Last Saturday night I closed the pages of one of the most repulsive books I’ve ever had the good fortune to read.
I emphasise my good fortune because, otherwise, it would be right to say that reading High-Rise (1975) by J.G. Ballard was everything one might expect given the author’s brutal reputation. There might be more violent books out there that deal with more depraved subjects but not many set out to alienate the reader from the very first sentence.
“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 previous three months.”
The horrific detail, you notice, is buried in the casual aside. This is a book about human nature in which the mean and bestial isn’t an addendum or alternative to civilized life but exists right there at the very centre. This is a novel about society unspooling into madness. It strips out the norms of morality to produce a literary nihilism. It also felt particularly prescient since I finished it in time to look up and see Donald Trump’s face filling the TV screen live from Florida.
One of the common responses to the first month of Trump’s presidency has been to read dystopian novels and, in particular, arguably the greatest of them all: George Orwell’s 1984. The story of Winston Smith is topping charts again and for good reason. Trump’s speeches are egregious examples of a latter-day newspeak, a form of language that deliberately attempts to destabilise the certainties of truthfulness. Alongside being a gripping tale written in Orwell’s smart prose, 1984 reaffirms the need for independent journalism and free thought in the face of a system that seeks stifle one in order to control the other.
Yet, despite its many virtues, 1984 is not a book specifically about society in meltdown. It doesn’t explain how a country would become Airstrip One. Nor does it explain why civilisations unwind and why, sometimes, it all feels so very inevitable. Those are subjects more suited to writers willing to peer into the dark recesses of human nature even if it means coming away with a sense of nothingness.
There are not, however, many writers creating dystopias who are willing to go that far. Many dystopias are barely disguised utopias; examples of what science fiction author, Brian Aldiss, famously called the “cosy catastrophe”. These narratives describe social breakdown that resolve into a naive primitivism. Once the mushroom cloud has cleared, the world is left for those with a little imagination and a roll of duct tape to recreate civilization on a small but idealised scale. Aldiss was specifically talking about John Wyndam’s The Day of the Triffids but the make-do-and-mend attitude has become a staple of so many post-apocalyptic survival tales from Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend to HBO’s The Walking Dead. The success that MR Carey is currently enjoying with his novel and film, The Girl With All The Gifts, suggests that the genre has a long way to go before it is exhausted. Without spoiling the plot, the title gives nearly everything away and suggests that not every end-of-world scenario leaves us worse off than before.
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These stories offer us forms of wish fulfillment; attractive alternatives to our urban, overcrowded lives. They are often fantasies of communal space, turning consumer desire into the fetishised act of looting. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) made this trope popular by putting his survivors inside a shopping mall. In the movie Zombieland, the heroes raid the homes of Hollywood’s elite, whilst the TV series The Last Man On Earth finds comedy in a group of virus survivors living lives looted from the rich. Series 2 even opens with the conspicuous consumption of Will Forte and Kristen Schaal driving their own stealth bomber to the local shops.
If you think you notice something a touch decadent about the genre, you’d be right. The deeper we have move into the post-war peace, the more we have collectively turned our attention away from the horrors of war and towards something else entirely. Just this week, an NBC/SurveyMonkey poll suggested that 50% of Republicans consider Russia an ally or friendly, compared to only 23% of Democrats. That figure, of course, contains some political skew given that any question about Russia might be read as a question about Trump. However, the statistic becomes more revealing when broken down by age groups. 73% of republicans aged 18-29 believe Russia is an ally or friendly, compared to 62% among 30-44 year olds, 45% for 45-64 year olds, and only 31% for those aged 65 or older.
Millennials, in other words, don’t comprehend the reality of life during the Cold War, let alone World War 2. The Iraq War, for example, isn’t remembered for the loss of life but for the dossiers and media lies. The rise of ISIS is often described in terms of Facebook and propaganda. Recent films that deal with society breaking down, such as 10 Cloverfield Lane and Arrival, have as much to do with the news cycle and government spin as they do with real end-of-world scenarios. Meanwhile, cinema continues to inure us to the practical realities of nuclear holocaust. There is always some plucky band of ridiculously good looking Beverly Hills high school students left to enjoy the punk-aesthetic of post-apocalyptic Las Angeles.
Ballard puts up with none of that nonsense. He spent his childhood in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai during the Second World War; an experience that became his most famous novel, The Empire of the Sun, made into a film by Steven Spielberg in 1987. It’s that experience that permeates High-Rise and makes it a dystopia in the truest sense.
If you wish to understand the modern world and wonder if we have become so decadent in our comfort that we’re exchanging security for novelty (people who voted Trump simply because they thought it would be fun), then this is the book you should read. There is nothing cosy nor affirming about High-Rise. It’s uncompromising because, as Ballard admitted of another of his books, Crash, “I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror.” This is the shock therapy we need when political forces seek to disassemble the world.
Like many of the great writers of the post-war period, Ballard understood that neither civilization nor our civilized state should be taken lightly. Primo Levi survived Auschwitz, and it is survival (moral as well as physical) that became a constant theme in his writing. The same was true of Kurt Vonnegut who, as a prisoner of war, surviving the Allied bombing of Dresden and who was put to work pulling bodies from the rubble of the destroyed city. William Golding served in the Royal Navy in the Second World War and saw the Normandy landings. Anthony Burgess didn’t serve but A Clockwork Orange was drawn from real life and, particularly, the violent rape of his pregnant wife at the hand of American deserters during the war.
These are writers whose visions of dystopia, perhaps, no longer seem fashionable when the apocalyptic have come to mean fashionable juvenilia like The 5th Wave and The Hunger Games. Yet the fears that Ballard encapsulated are fears we have forgotten or are in the process of forgetting. Or, as Donald Trump put it, last week:
“I’ve been briefed. And I can tell you one thing about a briefing that we’re allowed to say, because anybody that ever read the most basic book can say it, nuclear holocaust would be like no other.”
Thanks Donald! But, if Trump’s words fail to instill the requisite fear, then go and read Ballard and hate every repellent moment.