Salon. Thursday, Apr 23, 2009
Earlier this week a literary colossus made his exit, after a long struggle with cancer. The ovation that accompanied J.G. Ballard’s departure was fully deserved. He was a visionary, one of the few fiction writers of our era with an imagination so singular that he was granted the suffix treatment: the attachment of an – esque or -ian to their surname, à la Kafka-esque or Dickensian.
But in death as in life, Ballard never quite got his full due as a thinker as well as a storyteller; he was a penetrating and endlessly provocative theorist about the intersections between culture and technology, media and desire. This tendency to think of him only as a fabulist is understandable to an extent, given that he never wrote a full-length book of nonfiction that condensed and focused his ideas. Instead his insights, speculations and polemical barbs are scattered across a panoply of reviews, columns, memoiristic essays, think pieces and single-topic commentaries written for or spoken to newspapers looking for the Ballardian take on some current event, issue or innovation. (Thankfully, a decent-size heap of J.G.’s wit and wisdom has been shoveled into a single spot by the esoteric San Francisco publisher RE/Search: The 2004 “JG Ballard: Quotes” is a pocket-portable collection of mind-bomb aphorisms and pithy observations. “A User’s Guide to the Millennium,” a scrappy but absorbing anthology of essays and reviews, is currently out of print.)
Of course Ballard’s ideas are also present in his novels and short stories, and arguably at their most potent there. He was drawn to science fiction as the preeminent literature of ideas of our time, the only form of fiction that could take the measure of the 20th century. At his most full-on, Ballard transformed SF into a kind of theory-fiction, his short stories and novels functioning in a manner similar to Marshall McLuhan’s “probes,” the latter’s term for speculative aphorisms as opposed to fully developed theories backed up by research and empirical data. McLuhan is an apt comparison because his primary concern — mass communications and man’s increasingly symbiotic relationship with technology and media — overlapped with one of Ballard’s key zones of obsessive investigation: the post-WW2 culture of media overload, what he called “our perverse entertainment landscape.” In a 1983 interview he characterized it as “a completely new thing, a parallel world which we inhabit,” presciently anticipating the virtual and post-geographical realm of Web culture.
Operating as a fabulist, Ballard was less tethered than even McLuhan by the restraints of academia or journalism. But even his most disturbed and hallucinatory stories generally started with reality, extrapolating from its emerging tendencies to create extreme but plausible scenarios in a near-future more often than not located just past the present’s horizon. Classic science fiction methodology, in other words. There’s an impulse among some Ballard fans, especially those who are “proper” literati themselves, to elevate Ballard and argue that his work transcends the ghetto of genre fiction. Although Ballard occasionally expressed frustration with SF’s pulpy aura, and later in his career wrote novels that fell outside its parameters, he generally was content to situate himself in the genre and loudly championed its potential. “I believe that if it were possible to scrap the whole of existing literature,” he once declared, “… all writers would find themselves inevitably producing something very close to SF … No other form of fiction has the vocabulary of ideas and images to deal with the present, let alone the future.”
The work on which Ballard’s reputation is based — his novels and short stories of the 1960s and ’70s — is either science fiction or based on speculative techniques very close to SF. The only real exception is 1970′s “The Atrocity Exhibition,” whose delirium of experimental prose has more in common with William S. Burroughs than Robert A. Heinlein. An unstructured collation of 15 micro-novels written during the late ’60s and bearing titles such as “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” “You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe” and ”The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race,” “The Atrocity Exhibition” reads like an infinitely perverse cross between “The Golden Bough” and a forensic science textbook. Ballard described his approach as gathering “the materials of an autopsy” and treating reality “almost as if it were a cadaver.” (As a young man he’d briefly studied medicine.) But his true interest wasn’t everyday life but media hyperreality. He clinically probed the grotesque (de)formations of desire created by media overload and celebrity worship, a new psychomythology in which the deities were movie stars, politicians and murderers. Doubleday was all set to publish “Atrocity” in the USA but lost its nerve and pulped the entire print run; three years later it belatedly saw American release courtesy of Grove Press under the title “Love & Napalm: Export U.S.A.”
