Reviewed by Nicholas Fraser
(Editor's note: Due to the recent release of The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard in trade paperback, we offer you this review by Nicholas Fraser. This review, courtesy of Harper's Magazine originally ran in the Review-a-Day program November 6, 2009.)
For a long time, the spirit of pinched traditionalism pervaded postwar British culture. Writers such as Angus Wilson and C. P. Snow vied with one another to reproduce old-fashioned narratives, upholding the values of gentility via the tired means of drawing-room comedies or novels of manners. In the tabloid press, violence was freely described, but it remained localized, confined to gory particulars. Something must have appeared attractive about this culture of self-imposed restraint, but it was hard for writers to confront with any confidence the contemporary condition of the human race.
Sometime in the 1960s, however, a rawer Britain emerged. One way out of dying Britishness was ribaldry or irony, and at this the novelist Kingsley Amis, the dramatist John Osborne, and the critic Kenneth Tynan excelled. Another less obvious but equally effective route is evident in the strange, half-underground career of J. G. Ballard, who went from being a science-fiction writer through to avant-gardism of a sort, ending up as a national sage. Like the Orwell of 1984, as well as Daniel Defoe and Thomas Hobbes, Ballard was an arch-dystopian, making his debut amid the postwar British scene of cracked Bakelite, chipped teacups, and squadrons of bombers on the flatlands of East Anglia, readied for Armageddon. He didn't believe that human actions were rational or easily fathomable, and it was probably this, more than any view of history or aesthetic theory, that led him away from what he regarded as the staleness and artificiality of contemporary literature. He was to prove formidably effective in destroying the last vestiges of the British official morality of cheeriness and stiffened upper lips, and you can still see people reading Ballard in the crowded, ramshackle carriages of the London Underground, absorbing a whiff of catastrophe between the familiar, blandly named tube stations, as their forebears must have done when turning the pages of H. G. Wells's end-of-civilization fantasies.
Ballard left behind nineteen novels, a wonderful autobiography called Miracles of Life, and the ninety-eight stories collected in this volume. For many years he wasn't taken seriously by the high-lit Bloomsbury critics of his day, but he was read and admired in Britain's art schools, acquiring a following among bands like Joy Division and Radiohead. (A garage rocker recorded a song entitled "Me and J. G. Ballard" that describes an encounter with the writer in a local supermarket, where the two struggle over the last packet of frozen peas.) He was a friend and patron of such writers as Will Self and Martin Amis. A lifelong republican, Ballard was among the few British cultural figures to refuse an honor from the Queen. When he died earlier this year at the age of seventy-eight, he received the same kind of notices as the Nobel laureate Harold Pinter.
Ballard's real importance, however, lies outside the strictly British context, and comes from the way he could speak to our condition as if he had invented it. One of Ballard's first novels, The Drowned World, published in 1962, describes a London underwater as a consequence of the heating up of the planet, and one of his last delves into urban terrorism perpetrated by a frustrated, beaten-down middle class. In between, he catalogued nearly every variety of social dysfunction. No twentieth-century writer has made more of the prospect of human extinction. This is commonly referred to as an obsession of his, which it may well have been; but it was surely also a life program. He could describe, in essays as well as in his stories and novels, the emotion of boredom, the growth of which he attributed to the many inventions that were supposed to bring about happiness. Being bored, however, isn't quite the same as being convinced, as Ballard was, that the human race is if not doomed then at least unlikely to be around for very long in its present form. These days one can find such thoughts ineptly rendered via computer graphics in Discovery Channel programs, or alluded to piously in greenish editorials, but Ballard spent a near-lifetime creating a sensibility out of the materials of extinction.
The few times I met Ballard, I was struck by his very traditional manners and his beautiful voice. Almost to the end of his life, he lived ensconced within pebble dash in South London's Shepperton (a non-place singled out for early destruction in Wells's War of the Worlds), seated on a deck chair amid silver palm trees, a "typical suburban lord of the manor," as The Paris Review described him. Ballard was always available, invariably patient and genial. He'd bought into Flaubert's maxims about writers needing to live an orderly life, and he liked to tell how highbrow French visitors expected to find the author of Crash living in perverse disorder and went away disappointed. A very British empirical habit of mind made him theory-averse. Modestly, as his daughter once told me, he felt he was "describing the next five minutes of humanity."
