Friday 17 June 2022

The Question in Bodies #41: F*** the Future (ii)

Welcoming them into the future

“Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within his huge apartment building during the previous three months."
– Ballard, High-Rise, Chapter 1.

I’ve had a history, going back to my time in academia, of deconstructing first pages of fiction and let me tell you, as opening lines go, that's an absolute banger. First lines are programmatic things, carrying in them the full weight of the story to come, or, alternatively, sometimes acting as lies or traps. This opener does both in some really interesting ways. It introduces one of the (it turns out three) point of view characters. It suggests languor and thoughtfulness, and a character with time and space and the privilege to reflect (he’s a doctor, so you think he would). And also it suggests, in a single word, something that is, to the intended audience – literate, English-speaking – something terrible, some breakdown of the normal order of things, and more so because of what it suggests about the kind of man Laing is by the time it has happened, that he has the time to sit on a balcony and reflect on what happened here, but is still very much OK with eating someone’s pet.

That dissonance is important throughout the text of High-Rise. Because as we read on we discover that Laing is keeping something from himself. By the beginning of the book – the rest of the book is basically flashback leading to the beginning, the first and last pages depicting the same moment – he's raiding abandoned rooms for food, eating the pets of dead neighbours, and keeping a pair of essentially disabled and vulnerable women in his room, who trade sex for his protection. One of them is his sister. And he still heads off to teach in the medical school most days.

Laing lives on one of the middle floors of an ultra-modern, brutalist high-rise block of the kind that sprang up in London in the Sixties and Seventies, and which is still new here. The second point of view character, a filmmaker called Wilder, lives towards the bottom of the building. And the third, Royal, the architect of the whole project, lives in the penthouse.

The class system here is fairly openly expressed: haves at the top, have-nots at the bottom, have-somes in the middle. But just as the high-rise block represents a sort of compressed class system, the class system within the building is itself compressed. Everyone who lives here is middle class, and the stratifications of class are actually fairly narrow, fairly nuanced. At the bottom there are airline hostesses and TV cameramen, like Wilder. These aren’t working class people; they are not poor. All of them are workers in technocratic occupations, and the internal hierarchy of the middle classes (plural) is manifest here in all its detail. Your position on this concrete pole depends on where you are in the implicit hierarchy of the bourgeoisie. It’s a kind of Russian doll dystopia we have here, only the dolls are shaped like concrete penises with balcony windows up the sides. In the middle floors we have Laing, who teaches at a medical school, a dentist with a yen for sadism (I mean, he’s a dentist) called Steele, and a psychiatrist called Talbot, a familiar name (it’s tempting to assume that this is the same man who contrived that Atrocity Exhibition we talked about). And at the top we meet a newsreader named Cosgrove, a film actress named Jane Sheridan, and a consultant gynaecologist called Pangbourne: the people in front of the camera lord it over the behind the scenes people, and the consultants are so high on the medical tree they don’t even have to call themselves Doctor anymore.

And at the top is Royal, the architect. Which again isn’t one of the elite roles, but it is a place of control here. Royal is, in the matryoshka system of the high-rise, king, and when the revolution comes, he has a king’s fate.

And Laing is, as we see as things continue, wrong about how things have turned out. The three tiers of the high-rise tend almost immediately to tribal violence. The infrastructure collapses straight away; the tenants of the high-rise are at odds immediately. If the collapse is steady rather than immediate, it is only because it takes the building a while to notice what has already happened.

By the end of the Seventies, the social experiments that these concrete monoliths signified were largely considered to have failed. You could think of the trajectory of Trellick Tower on Kensal Green, for instance, a utopian idea that, because of the reluctance of authorities to commit fully, wound up declining and becoming a byword for urban degradation. Eventually the building was revived and now, fully gentrified, is a Grade II listed building. Its listed status prevented attempts to hide its status as a Brutalist monolith, and when a fire hit the higher floors of Trellick Tower in 2017, the building’s fabric was sound enough to survive with relatively light damage. Grenfell Tower was not so lucky: covered with combustible cladding designed to “renovate” the building’s appearance, it went up in flames in June 2017. 72 people died; hundreds lost their homes.

The High-Rise in Ballard’s book has a little of Trellick in it, but much more of the Barbican Estate, a Brutalist utopia which was opened about the time Ballard was writing the book. Like Ballard’s towers, the Barbican has pretty much all of the amenities – visiting some friends who live there in 2018, I had the opportunity to explore the place and marvel at the intentionality of it. It’s a place you never really have to leave. The Barbican Estate has escaped the social rollercoaster of Trellick and the fatal institutional vandalism to which Grenfell was subjected, probably because its inhabitants are in large part the same affluent professionals with whom Ballard populated his imaginary towers. Only without the descent into post-apocalyptic guerilla warfare, cannibalism, incest and dog-eating, obviously.

