The Vertical City
by J.G. Ballard
Whatever plans he might devise for his ascent, whatever route to the summit, it was soon obvious to Wilder that at its present rate of erosion little of the high-rise would be left. Almost everything possible was going wrong with the services. He helped Helen straighten the apartment, and tried to jerk some sense of vitality into his dormant family by drawing the blinds and moving noisily around the rooms.
Wilder found it difficult to revive them. At five-minute intervals the air-conditioning ceased to work, and in the warm summer weather the apartment was heavy with stagnant air. Wilder noticed that he had already begun to accept the foetid atmosphere as normal. Helen told him that she had heard a rumour from the other residents that dog excrement had been deliberately dropped into the air-conditioning flues by the upper-level tenants. Strong winds circulated around the open plazas of the development project, buffeting the lower floors of the apartment building as they swirled through the concrete legs. Wilder opened the windows, hoping for some fresh air, but the apartment soon filled with dust and powdered cement. The ashy film already covered the tops of cupboards and bookshelves.
By the late afternoon the residents began to return from their offices. The elevators were noisy and overcrowded. Three of them were now out of order, and the remainder were jammed with impatient tenants trying to reach their floors. From the open door of his apartment Wilder watched his neighbours jostle each other aggressively like bad-tempered miners emerging from their pit-cages. They strode past him, briefcases and handbags wielded like the instruments of an over-nervous body armour.
On an impulse Wilder decided to test his rights of free passage around the building, and his access to all its services, particularly the swimming-pool on the 35th floor and the children's sculpture-garden on the observation roof. Taking his camera, he set out for the roof with the older of his two sons. However, he soon found that the high-speed elevators were either out of order, under repair, or kept permanently at the top floors with their doors jammed open. The only access to them was through the private outside entrance to which Wilder did not have a key.
All the more determined now to reach the roof, Wilder waited for one of the intermediate elevators which would carry them as far as the 35th floor. When it arrived he pushed his way into the crowded cabin, surrounded by passengers who stared down at Wilder's six-year-old son with unfeigned hostility. At the 23rd floor the elevator refused to move any further. The passengers scrummaged their way out, drumming their briefcases against the closed doors of the elevators in what seemed to be a ritual display of temper.
Wilder set off up the stairs, carrying his small son in his arms. With his powerful physique, he was strong enough to climb all the way to the roof. Two floors above, however, the staircase was blocked by a group of local residents-among them the offensive young orthodontic surgeon who was Robert Laing's neighbour-trying to free a garbage-disposal chute. Suspicious that they might be tampering with the air-conditioning ducts, Wilder pushed through them, but was briskly shouldered aside by a man he recognized as a newsreader for a rival television company.
"This staircase is closed, Wilder! Can't you get the point?"
"What?" Wilder was amazed by this effrontery. "How do you mean?"
"Closed! What are you doing up here, anyway?"
The two men squared up to each other. Amused by the announcer's aggressive manner, Wilder lifted the camera as if to film his florid face. When Crosland waved him away imperiously, Wilder was tempted to knock the man down. Not wishing to upset his son, who was nervous enough already in this harsh atmosphere, he retreated to the elevator and returned to the lower floors.
The confrontation, however minor, had unsettled Wilder. Ignoring Helen, he prowled around the apartment, swinging the camera to and fro. He felt excited in a confused way, partly by his plans for the documentary, but also by the growing atmosphere of collision and hostility.
From the balcony he watched the huge, Alcatraz blocks of the nearby high-rises. The material about these buildings, visual and sociological, was almost limitless. They would film the exteriors from a helicopter, and from the nearest block four hundred yards away-in his mind's eye he could already see a long, sixty-second zoom, slowly moving from the whole building in frame to a close-up of a single apartment, one cell in this nightmare termitary.
The first half of the programme would examine life in the high-rise in terms of its design errors and minor irritations, while the remainder would then look at the psychology of living in a community of two thousand people boxed up into the sky-everything from the incidence of crime, divorce and sexual misdemeanours to the turnover of residents, their health, the frequency of insomnia and other psychosomatic disorders. All the evidence accumulated over several decades cast a critical light on the high-rise as a viable social structure, but cost-effectiveness in the area of public housing and high profitability in the private sector kept pushing these vertical townships into the sky against the real needs of their occupants.
The psychology of high-rise life had been exposed with damning results. The absence of humour, for example, had always struck Wilder as the single most significant feature-all research by investigators confirmed that the tenants of high-rises made no jokes about them. In a strict sense, life there was "eventless". On the basis of his own experience, Wilder was convinced that the high-rise apartment was an insufficiently flexible shell to provide the kind of home which encouraged activities, as distinct from somewhere to eat and sleep. Living in high-rises required a special type of behaviour, one that was acquiescent, restrained, even perhaps slightly mad. A psychotic would have a ball here, Wilder reflected. Vandalism had plagued these slab and tower blocks since their inception. Every torn-out piece of telephone equipment, every handle wrenched off a fire safety door, every kicked-in electricity meter represented a stand against de-cerebration.
