“Without knowing it, he had constructed a gigantic vertical zoo, its hundreds of cages stacked above each other. All the events of the past few months made sense if one realised that these brilliant and exotic creatures had learned to open the doors.”
Not far from where I live, across the border into Belgium, you’ll find yourself in the Ardennes, a collection of rugged forests, ragged mountains and quaint, picturesque towns where it’s perfectly okay to have a beer at 11 AM and where French fries have been elevated into an art form. I love it there. Before I get there, however, I’m required to drive through the city of Liège, and particularly the borough of Droixhe. While Liège has its charm, it is also dirt-poor, and the poorest of all live in Droixhe. If you are the sort of person who enjoys scenes of urban decay, feel free to Google it.
Passing through Droixhe you will inevitably find yourself going past five tall apartment buildings. Garbage is usually strewn about them. The windows all show ragged curtains and satellite dishes. The area reeks of decay, old cooking smells and years of neglect. Built in the fifties and sixties, they’re hopelessly outdated and suffering from ill upkeep. Getting out of your car and taking a walk around is a bad idea. These looming socialist behemoths of yore have always given me a profound sense of unease.
When I was reading J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise I was reminded of these buildings. The titular high-rise, the first one in a series of five, has been completed and the last of its new tenants have moved in. It’s forty storeys tall. It’s got everything a person could want: a supermarket, a hairdresser, two swimming pools, a school, a gymnasium, and a sculpture play garden for children up on the roof. The first ten storeys offer relatively cheap housing; the next twenty are for the professionals (doctors, accountants, lawyers) and the filthy rich live on the top floors. Increasingly noisy parties are held every night. Resentment grows. Fights break out, rules are broken, and soon, the high rise goes from literal class warfare to a feral wasteland where people communicate through sex and grunts.
We see the story unfold through the eyes of three characters: Robert Laing, a doctor who teaches anatomy at a local university; Anthony Royal, the architect, looking down upon the masses from his penthouse; and Richard Wilder, a documentary maker who lives with his wife on the second floor. The narrative keeps its distance, careful not to get too close; we, too, see the story unfold from far away as the characters spiral into feral madness. Royal is aloof, Laing is relieved to let go of all decency and Wilder discovers a whole new side to himself. All around them, filth accumulates, people beat each other to death for no other reason than that they can, tenuous allegiances are formed and broken, women are raped and pets are drowned and eaten.
The characters not particularly likeable or well-developed, but they don’t have to be; the story shows how they go from successful, well-adjusted men into unshaven, unwashed and undernourished savages, wallowing in their own filth and indulging in every impulse that comes to them without ever wondering why, or for what purpose. There is one scene in which Wilder, having abandoned his family, ransacks an empty apartment, urinates on the floor of the bathroom, and then watches himself in the mirror (“the sight of his penis calmed him, a white club hanging in the darkness. He would have liked to dress it in some way, perhaps with a hair-ribbon tied in a floral bow”). It’s darkly comical, but also very, very unsettling.
What’s scary about the novel is that the extended battleground starts with minor and entirely relatable nuisances (children being noisy in the communal pool, people using the wrong elevators) and then seamlessly morphs into a violent, anarchic society, sending every single tenant into a collective caveman-mass psychosis. It’s outrageous, but also, somehow, totally believable. It’s reminiscent of Lord of the Flies, of course, but it also reminded me of Toby Litt’s Hospital, which at least had an element of fantasy to it. There is no such reprieve in High Rise. People are, innately, bastards. Which is why I stole the title of this review from someone at Goodreads. Sorry.
So would I recommend it? Absolutely. I don’t think it’s a particurlary pleasant read, but after taking one too many trips through Droixhe, it’s sadly also entirely believable.