“Crash,” the infamous 1973 novel that developed from “Atrocity’s” coldly seething matrix of obsession, is ostensibly set in the present but it feels like a form of SF — if only because its cast of auto accident survivors turned flesh-on-metal perverts are presented as a kind of erotic avant garde, heralds of a future sexuality. Ballard had become interested in the role of car crashes in Hollywood movies and the emergence of an appetite on the part of a mass audience for a voluptuous and highly stylized violence. He diagnosed this carnographic entertainment culture as a symptom of suburbanization and anomie, the loss of meaning and community in people’s lives, and a corresponding hunger for sensation. “‘Crash’ is an attempt to follow these trends off the edge of the graph paper to the point where they meet, ” he explained some years after the novel was published. As a kind of research experiment, in 1970 he presented an exhibition at a London art gallery that involved the display of wrecked automobiles, and was gratified by the extreme emotional responses of the attendees. For Ballard this was the “green light” to start writing “Crash.”
An early reader of the novel at one publisher advised: “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish!” (Ironically, Ballard was living a stable domestic existence of responsibility and respectability in Shepperton, near London Airport, bringing up his three children as a single parent — his wife having died tragically young — and squeezing in writing between escorting the kids to school and helping with their homework.) Many reviewers rejected “Crash” as pornography. It isn’t actually a titillating read (for most people, anyway), but where it does resemble porn is in its clinically graphic language and extreme repetitiveness, with certain buzz phrases (“bloody geometry,” “perverse logic”) and tableaux (angles of conjunction between genitalia and instrument binnacles, semen emptying across luminescent dials, and so forth) recurring in a manner finely balanced between the incantatory and the numbing.
“Crash” is generally considered by Ballard buffs to be the first installment of a loose trilogy of novels set in a recognizable present-day (i.e., mid-’70s) London. But “Concrete Island” (1974) and “High-Rise” (1975) could equally be seen as a reversion to the narrative-driven approach of Ballard’s first four novels, “The Wind From Nowhere,” “The Drowned World,” “The Drought” and “The Crystal World.” This tetralogy, published between 1961 and 1966, firmly belonged in the science fiction camp, and specifically the SF sub-genre of the cataclysm story, where some kind of natural or man-made environmental catastrophe causes the breakdown of society. “High-Rise” simply localizes the post-apocalyptic scenario to a more confined area, a giant apartment building in the Docklands area of East London, whose warehouses and harbors would actually be redeveloped and gentrified in the 1990s. But Ballard’s inspiration was the urban redevelopment boom of the 1960s that razed the old Victorian slums of urban Britain and replaced them with skyscrapers and gigantic housing projects linked by concrete walkways and tunnels. Built in a spirit of neo-Corbusian idealism, these massive complexes rapidly deteriorated into behaviorist social laboratories blighted by vandalism, crime and drugs. “High-Rise” takes the fraying of the social fabric several steps further than anything actually going on in ’70s Britain, hooking the reader from the opening sentence: “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.”
“Concrete Island,” a slim and deceptively slight novel published the previous year, focused the cataclysm/collapse scenario down to the level of an individual. Losing control of his car, a man crashes into an area of overgrown scrubland circumscribed on all sides by highways and overpasses. Injured and unable to climb up the steep embankments, he’s forced to survive as a modern-day Crusoe surrounded by the endless streams of traffic, whose drivers steadfastly fail to see, or actively ignore, his plight.
“High-Rise” and “Concrete Island” share with the earlier, more overtly SF-oriented catastrophe novels a similar psychological narrative: the protagonist who finds himself perversely attracted to the cataclysm, feels at home in the drastically altered landscape it’s created. “The Drowned World” — easily the best of the disaster tetralogy, although I’m biased perhaps because it was my initiating dose of Ballard — takes place in what now seems like an uncomfortably possible near-future where sea levels have risen in sync with temperature. The setting is a London half-submerged by water and encroached by tropical jungle. While the surviving remnants of humanity are gradually migrating to the Arctic Circle, Ballard’s protagonist is last seen heading in the opposite direction, toward the uninhabitable Equatorial zones.
Ballard has argued that the devastated but dreamlike landscapes of these four ’60s novels are “far from being pessimistic” but are actually “stories of psychological fulfilment. The characters at last find themselves.” In a 1977 essay on the catastrophe subgenre written for an SF encyclopedia, Ballard ventured that SF was just a “minor offshoot of the cataclysmic tale” that had existed for millennia. He claimed that these fictions spoke to primal and antisocial urges, citing both the rattle smashing of the infant child and “psychiatric studies of the fantasies and dream life of the insane” that ” show that ideas of world destruction are latent in the unconscious mind.” But he also argued that doomsday novels were positive expressions. On the one hand, they involved a form of imaginative adaptation (he cited Conrad’s dictum “immerse yourself in the most destructive element — and swim!”) in preparation for the worst the 20th century had up its sleeve. On the other hand, they used the imagination to create “alternatives to reality” and thus represented a legitimately angry and subversive response to “the inflexibility of this huge reductive machine we call reality.”
