The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard

AtrocityExhibitionIt’s oddly comforting to know that J G Ballard’s most experimental, challenging, and controversial pieces of fiction, the ‘condensed novels’ that make up The Atrocity Exhibition, were written between, on the one hand, a children’s story for the much-loved BBC series Jackanory (‘Gulliver in Space’, broadcast 11th Feb 1966) and a treatment for one of Hammer Films’ fur bikini efforts, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970). In contrast, The Atrocity Exhibition stories are deliberately difficult, intentionally obsessive, and wilfully confrontational. As much experiments in form as they are in content, they were Ballard’s attempt to break away from his early, more conventional (though still firmly ‘New Wave’) science fiction, to something that felt more relevant both to himself and to the time in which he was writing. As he states in a 1973 interview with Peter Linnet (included in Extreme Metaphors: Collected Interviews):

‘I wanted to write directly about the present day, and this peculiar psychological climate that existed in the middle sixties… It seemed to me that the only way to write about all this was to meet the landscape on its own terms. Useless to try to impose the conventions of the nineteenth-century realistic novel on this incredible five-dimensional fiction moving around us all the time at high speed.’

AtrocityExhibition02As much as they were a response to the ‘peculiar psychological climate’ of the mid-1960s, the Atrocity Exhibition stories were also a response to Ballard’s own psychological ecosystem. The protagonists of these fragmented stories, variously called Trabert, Traven, Talbert, Tallis, Travers, or left unnamed, usually start their stories working in some sort of institute (a hospital or a university), but leave to pursue their increasingly obsessive private projects. Similarly, Ballard gave up his medical training when the urge to write became too strong. The Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’ private projects are often artistic, but always, like the Atrocity Exhibition stories themselves, highly experimental, and more often than not entirely conceptual. In the story called ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’, Travis plans to make himself the first victim in an entirely imaginary, though very real to him, World War III; in ‘Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown’, Trabert wants to somehow resurrect the Apollo 1 astronauts. These men are usually trying to somehow recreate the decade’s most celebrated tragedies — those which most challenged the post-war optimism of the 1950s — but do so in a way that somehow, this time, makes sense. Their key working method, it seems, is to collect disparate photographs, scientific images, artworks, and other ‘terminal documents’, while somehow insisting that ‘all these make up one picture’:

‘(1) a thick-set man in an Air Force jacket, unshaven face half hidden by the dented hat-peak; (2) a transverse section through the spinal level T-12; (3) a crayon self-portrait by David Feary, seven-year-old schizophrenic at the Belmont Asylum, Sutton; (4) radio-spectra from the quasar CTA 102; (5) an antero-posterior radiograph of a skull, estimated capacity 1500cc; (6) spectro-heliogram of the sun taken with the K line of calcium; (7) left and right handprints showing massive scarring between second and third metacarpal bones…’

Wilson_TheOutsider_2001When writing about Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, I mentioned The Atrocity Exhibition as an example of what I called ‘crisis literature’ — books written on the edge of, or just past, a traumatic, and often psychologically destabilising crisis, which forced their writers into new, experimental, and often difficult narrative forms to capture and somehow master that crisis. Alan Garner’s Red Shift was perhaps the first example of this kind of book I really stuck with, and T S Eliot’s The Waste Land is perhaps the most well-known. Such books, I said, present themselves as highly intellectualised puzzles, but are really about deep emotional trauma. They take the form of fractured narratives (the multiple time strands of Garner’s Red Shift) or a barrage of seemingly unrelated fragments (the many styles and images of The Waste Land), that, like the Atrocity Exhibition protagonists’s ‘terminal documents’, the authors insist belong together as a single statement. (One such disparate list of peculiar photostats — ‘(1) Front elevation of a multi-storey car park; (2) mean intra-patellar distances (estimated during funeral services) of Coretta King and Ethel M. Kennedy…’ and so on — is titled ‘Fusing Devices’, making their function in an attempt at self-integration clear.) This is something Jung has said is a general characteristic of psychological healing: the search to resolve highly polarised, conflicting internal forces (a thesis and an antithesis) into a new synthesis, a new unity. The Atrocity Exhibition is fragmented in form (all those short paragraph-long chapters with their wonderful Ballardian titles), narrative sequence (Ballard says you don’t have to read the chapters in the order presented, but can pick and choose at random), and images. ‘At times it was almost as if he were trying to put himself together out of some bizarre jigsaw,’ as someone says of the protagonist of ‘You and Me and the Continuum’.

