It’s been almost a decade since I hauled all of my worldly possessions from a dorm room in the Bronx to my first apartment in Brooklyn, and yet my lengthening tenure as a New Yorker is still missing so many iconic experiences. I’ve never been mugged (knocks on all of the wood). I’ve never taken a carriage ride through Central Park (and won’t, ever. I promise, mom.) And I’ve never lived in a building with more than three floors, let alone in the kind of skyscraper that romantic comedies would have me believe all ambitious and potentially woo-able 30-somethings call home.
While a part of me—the part that filters StreetEasy results by view—looks longingly at the city’s many residential towers, I also find the idea of large buildings claustrophobic, like living on a sold-out flight or in a subway car at rush hour. Even though NYC itself is a perpetually thrumming hive of human activity, there’s still something intimate about returning home to a building of fewer than 20 people, regardless of whether you watch each other’s children or (in my case) nod hello once every four months. After all, to each structurally bound clan their own.
The possible conflicts in a building of hundreds of tenants, or even thousands, are easy to imagine—both logistical (that’s so many toilets) and emotional. Friendships are formed, rivalries forged. Breaches of etiquette are blown out of proportion, squabbles break out between neighbors, or between tenants on the lower floors and those in the loftier suites above. The modern skyscraper is in some ways society writ large, or writ vertical, from the penthouses on top to the affordable-housing units above the ground-floor Duane Reade.
Written in 1975, J.G. Ballard’s High-RiseEdit is the dystopian endgame of this architecturally created conflict. Robert Laing, an attractive doctor, is one of 2,000 tenants to move into a new London high-rise, a 40-story monolith equipped with two swimming pools, an elementary school, a supermarket, a bank, a salon, a liquor store and a rooftop sculpture garden. Enthralled by the building’s many amenities, its tenants find themselves increasingly isolated from the outside world, and confronting growing tension within—between the parents and the childless, the pet owners and the allergic, the upper-middle-class and the grossly wealthy.
What in real life manifests as passive-aggressive e-mails about daycare drop-off, in High-Rise becomes an all-out class war, replete with vandalism, clan raids and the near-total breakdown of human civility. Factions emerge primarily along economic lines, and Laing’s 25th-floor perspective is rotated with that of Richard Wilder (2nd floor), a TV producer with a wife and two sons, and Anthony Royal, the eccentric architect of the high-rise, who watches its deterioration from his 40th-floor penthouse.
Ballard is known for nailing the effect of technology on the human psyche, and yet 41 years after its publication, High-Rise reads more like a commentary on income inequality than technological advancement. To be sure, no one in the high-rise is poor—Ballard refers to the vast majority of tenants by their white-collar professions—but the idea of a tall building with sweet perks as a harbinger of technological doomsday seems rather subdued in 2016. There aren’t even robots.
And yet to ignore the implications of High-Rise because its technology is dated is to ignore the implications of A Clockwork Orange because of all the ridiculous hats. This is a novel about humanity first, about our most base instincts and primitive whims, and about what in the modern world might trigger or even encourage them. It’s as likely to resonate in 2050 as it does in 2016, because even high-rises on Mars have co-op boards.
AUTHOR: J.G. Ballard
PAGES: 208 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Crash, Empire of the Sun
SORTA LIKE: Lord of the Flies meets A Clockwork Orange
FIRST LINE: “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.”