Look, I have finally read a J.G. Ballard novel! I added this one to my ebook hold-list in early February, and it took a month to become available. For some reason, New York Public Library patrons seem particularly interested right now in satirical stories about people losing their minds while stuck in an apartment complex for months on end.

But is this satire? Ballard shoots the whole book through with such overt and masterful lampshading that he offers very little in the way of explanation for the novel’s true message or motive.

If you pick up the book expecting—as I did—a story about how the residents of the eponymous condominium tower gradually descend into violent madness, the book instead obliges you with inexplicable mayhem on the very first page, after which it never lets up. A protagonist overtly thinks “Huh, these arbitrary divisions of residents by level sure do resemble a racial or class conflict somehow!” before the end of the first chapter, tossing that crutch straight off a 40th-floor balcony lest readers try to steady themselves upon it.

The book has such a pure sense of its own purpose, and a confident manner in which it declines to “make sense”, because it knows it doesn’t need to. Were this a John M. Ford novel, one would read carefully to find the subtle magic-wielders lurking between the chapters to lend at least a supernatural grounding for the otherwise unmotivated events of High-Rise. No such rational explanation here, alas!

The narrative does hand us a single framing clue, at the start. We learn, in some opening dialogue among residents who had lived in the tower for some time, that it had that very day filled its thousandth and final unit. For the first time in its history, the high-rise had no vacancies: a solid layer-cake of squirming, striving humanity. The novel quietly invites us to conclude that this fact alone triggered the ensorcelment of all the tower’s residents, who decide as one to turn their backs on the world outside the building, establishing a new, self-contained anti-society ruled only by the most brutally pure forces of the human psyche. Each considers it an achingly beautiful project, even as it destroys them.

Ballard is clearly not the sort of author to write shadowy scenes of chthonic forces stirring in the basements, awakened by a long-delayed pattern finally snapping into place, ready to insinuate vile notions into the residents’ dreams. Instead, casual bottle-flinging in broad daylight commences without further—and, we must infer, unnecessary—explanation. The first inevitable defenestration happens before we even meet all the main characters.

By the time we arrive at the acts of incest and mass cannibalism which signal the story’s readiness to wrap up (or, anyway, gutter out), my calves ached from all the touring up and down the barricaded stairwells, and I felt as exhaustedly enthralled as any of the battered, bloodied accountants and sound engineers among the nightly raiding parties. Yes, I enjoyed reading this quite nasty little book, even if I could not recommend it without reservation, much less tell you why it was written.

I know nothing else about Ballard or his oeuvre yet, so I can offer very little about his own motivations here, far apart from his characters. Did he find this scenario remotely believable, at face value? If not, did he have a satirical target other than the one he paints a too-obvious bulls-eye on at the start? I dunno, man, it was the 70s! Times were rough. Everybody was a lot more drunk back then, is my understanding, and you didn’t want to hang around the towers of Times Square for long…

I understand that a 2015 film adaptation of this novel exists; it seems highly unlikely that even if a movie narrative could get away with this novel’s level of pure violence and misanthropy, it could never resist the urge to add a layer of rational and visible underpinning to a novel that so flagrantly dares to do without. (I suppose I am doomed to see for myself.)

High-Rise really wants adaptation into a game, of course, with all its talk of violent excursions between numbered floors in search of cat-food loot caches, and psychopathic adventurers who literally “level up” as they gain in power and strength. But its 1975 publication date offers a tantalizing possibility: that the novel has actually and already helped inspire the earliest power-fantasy games. Its fluid-spattered, garbage-strewn, and utterly compelling DNA carried ahead into all the generations since of entertainment that offer escape through bashing one’s way inwards.

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