What may be another characteristic of ‘crisis literature’ is the way that violence, or violent images, are always waiting to burst through any apparently normal facade. Dr Nathan, one of the recurring figures in the ‘condensed novels’, who Ballard calls, in his later footnotes to the stories, ‘the safe and sane voice of the sciences’ — though with a hint that it’s not necessarily safety or sanity that are needed to solve these post-traumatic conundrums — provides a key to understanding this element of the Atrocity Exhibition:

‘The only way we can make contact with each other is in terms of conceptualisations. Violence is the conceptualisation of pain. By the same token psychopathology is the conceptual system of sex.’

TAtrocityExhibition03he many violent images in The Atrocity Exhibition stories — car crashes, assassinations, murders — are, then, attempts to externalise a deeply repressed or dissociated pain, a pain so intense it destabilises the very landscape around the protagonists, disconnecting them from a sense of reality, and from normal contact with their fellow human beings. Half of what happens in each of the stories is probably hallucinated — certainly, some of the characters are, including that mostly-silent recurring trinity of Kline, Coma, and Xero — while the other half is overwritten by a fictionalisation of reality which is, nevertheless, more real, or at least more meaningful, to the protagonists than reality itself.

I’m not a great one for experimental fiction. The Ballard I like is mostly the writer of weird disaster novels (The Drowned World, The Crystal World), dream-like psychological short stories, and a few of the mid-period novels (High-Rise, The Unlimited Dream Company). But after a while, reading interviews and articles about Ballard, you have to admit that, at some point, you’re going to have to read The Atrocity Exhibition, just to find out if it can really live up to all he said about it.

jg_ballardIn a way, what we have here is Ballard’s own commedia dell’arte taken to max — reusing the same stock figures (the mentally exhausted doctor/lecturer protagonist, the psychologist colleague who wryly, calmly comments and explains, the rather passive abandoned wife, the rather passive younger girlfriend), stock props (a torn flying jacket, a helicopter, a crashed car), stock images (the angle between two walls, cubicular screens or mirrors, vastly blown-up fragmented images of a woman’s face and body), and stock situations (car crashes, bizarre artistic exhibits) and landscapes (abandoned military testing sights, abandoned motorways, and other concrete wastelands), played and replayed, re-imagined and re-fit, in an attempt to find the combination that will unlock this particular meaning, solve this particular riddle. (The exception that proves this rule is, perhaps, ‘The Summer Cannibals’, which reads as though Ballard were deliberately trying not to use any of his standard tropes, and finds there’s nothing worth writing about. It’s the least interesting of the Atrocity Exhibition stories.)

Having read them, I have to say I didn’t find the whole as powerful as I’d hoped. The shock of the fragmented form works at first, but after a while the repetition doesn’t quite gain power through accumulation. What’s undeniable — as always — is the strength and integrity with which Ballard follows his obsessions. This is something you get, though, even in his more conventional narratives, the early novels and short stories. Here, in condensed form, sometimes the effect is of shocking juxtaposition, but sometimes it’s tired repetition. Undoubtedly, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write; it revitalised his novel-writing and set him on a new direction for a new decade. It’s almost as though he had to go to such experimental, obsessive lengths to break free of all the generic and standard novelistic conventions he’d been following, so as to return to them (with Crash, Concrete Island, and High-Rise) with a new strength. And I think the condensed novel form can really work, and it would be great to read other writers attempting it — if, that is, they don’t just take it as an excuse to throw together a bunch of random paragraphs. (It would work well, I think, with cosmic horror.)

