High Rise was published in 1975 and departs immediately from what you might call traditional nineteenth-century realism. Chiefly because it’s nightmarish and horrible and, the classic test (cf. Alain Robbe-Gillet), it’s probably not going to be mistaken for a nineteenth-century realist novel. If you don’t know, it’s about a high-rise building with two thousand tenants who slowly shut themselves off from the outside world, becoming violent, primitive and accordingly, kind of disgusting.
And boy could it not run further or faster or in a greater number of different directions from the tenets of literary realism. On the very first page the narrator uses the phrase “now that everything had returned to normal,” while the novel’s principal character Laing is eating a dog. The comforting objectivity of the Omniscient Narrator is undermined by a novel in which “normal” means just kicking back and eating a dog. The devaluation of value-terms immediately strands us in the world of High Rise. Who are these people? Are they us? Wait a second, it’s one of those novels, they’re totally us.
The relation between language and reality, so problem-free in the traditional novel, is complicated again and again. As one of the tenants from the lower levels, Wilder, becomes increasingly primitive, he uses language less and less, eventually refusing to speak at all. This reveals language not as an expression of reality, but as a civilizing construct, something that keeps humans from chaos. I’m reminded of the realiest of all realist novels, Eliot’s Middlemarch, when Dorothea is told: “We have all got to exert ourselves a little to keep sane, and call things by the same names as other people call them by”. Realism tries to keep people and language “sane”; Ballard wants to show the cracks in that same sanity.
So realist bad, experimental good, right? Realist conservative, experimental progressive, right, guys? … Guys? Sadly for the militant progressives among us, High Rise isn’t a straightforward breaking down of traditional norms. By theorizing what would happen if externally imposed social order collapsed, like you know laws and so on, Ballard is trying to give a narrative to inherent human nature, to expose whatever is innate in all of us. So what’s that thing that’s innate in all of us again? Oh yeah, social class lol.
As the outside world loses its influence, the inhabitants break into what Ballard describes as “the three classical social groups: its lower, middle and upper classes”. But, adorable though that is, those aren’t “classical” social groups at all. They largely emerged with late capitalism, which is just one specific way of organizing a society. Since that system of organization has collapsed in this novel, we might expect to see new ways of organization emerge. But we don’t. And since money’s not the point, we’re left to suspect that Ballard thinks class is a more fundamental part of who we are.
Ballard seems to know a lot about our inevitable, inherent capitalised-so-it’s-serious Human Nature. It’s hard to see how. Almost twenty years before High Rise was printed, poststructuralism’s top lad Roland Barthes had warned us to be wary of constructions of Human Nature that incorporate dominant political ideology. In his 1957 text Mythologies he urges the progressive humanist to understand that all narratives that explain Human Nature are themselves political fairytales of one kind or another; we must “establish Nature itself as historical”. Ballard’s not rushing headlong into that one, instead giving us a Nature that’s all-too-coveniently Universal and True.
Finally, gender. In an either satirical or terrible narrative quirk, male characters are primarily introduced by their job titles – TV presenters or producers and so on (oh god please be satire). But in a move that is almost certainly not satire, women are introduced by being described as “the jeweller’s wife” or if absolutely necessary “the women stock analysts”. Ha. Arguably, Ballard is exposing that women occupy a grey area in this social order, but as the novel progresses, that reading becomes a little bit generous.
When violence breaks out, it’s women inflicting it on women: at one point, “the women among the guests pushed aside their husbands and began to punch the girl”. Given how women are obviously disadvantaged in a culture of violence, it’s not clear why they instigate this, and it’s also pretty condescending that men have to save the poor innocent girl from their harpy punch-happy wives. Without essentialising women as being anti-violent by nature, we are more vulnerable by nature to physical attack - making violence perhaps the core component of women’s subjugation. And it is not a subversive break from middle-class norms for women to be subject to attack: domestic abuse and assault didn’t magically go away just in time for this novel to make it subversive again.
Finally, toward the end of the novel, women reap the seeming rewards of their violent culture, submitting happily to sexual abuse and rape. After Wilder forces himself on Charlotte Melville, she falls asleep “as she stroked the wine-coloured stripes on his chest”. Yes, actually. In a way, I guess it’s good that Ballard describes this as a “brief rape,” at least acknowledging that Melville has been violated. But also, GROSS YOU GUYS. Gross.
The intent may be to shock and disturb, but theorizing women as secretly desirous of rape isn’t actually that shocking, since it’s actually a distressingly common opinion. Clue: if an idea is used almost exclusively by the privileged to excuse their oppression of the marginalised, it’s not subversive, it’s just fucking privileged. No one’s mind is blown by the idea that a woman could enjoy rape, because “she was asking for it” is a thing that people actually say, all the time, to little backlash.
So it looks like Ballard’s neo-primitive world where violence reigns and women submit isn’t radical at all. In fact, rejections of literary tradition aside, it’s a fantasy of white male privilege reclaimed through the most traditional means of all - and at best it should make it us very, very uncomfortable