Thursday, January 13, 2011


JG Ballard was a literary surrealist whose dreamlike narratives explored the darker areas of outer and inner space with a literary beauty and a psychological intensity. Last year Norton released The Complete Short Stories of JG Ballard which included 98 stories written over 40 years from 1956-1996. The stories are in chronological order and display the evolution of his literary output. 

Ballard was part of the British New Wave Science Fiction Movement and wrote 18 novels as well. His early works created a world of a post-apocalyptic dystopian society with his novels The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World. These works depicted radical environmental and technological changes and how they devastated both the physical world and the human psyche as well.

Many of the earlier stories deal with these ideas as well such as The Concentration City and Billenium which are about the problems of over-crowding and lack of space. In The Concentration City the urban world literally seems to go on forever and in Billenium people have been forced to live in small cellular cubicles to deal with over population.

A theme that takes place throughout all of Ballard's work is a depiction of an isolated individual, usually a scientist, who is obsessively investigating a strange occurrence and leads towards the individual losing his grasp with reality. 

Manhole 69 is about an experiment to eliminate sleep, but it goes horribly wrong and ends with the subjects suffering from catatonic seizures. The mind cannot endure continual consciousness and reacts by shutting down. The subjects could no longer contain the idea of their own identity.

The Voices of Time is about a researcher who studies Sleepers - people who lapse into a coma after going through a period of shorter and shorter wakefulness. The story is quite complex and includes references to the Nuremberg Trials, Albert Einstein and philosophy about the meaning of the Universe.

In The Terminal Beach a man who is having trouble coming to terms with the early death of his wife and son goes to live on an island that was once used for testing nuclear weapons. He goes through a mental and physical decline while having hallucinations of his wife and son within the decaying structures of the island.

Ballard was also influenced by the pictorial surrealism of Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Paul Delvaux, and Yves Tanguy. Ernst's silent forests and swamplands, weathered scenery, and gnarled post-apocalyptic detritus parallel the landscapes of Ballard's early disaster fiction. An earlier copy of the short story collection The Terminal Beach is adorned by Dali's Nuclear Cross. Ballard makes references to the surrealists in his writings and was interested in psychological landscapes. He identified with how the surrealists projected the mind's iconography.

Perhaps my favorite early story is The Drowned Giant. A giant human body washes ashore and after an initial shocking wonderment people start to climb over the body and vandalize and remove parts until it is completely dismembered. After all traces of its existence has been removed people start to wonder if the giant ever existed at all.

Ballard also was a collector of the "invisible literature" of technical manuals, company reports, and medical journals and owned a book of black box flight recordings. This influence started to inform his writings as well and in 1970 he produced The Atrocity Exhibition which was an experimental collection of condensed novel fragments or deconstructed short stories. The stories/chapters describe how the mass media invades and splinters the private mind of the individual, surrendering to a world of psychosis. Public events have personal meaning and the inner and outer landscapes merge together causing life and the world to become a vast geometric equation. 

The Atrocity Exhibition was a major new direction in Ballard's work and was influenced by the cut-up novels of William Burroughs especially Naked Lunch. There is no beginning or ending to the book and does not adhere to any conventional novelistic standards. The protagonist changes his name with each story/chapter (Travis, Traven, Talbot) and his role and visions of the world around him seem to be in constant flux. The central character is suffering from a mental breakdown and is ironically a doctor at a mental institution. He tries to make sense of the many public events that dominate his world including Marilyn Monroe's suicide, the Space Race and especially the assassination of JFK, by restaging them in his mind giving them a more personal meaning. There is a blurring between what is real and what is imagined. His ultimate goal is to start World War III, but the war will be fought entirely within his own mind.

Many of the pieces in The Atrocity Exhibition were initially released independently and they include titles like Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy, The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race, and Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan. With titles like these the book met with much controversy especially when it was released in the US in 1972.

Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan was written in the style of scientific paper and catalogues a series of strange experiments to measure the psychosexual appeal of Ronald Reagan, who at the time was the Governor of California and candidate for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination.

Ballard was inspired by the new phenomenon of media politicians and felt Reagan used the teleprompter-perfect tones of the TV auto-salesman to project a political message that was far from bland and reassuring. A complete discontinuity existed between Reagan's manner and body language and his simplistic far-right message. He felt Reagan was the first politician to exploit the fact that the TV audience wouldn't be listening too closely to what he was saying but would be more impressed by the presentation.

At the 1980 Republican Convention in Detroit a copy of Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, furnished with the seal of the Republican Party was distributed by a revolutionary group to RNC delegates. According to Ballard, it was accepted for what it resembled: a psychological position paper on the candidate's subliminal appeal, commissioned by a think-tank.

Ballard published the novel Crash in 1973. The book was shocking and controversial as it is about symphorophilia in which sexual arousal hinges on the staging and watching of a disaster such as a fire or in this case auto accidents. The characters in Crash have a sexual obsession with car crashes.

The narrator is James Ballard, but it centers on the sinister figure of Vaughan a former TV scientist, turned nightmare angel of the expressways. Ballard meets Vaughan after being involved in an auto crash near the London Airport. Vaughan leads a group of alienated former crash victims, who follow his pursuit to re-enact  the crashes of celebrities, and to experience a new sexuality born from a perverse technology. Vaughan's ultimate fantasy is to die in a head-on collision with the movie star Elizabeth Taylor.

Crash explores such themes as the transformation of human psychology by modern technology, and consumer culture's fascination with celebrities and technological commodities. The characters in Crash are cold and passionless and cannot be sexually aroused unless some form of technology is involved. Car crashes are not shocking but seen as a form of liberation to explore new sexual possibilities.