Seeing them as “transformation stories rather than disaster stories” makes sense, if only because it helps to explain what the reader gets out of them — which is less to do with dread and more a kind of twisted utopianism or sublimated revolutionary impulse: a hunger to see the world turned upside down. The appetite for doomsday scenarios in fiction could also have something to do with the longing for an emptier world, a response to our overcrowded, stimuli-saturated civilization. J.G. Ballard didn’t have to daydream about cataclysm, though; as a teenager he lived through conditions of total collapse. Born in Shanghai in 1930, his childhood began in fairly idyllic quasi-colonial circumstances (Dad worked as managing director of a textile factory, they lived in a fancy house, had lots of servants). But with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, Shanghai was occupied in 1937. When Japan joined with the Axis powers against the Allies, all “enemy civilians” were herded into internment camps. Ballard’s experiences of post-invasion chaos and prison camp life lead to 1984′s best-selling and prize-winning novel “Empire of the Sun,” the book that took Ballard from culthood to the middlebrow mainstream (helped, of course, by Spielberg’s 1987 movie version, with the young Christian Bale playing the J.G. character, Jim).
For many of Ballard’s original fans, though, there was some disappointment in discovering there was a biographical source, however exotic and dramatic, for his trademark imagery of drained swimming pools, deserted roads, abandoned airfields and empty hotels. All of a sudden we had a pat psychoanalytic explanation (trauma on a young psyche, the aesthetic equivalent of abused children re-creating similar psychosexual arrangements for themselves as adults) for Ballard’s sensibility, all his talk about “the magic and poetry one feels when looking at a junkyard filled with old washing machines, or wrecked cars, or old ships rotting in some disused harbor.” It all felt somehow reductive and demystifying — which is one reason I’ve never been drawn to actually read “Empire of the Sun.”
The fans’ misgivings were lent some credence by Ballard’s post-”Empire” fiction, which seemed to lose its spark, as though confronting his childhood experiences had defused some crucial mechanism of creativity. While his novels of the late ’80s and thereafter such as “Cocaine Nights” and “Super-Cannes” have admirers, few would argue they’ve contributed a jot to his enduring cult, based solidly on the early cataclysm fiction, on “Atrocity” and the urban trilogy of “Crash”/”High-Rise”/”Concrete Island,” and above all on the distilled, magisterial economy of his short stories, which regularly appeared through the ’60s and ’70s in collections with titles like “The Terminal Beach” and “Low Flying Aircraft.” Happily, W.W. Norton will be publishing ” The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard” this fall, a massive compendium that ran to 1,200 pages in its U.K. incarnation.
Stylistically what connects the avant-porn of Ballard’s experimental phase with the perverted adventure yarns of his cataclysm and urban-collapse novels is his inattention to traditional fiction virtues like character or dialogue. But more than plot, his books are about atmosphere, defined as a physical space colored by or charged with a psychological mood. Really the Ballard narrative is a machinery for delivering up landscapes and tableaux that linger in the reader’s mind’s eye. In the ’50s, before turning to writing, he tried his hand at painting, then gave up when he realized he had no flair for it. “I would love to have been a painter in the tradition of the surrealist painters who I admire so much,” he once confessed. In his fiction, vision reigns supreme over all the other senses, from touch (sex in “Crash” is about the arrangement of limbs and objects in compelling patterns, about geometry rather than sensuality) to sound (Ballard professed to have minimal interest in or feeling for music, although he did write a couple of very good short stories involving music of the future).
All through his career, he maintained a connection to visual artists, drawing inspiration from and befriending the British division of pop art (Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, et al.), whose infatuation with American advertising and pop iconography had obvious affinities with Ballard’s mass cult obsessions. But the surrealists remained his first and greatest love . He passionately defended Dalí from fashionable detractors, while the critic Chris Hall has noted the parallels between the dreamscape-like vistas that teem through his writing and Yves Tanguy’s “strange beaches,” Max Ernst’s “silent forests and swamplands, weathered scenery and gnarled post-apocalyptic detritus.” Ballard, again, could connect it to his own teenage experiences, describing “prewar and wartime Shanghai” as “a huge Surrealist landscape … There was a complete transformation of everything, complete unpredictability, while formal life went on, just as in Bunuel’s films or Delvaux’s paintings — a bizarre external landscape propelled by large psychic forces.”
