Tuesday, September 14, 2010

High Rise

I've always wanted to read J. G. Ballard, and just never got around to sampling the famed British author. I started watching the Cronenberg adaptation of Crash, but gave up rather quickly. The weirdness of Crash is the primary reason why I was always intimidated by Ballard. I saw High Rise at the library, and I was drawn to do it due to its plot, but mostly due to its length, which is on the short side.

High Rise is the slow and awful decay of society within a huge 40 storey modern apartment complex, with swimming pools, markets, and other high tech amenities. Robert Laing, a young single doctor, watches impassively as the skyscraper's utilities break down, and as social norms break down, devolving into violence and chaos.

There's not really not much to the plot of High Rise. What this book is concerned with is social norms, and how easily they fall away. Ballard's slow and methodical vivisection of the apartment building is captivating, albeit in a morbid "how worse can it get" kind of way.

Ballard is adept at using haunting images and similes. For example, when the swimming pool becomes unusable, Laing notices a newspaper floating on the surface of the water, its headline wavering like another world's message. I'm paraphrasing, but you can see how efficient this image is. A lot of these symbols underscore how alien this world is, while at the same time, being ironic - this alien apartment building is actually us in microcosm.

This isn't a book of character or plot, but of ideas, and they're certainly complex. For that time. It's a shame that I didn't read Ballard when he was new, because it would've seemed fresh when I read it. Unfortunately, a million authors have mimicked him, stolen his ideas, appropriated and adopted his themes. The end result is that I feel like I read High Rise before. Of course, a solid argument can be made that High Rise is just Lord of the Flies but urban in setting.

High Rise was an enjoyable novel, slight if only because of its limited setting. The familiarity with the plot and characters is a flaw not fair of leveling against Ballard, but it still hindered my reading. I gather that this was an adequate introduction to Ballard, and I'll probably read some more of his work. Maybe.

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