19 May 2016 5 Comments
Author: J G Ballard
Summary: Within the concealing walls of an elegant forty-storey tower block, the affluent tenants are hell-bent on an orgy of destruction. Cocktail parties degenerate into marauding attacks on ‘enemy’ floors and the once-luxurious amenities become an arena for riots and technological mayhem.
In this visionary tale of urban disillusionment society slips into a violent reverse as the isolated inhabitants of the high-rise, driven by primal urges, create a dystopian world ruled by the laws of the jungle.
Rating: ★★★☆☆ 2.5/5
Review: I moved this book to the top of my to read pile when i heard about the film, hoping to read the book first and get to see the film at the cinema. There were some delays in getting to the book, but even if the film was still showing, i’m not sure i’d want to bother.
The premise is fascinating. A self-contained society within one multistory block of flats descending into chaos. That’s the kind of story i want to get into the details of, to follow along with as things unravel. Except in this case, that didn’t really happen. The specifics and action surrounding the collapse of the society within the high rise are severely lacking. There are glimpses, but it’s mostly exposition after the fact. The focus is not on the action. Not on what is actually happening or why. The focus is actually one the three main characters. Really, the story is more of a psychological thriller. Instead of detailing the high rise’s decline into dystopia, it follows three men’s descent into varying types of madness.
Spoilers ahead. I can’t talk about how problematic this book is without them, i’m afraid…
There is Royal, the architect of the building, who lives on the top floor and sees himself as above–literally and figuratively–the rest of the residents. This causes him to draw away from his neighbours and isolate himself, instead forming (what he thinks is) a kinship with dogs and birds. There is Wilder, a television producer who lives on the lower floors and is at first keen to make a documentary about the high rise and its self-contained collapse. Over time he becomes obsessed with ascending the building, even abandoning his wife and children to accomplish the feat. There is Laing, a medical professor who lives in the middle of building and mostly just wants to keep to himself. Despite the madness around him, he manages this, pulling his sister in until she’s dependant on him.
The thing is… a story about the fragile egos of three men isn’t fascinating. I didn’t like any of them, honestly. By the end i assumed at least one of them would die, but I wanted all of them to. I just didn’t care about their plights, their mental health, their futures. I just didn’t care.
As male-centric as the bulk of the story is, the end was almost–almost–pretty awesome. While the men have been scrambling about the building, fighting, barricading, protecting… the women have been biding their time, working together and generally getting shit done. BUT, when the focus of the women’s power is centred around caring for children and keeping house i’m left feeling distinctly resentful. Honestly, that’s some pretty dated stereotyping, even for 1975.
Essentially, this was a brilliant idea poorly executed. I had a couple of other Ballard books on my to read list, but i’m seriously going to re-think them. I’m in no rush to read more of his work. I think i will give the film a go, when it comes out on DVD. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s actually better.