Friday Reads: J G Ballard

(Sorry for the Saturday post! You may have to get used to it what with all the fussy baby action around these parts.)

I’d never heard of J. G. Ballard until recently. Somewhere along the way I stumbled upon Running Wild as a suggested book. (My best recollection is it had something to do with the fact that I’d just watched The White Ribbon, which deals with similar themes, though in a VERY different setting.) The synopsis of Running Wild was rather brutal and unusual, which piqued my interest, of course. A small, gated community’s adult residents are all dead and the children have all disappeared. One cannot help but feel one’s ears perk up a bit, can one?

That was my introduction to Ballard (the G stands for Graham, so obviously he’s great) and I only found out later that he was one of the leading science-fiction writers of the 20th century. I don’t know that he’s considered “typical” in sci-fi these days. His work focuses much less on technology than societal changes and attitudes that lead to the creation of unrest and barbarity. He certainly has a bleak view of the human condition, but it’s certainly an interesting one.

I’m not sure if it’s just me or if Ballard has flown mostly under the radar in the US. He’s best known for two books that have been made into movies. Empire of the Sun, which is different from most of his other works and is an autobiographical novel of his time growing up in Japan, and Crash.

(Tangent: I’ll be honest. I tried to read Crash in anticipation of this review. I knew it was made into a David Cronenberg film, which means it’s pretty messed up. And I knew it had something to do with taking a grotesque pleasure in car crashes. But I was NOT ready for it. I put it down after two chapters, which is not something I do lightly. (Unless the book is bad.) This wasn’t bad. It was… graphic. And not in a violent way. Let’s just say that the numbers of synonyms for bodily fluids and genitalia was extensive, just in the first few pages. Phew. And there wasn’t anything to lighten it up. I gave Mr. Ballard a salute and set down the book. It took guts to write and I’m curious about where it was going, I just didn’t quite have the stomach for it.)

Anyway. Luckily for us, W. W. Norton is releasing several of his books in the US for the first time over the next few months. Including Kingdom Come, The Drought and High Rise.

Image via Goodreads

I couldn’t read them all (without getting rather depressed about the state of the world) but I did have a go at High Rise. It is definitely Ballardian. The tone is detached. The story is increasingly chaotic and violent. The world is both real and unreal.

Written in the 1970’s, it takes place in a high rise apartment building that has its own self-contained society. (These days we call this a mixed-use development.) With a school, a pool and a shopping mall, there’s little need for anyone to leave except to go to work. Everyone’s lives are lived on top of one another and the elevator is the lifeline to the outside world.

As is often the case, this building has its residents divided by income level, with the lower levels having families, the middle level having single professionals and the top levels inhabited by the upper crust. Everything seems okay on the surface, but the class resentment that lingers below the calm exterior lurks. All it takes to set it off is a power outage.

As the building starts to experience a variety of technical glitches and failures, the residents turn against each other. Soon it isn’t just every man for himself, there are tribes and clans. Floors work together. Elevators are hijacked. Stairs are blocked. Stores are abandoned.

The novel follows three of the building’s residents as chaos ensues. Wilder fancies himself a documentary filmmaker who wants to capture high rise life on camera. He lives on the lower floors with his wife and two children. Laing is a doctor who lives alone and keeps mostly to himself, though he keeps an eye on his sister whose family lives on the lower floors. And there is Royal, the architect of the building who lives in the penthouse.

Laing serves as the story’s everyman for the most part, while Wilder and Royal engage in a battle for the building and those inside. Not that Laing is a simple person or an uninvolved party.

The thing I’ll say for this novel, and for much of Ballard’s work, from what I understand, is that he is exploring themes more than he’s examining a legitimate plot. Suspension of disbelief is a requirement. In High Rise one could easily toss the book aside and say, “I don’t believe that not one of these people would call the police.” As things turn violent, the residents of the building seem determined to keep their strange world contained, even as they head to and from work each day. Even as the building fills with trash and debris. They don’t leave. They don’t get help. And while this is unbelievable, it’s also essential for things to work as Ballard intends. This isn’t realism, it’s an examination of man’s capacity for evil. You have to accept that.

Ballard’s detached tone may take a little getting used to, but the disconnect between the tone and the story is also a big part of what makes his books work.

And they do work. I dare you to read the first sentence of High Rise and not feel compelled to keep reading.

Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the three previous months.

See what I mean about that detached tone? I read that sentence and laughed aloud. I love the dog bit, just slipped in there all innocently.

If you like dark, dystopian reads you’ll find something of interest in Ballard. He’s unlike anything I’ve ever read and I’m glad to see his books be more widely available in the US.

Thanks to Edelweiss and W. W. Norton for an advanced e-galley of High Rise for this review. High Rise, Kingdom Come and The Drought were released in the United States on March 5.

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