If, as I say, The Atrocity Exhibition was important for Ballard to write — so as to confront, and perhaps master, the dehumanising forces of trauma, despair, and the ‘death of affect’ in his own life in the mid-60s — then his final book, Miracles of Life, was the equally important answer to it, as that book is about the humanising forces that saw him through life, mostly notably being his children.

The Whispering Swarm by Michael Moorcock

michael-moorcockI’ve never really got Michael Moorcock, not in the same way I feel I ‘get’ my favourite authors, like Ballard, Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, David Lindsay or Clark Ashton Smith. I feel I know where, for instance, Ballard is coming from, what drives his writing, even though Ballard’s upbringing in pre-World War II China, and his adolescence in a Japanese POW camp, is utterly unlike my own — perhaps even because of this difference, as then the story is so much more easily presented as a ‘myth of writerly origin’, and so therefore more understandable. Perhaps it’s because I don’t know Moorcock’s ‘myth of writerly origin’ that, though I’ve read a fair smattering of his books — Wizardry and Wild Romance, the early Elric books, the Corum books, the Hawkmoon books, the Kane of Old Mars books, The Black Corridor, Gloriana, The Golden Barge, The War Hound and the World’s Pain, The Brothel in Rosenstrasse, The Deep Fix, The Coming of the Terraphiles, and the interview book Death Is No Obstacle — I still don’t have a sense of where he’s coming from, as a writer, what he means as a writer. (This is perhaps just a peculiarity of mine, but I do respond better to authors who seem to be writing as a means of dealing with the aftermath of some originating crisis, however vague. Moorcock has always seemed free of this, leaving me feeling I’ve got nothing to grab hold of.)

The Weird of the White Wolf, Michael Whelan cover

The Weird of the White Wolf, Michael Whelan cover

Nevertheless, Moorcock’s been a constant presence. When I began to venture away from the Doctor Who books in our local WH Smiths to the adult SF & Fantasy section, I found it fully stocked with Moorcock. Moorcock introduced me to Hawkwind — he mentioned them in an interview in Imagine, the D&D magazine, so I checked them out. (An interview in which he also seemed to be rather dismissive of role-playing games, just as he seemed, on a first read, to be dismissive of fantasy in Wizardry and Wild Romance. I was beginning to feel Moorcock wasn’t entirely on my side.) Hawkwind got me into Ballard, though I could have got into Ballad just as easily from Moorcock himself; and Moorcock was also the reason I read Fritz Leiber and Robert Holdstock and Mervyn Peake. Plus, how could I resist those Elric books, with their Michael Whelan covers — and titles like The Weird of the White Wolf or Sailor on the Seas of Fate?

Nevertheless, he remained a mystery. Which is why, when I heard he was writing a mix of autobiography and fantasy trilogy beginning with The Whispering Swarm, I knew I had to read it. Perhaps the answer to Michael Moorcock was to be found in there.

And… some answers were. (But it is only the first in a trilogy, after all.)

Let’s start with the obvious one. Perhaps one of the reasons Moorcock never quite snapped into focus for me like the more monomaniacal Ballard is that he’s always been switching between states. He bashes out sword and sorcery novels in three days, then spends years on long literary series, like the Colonel Pyat books (which I gave up on). Which is he, then, the fantasy pulpster or the literary novelist? Why, both of course:

“I was already conscious of two different kinds of author in me. One was practical, able to make money commercially. The other was predominantly analytical, experimental and not at all commercial!”

(He also says, “Balzac was one of my heroes because he did reams of hackwork before doing reams of ambitious, innovative fiction.”)

