H.L. Mencken assembled and published Menckeniana: A Schimflexicon, in which he collected all the abuse of his writing that he could find, mostly from newspaper reviews of his books. I have set myself a much easier but less amusing task of collecting between two covers (the beginning and the ending of this blog post) all the abuse of high-rises heaped on that building type by J.G. Ballard in his novel High-Rise, published in 1975.
He plots the degeneration into violence of the owners of what we now call condominiums in a new high-rise with balconies near London. The author is known for his science fiction, but while I found the plot intriguing, Ballard did not do a very good job of building up his rising levels of violence in plausible sequentiality. The flow of action was disconnected. His focus on three main characters was unfocused. His protagonists were not very likeable and I did not form any sort of connection with any of them. I was not sorry to get to the end of the book and, not surprisingly, the conclusion seemed anticlimactic.
The book may perhaps be said to be less a plot about events in the building than a catalogue of the feelings the building arouses in its residents. There were a number of fine passages about the ill nature of the feelings generated by this high-rise. Here are some:
- “The ragged skyline of the city [viewed from the highrise] resembled the disturbed encephalograph of an unresolved mental crisis.” Okay, that’s a critique not of the highrise itself but of London – the London of 1975, not of today!
- “The spectacular view [from the complex] always made Laing aware of his ambivalent feelings for this concrete landscape. Part of its appeal lay all too clearly in the fact that this was an environment built not for man but for his absence.”
- “The cluster of auditorium roofs, curving roadway embankments and rectilinear curtain wall formed an intriguing medley of geometries – less a habitable architecture, he reflected, than the unconscious diagram of a mysterious psychic event.”
- “Making no attempt to hide himself, Anthony Royal was watching Laing with a thoughtful gaze. As always, his expression was an uneasy mixture of arrogance and defensiveness, as if he were all to aware of the built-in flaws of this huge building he had helped to design, but was determined to out-stare any criticism.”
- “Laing immediately recognized her as one of the ‘vagrants,’ of whom there were many in the high-rise, bored apartment-bound housewives and stay-at-home adult daughters who spent a large part of their time riding the elevators and wandering the long corridors of the vast building, migrating endlessly in search of change or excitement.”
- “During the day, Laing … thought continually about the apartment building, a Pandora’s box whose thousand lids were one by one inwardly opening.”
- “A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality impervious to the psychological pressures of high-rise life, with minimal needs for privacy, who thrived like an advanced species of machine on the neutral atmosphere.”
- “These people were the first to master a new kind of late twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.”
- “Secure within the shell of the high-rise like passengers on board an automatically piloted airliner, they were free to behave in any way they wished, explore the darkest corners they could find. In many ways, the high-rise was a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.”
- “In his mind’s eye, [TV documentary producer Wilder] could already see a long, sixty-second zoom, slowly moving from the whole building in frame to a close-up of a single apartment, one cell in this nightmare termitary.”
- “All the evidence accumulated over several decades cast a critical light on the high-rise as a viable social structure, but cost-effectiveness in the area of public housing and high profitability in the private sector kept pushing these vertical townships into the sky against the real needs of their occupants.”
- “On the basis of his own experience, Wilder was convinced that the high-rise apartment was an insufficiently flexible shell to provide the kind of home which encouraged activities, as distinct from somewhere to eat and sleep. Living in high-rises required a special type of behavior, one that was acquiescent, restrained, even perhaps slightly mad. A psychotic would have a ball here, Wilder reflected.”
- “In principle, the mutiny of these well-to-do professional people against the building they had collectively purchased was no different from the dozens of well-documented revolts by working-class tenants against municipal tower-blocks that had taken place at frequent intervals during the post-war years. But once again Royal had found himself reacting personally to these acts of vandalism. The breakdown of the building as a social structure was a rebellion against himself.”
- “As he told himself repeatedly, the present breakdown of the high-rise might well mark its success rather than its failure. Without realizing it, he had given these people a means of escaping into a new life, and a pattern of social organization that would become the paradigm of all future high-rise blocks.”
- “But,” reads the next line, “these dreams of helping the two thousand residents towards their new Jerusalem meant nothing to Anne.”
Anne was the architect Royal’s wife, who has decided they must move out. Fortunately for the rest of us, humans seem to fitted themselves more reasonably into tower life.
Here is a review, a little too in-depth regarding the characters and their fate for my taste, but those who want to wallow in High-Rise can do so with “Reconstructing High-Rise,” by Rick McGrath, a Ballard fan, written in 2004.
I’ve never lived in a building of more than seven stories (the Smith Building in downtown Providence). I don’t think a book, fictional or otherwise, could be written about the psychosis of its residents’ lifestyles. But then, while I lived there for 11 years, from 1999-2010, including, toward the end, three years with a wife and a year with a child, I moved out five years ago and who knows what has happened to life there since. On the other hand, I often hanker to return.