Bookshed: High Rise

I was recently in a condo tower in Port Moody attending a party. While waiting for the elevator up (one was blocked, and with only two in operation there was a queue forming to get on), I noted the strange stilted conversations going on among the residents of the building. It was a hockey game day, you see, and everyone was returning from their liquor store run to seal themselves back into their units and watch the TV. What struck me about it was the realization that this building would have more than a hundred units of people doing the same thing – and that it all seemed like a dark formula necessitated by the cardboard tower, the conveniently placed liquor store in the complex, the cable switched on in every unit to keep the drinker/watchers from interacting with anyone else in the building. And at the same time it felt like an explosion waiting to happen if just a few people got out of control and went on the roof – say – or started partying in the hallway instead of their own apartment.

Later, I was talking with a friend about it and I recalled the book High Rise by J.G. Ballard – which I read more than twenty years ago. Inspired by the creepiness of these modern towers, I took High Rise from the library this week, and was not disappointed by my memory. This is one fast-paced read, witty, strange and utterly compelling….

Written in 1975, High Rise is Ballard’s commentary on modern society, the primitive currents that run just below civilization, and class stratification. Opening with the scene of a doctor cooking an Alsatian on his condominimum balcony, the reader is treated to a reminiscence of the last three months of life in the complex – brand-new and the largest in the world at 1000 units (2000 residents total). Pitched as a “new way of living” – the high rise is a self-contained paradise of shopping, workout rooms, restaurants and apartments – from which residents only have to leave in order to go to work.

While there are seething tensions from the beginning of the story (the building has been populated for about eight months, starting with the building’s architect) – frustrations to do with the way others use the garbage chutes, resentments over parking arrangements, children using the swimming pools, dogs shitting in elevators and so on – it is not until the day the final condo unit in the building is filled that the action starts to boil. It is on this day that a strange sort of party erupts throughout the various floors of the building. This party is boisterous, a bit anarchic, and a tad agressive – starting in the upper levels and working its way down over the first week or so. Within a couple of weeks, the parties have started to become roaming gangs and raiding parties, necessitating the formation of floor-based clan groups for security – and then the free fall really begins. Elevators are held as strategic pathways, access to floors are blocked in the stairwell to stop those from “below” coming up, garbage is thrown from balconies to damage the cars of the richest floors up top, physical violence becomes the norm, electrical and air conditioning systems are sabotaged to deprive the inhabitants of upper or lower floors of basic amenities. In short, it is a middle-class professional version of Lord of the Flies but set in central London and with class attainment as a central theme.

JG Ballard does not bother to veil his symbols… the protaganist from the lower floor – Wilder – ultimately pits himself against the architect – Royal – in an epic life and death struggle to get to the top of the building and take posession…. it’s not difficult to see what Ballard wants to show us. But that’s what makes it such an amusing read despite the violence and the dark view that Ballard apparently takes of  human motivation. Towards the end, there is the hint that this three-month war is just part of growing pains in a building with so much life crammed in close quarters, and that things might start to straighten out (after much loss of life, destruction of possessions, and individual liberation experienced by the remaining characters). But then again, perhaps not.

Of course once I finished reading High Rise I had to find out what the largest condo tower in the world now is (a concept that was brand new in 1975 when this was written)…. and lo! I find this article on the largest condo building in Canada with 75 floors and 931 units which started construction in 2010. If you read the description in the news item and then read the opening pages of High Rise, you will notice some startling similarities. Like the apartment tower I visited in Port Moody, I’m sure this new development will carry the same strange energy. A seething behind the doors, an antagonism waiting to escape….. all packaged in chrome and glass and faux-leather, pretentions to artistic prints in the lobby and the promise of a new life on purchase.

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