It should be obvious, really, that Moorcock is all about swinging between two opposites — just think of the eternal battle between Law and Chaos in the Eternal Champion books. Is this the image of Moorcock’s own inner world? It quickly becomes clear that Moorcock, in The Whispering Swarm, is also struggling with a need to achieve a balance of sorts. He even achieves it at one point in the novel:

“By 1969 I had everything in some sort of balance. Two lives, two wives, two children, two careers…”

michael_moorcock_whispering_swarm_gollancz_coverOf course, this isn’t necessarily Michael Moorcock the writer speaking; it’s the narrator of The Whispering Swarm. Who is also called Michael Moorcock, and who shares a lot of biography with his author. Both grew up in post-WWII London, both begin editing Tarzan Adventures at the age of 17, both go on to write SF and sword & sorcery, and to edit New Worlds. Precisely where the real and the fictional Michael Moorcock part ways it’s difficult to tell. Mostly, Moorcock is free with his use of real people’s names — and there are plenty he rubs shoulders with in 50s and 60s London, from Colin Wilson (“People had brought Colin and me together because they saw us as enfants terribles but we didn’t have a lot in common. I got on better with Colin’s friend Bill Hopkins”), Barrington Bayley, actor Jon Finch — which is perhaps why it took me a moment to work out who Jack Allard was. Jack Allard, who in the book is a close ally in Moorcock’s vision for the revamped New Worlds, Jack Allard who’d spend his childhood in German-occupied Guernsey… And then there’s Rex Fisch, and Jake Slade… JG Ballard, Thomas M Disch, and John Sladek, of course! Why this slip into such obvious pseudonyms? Perhaps so Moorcock is a bit more free to talk about them, though why a judgement such as this, of Allard:

“I eventually realised that the only fiction he liked was his own. Meanwhile, he wrote brilliant, lyrical, existentialist stories which were a bit like Ray Bradbury, a bit like Graham Greene and were as original as anything the genre had ever seen…”

— shouldn’t be made quite freely of the real J G Ballard, I don’t know. It doesn’t surprise me that Ballard would only really be interested in his own fiction, monomaniac of the imagination that he was. Moorcock does provide an interesting insight into my own ability to ‘get’ Ballard but not Moorcock, though, when he says of Allard:

“He had read very little, preferring to get his culture via the screen or from the radio…”

It’s obvious, from reading the early chapters about Moorcock’s youth, that I’ve more experience of Ballard’s cultural background than I do of Moorcock’s, even though Moorcock was raised in London (where “It seemed as if I could live my entire life in a bubble less than half a mile across and find everyone I wanted to meet, everything I wanted to do!”). In an odd way, Moorcock’s culture, so thoroughly rooted in the ephemeral indigenous literature of the day, is more distant, because of the Hollywood-isation of culture generally. Moorcock grew up reading about all sorts of dashing heroes, from highwaymen to schoolboys to cowboys, I’ve never heard of, whereas I’ve seen many of the films Ballard grew up on.

But there’s something more fundamentally different in the type of artist — or imagination — that Moorcock has. As opposed to those monomaniacs of the imagination, like Ballard, who I find it easier to ‘get’, Moorcock is deliberately diffuse:

“I was already fascinated by the way modern mythology took characters from different eras and put them together.”

After all, the fundamental symbol of Moorcock’s imagination is the Multiverse — or, as it’s presented here, ‘Radiant Time’:

“Most philosophers see time as a line disappearing into infinity, past, present, future… Others have it as a circle, which is much the same thing, except theoretically you return to the beginning and start all over again. All representations of time are some variation on this simple idea. But the truth is time radiates, just as light does. Let the physical world be thought a dimension of time!”

Whereas the likes of Ballard or Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith are constantly honing a single idea, a single obsession, Moorcock seems to be going the opposite way. As someone says in The Whispering Swarm of the forces opposed to Alsacia:

‘They see their salvation in simplicity and purification, but the world is not simple. Nor is it easily purified. God made it complex and mysterious. They want to obey man’s rules, not God’s.’