What angered Wilder most of all about life in the apartment building was the way in which an apparently homogeneous collection of high-income professional people had split into three distinct and hostile camps. The old social sub-divisions, based on power, capital and self-interest, had re-asserted themselves here as anywhere else.
In effect, the high-rise had already divided itself into the three classical social groups, its lower, middle and upper classes. The 10th-floor shopping mall formed a clear boundary between the lower nine floors, with their "proletariat" of film technicians, air-hostesses and the like, and the middle section of the high-rise, which extended from the 10th floor to the swimming-pool and restaurant deck on the 35th. This central two-thirds of the apartment building formed its middle class, made up of self-centred but basically docile members of the professions-the doctors and lawyers, accountants and tax specialists who worked, not for themselves, but for medical institutes and large corporations. Puritan and self-disciplined, they had all the cohesion of those eager to settle for second best.
Above them, on the top five floors of the high-rise, was its upper class, the discreet oligarchy of minor tycoons and entrepreneurs, television actresses and careerist academics, with their high-speed elevators and superior services, their carpeted staircases. It was they who set the pace of the building. It was their complaints which were acted upon first, and it was they who subtly dominated life within the high-rise, deciding when the children could use the swimming-pools and roof garden, the menus in the restaurant and the high charges that kept out almost everyone but themselves. Above all, it was their subtle patronage that kept the middle ranks in line, this constantly dangling carrot of friendship and approval.
The thought of these exclusive residents, as high above him in their top-floor redoubts as any feudal lord above a serf, filled Wilder with a growing sense of impatience and resentment. However, it was difficult to organize any kind of counter-attack. It would be easy enough to play the populist leader and become the spokesman of his neighbours on the lower floors, but they lacked any cohesion or self-interest; they would be no match for the well-disciplined professional people in the central section of the apartment building. There was a latent easy-goingness about them, an inclination to tolerate an undue amount of interference before simply packing up and moving on. In short, their territorial instinct, in its psychological and social senses, had atrophied to the point where they were ripe for exploitation.
To rally his neighbours Wilder needed something that would give them a strong feeling of identity. The television documentary would do this perfectly and in terms, moreover, which they could understand. The documentary would dramatize all their resentments, and expose the way in which the services and facilities were being abused by the upper-level tenants. It might even be necessary to foment trouble surreptitiously, to exaggerate the tensions present in the high-rise.
However, as Wilder soon discovered, the shape of his documentary was already being determined.
Fired by his resolve to fight back, Wilder decided to give his wife and children a break from his ceaseless pacing. The air-conditioning now worked for only five minutes in each hour, and by dusk the apartment was stuffy and humid. The noise of over-loud conversations and record-players at full volume reverberated off the balconies above them. Helen Wilder moved along the already closed windows, her small hands pressed numbly against the latches as if trying to push away the night.
Too preoccupied to help her, Wilder set off with a towel and swimming trunks to the pool on the 10th floor. A few telephone calls to his neighbours on the lower floors had confirmed that they were keen to take part in the documentary, but Wilder needed participants from the upper and middle levels of the high-rise.
The out-of-order elevators had still not been repaired, and Wilder took to the stairs. Sections of the staircase had already been turned into a garbage-well by the residents above. Broken glass littered the steps, cutting his shoes.
The shopping mall was crowded with people, milling about and talking at the tops of their voices as if waiting for a political rally to start. Usually deserted at this hour, the swimming-pool was packed with residents playing the fool in the water, pushing each other off the tiled verge and splashing the changing stalls. The attendant had gone, abandoning his booth, and already the pool was beginning to look neglected, discarded towels lying in the gutters.
In the showers Wilder recognized Robert Laing. Although the doctor turned his back on him Wilder ignored the rebuff and stood under the next spray. The two men spoke briefly but in non-committal terms. Wilder had always found Laing good company, with his keen eye for any passing young woman, but today he was being standoffish. Like everyone else he had been affected by the atmosphere of confrontation.
"Have the police arrived yet?" Wilder asked above the noise as they walked to the diving-boards.
"No-are you expecting them?" Laing seemed genuinely surprised.
"They'll want to question the witnesses. What happened, in fact? Was he pushed? His wife looks hefty enough-perhaps she wanted a quick divorce?"
Laing smiled patiently, as if this remark in doubtful taste was all he expected of Wilder. His sharp eyes were deliberately vague, and remained closed to any probing. "I know nothing about the accident, Wilder. It may have been suicide, I suppose. Are you personally concerned?"
"Aren't you, Laing? It's odd that a man can fall from a window forty floors above the ground without there being any kind of investigation…"
Laing stepped on to the diving board. His body was unusually well muscled, Wilder noticed, almost as if he had been taking a good deal of recent exercise, doing dozens of push-ups.
Laing waited for a clear space in the crowded water. "I think we can rely on his neighbours to look after everything."
Laing waited for a clear space in the crowded water. "I think we can rely on his neighbours to look after everything."
Laing looked down at Wilder with sudden interest. He shook his head firmly. "I'd forget all about it-if I were you, Wilder." He stepped to the end of the board, sprang twice and made a hard, neat dive into the yellowing water.
