Last week, we spent some time discussing the layers of observation, performance and display going on in Le couple témoin, as the protagonists are monitored by psychosociological experimenters, watch by television audiences and reported on in current affairs shows. This built on the idea of media – and television in particular – being repeatedly connected to alienation in mid-twentieth-century culture. In All That Heaven Allows, the widow Cary is offered television as a replacement for social life and romance. In Fahrenheit 451, we noted was the role of television in alienating Montag not only from his wife (a microcosm of Bradbury’s broader point about the (anti)social role of television) but also from himself when he watches the coverage of the Mechanical Hound pursuing him:
He watched the scene, fascinated, not wanting to move. It seemed so remote and no part of him; it was a play apart and separate, wondrous to watch, not without its strange pleasure. … If he wished, he could linger here, in comfort, and follow the entire hunt on through its swift phases, down alleys across streets, over empty running avenues, crossing lots and playgrounds, with pauses here and there for the necessary commercials … and so on finally to this house with Faber and himself seated, drinking … Then, if he wished, Montag might rise, walk to the window, keep one eye on the TV screen, open the window, lean out, look back, and see himself dramatized described, made over, standing there, limned in the bright small television screen from outside, a drama to be watched objectively, knowing that in other parlours he was large as life, in full colour, dimensionally perfect! And if he kept his eyes peeled quickly he would see himself, an instant before oblivion, being punctured for the benefit of how many civilian parlour-sitters who had been wakened from sleep a few minutes ago by the frantic sirening of their living room walls to come watch the big game, the hunt, the one-man carnival.
Would he have time for a speech? As the Hound seized him, in view of ten or twenty or thirty million people, mightn’t he sum up his entire life in the last week in one single phrase or a word that would stay with them long after the Hound had turned, clenching him in the metal-plier jaws, and trotted off into darkness, while the camera remained stationary, watching the creature dwindle in the distance – a splendid fade-out!
With an effort, Montag reminded himself again that this was no fictional episode to be watched on his run to the river; it was in actuality his own chess-game he was witnessing, move by move. (172-4, 177)
This dissociation continues even when Montag has escaped: the hunt continues; the Hound tracks down someone else in Montag’s place, cameras carefully shooting it all so as to maintain the deception of the rogue fireman’s capture. It is as if a second Montag has detached from the first. He witnesses his fate as if he has been given access to an alternate world in which he did not make the river crossing.
Television and associated media play a role in High-Rise, too.
Like Montag, Laing experiences moments of dissociation. When the jeweller from the 40th floor takes his fatal plunge (suicide? murder? accident?), Laing is among those who crowd onto the balcony of a neighbouring apartment:
Pushed along the railing, Laing saw his own empty balcony fifteen feet away. In an absurd moment of panic, he wondered if he himself was the victim. (41)
In the first half of the novel we learn about Wilder’s plan to make a documentary about the building and the breakdown of society within it – which his wife, Helen, who seems fully aware of Ballard’s own imagery, shrugs off as just another prison documentary, like the one he has been film in his day job. By the mid-point of the novel, everyone it seems is filming their own acts of violence – ‘Every time someone gets beaten up about ten cameras are shooting away’ (90) – and showing their rushes to each other in the building’s move theatre.
Paul Crosland, the head of Laing’s clan, is also a television news anchor, and he continues to go into the studios to read the news, cataloguing disasters in calm and reassuring tones, never mentioning the similar catastrophe ripping through the building where he lives (96) – a departure from the teleprompter for which Laing continues to hope even as the novel draws to a close (151). When Crosland returns home, it is to stoke confrontations with other clans, emitting a blind and furious anger even though he ‘often … had no idea what he was arguing about’ (97). In those moments, unprotected by his makeup, Crosland’s outrage appears to Laing like that of ‘an announcer tricked for the first time into reading an item of bad news about himself’ (97). Such a dissolution of the distinction between public and private selves, between civilised and brutish behaviour, is linked to and articulated in relation to the electronic media that surround us in the city (just as the inhabitants of Alphaville in some way seem to live inside the Alpha 60 computer, which seems to be so thoroughly extended and distributed through the city as to be coterminous with it).
Even more mediatised is the drunken Eleanor Powell: ‘After a few cocktails she was hyper-animated, and flicked on and off like a confused TV monitor revealing glimpses of extraordinary programmes which Laing could only understand when he was drunk himself’ (96).