In Ballard’s queasily hilarious text, though, this was always going to happen, and this is where Laing is wrong: the dissolution of the isolated bourgeoisie into monstrosity was never an unusual event. It’s exactly what you get, the fate to which the British middle classes seemed to tend when Ballard was writing by their nature.

None of this is the building’s fault. It’s fashionable in social discourse now to blame the building for this sort of degeneration, to dismiss the Brutalist architecture of the Sixties as somehow a dehumanising thing, a symbol of impersonal leftist tyranny, but this architecture was intended from the get-go to be egalitarian, to be for the people. Compared to neo-Gothic or neo-Classical architecture, which are really designed, just as their inspirations were, to signify where power is and power isn’t, the 1960s-style high-rise has only one hierarchy that matters, and that’s vertical.

It’s interesting that in their home, the bourgeois protagonists of Ballard’s vicious satire at no point pretend to higher standards of morality. It’s a space full of medical professionals who never once remember their Hippocratic oaths. There is no religion here, no philosophical urge to be better. They are in a space where they don’t have to pretend to be good. The High-Rise gives them the sort of anonymity where they have names, but not the full details of personhood. In the High-Rise they can reconstruct themselves to be utterly selfish, and it becomes a place where moral rules no longer apply. This looks pretty prescient to me. (Note: Look, I’m comparing it to the internet, OK? OK. It’s not rocket science, people.)

No one in the High-Rise has really been transformed. They have just been given the opportunity to be amoral.

While a different sort of precarity has resulted in our everyday lives, Ballard really did understand the widening gulf between the different strata of the middle class. In 1975 the distinction between a TV camera operator and a newsreader was relatively fine. Now, it’s vast. In The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard predicted that we’d indulge our urges to perversion and cruelty in a conceptual space, only missing the nature of the space in which we would eventually begin to do just that. In High-Rise, he gives us a contained, single-serving apocalypse, and it’s only the container which has really changed.


The social experiments that the old high-rises represented were pretty much done with even by the time Ballard was writing, and Ballard himself, as he continued to write into the 21st century, grappled with ways to update the concerns that threaded through his work. Super Cannes (2000), for example, has several superficial commonalities with High-Rise, bringing some of its ideas into a more recent era. I think the way in which High-Rise, of the texts we’re looking at here, has dated makes it a difficult text to adapt.

Which is I why, I think, that frequent director/screenwriter team Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump, made several of the choices they did in their 2015 adaptation of the novel.

The film has a strong 1970s flavour, but it isn’t set in the 1970s so much as intended to be set in what “five minutes in the future” looked like in 1975. It’s a 2015 idea of a 1975 idea of 1976.

While Wilder and Royal are major characters in the 2015 film (as played by Luke Evans and Jeremy Irons respectively), the only real protagonist is Laing (Tom Hiddleston). But having only one protagonist actually allows for the space for more developed supporting characters, and this is especially important in the case of the women, many of whom gain more space and more development than they do in Ballard’s book, among them Anne Royal (Keeley Hawes), Charlotte Melville (Sienna Miller) and Helen Wilder (Elizabeth Moss). Absent however is Laing’s sister, whose role is mainly filled by the not-related Charlotte. Other characters, minor in the book, get more space, such as Pangbourne (James Purefoy), here given full villain status, host of surreal parties where everyone wears the outfits of early Georgian royalty while orchestral arrangements of ABBA songs play in the background. Reese Shearsmith as Steele and Peter Ferdinando as Cosgrove have somewhat more to do, while Neil Maskell, Tony Way, Bill Paterson and Dan Renton Skinner all play characters not seen in the book but who serve plot purposes that do support the book’s themes.

Neither Laing nor Wilder is, you could probably imagine, quite as monstrous as either is in the original text. I suppose you have to do that. A lot of people like Tom Hiddleston. The man has a brand. And besides, unless you’ve got a sure thing and a hell of a lot of money behind you, you want the BBFC to give you a 15 certificate and a chance of international distribution, and… you're going to have to make some compromises. So having Wilder and Laing do all the things they do in the book is not going to fly. Both men do go very wrong, and both descend satisfyingly into delusion, but they’re not repellent in the same way. Other choices Wheatley and Jump make are more questionable.

The retro trappings of Wheatley’s film, while unavoidable – since the source material is set in a near-future that didn’t really happen – don’t do the film any favours. At times it feels like a theme park rather than a place with real people in it, and the transition from uneasy living space to the Full Mad Max happens suddenly in the middle of the film, and I think that really misses where Ballard was going with High-Rise. Wheatley and Jump have produced an interesting and at times blackly comic film, but there's something missing from it, something immediate, and it evokes a sort of distant regard rather than the gut level reaction the book demands.