Crash asks why do we as an enlightened society accept a perverse technology that kills vast numbers of people a year as such an integral part of our culture.

David Cronenberg made an interesting film adaptation of Crash in 1996.

Ballard followed this with Concrete Island (1974) which is a twisted adaptation of Robinson Crusoe. After a car crash Robert Maitland, a wealthy architect, finds himself  stranded in a manmade island, a fenced off wasteland in the middle of crossing motorways. He is forced to survive on what is only in his crashed Jaguar and what he is able to find. As his condition degrades, his sanity is threatened. He finds companions on the island and contemplates staying there and forsaking his former life.

In 1975, Ballard published High Rise which takes place in an ultra-modern luxury high-rise building. It has all the conveniences of modern life such as swimming pools, its own school, supermarkets, and high speed elevators. At the same time the building seems designed to isolate the occupants from the larger world outside. As time goes on the society in the high rise disintegrates into divisions, chaos, and violence, and the tenants shut out the outside world, abandon their responsibilities, and stay indoors permanently losing their sense of time. As he did in Crash and Concrete Island, Ballard offers a vision of how modern life and technology could warp the human psyche into unexplored ways.

The novel The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) concerns the story of a man named Blake who crashes a stolen aircraft in the River Thames outside the London suburb of Shepperton. He becomes a supernatural messiah for the small community, but whether this is real or he is imagining it as he is dying is not totally clear. He has extraordinary powers as he can fly and heal sick people, but he cannot leave the suburbs. He is obsessed with the small Cessna aircraft that he crashed in and remains submerged in the Thames. He goes through a transformation and becomes more human as time goes on. The book draws from the works of William Blake.

With Hello America (1981), Ballard produced a more conventional science fiction novel about an expedition to a North America that has been rendered uninhabitable by an ecological disaster. The book is a parody of American Culture with references to Jerry Brown, Charles Manson, and self-impovement. In the end it is implied that Europe needs America as a place where the darker elements of the Western mindset can be allowed to play themselves out without inconveniencing decent people.

Ballard took another major change of direction with the publication of his auto-biographical novel Empire of The Sun in 1984. While it is a work of fiction it draws on Ballard's experiences of being interned in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. The story follows a wealthy young British boy who lives with his parents in Shanghai. After Pearl Harbor the Japanese move in and Jim is separated from his parents. He spends time surviving in abandoned mansions and living on packaged food, but is eventually found by the Japanese and interned in the Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center. Towards the end of the war, with the Japanese army collapsing and food running short he witnesses death and atrocities and barely survives. Eventually, he is reunited with his parents, but he is now changed and affected by his experience. Steven Spielberg made the book into a film in 1987.

In 1991, Ballard released another autobiographical novel called The Kindness of Women. Each section deals with a woman or women from certain periods of his life. It starts off in Shanghai and covers some of the same terrain as Empire of The Sun. In one scene he witnesses a murder of a Chinese clerk by a Japanese soldier at a railway station in which he is powerless to do anything. When the book moves into the later sections it becomes fascinating and revealing as to how Ballard's life experiences affected his literature. At one point in his life he studied medicine and the woman he is obsessed with is the cadaver he is dissecting. After leaving medical school he goes to a Nato training school for pilots in Canada and has drunken encounters with prostitutes and is obsessed with the death of one of the other pilots. Ballard and his friend feel they will eventually participate in World War III. In another section he tells of shocking early death of his wife and having to raise his three children by himself. The Kindness of Women is about sex and death. There are many sexual encounters described with a clinical precision. There are references throughout the book to the events of the day, including the Vietnam War and the Kennedy Assassination. He writes about the experimentation with drugs in the 60s and the intrusion of the camera lens into our lives. There is even a section that reveals how Ballard became obsessed with auto accidents.

In his later short stories, Ballard combines his life-long obsessions with the various literary techniques he explored throughout his writing career. The Air Disaster is about a journalist who is trying to find an airplane that crashed in a mountainous region, but through his search you start to wonder if it actually happened. The Dead Time is an autobiographical story suggested by Ballard's release from a Japanese prison camp at the end of World War II and was a precursor to Empire of The Sun. Having A Wonderful Time is written in the form of postcards and chronicles the story of a young couple who vacation in the Canary Islands, but their flight home is continually cancelled until it becomes clear that they - along with other families - will never be allowed to return home, and have been forever exiled. The Secret History of World War III depicts a world where the public is so obsessed with the health of Ronald Reagan that they miss World War III which begins and ends in three minutes. Message From Mars concerns a group of astronauts who return to earth but refuse to leave their spaceship for some mysterious reason.

Ballard continued to produce novels until his death in 2009, and started to add elements of mystery into his works.

The Day of Creation (1987) is about a doctor in Central Africa who finds a way to bring water to the desolate region and then sees himself as some kind of messiah as his mind spirals into fantasies. Running Wild (1988) concerns a wealthy gated community where all of the adults are murdered by their now missing children. Rushing To Paradise (1994) is about a eccentric group of environmentalists led by a messianic doctor who wants to save an island from nuclear tests by the French government. Cocaine Nights (1996) follows a man who goes to Estrella de Mar in order to rescue his jailed brother. He becomes immersed in a dark world and is constantly being manipulated as he thinks he is finding the truth. Super-Cannes (2000) deals with a mass murder at a wealthy closed community. Millenium People (2003) is about a man who investigates the bombing death of his wife at Heathrow Airport. Kingdom Come (2006) deals with the blurry line between consumerism and fascism.

JG Ballard produced a great and unique body of work that reflected the fractured and demented status of our world. His writings reveal the paradox of how the extraordinary creative power of man's imagination is matched only by his reckless instinct for destruction.

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