Despite his attachment to suburban ordinariness, Ballard refused to convey the spirit of contentment. There are no remotely positive outcomes in Ballard's work. No one is even partially freed from boredom or terror; no one gets married, has children, or even eats a good meal. The language is coldly precise, imitating medical textbooks. Ballard's characters, usually male, almost always doctors, scientists, or clerks, are not more than cursorily sketched. And he never bothers much with dialogue.
On almost every page, however, the vividness of Ballard's writing is in evidence. Lopsided, definitively strange, his descriptions of a warped, damaged world are instantly recognizable. Reading him is like being taken by the hand, politely but firmly, across an unfamiliar frontier into some usually frightening yet wholly recognizable place. And that is Ballard's greatest achievement -- to see how catastrophe might come to alter everything around us, and how it would do so in an entirely banal, only too comprehensible way. James Graham Ballard was born in 1930 in Shanghai, where his father was a successful businessman, and the young Ballard was brought up wealthy amid much conspicuous poverty, in an expatriate milieu that resembles today's gated communities. Shanghai, he wrote in his autobiography, "seems like a stage set, but at the time it was real, and I think a large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory." In the Japanese camp where he was interned with his parents in 1943, Ballard became intimately familiar with death. The derelict and dark postwar Britain to which he was sent as a teenager horrified and bored him, with its "dangerous rationing of any kind of belief in a better life." At Cambridge, Ballard tried to become a doctor, until he became bored. Boredom afflicted him, too, in remote Saskatchewan, where he trained as a NATO bomber pilot; and in the drab Midlands, where he sold encyclopedias.
It took Ballard many years to find out how the horrors of his childhood could be given expression. To begin with, British science-fiction magazines supplied him with the reliable means of making some sort of a living, and his first stabs at genre writing seem labored and dutiful. He observed that science fiction "is now the only place where the future survives," but what is distinctive about these early efforts is how attached to the past they seem, and how archaically British in their limited view of future possibilities. When his wife died in 1964, he brought up their three young children by himself. If one envisions Ballard ironing school ties and cooking bangers and mash, these glazed, absent stories set in other worlds acquire miraculous, restorative properties. And routine did save him, it would seem. Ballard would drink his first scotch in the morning and sit down to work, finishing with his writing by the time he left to collect his children from school. (Asked by Martin Amis how difficult it had been to give up daytime drinking, Ballard replied: "It was like the Battle of Stalingrad.")
No single story marks the moment when Ballard found his voice, but piece by piece the distinctive images of abandoned cities, crashed aircraft, and drained swimming pools begin to emerge from the surrounding asteroids. One hint of marvels to come is the story "The Drowned Giant" (1964), which recounts, in homage to Swift, the washing up of a dead giant on an unspecified seashore and the numerous practical uses to which pieces of the cadaver are put, so that soon its existence is forgotten. In the 1960s, Ballard was quick to embrace experimentalism, tilting away from science fiction toward what he referred to as the "inner space" of consciousness. Proximity to the Swinging London scene led to such squibs as "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" (1966) and the notorious "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" (1968). (His American publisher, Nelson Doubleday, a Republican booster, was so upset that he had The Atrocity Exhibition, the collection in which the story appeared, pulped.)
Ballard's greatest creation of this period is Crash, -- described by the critic for -- The New York Times Book Review as "the most repulsive book I've yet to come across." Crash remains shocking, not so much for the celebrated amputee sex scenes or the erotic possibilities elaborately afforded by vinyl car interiors as for the dogged earnestness deployed by Ballard when describing orgasms, body odors, and crushed metal. As Ballard explained in his autobiography, "Crash is less a hymn to death than an attempt to appease death, to buy off the executioner who waits for us all in a quiet garden nearby, like [Francis] Bacon's headless figure in his herringbone jacket, who sits patiently at a table with a machine gun beside him."
Ballard wrote stories frequently, even when busy with novels, and he would often flick through telephone directories or ask his young children to come up with names for characters. Stories appealed to him as a way of setting ideas down quickly, or as a substitute for the diary he never bothered to keep. Some appear perfunctory, jettisoned as the material proved unpromising; but many are more accomplished than the novels. In the novel The Drowned World, for instance, Ballard expends close to two hundred pages on sunspots and steaming lagoons, whereas he needs only twenty-odd pages in "The Illuminated Man" to describe how the swamps of Florida are transformed into cathedrals of glass by a life-threatening climatic process known as the Hubble Effect.