WhisperingSwarm_USAh, yes, Alsacia. All this rambling, and I haven’t got started on what the book’s about. Woven in amongst the autobiography in The Whispering Swarm is a fantasy. In this fantasy, young Michael Moorcock finds an area of London untouched by the blitz, peopled by a ragtag group of ‘Actors, vagabonds, cheapjacks, rum pads and balladeers’, most of whom dress like figures from English history, including highwaymen and cavaliers, not to mention a certain well-known trio of French Musketeers. There’s also a bunch of monks, the White Friars, who have a number of interesting treasures in their possession, including a chalice which, when lit by sunlight, seems to contain a sort of dancing hologram fish, and a vast cosmolabe which fills a room. Alsacia is also known as Sanctuary, which is what it offers to people of all beliefs and persuasions — not to mention time zones — but it is not always there. Once he’s visited it, Moorcock finds that, when he’s not in it, his hearing is bothered by a sort of tinnitus, a constant muttering of voices he comes to term ‘the whispering swarm’. Alsacia becomes a second home — literally, as he sets up a ménage there with the highway-robber Moll Midnight, when he needs to escape from his ‘real’ home life. It is, like Tanelorn in the Eternal Champion books, a neutral ground, a longed-for place of balance.

But it is not a place of escape. Throughout the book, Moorcock is constantly questioning the nature of Alsacia, and whether he should be going there. Is it a delusion? Is it immoral? It gives him almost as much domestic trouble as he’s escaping from in his real family — a family he longs for when he’s away from them as much as he longs for Alsacia when he’s not there. It’s difficult to decide, in fact, what Alsacia represents, as it isn’t a fantasy refuge from reality (he quite often spends his time there hacking out fantasy books, just as he does in the real world).

Wizardry & Wild Romance cover

Wizardry and Wild Romance, Gollancz (1987), cover by Les Edwards

But, this is only book one. After rather too much (in my opinion) questioning the nature of Alsacia, then going there, then vowing to give it up, then giving in and going back only to start questioning again, Moorcock gets involved in a trans-temporal adventure to rescue King Charles from execution in Oliver Cromwell’s day — something Moorcock enters into despite his own political beliefs (‘the day a tyrant was made answerable to his people, the world was set on a very different course. The idea of the modern democratic republic was born’), but more from a feeling of fellowship with the various highwaymen and exiled cavaliers he falls in with. They need Moorcock for his ability to travel the ‘Moonbeam Roads’ that connect Alsacia with various bits of our history — as well as histories not ours (as evinced by an early adventure where Moorcock aids Moll Midnight in highway-robbing an armoured tram).

My favourite parts of The Whispering Swarm were the obviously autobiographical elements I could recognise: Moorcock’s time taking over the reins of New Worlds and gathering a stable of like-minded writers around him, while participating gleefully in swinging-sixties London. The fantasy novel part took longer to fire, for me, and it was only really at the adventurous conclusion that it really hit upon a story, rather than an endless questioning of the nature of Alsacia, and Moorcock’s own moral doubts about his relationship with it. I look forward to the second volume, though, in the hope it will illuminate, if not the mystery of Alsacia, then at least the mystery of Michael Moorcock.

The Outsider by Colin Wilson

Wilson_TheOutsider_2001There’s a small list of books I’ve immediately re-read after first reading them, and Colin Wilson’s The Outsider is on it. At the time (I must have been 21 or 22), I’d never read any philosophy, nor much literature outside of SF, fantasy & horror, and part of the impact the book had on me came from its introducing me to subjects I’d never looked into before, but which I soon realised I had a great hunger for. It’s humbling to realise Wilson himself was 24 when he wrote it. By that point he’d already read more books than I, at twice my then-age, have managed even now — and he’d not only read them, but thought about them.