A problem for anyone who wants to write about Ballard is that the author is his own best critic. You’ll come up with a perception, spot a pattern, then have the smile wiped off your face as trawling through his interviews or essay you’ll find it preempted by some remark of his own — expressed more sharply, taken further. These ideas about what he’s trying to do, or what fiction can be, are also embedded in the stories, which means that they sometimes verge on metafiction (but without being tediously postmodern — indeed, Ballard may well have been the last great literary modernist). At his height, every image is an idea and every idea is embodied as an image, sensation, mood.
Ballard’s achievement relates to the adjectivization of his name: the fact that “Ballardian” has become a glib descriptor for certain landscapes and cultural phenomena is a measure of his impact.
For some of us, Ballard has imposed his way of seeing between us and reality. For this sort of hardcore fan, it was impossible not to think of J.G. within seconds of hearing about Princess Diana’s crash (for added Ballardianism, she and Dodi were harried to an early grave by the image-vampires of the paparazzi, whose wages are paid by the general public’s voyeurism). Katrina and New Orleans, too — the flooded wards, the refugees clustered on partially submerged highway overpasses, the chaos and squalor of the overcrowded dromes, seemed to come straight from his pages. Perhaps reality caught up with his imagination, outstripped it. That might have been his message all along: that truth was already becoming stranger than fiction, something he’d glimpsed in occupied China in the 1940s.
Strangely, although we live in an ever more Ballardian reality, I can’t really see a Ballardian school of writing out there, even within science fiction. Perhaps J.G. is easier to parody than to be positively influenced by. Instead, his direct impact is most evident in music, particularly late ’70s and ’80s postpunk. Ironically, the art he had the least feeling for was the one that responded most fervently and productively to his vision. Probably his most famous fanboys were Joy Division. Their final studio album, “Closer,” featured an aural abbatoir of a track titled “Atrocity Exhibition,” with Ian Curtis playing the role of freakshow barker, luring voyeurs with the chorus “this is the way, step inside” and pointing to the twisted bodies on display. The band’s debut album, “Unknown Pleasures,” pulled a Ballardian maneuver by aestheticizing the postindustrial desolation of late ’70s Manchester, finding a somber glamour in its derelict factories and baleful motorways.
Industrial groups like Joy Division’s friends Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire venerated the two Bs: Ballard and Burroughs (the latter a major influence on J.G., who read “The Naked Lunch” in the early ’60s and drew huge impetus from Burroughs’ “severity” and unblinking, nonjudgmental gaze, a reprieve from the naturalistic and moralizing fiction that still ruled literary England). The Normal’s 1978 synth-punk classic “Warm Leatherette” was a three-minute precis of “Crash”: the catchiest couplet goes “The hand brake penetrates your thigh/ Quick — Let’s make love, before you die.” Gary Numan’s “Cars” and David Bowie’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car” bear slightly smaller debts.
Another group of Ballard fans was the Human League. Founding member Ian Craig Marsh, later part of Heaven 17, raved to me about “The Atrocity Exhibition” and “High-Rise” (“the proles sending piles of human excrement up in the express penthouse elevators, the documentary maker who still carries his camera on his shoulder like it’s some symbolic totem, even after the lens is all smashed to fuck!”). But the Human League also made fun of the alienation chic of postpunk’s Ballard casualties in their 1980 song “Blind Youth,” singing “high-rise living’s not so bad” and “dehumanization is such a big word.” Elsewhere in ’80s mainstream pop, the Buggles, those MTV-inaugurating one-hit-wonders, loosely based “Video Killed the Radio Star” on the Ballard short “The Sound Sweep.”
During the grunge years, Ballard’s influence dipped away, but more recently it’s crept back, from Radiohead to the Klaxons (who named their Mercury Prize-winning “Myths of the Near-Future” after one of his short story collections) to numerous electronic musicians, most notably another Mercury nominee, Burial, whose debut LP was framed as a concept album about South London being flooded. And would you believe it, as I’m writing this feature, a publicist’s e-mail pings into my in box touting a new band named Empire of the Sun. Just as each new generation of angsty and imaginative youth discovers the music of bands like Joy Division for itself, it seems likely that half-lives of the Ballardian vision will keep reverberating through pop culture for a long time to come.