The Thousand Dreams of JG Ballard
The 'Sage of Shepperton', JG Ballard, died on Sunday at the age of 78 after a long illness. His last published book, Miracles of Life, was a deeply moving memoir in which he reviewed aspects of his life from the vantage point of old age. It was a fascinating insight into the mind of this genius of the suburbs, who created a fictional world so complete and immersive, one was often tempted to just move there and be done with it.
However, it might be said that everything you needed to know about Ballard could already be found not in a memoir but in his novels and stories. From the heartbreaking beauty of an early tale, 'The Garden of Time', to the shattered realities of the none-more-avant-garde 'condensed novels' of The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard's world was constructed out of his experiences as a boy in wartime Shanghai, as well as his engagement - shaped by those experiences - with the post-war world he found dull yet full of possibilities for shaking things up. Influenced by the Surrealists as much as his training in medicine, Ballard went on to create a literature of the 20th Century that eschewed the cosy domesticity of much contemporary fiction, and delved deep into the subconscious to show us the world in terms we would begin to recognise only later.
His early quartet of disaster novels, a 'four seasons' of the apocalypse, included The Wind From Nowhere (disowned by the author, though it's quite an entertaining read); The Drowned World, his first classic, a sort of Conrad-on-Acid; The Drought; and The Crystal World. That last book contains some of the most mesmerising imagery in his entire oeuvre, the whole of nature turned into a beautiful but dead crystalline landscape. But it is The Drowned World, written half a century ago, that seems to predict the future that faces the planet now, if global warming progresses as far and as fast as it might. His heroes in these books, and indeed in most of his later ones, were typically solitary men threatened by, and eventually embracing, an implacable world changing beyond recognition. As would later become clear, these were landscapes of the mind, as powerful in their way as anything dreamt up by Dali or Ernst.
Among Ballard's early stories are some fairly conventional tales of future dystopias and space travel, but he quickly moved past that, as his imagination truly took flight (often in a commandeered single-engine aircraft). He soon became a leading light in the New Wave of British Science Fiction, a sort-of movement that was in some ways the literary equivalent - at least in its aims - to the cinematic Nouvelle Vague that broke with convention and gave us some of the grammar we now take for granted. But Ballard transcended even that, diving into the darkest psychology not only of individuals, but of our society. He showed us the world in a fractured mirror and at first we couldn't see ourselves in it, many people considering him beyond psychiatric help.
Throughout the 1970s and early '80s, Ballard did not so much break boundaries as refuse to acknowledge them at all. The aforementioned Atrocity Exhibition was a dense hypertext of a novel that followed the breakdown of the protagonist's mind in a style that rivalled Ulysses for its at-first-impenetrable obscurity. A series of psychogenic fugues, it was not intended to be read as a conventional novel. Stick with it and it's a rewarding, bracing and yes, funny book full of sharp insights and wry observations. It also establishes the Ballardian world as we have come to know it in his subsequent work, though it draws on tropes that appeared earlier in his stories. This was followed by a loose trilogy of technological dream novels, Crash, High-Rise and Concrete Island, with their playful deviance and refreshing anti-utopianism.
Much has already been written about Crash, particularly around the time that Cronenberg made a rather wonderful film adaptation in 1996. The fact that both novel and book, a quarter of a century apart, inspired outrage as well as admiration, is testament to the power of this story of people so disaffected they must go to extremes in order to feel anything at all.
The first Ballard novel I read, The Unlimited Dream Company, involved another one of his solitary-and-possibly-insane heroes - an aeronaut who crashes his plane into Shepperton and transforms the suburb into a fervid world of the imagination. That this entire tale might be the ravings of a dying man is more or less immaterial. What matters is the world that is created and the freedom it brings to the bored suburbanites. This is perhaps Ballard's central theme: the world we know is only a couple of dreams away from being totally undermined and destroyed; and this possibility is to be welcomed. Chaos is good and creative - and extreme chaos has already taken hold in Hello America, an adventure yarn that gave us another alien landscape, this time a long-abandoned United States that has reverted to desert and submitted to entropy.
His next novel brought Ballard to wide public attention.