It’s a hallmark of Wilson’s writing that he’s deeply and infectiously engaged in anything he’s writing about, something that’s even more true of this, his first book. What, then, is it about? A general study of the figure of ‘the Outsider’ in literature would be too diffuse; this is the study of a selection of figures that enable Wilson to ask the questions he most wants to ask. So what is a Wilsonian Outsider?

‘…the Outsider is a man who cannot live in the comfortable, insulated world of the bourgeois, accepting what he sees and touches as reality. “He sees too deep and too much,” and what he sees is essentially chaos. For the bourgeois, the world is fundamentally an orderly place, with a disturbing element of the irrational, the terrifying, which his preoccupation with the present usually permits him to ignore. For the Outsider, the world is not rational, not orderly. When he asserts his sense of anarchy in the face of the bourgeois’ complacent acceptance, it is not simply the need to cock a snook at respectability that provokes him; it is a distressing sense that truth must be told at all costs, otherwise there can be no hope for an ultimate restoration of order. Even if there seems no room for hope, truth must be told.’

What it comes down to is a basic question asked of life itself: ‘Ultimate Yes, or Ultimate No?’ The non-Outsider says, ‘Ultimate Yes, obviously,’ but this is the dismissive reaction of someone who’s never had to make the choice. The Outsider, who ‘sees too deep and too much’, has to ask the question every moment of every day, either recoiling in horror at the suffering in the world (‘Ultimate No’), or discovering, once again, in moments of intense affirmation, his own particular ‘Ultimate Yes’ — but always in spite of all that could lead to an ‘Ultimate No’:

‘The way lies forward, into more life… accept the ordeal… “ever further into guilt, ever deeper into human life”… Life itself is an exile. The way home is not the way back.’

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

A Voyage to Arcturus, Ballantine Books, cover by Bob Pepper

(Those last two sentences can’t help reminding me of the journey towards our ‘true home’ in David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, a book I also first read, and immediately re-read, around the same time, without knowing Wilson had written about it. Re-reading The Outsider now, I’m struck by how similar the two books are, both in subject matter and basic form. Both begin by rejecting the idea of normal, ‘bourgeois’ reality: in Arcturus, this is the gathering described in the opening chapter, ‘The Séance’; in The Outsider, this is in Wilson’s opening sentence — ‘At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem’ — and his discussion of Henri Barbusse’s novel, L’Enfer, in particular the dinner table scene, which is, like Arcturus’s séance, a social gathering where something shocking — the story of a local murder — is presented for entertainment. Both books then go through a series of explorations and rejections of possible answers to the questions they’re asking, leading, ultimately, to a more visionary conclusion.)

In 2001, The Outsider, having been constantly in print since its first publication in 1956, was re-published with some additional after-thoughts by Wilson, in which he summarises the Outsider’s position:

‘…it still seems to me that the whole “Outsider problem” is epitomised in the contrast between Van Gogh’s painting The Starry Night and the words of his suicide note: “Misery will never end.”’

Manic_Street_Preachers-The_Holy_Bible_album_cover“La Tristesse Durera” — not coincidentally the title of one of my favourite songs by one of the most Outsider-ish (in the Wilsonian sense) bands, the Manic Street Preachers. (Their Holy Bible is a modern ‘Outsider document’ if ever there was one, highlighting all the ‘Ultimate No’s’ of the 20th century, from serial killers to eating disorders to concentration camps — issues not touched upon by Wilson in his first book, though serial killers were a speciality of his later work. The energy of the music itself acts as an ‘Ultimate Yes’. Of course, the fate of Richey Edwards, who disappeared after the album’s release, touches on the question that made Wilson start his book in the first place: why did so many young men of genius in the 19th and early 20th centuries end up killing themselves?)

