Many may not realize it at first, but J.G. Ballard's High-Rise is actually a very funny novel. Much of its humor is derived from a rather odd place, namely the bizarre and unorthodox behaviors of the tenants of the high rise, which makes the reader uneasy. We are not sure whether this is supposed to be funny, or if our laughs serve primarily to protect us from the danger and the forbidden. This type of gallows humor is a fairly common staple of postmodernism, and High-Rise, along with the films Fight Club and Cosmopolis, execute this humor extraordinarily well.
The struggles and violence that erupt from Laing, Wilder, and the rest of the tower block are not out of political strife (at least not explicitly), starvation, war or some other “just” cause; they come out of boredom and complacency. Everyone living in the tower block is fairly well-to-do: they make good money at steady jobs, they having loving families, and they have all their basic needs met. To a commoner or lower-class person, it would seem none of these people have a need for the type of rebellion and savagery that we encounter in High-Rise. Yet they rebel nonetheless; in fact, it seems they rebel not despite the lack of a need but because of that lack of need and purpose. They're rebelling because they're bored and because they can. This hyperbolic sense of oppression creates a very funny sarcasm in the book.
Some examples of this are the arbitrary class lines drawn between floors of the tower. In a real high rise, there are no class distinctions drawn between one floor of the building and another. The tenants create this distinction as a way of dividing themselves for the purpose of pointless battle. These exaggerated, imagined struggles paint a dim picture of our species as one incapable of being happy, but because it's so unexpected it becomes darkly funny. This also leads to a bizarre desire for the undesirable: “Our neighbours had happy childhoods to a man and still feel angry. Perhaps they resent never having a chance to become perverse...” (Ballard, 133). This desire to throw away what seems to be the more safe and civilized society and replace it with the more dangerous, primitive society is a very dark and sarcastically funny staple of postmodernism.
Random acts of rebellion without a cause that drive this inverted view of society occur through-out the book, with the bags of rubbish, broken beer bottles and graffiti strewn about for no apparent reason. This goes so far that the riots within the tower are often describes as a “game.” Even Royal, the developer of the high rise, is guilty of this pension for mindless violence; “To date he had been a moderating influence, restraining his neighbours from any unnecessary retaliatory action. Now he wanted trouble at any price” (Ballard, 104). Several other characters also profess that mere confrontation is enough to excite them, even if there is no real purpose for it. Wilder partook in random, pointless misdemeanors like “pushing around a terrified woman who had remonstrated with him for relieving himself on her bathroom floor” (145). Because these moments of violence aren't coming from events one would normally find worthy of violence, this catches the reader off guard, and laughs due to the awkwardness, and also for protection from plunging head first into the same senseless abyss that the characters are.
The third and more overtly funny way that Ballard makes his readers laugh is through spurts of unexpected, awkward sexuality in the book. The hyperbolic distress and backwards view of society set the sarcastic tone for the book, and these bizarre sexual moments provide the punchlines. Like the continuity girl for porn films, who Wilder worried was “memorizing every embrace and copulatory posture in case she was suddenly called away” (58), or Laing's sudden desire for his sister, wanting “to touch her hips, place his hand over her breast” (120), and her somewhat psychic acceptance of those desires of incest. Perhaps the most overtly funny moment is when Wilder is ransacking a random apartment. “He was about to break the glass, but the sight of his penis calmed him, a white club hanging in the darkness. He would have liked to dress it in some way, perhaps with a hair-ribbon tied in a floral bow” (154). These awkward, sudden and mostly facetious moments of sexual blunders and depravity complete Ballard picture of dark humor in High-Rise.
In terms of its tone and themes, Fight Club varies quite a bit from High-Rise. Fight Club is more clearly sarcastic, and physical violence and class struggles don't play as integral a role as they do in High-Rise. However, the styles of humor displayed in both works is actually rather similar. Both works display a hyperbolic sense of injustice in society, senseless and causeless acts of rebellion, and moments of awkward sexual tension to complete the overarching black humor.
In High-Rise the tenants were rebelling against the “evils” of close living quarters. In Fight Club it's consumerism. Life for Tyler Durden is so safe and easy, and therefore boring, that he needs to invent an angry alter ego with a warped sense of priorities. “Murder, crime, poverty, these things don't concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, and some guy's name on my underwear.” Another example, as the Brad Pitt persona seeps into Edward Norton's, we see Norton point to a bus ad with a male model and ask, “Is that what a real man is supposed to look like?” (Fincher).