Soon, Laing can only watch the television with the sound turned down,
not out of boredom with these documentaries and situation comedies, but because they were meaningless. Even the commercial, with their concern for the realities of everyday life, were transmissions from another planet. Squatting among the plastic garbage-sacks, his furniture piled up behind him, Laing studied these lavish reconstructions of housewives cleaning their immaculate kitchens, deodorants spraying well-groomed armpits. Together they formed the elements of a mysterious domestic universe. (106-7)
When Wilder once more begins his ascent of the building, taking his cine-camera everywhere with him like some kind of protective fetish, he invites those he meets to take part in the television documentary he is making (or deluding himself he is making). On the lower-levels, people are eager to participate, voicing their many complaints, but the higher up he gets the more reluctant his potential interviewees become. Many of them are the kind of middle-class technocrats for whom being on television is nothing new, having previously appeared ‘as professional experts on various current-affairs programmes’ (115). Furthermore, ‘“Television is for watching, Wilder,” one of the women told him firmly, “not for appearing on.”’ (115). It is a curious kind of restraint amid all the chaos of the building, yet some proprieties, it seems, must be maintained. Soon, Wilder’s resolve to make the documentary begins to fade. Perhaps it is because, in some way, he has seen it all before – on television:
The decline of the apartment building reminded him of a slow-motion newsreel of a town in the Andes being carried down the mountain slopes to its death, the inhabitants still hanging out their washing in the disintegrating gardens, cooking in their kitchens as the walls were pulverized around them. (120)
On the top floor, Royal and his entourage dress formally for dinner at a pristine dining table, but even there the ‘theatricality of this contrived setting’ is obvious, ‘like a badly rehearsed and under-financed television commercial for a high-life product’ (132).
It is not just television, though.
The true light of the high-rise was the metallic flash of the polaroid camera, that intermittent radiation which recorded a moment of hoped-for violence for some later voyeuristic pleasure. What depraved species of electric flora would spring to life form the garbage-strewn carpets of the corridors in response to this new source of light? The floors were littered with the blackened negative strips, flakes falling from this internal sun. … Laing’s feet crackled among the polaroid negatives scattered about the corridor floor, each recording a long-forgotten act of violence. (109, 150)
The flash of the Polaroid cameras is picked up on by the flickering lights, recalling the flicker of the movie projector and of analogue televisions:
the lights began to flicker continuously like a fibrillating heart. … a broken mirror lay on the bed, the pieces flickering like the fragments of another world trying unsuccessfully to reconstitute itself. … [Steele] beckoned Laing forward into the stuttering light. … The lights continued to flicker with the harsh over-reality of an atrocity newsreel. … the lights flickered from the doorways of ransacked apartments, form overturned lamps lying on the floor and television screens brought back to a last intermittent life. … In an empty bedroom a cine-projector screened the last feet of a pornographic film on to the wall facing the bed. (110-11)
Wilder projects footage of himself ‘upon the walls and ceiling’ of the elevator lobby, watching the images ‘as if about to leap on to the backs of his own shadows and ride them like a troupe of beasts up the flues of the building’, while in Talbot’s apartment the ‘lurid caricatures’ of homophobic graffiti sprayed ‘on the walls glimmered in the torch-light like the priapic figures drawn by cave-dwellers’ (108). Some floors above, the ‘even light’ in Royal’s penthouse is ‘as dead as a time exposure in a police photography recording a crime’ (138).
The building is media-saturated. In the darkness, nothing remains hidden. Artificial light exposes it all. (Just as the audiotapes made by Pangbourne (83, 140), the gynecologist who never touches his patients, and by Wilder (129-30), unleash things otherwise hidden.)
The novel self-reflexively – but not unambiguously – attributes the breakdown of society in the building to the post-Freudian subjectivities produced by a culture of affluence, commodities and consumerism. Talbot notes that they are not witnessing a return to some ‘happy primitivism’ or ‘the noble savage’; rather, the residents, ‘outraged by all that over-indulgent toilet-training, dedicated breast-feeding and parental affection’, seem to ‘resent never having had a chance to become perverse’ (109).
There is certainly plentiful evidence of regression to infantile psychosexual behaviour in the novel.