The Outsider was published in 1956. There’s something about that era, the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, that had a much more serious intellectual air about it. Writers could expect their public to have a basic familiarity, and interest in, both new scientific ideas and experimental art. The era also had its dark side, as when ‘the Establishment’ grew defensive. Perhaps sensing this non-university-educated upstart was getting too confident, Wilson’s sequel, Religion and the Rebel (1957), was reviewed as scornfully as his first book was praised. He went on to write a total of six books in his ‘Outsider sequence’, but it wasn’t until the 1970s, with the success of his massive tome, The Occult, that he was once more taken seriously as a writer in his homeland (other countries were far more enthusiastic, and less duplicitous).

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

Colin Wilson, from the back of Dreaming to Some Purpose

For me, The Outsider stands alongside other books such as the already-mentioned A Voyage to Arcturus, Alan Garner’s Red Shift, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, J G Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, that are a form of ‘crisis literature’, in that they’re both about, and are often the result of, a crisis in the author and the culture. They seem to call for an intellectual response — the need to decode, categorise, ‘solve’ — but more and more I think these books are primarily emotional statements than steps towards some sort of rational answer. The Outsider describes a stage we can all come to — and hopefully pass through — each time we find ourselves seeing ‘too deep and too much’, beyond the comfortable myopia of our personal boundaries, or those of our times. The distress of alienation (from self, or old ideas, or from family, or society, or culture), and the need to move forward into a newer, stronger certainty, make these into books of ‘crisis’, and each solution must be new-found, new-made, by each individual. But at least some such individuals leave guidebooks for us; and Wilson’s could be the arch-guidebook, or certainly the vital first step, composed as it is of fragments of others’ — a guidebook of guidebooks.

High-Rise by J G Ballard

Cover to 1985 release of Ballard's High-Rise, by James Marsh

Cover to 1985 release of Ballard’s High-Rise, by James Marsh

As with 1966’s The Crystal World, there’s a feeling that High-Rise (published in 1975) grew from a single image that could have been a surrealist painting — in this case, that of a well-to-do middle-class man crouching on his apartment balcony, roasting a dog over a fire made of telephone directories — and that the rest of the novel is merely a Ballardian extrapolation of that one image.

High-Rise is J G Ballard’s insistence that the utter breakdown of society to be found in Lord of the Flies needs neither an isolated island, nor children without adult supervision to take hold. We can have it here and now, in modern England, in a fully-populated high-rise tower block, tenanted entirely by the most educated, professionally responsible classes. In fact, Ballard seems to be saying, we can not only have it, but we secretly long for it.

tarot_towerThe novel kicks off at the moment the newly-built tower block reaches ‘critical mass’, as the last of its residents move in. From that point, a slow but steady escalation of petty social tensions, technical teething troubles and Ballardian psychopathology takes its grip, as the residents of the building — ‘a virtually homogeneous collection of well-to-do professional people — lawyers, doctors, tax consultants, senior academics and advertising executives, along with a smaller group of airline pilots, film-industry technicians, and trios of air hostesses sharing apartments’ — become increasingly violent, territorial, and tribal. At first maintaining a flawless facade towards the world outside, going to work each day in immaculately pressed suits, the residents return each night to spend more and more time engaging in vandalism and violence, finally forgetting the world outside altogether, to concentrate on their new, almost entirely primitive existence enclosed within the self-contained forty-storey apartment block, whose corridors, garbage chutes, elevator shafts and swimming pools are clogged at first with rubbish sacks, then, towards the end, human bodies.