His best stories were written -in the early 1980s, at a moment when he was far from the limelight. They are elegiac, death–centered, set in a near future in which contemporary civilization has destroyed itself. In small masterpieces such as "News from the Sun" and "Memories of the Space Age," he describes the gantries, motels, and sand dunes of an abandoned Cape Canaveral, and a Nevada deserted after a mysterious plague.
Like so many Brits of his postwar generation, formed in misery, Ballard was infatuated with the American version of modernity. "The Ultimate City" (1976) begins in a suburban utopia, a mixture of Scandinavian high-tech and Vermont high-mindedness, created after the collapse of the industrial world. Halloway, the bored and brainy young hero, builds a glider and flies into a deserted megalopolis from which the suburbanites have fled -- a Manhattan decorated with memorials to proto-industrial civilization, including massive piles of radiator grills and "a pyramid of television sets some sixty feet high, constructed with considerable care and an advanced sense of geometry.... The whole structure, from base to apex, was invaded by wild elders, moss and firethorn, the clouds of berries forming a huge cascade." The glider man re-creates civilization in weeks, siphoning gas from cars, running generators, repowering jukeboxes and television sets with the -assistance of the criminals and the hippie types who also have moved there. But the same forces that undid twentieth-century civilization -- crime, greed, recklessness, the enjoyment of destroying things as well as building them -- prevail once again. Ballard depicts this failure not as an allegory of human hopes dashed but as a piece of bad luck. Halloway the glider man moves on to another abandoned city, in search of another piece of civilization ripe for reclamation.
Ballard had spent many years trying, never quite successfully, to find surrogate images capable of describing his Shanghai childhood, but in the late 1970s he began to confront the experience directly. Characteristically, he used one story, "The Dead Time," as a trial run. The young narrator drives a truckload of corpses around Shanghai for days in the extreme heat. He comes to believe, as he carries a dead child in his arms, that "the dead were coming to life, rising from their fields and doorways, and coming to greet me." This is Ballard the surrealist at work, and the image feels strained, not entirely convincing. Empire of the Sun, however, turned out to be a literal account of the death of childhood. The hero, Jim, witnesses (as Ballard certainly did, at close quarters) the death of many interned adults. It isn't always clear to him whether he is alive. Among the many varieties of experience crowding in on him is the distant explosion of a bomb over Japan:
Jim stared at his white hands and knees, and at the pinched face of the Japanese soldier, who seemed disconcerted by the light. Both of them were waiting for the rumble of sound that followed the bomb-flashes, but an unbroken silence lay over the stadium and the surrounding land, as if the sun had blinked, losing heart for a few seconds. Jim smiled at the Japanese, wishing that he could tell him that the light was a premonition of his death, the sight of his small soul joining the larger soul of the dying world.
In Spielberg's film, young Jim is plucky and English, and gets by as the young and plucky and English are supposed to, choking back tears; but in Ballard's novel he is a starved child, frightened, cold-eyed, scarily hyperactive. (Ballard said he liked the film, though he stressed that it wasn't at all like his book.) Written as if it were a memoir, drawing on many British antecedents in which boys are confronted with obstacles they manfully surmount, Empire, as Ballard called it, is among the handful of truly great books written in Britain in the second half of the twentieth century. Jim runs errands for the adults, who have mostly given up, awaiting death; but he isn't helping people in the expectation that such actions will be reciprocated. Jim already knows that humans aren't generous or even coherently motivated by self-interest. They are what they are -- nothing is to be done about it. All you can do is notice things and work hard at surviving.
Empire made Ballard into a best-selling author, and his later writing is less personal, and somewhat less intense in the expression of horror. But he continued to explore the same themes. Ballard's most accomplished late novel, Super-Cannes (2000), is a glassily rendered, stylized detective story set in a gated, hypermodern capitalist development near the French Mediterranean coast. Boredom stalks the poolside retreats of puritanical, work-obsessed executives, and, alas, boredom leads to lower productivity. A psychiatrist formulates the answer to such -discontents -- therapeutic psychopathology. In the evenings the execs dress up as racist thugs, beating to death immigrant hookers and trinket-sellers. Boredom is chased away, and profits rise to remarkable levels.
