities other than just Baltimore, estates ravaged by drug abuse and criminal gangs.

And yet it was also extremely funny. There was the 70s kitsch of it: it just screamed Abigail's Party. But there was also a lot of humour in the violence: violence that never became too bloody, too much. Dogs were drowned, men were beaten up and thrown down stairs, but somehow it always seemed just a little darker than a schoolyard tussle. Talking about the book was, as I said, hilarious. Every page seemed to contain something to be horrified by. The fact, for instance, that everyone was defined by their job - or their husband's job. It just seemed so ridiculous, but isn't that what we do?

As a result and to my surprise is that I find myself wanting to really recommend you read High-Rise. My first impression of it was that it was a period piece but the more I think about it, the more relevant it feels.

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