This inverted sense of social injustice is played out through the acts of vandalism and shady deals Durden and his followers devise. The ideas of “selling rich women their own fat asses back to them,” the replacement of normal airplane safety guides with more frightening ones, and the slicing of pornographic images into family films. These ironic, cheeky pranks, like ones your high school class clown might have pulled off, are both intrinsically funny and fit the theme of undue social frustration. This acting out is only the precursor, though, with the final goal being Tyler's vision:
In the world I see, you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway. (Fincher)
Here we see the same desired descent into barbarism that we see in High-Rise, with the primordial dangers of human existence being rewarded and praised over the conveniences of modern living.
Also like in High-Rise, bizarre sexual tension provides the punchlines, and those punchlines are funny but made dark and uncomfortable by the tone of deep sarcasm throughout the film. Moments like Chloe's dying plea to “get laid for the last time. I have pornographic movies in my apartment, and lubricants, and amyl nitrate....” The concept of a woman dying of cancer being more concerned with her sex life than her cancer is really funny, mostly because it's so unexpected, like the themes of the rest of the work. Along the same lines are other great one liners: “Strangers with this kind of honesty make me go a big rubbery one,” and, for those with a really twisted sense of humor, “I haven't been fucked like that since grade school” (Fincher). The mood of heavy sarcasm and satire, punctuated by uncomfortable sexual remarks and innuendos, provide the bleak but steady comedy in Fight Club.
Cosmopolis is a horse of a completely different color than the previous two works discussed, but still follows the same pattern, and still fits within the postmodernist structure. It's different because the film is deliberately not as straight forward as High-Rise or Fight Club. The actors' dead pan-style performances do a lot more to provide the layers of sarcasm than in Fight Club, and unlike both High-Rise and Fight Club, those instigating the rebellion are really the background people surrounding our main characters. Despite the differences in approach and delivery, the same themes and types of humor come across just as effectively.
We again see the exaggerated problems within the well-functioning society. In Cosmopolis especially this sense of injustice comes from a desire for perfection in every way, and the failure to achieve that perfection leads to the rejection of modern society. Eric Packer's, our main character's, fall comes after his failure to predict currency markets, leading to the loss of several million dollars. He's a multi-billionaire, so he knows he will recover the losses, but he's devastated all the same. He stresses over other equally unimportant details, like that his “prostate is asymmetrical” (Cronenberg), or that his new wife won't have sex with him, despite the fact that he sleeping with every other woman he knows. Even the basic plot of the film, his traveling across Manhattan while the President is visiting to get a haircut that he doesn't really need from his childhood barber, reflects his obsession with perfection, even at the cost of time, money, safety and convenience.
The disappointment of failing to achieve the unachievable leads to his rebellion in unorthodox ways, in an attempt to bring society back to primitivism. His interest in the idea that “the rat became the unit of currency,” and then the images of rats during the anti-capitalist riots, serve as a metaphor of money, an extension of modern living, as a carrier of disease. “The future becomes insistent, and this is why something will happen soon, maybe today, to correct the acceleration of time and bring nature back to normal.” This leads to him seeking his own destruction: begging one of his girlfriends to taze him, shooting his own bodyguard, entering the home of his would-be assassin and shooting himself in the hand. There, the assassin tells it to Eric rather bluntly, “Your whole waking life is a self-contradiction. That's why you're engineering your own downfall” (Cronenberg). Again we see the conscious attempted self destruction and social regression played out, creating the thick air of satire.
This established air of satire is used to backdrop brief awkward moments of sexual humor, like in High-Rise and Fight Club. Moments like Eric's wife telling him over lunch “You reek of sexual discharge,” or the assassin admitting “I have severe anxieties that my sex organ is receding into my body” (Cronenberg). Random, sarcastic one-liners like these are made to seem even more sarcastic when put against the backdrop of sarcasm that drives the work, creating the same dark, ugly humor that exists in High-Rise and Fight Club.
This humor is not for everyone, and by definition it cannot be. The humor arises from unorthodoxy, from the rejection of our common, safe society and the adoption of something like John Locke's “state of nature,” something clearly more dangerous and chaotic, but somehow more philosophically rewarding. This humor works on the backwards nature of this philosophy, and therefore cannot be widespread accepted by mainstream society. But, for those rare few who take a fantastical pleasure in wishing to see society crumble, class status erased and a retreat to a “simpler” time, these works strike a nerve, not just in the mind and the heart, but the funny bone as well.
Ballard, J.G. High-Rise. New York: Liveright, 1975.
Cosmopolis. Dir. David Cronenberg. Perf. Robert Pattinson. Entertainment One, 2012.
Fight Club. Dir. David Fincher. Perf. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. Regency, 1999.