J.G. Ballard’s High Rise: How To Be ‘Transgressive’ without Getting Beaten Up

When I first heard about ‘Rumblr’, the Tindr style fight app, I thought it would finally give me the chance to beat the shit out of people that love Fight Club. I’ve never been able to sit through our generation’s most transgressive piece of fiction let alone hang around at the end talking about how it makes me feel. I really like Ikea and all the colours of the sofas, and no amount of punching me in the face is ever going to change that. Telling people I’d rather spend an afternoon in Ikea than watch Fight Club means I often get treated like an estate agent at a drug squat.

There’s an awkward Wikipedia article on the subject of ‘trangressive fiction’ which stitches together authors like William Burroughs, Irvine Welsh and Chuck Palahniuk for writing about characters ‘who rebel against the norms of society’. The term is problematic. If a book ends up being called transgressive it means it’s been around long enough to have been spoken about, had a film made about it, and become a kind of cultural table-piece for a hip North-London coffee collective. The space that Fight Club sought to clear to make way for the anti-consumerist punch up in the pub car park has now been filled. Guy Debord and his ‘situationists’ were arguably the first hipsters in that they bemoaned capitalisms ability to eventually absorb anything they deemed ‘real art’. Transgressive space was always destined to become part of the capitalist spectacle it tried to rebel against.

fight club irony

The angst of the situationists still rears its ugly head. If you replace ‘capitalist’ with the ‘mainstream’ spectacle, then you have the standard argument for anyone who complains about how the true meaning of transgressive fiction, music and film always gets lost in translation. Going in search of new transgressive space, away from the ‘choose life’ Trainspotting posters hung up in  your university hall seems like a noble task, but you end up sounding like a cranky situationist, or worse, a cultural snob. You also sort of miss the point. It doesn’t become a matter of taste but one of relevancy. You yourself have been outmanoeuvred In your own cultural war. When you can download an app marketed as the ‘tinder for fighting’, what exactly are today’s Tyler Durden’s rebelling against?

Ben Wheatley’s film adaptation of High Rise has been released to a vague critical consensus that this feels like the kind of film that should be being made. This is probably because anything with J.G Ballard’s name on it has become synonymous with apocalyptical forecasting of our own world. Ballard’s legacy is that of a sort of literary Nostradamus who has predicted everything from Ronald Reagan’s presidency to the rise of social media. Ballard’s true prescience, however, lies in the conceptual quality of his writing. Ballard took the speculative aspect of science fiction and applied it to his own realist anxiety; a fear that in post-industrial Britain he was living inside a giant novel. He was, in his own words, ‘like a boy scout testing the waters ahead.’

If Ballard is the rogue boy scout, then High-Rise starts where other transgressive novels finish. In High-Rise the usual transgressive themes of sex, drugs, and paranoia have become contained inside the building’s luxury. Outside the High-Rise life carries on as normal. Going to work is a matter of appearance. There is nothing worth rebelling against in the real world. High Rise isn’t about the usual transgressive trope of outcast and misfits. Architects, film producers, and economists mingle in gyms and at cocktail parties; members of society that  constitute the world of unbearable, safe conformism that becomes the standard departure point for transgressive fiction. High Rise is about what happens when we stay inside that world, and use the very things that transgressive fiction normally seeks to rebel against; the structures of comfort, security, and conformity as another, more dangerous means of escapism.

In this respect High-Rise is more interesting and more subversive than fights in car parks or soul searching road trips. Claustrophobia and paranoia through the deference of our agency to other structures, is a common trope of anti-modernism that pervades so much of transgressive fiction. Ballard bypasses this, and instead poses a new departure in the possibility that embracing all of us this provides us with a different kind of freedom. As Ned Baumann points out in his introduction to the 4th Estate edition of High Rise, the characters are more than happy to accept that the responsibility of their actions lies with the buildings itself. Ballard’s refusal to moralise or condemn the awful things that happen in the High-Rise is intact to the end when Laing looks out at the neighbouring tower block ‘ready to welcome them to their new world’.

The Rumblr fight club app, much to my disappointment, is of course a viral publicity stunt. Even if I had turned up to a car park to get the shit beaten out of me, someone probably would have done the ‘the first rule of fight club’ speech and I would have got embarrassed and left. But sitting here in my overpriced, cramped accommodation, I always suspected I was more of a Laing than a Tyler Durden.


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