Laing takes his older sister – who reminds him of his mother and used to look after him as a child – as a lover; although she has inherited something of their mother’s ‘shrewish manner’, which he dislikes, he nonetheless finds this echo reassuring (98-9). This breaking of the incest taboo has two purposes.
First, it recalls anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s argument that the cultural ban on incest is intended to promote social stability by favouring exogamy (sex/ marriage outside the group) over endogamy (sex/marriage within the group) and thus expanding the network of mutually dependent interrelationships. Ballard perhaps suggests, then, that with the alienation, isolation and disconnectedness of contemporary urban life, exogamy – engaging with others – might seem to become the greater threat; certainly exogamy is ill-suited to the inward-looking inhabitants of the building.
Second, the incest taboo returns us to the Freudianism that the novel denies but also has in spades. In the Oedipal complex, incestuous desire (the male infant for the mother, the female infant for the father) is the norm, and it must be defeated. The novel repeatedly plays on this. When Royal experiments with touching the passive Helen Wilder ‘she reacted, not by pushing his hand away, but by moving it to her waist and lightly holding it there as she would the straying hands of her children’ (135).
Wilder’s entire trajectory ends up being one of infantile regression. He feels the need to break free from his wife because by doing so ‘he would break away from the whole system of juvenile restraints he had been trying to shake off since his adolescence’ (118). She watches him like a mother ‘as he hunted in her purse for money … amused by her husband’s dependence on the fictions of this elaborate toy [the phallic camera] he takes everywhere with him’ (119). He likes the dark because in it he can ‘deliberately play on all [his] repressed instincts’ (120). He welcomes the building’s ‘forced conscription of the deviant strains of his character’ and the fact that ‘this free and degenerate behaviour became easier the higher he moved up the building’ (120). Mrs Hillman, in whose apartment Wilder stays, spends ‘all her time worrying about him, like an over-anxious mother fretting about a wayward child’ (124), but ‘No more ill-suited couple, Wilder decided, could have been cast to play mock-mother and mock-son’ (125). This mock-relationship leaves room for the possibility of a sexual relationship of the kind the incest taboo is intended to prevent: over the course of the evening spends with the Hillmans, Wilder ‘became more and more oafish …, deliberately coarsening himself like a delinquent youth fooling about with a besotted headmistress’ (126). (He also concocts a lie about Talbot ‘molesting a child in a swimming-pool changing room’, and the fact that everyone knows the accusation to be untrue somehow reinforces it (127) – so some taboos remain to be manipulated by the bullying Wilder.)
Having left the Hillmans behind him, Wilder is soon dominating another woman, who is anxious to avoid the exogamy this encounter involves:
She welcomed him as she would any marauding hunter. First she would try to kill him, but failing this give him food and her body, breast-feed him back to a state of childishness and even, perhaps, feel affection for him. Then, the moment he was asleep, cut his throat. (160)
Although this is described as ‘the synopsis of the ideal marriage’ (160), it is so only inasmuch as it recapitulates the complex feelings of interdependence and aggression as the mother-infant dyad is ruptured and the Oedipal struggle commences.
Ultimately, breaking the building’s taboo on using guns, Wilder kills Royal, the building’s patriarch, and finds himself on the roof surrounded by other – actual – children and the women who care for them. He immediately becomes completely infantile. Hoping to join the children, he wanders out towards the women:
In their bloodied hands they carried knives with narrow blades. Shy but happy now, Wilder tottered across the roof to meet his new mothers. (168)
Laing’s fate is not so clear-cut. The novel ends with him holed up in his apartment with Alice, his sister-lover-mother, and Eleanor Powell, who seems to be merging with her. He addresses them in the childish voice he used as a trainee doctor when talking to ‘the duller of his child patients’ (171), and believing himself to be in control he forages food and waits on them. He indulges them when they treat ‘him like two governesses in a rich man’s ménage, teasing a wayward and introspective child’ (172) – presumably he is both the rich man and the child – and sometimes he acts as if they really are in charge (this is so convincing that once a raiding party of women left him alone, assuming he was the prisoner of the two women). Laing likes the arrangements – even if he deludes himself as to its actual nature – because it represents ‘an intimate family circle, the first he had know since childhood’ (172).
