Review: High-rise, by J. G. Ballard

High-density insanity. (5 stars)

“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.”

High-Rise is an stupendous book about how the increasing density of our cities could lead to mass insanity. The high-rise of the title is a forty-storied project with a thousand apartments that is inaugurated in London, a building designed to be completely autonomous, with supermarkets, stores, swimming pools, gyms and even schools.

As time goes by, the trivial everyday disputes because of noises, animals, children, parking spaces, elevator use; everything intensifies. The dwellers gather in tribes of close storys, with a particular rivalry among those who live in the top luxury floors and the cheaper ones on the bottom. It all leads to all out anarchy and floor wars, social collapse and beatings, invasions, deaths, rapes, gratuitous violence and cannibalism.

The book is full of “ballardian” ideas, such as how the cyclopean building is really built not to house the residents, but for them to hide in. Is the place where you can disconnect yourself from society and let loose your primal instincts of territory and ownership. Where your inner animal can be himself.

It is incredible how this isolation progresses in the book. In the beginning it is just an unconscious anger, leading to a kind of collective insanity and ending in total madness. The dwellers become animals, dominated by an instinct to sleep by day and go out at night to fight. The insanity is beautifully described as an instinctive “secret logic” that guides rational thought.

The book high-rise is a kind of mental skinner box, an isolated environment where Ballard analyzes the psychological changes human beings suffer as they live in an extremely dense environment. The building is sold as a architectural marvel, but something in this consumer paradise rewrites the very organization of the brain. One of the best books I have ever read. Highly recommended.

Guilherme Solari is a Brazilian writer and journalist from Sao Paulo, Brazil. He has written about movies, literature and videogames for some of Brazil’s biggest news sites. He is the author of THE CASCAVEL CHRONICLES, a love letter to 80's action movies, as well as the cyberpunk CYBERSAMPA series.