J. G. Ballard normally gets shoved into the regular fiction section, and I occasionally go and rescue his stuff from there (or at least double-section it in speculative fiction as well). Dystopian post-apocalyptic novels are his thing. High-rise is not specifically post-apocalyptic, and it is dystopian in a very circumscribed way — the world is falling apart, but it’s a world consisting of just one building.
In a sense, the book seems like the product of its time (it was first published in 1975). The idea that people will go insane if a bunch of them live in a high-rise building without any need for outside world does not really seem all that threatening in the present day. There are plenty of people living in tall buildings without resorting to eating each other’s dogs. The subject of people confined together and left to their own devices is still around (see Under the Dome), but the ensuing madness usually has some kind of external reason, whereas in High-rise it just arises from within, due entirely to the psychological effect of living in this microcosm. As far as we can tell, the world outside the high-rise is chugging on just fine. Several residents do leave. A handful more would like to leave but seem psychologically unable to do so. And the majority seems perfectly happy to stick around and engage in elevator battles and poolside skirmishes.
High-rise is still a fascinating read. You know it’s not going to end well, but the morbid part of you want to stick around and watch. The tone of the novel is rather dispassionate, as if someone were simply reporting on the disintegration and decay, listing things that are destroyed and describing pieces of rubbish. The people either dully observe what is happening around them, or get seized by some primal desire to assert themselves on this battlefield either by violence or by senseless destruction of their environment. Their decline as humans is evident from the start when the first targets of their complaints and hostility turn out to be children and animals. Empathy is gone. People leaves partners on a whim and sleep around. By the end of the novel, most of them don’t seem human at all: there are no meaningful conversations or interactions. Most characters seem to lose their power of speech entirely.
You know it’s going downhill, and that’s precisely the problem. Near the end of the novel, one of the characters observes that ‘almost everything that could happen had already taken place.’ And that’s it. It took me a while to finish this book because the ‘demented inventory’ of destruction, wanton acts of violence, and just sheer inhumanity (or maybe humanity?) were all that I was going to get out of this book. Ballard is a great writer, and his style does convey the degradation of the high-rise society, but after a while it gets tiresome, and you want something more, something more to the story. There are too many people, often identified just by their floor number and last name, but none of them seem to matter, and so you find yourself empathizing with the dogs. By the time you get to the end, you’re pretty much entirely desensitized to anything that might happen to humans in the building, and the novel itself seems like a psychological experiment of a kind no longer approved by ethics boards.