Swimming by himself at the shallow end of the pool, Wilder watched Laing and his party of friends playing about in the deep end. Previously Wilder would have joined them, particularly as there were two attractive women in the group-Charlotte Melville, whom he had not seen for several days about their projected parents' association, and the tyro alcoholic Eleanor Powell. Wilder had obviously been excluded. Laing's pointed use of his surname marked the distance between them, like his vagueness about the dead jeweller, and his sidestepping of the television documentary, in which he had once been keenly interested-if anything, Laing's approval had inspired Wilder to develop the idea into a provisional treatment. Presumably Laing, with his excessive need for privacy, had no wish to see the collective folly of the residents, their childish squabbles and jealousies, exposed on the nation's television screens.
Or was there some other impulse at work-a need to shut away, most of all from oneself, any realization of what was actually happening in the high-rise, so that events there could follow their own logic and get even more out of hand? For all his own professed enthusiasm about the documentary, Wilder knew that he had never discussed it with anyone who did not live inside the apartment building. Even Helen, talking to her mother that afternoon on the telephone, had said vaguely, "Everything's fine. There's some slight trouble with the air-conditioning, but it's being fixed."
This growing defiance of reality no longer surprised Wilder. The decision that the chaos within the high-rise was a matter for the residents themselves explained the mystery of the dead jeweller. At least a thousand people must have seen the body-Wilder remembered stepping on to the balcony and being startled, not by the sight of the dead man, but by the huge audience reaching up to the sky. Had anyone notified the police? He had taken it for granted, but now he was less sure. Wilder found it hard to believe that this sophisticated and self-important man would commit suicide. Yet no one was in the least concerned, accepting the possibility of murder in the same way that the swimmers in the pool accepted the wine bottles and beer cans rolling around the tiled floor under their feet.
During the evening, Wilder's speculations took second place to the struggle to preserve his sanity. After settling the two boys in their bedroom, he and his wife sat down to dinner, only to find that a sudden electricity failure had plunged them into darkness. Sitting opposite each other at the dining-room table, they listened to the continuous noise from the corridor, their neighbours arguing in the elevator lobby, transistors blaring through open apartment doors.
Helen began to laugh, relaxing for the first time in weeks. "Dick, it's a huge children's party that's got out of hand." She reached out to calm Wilder. In the faint light that crossed the room from the nearby high-rise her slim face had an almost unreal calm, as if she no longer felt herself to be part of the events taking place around her.
Restraining his temper, Wilder hunched heavily in the darkness over the table. He was tempted more than once to plunge his fist into his soup. When the lights returned he tried to telephone the building manager, but the switchboard was jammed with calls. At last a recorded voice told him that the manager had fallen ill, and that all complaints would be played through and noted for future attention.
"My God, he's actually going to listen to all these tapes-there must be miles of them…"
"Are you sure?" Helen was giggling to herself. "Perhaps no one else minds. You're the only one."
The tampering with the electricity system had affected the air-conditioning. Dust was spurting from the vents in the walls. Exasperated, Wilder drove his fists together. Like a huge and aggressive malefactor, the high-rise was determined to inflict every conceivable hostility upon them. Wilder tried to close the grilles, but within minutes they were forced to take refuge on the balcony. Their neighbours were crowded against their railings, craning up at the roof as if hoping to catch sight of those responsible.
Leaving his wife, who was wandering light-headedly around the apartment and smiling at the spurting dust, Wilder went out into the corridor. All the elevators were stationary in the upper section of the building. A large group of his neighbours had gathered in the elevator lobby, pounding rhythmically on the doors and complaining about various provocative acts by the residents on the floors above.
Wilder pushed his way towards the centre, where two airline pilots were standing on a lobby sofa and selecting the members of a raiding party. Wilder waited his turn, trying to catch their attention, until he realized from the excited talk around him that their mission consisted solely of going up to the 35th floor and publicly urinating into the water.
Wilder was about to argue with them, warning that a childish act of this kind would be counter-productive. Until they were organized the notion of a punitive expedition was absurd, as they were far too exposed to retaliation. However, at the last moment he turned away. He stood by the doors to the staircase, aware that he no longer felt committed to this crowd of impulsive tenants egging each other on into a futile exercise, Their real opponent was not the hierarchy of residents in the heights far above them, but the image of the building in their own minds, the multiplying layers of concrete that anchored them to the floor.
A cheer went up, followed by a chorus of catcalls. An elevator was at last descending from the 35th floor, the indicator numerals flashing from right to left. While it approached, Wilder thought of Helen and the two boys-he knew already that his decision to dissociate himself from his neighbours had nothing to do with any feelings of concern for his wife and children.
The elevator reached the 2nd floor and stopped. As the doors opened there was a sudden hush. Lying on the floor of the cabin was the barely conscious figure of one of Wilder's neighbours, a homosexual air-traffic controller who dined regularly in the 35th-floor restaurant. He turned his bruised face away from the watching crowd and tried to button the shirt torn from his chest. Seeing him clearly as the crowd stepped back, awed by this evidence of open violence. Wilder heard someone say that two more floors, the 5th and 8th, were now in darkness.
excerpt from the book: High Rise by J.G.Ballard
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