High-Rise follows not one but three protagonists, chosen from the three social tiers into which the forty-storey apartment block divides itself — a division that can’t help seeming arbitrary, homogeneous as the residents are. We start with medical lecturer Robert Laing, who lives on the 25th floor (throughout the book, as well as the usual Ballardian habit of identification-by-profession, minor characters are labelled by their floor of residence — so we get ‘a 28th floor account executive’, ‘a radiologist from the 7th floor’, ‘a newspaper columnist on the 37th floor’ — thus emphasising the social surface, in contrast to the violent or irrational behaviour they’re engaging in). We then switch to Anthony Royal, the high-rise’s architect, living in its penthouse apartment, who, like some sort of Bond villain, wears a white safari jacket while being accompanied by an arctic-coated Alsatian dog. He also has a walking stick, thanks to a recent car crash, which makes him seem, as well as a Bond villain, like an image of the author himself: jg_ballardBallard, who wears a white suit in his author photograph, had also recently been through a car crash of sorts — the writing and publication of his 1973 novel Crash. Third in this trio of protagonists is Richard Wilder, a pugnacious TV documentary maker from the lower floors. Of the three, Wilder is the only one who has a real story, as such — a determination to climb the high-rise and inveigle himself into the top floors, under pretence of making a documentary. Laing, is, generally, too languorous to do much other than forage for food and join in with the occasional sortie against other floors, while Royal soon loses any sense of being a Bond villain, and retreats into a mix of traumatised detachment and a feeble longing to see the high-rise in terms of some sort of transformation:

‘…the present breakdown of the high-rise might well mark its success rather than its failure. Without realising it, he had given these people a means of escaping into a new life, and a pattern of social organisation that would become the paradigm of all future high-rise blocks.’

But you don’t read Ballard for the story. It’s the ideas, the images and the writing that ensure High-Rise is never static. Throughout Ballard’s works, there’s a longing for the outer world to match the trauma, chaos and perversity of his characters’ inner worlds, as though he were egging us on to become the people he knows we really are beneath the civilised surface — or at last the people he’s seen us becoming, in his prison-camp childhood in Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. But also, there’s a sense of striving for a new sort of freedom, even if it takes violence to reach it.

HighRiseBut is that what the residents of this high-rise achieve? Towards the end, as tribal divisions break down and the residents retreat individually into their barricaded apartments, there’s a sense of stagnation — ‘sometimes [Laing] found it difficult not to believe that they were living in a future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted’ — or reversion, as the social breakdown, at first presented as a sort of inner fulfilment of what these over-conventionalised professionals really need to live fuller lives — ‘All this brought them together, and ended the frigid isolation of the previous months’ — starts to feel more like a regression, a retreat. Laing reforms his childhood ménage with his sister, and settles into petty power games with her and another bedridden woman he rescues from a nearby apartment; while Wilder, finally reaching the roof, sees children playing in the sculpture garden and doffs his clothes to join them. (Royal’s ending is the most disappointing of all — I was really expecting him, Ballard fashion, to be eaten by his beloved gulls, or perhaps to think he was one of them and attempt to fly off the tower-block roof.)

High-Rise was the first of Ballard’s novels that I read — thanks, of course, to Hawkwind’s song of the same name (whose lyrics paint a more science-fictional and socially rebellious picture of the same theme), released a bare four years later (but recorded in 1977, only two years after the novel came out). It is, I think, the perfect Ballardian novel. The story may at times feel static, but the writing never flags, with Ballard still pulling new images, ideas, and angles out of this situation right up to the final chapters. It also represents something of a change in Ballard’s writing. Before it, despite the careening handbrake-turn from his early disaster novels (The Drowned World, The Drought, The Crystal World) into the transitional, highly experimental work of the late 60s and early 70s (The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash) his writing focused on the individual’s response to a disaster, however worldwide or (in the case of The Crystal World) universe-wide, that disaster was. Here, though, we get to see more of the response of a whole section of society, which is more the style of Ballard’s latter novels (Cocaine Nights, Super Cannes, and I haven’t yet read Kingdom Come, but I’m assuming that’s similar).

Apparently, before starting the novel, Ballard penned a 25,000 word summary, ‘in the form of a social worker’s report on the strange events that had taken place in this apartment block…’ — which I’d love to read, though in the same quote, Ballard says: ‘I wish I’d kept it; I think it was better than the novel.’ !