We also looked at three passages to chart Laing’s progress (regress) – when he attempts to leave the building but turns back (101-4), the start of chapter seven when the building seems to become timeless and motionless (145-7), and when he find Eleanor feeding her cat with her own blood (151-3) – and asked basically the same questions of each: what imagery and ideas does Ballard use to describe the building and its residents? how does the world inside differ from the world outside? why does Laing find it impossible to leave and why in each subsequent passage does he seem happier despite (because of?) the further deterioration of his environment?
This notion of deterioration is important. Ballard’s novel is very specifically about that moment in the early 1970s, when decrying post-war Corbusier-spawned high-rise developments went from being merely a fashionable posture to received wisdom. Typically, what was conveniently forgotten – often for ideological reasons – was that for many people moving from slums to the new developments was headily utopian. Many people finally had enough bedrooms that they did not need to share, indoor plumbing, etc. While Aneurin Bevan’s brick-built housing was intended to last, many of the the prefabricated developments only had intended lives of a few decades, and soon began to deteriorate, not least because councils often failed properly to fund maintenance to post-war housing projects. That this was the fault of government did not get in the way of the residents themselves being being blamed for the disrepair into which the untended buildings inevitably fell. High-Rise was written when working class residents were being demonised as intoxicated, glue-sniffing, violent, criminal – as creatures incapable of not fouling their own nests. It was written when the extent of the corruption behind many housing schemes was being uncovered (as in the John Poulson case, which reached all the way up to Home Secretary Reginald Maudling – Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (1996) dramatises a version of these events). Whether or not Ballard bought into this potent myth, nothing could have seemed more natural than to retell it but with a cast of middle class professionals, with yuppies avant la lettre.
In closing, we had a brief discussion about Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1976), focusing particularly on the ways in which it pretty much reduces New York to a demonised and perilous Times Square, bathed in a red light to make it infernal. This, too, fits in with a broader discourse, one that would lead to the purging of such urban spaces, ridding them of the diverse ethnic and sexual working class cultures that inhabited them in favour of redevelopment. The value of land and property on Manhattan was too high, and full of potential to become even higher, to be left to such people. There was money, and lots of it, to be made by criminalising them, driving them out, displacing them, and by thus reversing white-flight, by gentrification, by tourist-friendly Disneyfication.
We will pick up on this next week when we look at some blaxploitation and some LA Rebellion films as part of the background for thinking about Boyz N the Hood (Singleton 1991).
Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 7 “The Modernity of the Sophisticate and the Misfit: The City through Different Eyes.”
Baxter, Jeanette. J.G. Ballard: Contemporary Critical Perspectives. London: Continuum, 2009.
Colombino, Laura. “The House as SKIN: J. G. Ballard, Existentialism and Archigram’s Mini-Environments.” European Journal of English Studies 16.1 (2012): 21–31.
Delville, Michel. J.G. Ballard. Plymouth: Northcote, 1998.
Duff, Kim. Contemporary British Literature and Urban Space: After Thatcher. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 52–86
Gasiorek, Andrzej. J.G. Ballard. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Grindrod, John. Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain. London: Old Street, 2013.
Groes, Sebastian. The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2011. 67–93
Hansley, Lynsley. Estates: An Intimate History. London: Granta, 2008.
Matthews, Graham. “Consumerism’s Endgame: Violence and Community in J.G. Ballard’s Late Fiction.” Journal of Modern Literature 36.2 (2013): 122–39.
Mennel, Barbara. Cities and Cinema. London: Routledge, 2008. See chapter 8. “The City as Queer Playground.”
Siegel, Allen. “After the Sixties: Changing Paradigms in the Representation of Urban Space.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 137–159.
Shiel, Mark. “A Nostalgia for Modernity: New York, Los Angeles, and American Cinema in the 1970s.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 160 – 179.
High-Rise is part of a thematic trilogy, including Ballard’s most challenging novel, Crash (1973), and Concrete Island (1974). Ballard’s ‘late fiction’ returns to similar material but relocated to gated suburban communities in Running Wild (1988), Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003) and Kingdom Come (2006).
1970s British novels of urban decay include Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and Zoe Fairbairns’s Benefits (1979).
Ben Wheatley’s High Rise (2015) adapts Ballard’s novel.
Modern city living deranges or makes miserable in Repulsion (Polanski 1965), Shivers (Cronenberg 1975), Crash (Cronenberg 1996) and Happiness (Solondz 1998).
Films about the decay of urban centres include Midnight Cowboy (Schlesinger 1969), Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971) and Dog Day Afternoon (Lumet 1975).