Empire of the Sun was the partially fictionalised story of a boy named Jamie and his struggle to survive in the Lunghua internment camp in Shanghai during the Second World War. Ballard has often suggested that this world was more real to him than the England he returned to after the war. Here he reveals the source of much of his familiar imagery. The dead pilots in burnt-out cockpits, the drained swimming-pools, the sports stadium full of riches looted from the homes of the wealthy: these were the icons of his earlier work, now shown to have been not entirely fantastic after all. The novel ends with the Hiroshima bomb, its light announcing to Ballard that World War Three had already begun. Empire of the Sun was a remarkable book, perhaps the one he was born to write, but also the book he couldn't quite get down to until he was older and had absorbed those formative experiences. As he said himself, his time in the camp took twenty years to forget, and another twenty years to remember.
Spielberg made a pretty good film of Empire of the Sun in 1987, one which many consider the director's first mature work, though for me that honour goes to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Ballard was happy with the film and found it curious to meet 'himself' on the set, played with remarkable skill by the young Christian Bale.
Like a magician showing you how his tricks work, or a comedian explaining the joke, there is always the danger that once an author gives away his secrets, his subsequent work becomes less powerful. That is not because he has finally exorcised his ghosts, or that he has written a bad book, but that the audience now knows what to expect. Ballard, I think, suffered a little from this. In two of his subsequent novels, The Day of Creation and Rushing to Paradise, the wonders seemed slightly more mundane, as though, having explained himself, he was now a little self-conscious. For the first time, even though he had made a career of doing exactly that, to often startling effect, Ballard appeared to be repeating himself. On the other hand, Running Wild, a satire of Thatcherism in which perfect parents in a gated community were killed in mysterious circumstances, anticipated the later quartet of 'crime novels' that would bring him great acclaim.
The Kindness of Women, his semi-autobiographical sequel to Empire of the Sun, followed a grown-up Jamie, now called Jim, on his return to England after the war. The other major influence in Ballard's work and life, after his time in the camp, was the death of his wife early in their marriage, leaving him a single parent of three young children. It was a devastating blow of course, and Ballard is at perhaps his most tender and vulnerable in this fictionalised telling. Amusingly, the author emerges as living proof that, contrary to Connolly, the pram in the hall is not the enemy of promise. Rather, being a father liberated Ballard and gave him the freedom he needed to write, to embrace life and let his imagination run riot. In his memoir Miracles of Life, he refers to this, charmingly suggesting that it was, in fact, his children who brought him up.
Throughout his writing life, Ballard was a master of the short story. Some of his best work has been in that form. The linked tales collected in Vermilion Sands, my favourite Ballard book, concern a magical and twisted resort of the future, in which orchids sing, clouds are sculpted, and houses react to the occupants' mood. It is naturally enough laden with Ballardian imagery and character-types: distant but fascinating femmes fatales, doomed solitary heroes, and concepts that are simply above and beyond what most writers dare to imagine. About a hundred of his short tales are collected in The Complete Short Stories, an indispensable book that covers his career from 1956 onwards. His most notorious short is perhaps 'Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,' a genuinely funny piece written in 1968 when Reagan was first a candidate for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency. A mere twelve years later, Ballard again looked prophetic.
Non-fiction aside, Ballard's career ended where it had begun, with a loose quartet. Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People and Kingdom Come cast a cold eye on modern western civilisation, yet felt strangely old-fashioned, as if the world had finally caught up with Ballard and he was now not predicting where we were headed if we weren't careful, but describing where we had already arrived. Not only that, one got the impression that this was a world Ballard was quite happy to live in.
James Graham Ballard was, as has often been noted, sui generis. Indeed, the Collins Dictionary defines 'Ballardian' as:
(adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (born 1930), the British novelist, or his works (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard's novels and stories, esp dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.
I will miss reading a new Ballard for the first time, but I am grateful for what he left behind. His nineteen novels, and especially his short stories, comprise an imaginative world that is so strange and compelling it can take us a while to recognise our own in it. We are living in Ballard's world now, and we can't say we weren't warned.
Patrick Chapman writes for Eyewear. He is an Irish poet, screenwriter, essayist and fiction writer.
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