Excited by the way in which television appeared to expose the viewer to different and simultaneous lives, Ballard came to see the box as a primary source of numbness and disorientation. He was featured in a number of documentary films for the BBC, and yet he appears to have thought that such films were just another means of falsifying reality. In The Kindness of Women, an autobiographical sequel to Empire, Ballard records a visit to a 1960s science-film festival in Rio de Janeiro at which "ripples of appreciation would move across the audience at some particularly striking camera angle or expository close-up, as the Soho patrons might have applauded a telling crotch shot or elegant anal penetration." The producers in his story "The Greatest Television Show on Earth" re-create all of history, drowning themselves and myriad extras in their assiduous attempt to cross the Red Sea. Ronald Reagan plainly fascinated Ballard; he returned to the president-actor in 1988, in "The Secret History of World War 3," credibly advancing the hypothesis that a nuclear exchange might have occurred without anyone knowing -- because world television audiences were fixated on the continuous descriptions of the president's failing health, "lost within the ultimate urinanalysis, the last great biopsy in the sky."
Like Orwell's, Ballard's name has found its way into the lexicon, denoting "dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments," as the Collins dictionary puts it. Setting the two names together, however, one becomes aware of an important difference. Orwell, even in his most somber passages, wrote within some political context of hope, insisting (often against the evidence painstakingly acquired and deployed) that with human effort things might somehow be made better. No such hopes animate Ballard's work. When they aren't knaves, politicians appear at the mercy of impersonal forces, such as consumerism and technology. There are balked, incompetent, or merely deluded representatives of Suburban Man or Woman in story after story -- coldly observed versions of Orwell's Winston Smith, or Wells's clerks, or indeed the suburban harridans to be found in British comedy. Ballard wrote very touchingly about his two daughters, and about the other women whose kindness saved him, but he was never capable of describing how life can be transformed by love. There is a price to be paid in Ballard's work for so much chilliness. In Empire, the expats assembled in the camp are lost amid the remaining illusions of their rich life in Shanghai. Forced to march in an unspecified direction, they take with them "cricket bats and fishing rods, and even a set of golf clubs tied to the bundles of Pierrot costumes." These forlorn bourgeois specimens are easily mocked; and in such scenes, which are dismissive of human weakness and ignorance, an unpleasant, misanthropic aspect of the Ballard sensibility comes to the fore.
From time to time, Ballard was asked whether he shouldn't be supplying some sort of moral guidance, and he responded with a very British demurral. "I'm not sure about that," he said to one interviewer. "I see myself more as a kind of investigator, a scout who is sent on ahead to see if the water is drinkable or not." Not having views about much, or even about anything at all, is fashionable; down among the British, the tabloids tell us that there is little to be done but laugh or sneer. But Ballard was more sophisticated, and the word "nihilism" doesn't quite describe his distinctive cast of mind. He didn't believe that all activity was futile; he thought that human actions had many consequences their perpetrators had not anticipated. The Day of Creation (1987) follows a doctor who attempts to tame the flow of the underground river he has accidentally uncovered in Africa. He's successful, creating wealth from the desert; but so much damming and distorting of the river finally causes it to dry up, destroying everything that has been momentarily created. It is the fate of humans, Ballard believes, to struggle violently and purposelessly, to be crazed with ambition or stuffed with delusions. There can be no guarantee of success, even if the goal is a worthy one.
Although he wanted to show us the dangers of succumbing to the illusions of science, or religion, or liberal humanism -- or indeed any belief system -- something of what Ballard did minimally believe can be found in his description of the dissecting room at Cambridge University, where he worked on cadavers as a student. (The episode is described in a novel but repeated, in greater detail, in the autobiography.) Ballard was drawn to one cadaver, "a strong-jawed woman of late middle-age whose bald head shone brightly under the lights" (though the attraction was not, Ballard insists with peculiar emphasis, "for the obvious sexual reasons"). The muscles of her face seemed to him "like the pages of an ancient book, or a pack of cards waiting to be reshuffled into another life." Ballard was dying of prostate cancer when he wrote these words, and he concluded that the years in the dissection room "were important because they taught me that though death was the end, the human imagination and the human spirit could triumph over our own dissolution." Seeing is all that we can do reliably, and that, for Ballard at least, was more than enough to fill a lifetime.
Nicholas Fraser is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. His last review, "Man of No Nation," appeared in the January issue.
Books mentioned in this post