Saturday, April 25, 2009

Remembering JG Ballard

In a way it is appropriate that JG Ballard should die at the point of which so many of his dystopian forecasts seem to be coming true. Only this week I was listening to Radio 4 where some middle-class talksmiths were discussing a pronouncement that the credit crunch could generate middle-class riots. As one of them said, "bring it on!"

Ballard laid bare the violence that lurks beneath the thin veneer of so-called civilisation. Many times he has documented how he was witness to this when growing up in Shanghai during the war, but it took several decades for him to synthesise the various threads in his thinking, from his earlier accounts of the effects of extremes of nature on humankind, such as The Wind From Nowhere and The Drowned World, through his numerous short stories and his more experimental work that was serialised in the excellent New Worlds magazine, to Crash, and The Atrocity Exhibition, and then to High Rise and Cocaine Nights and following three novels. His mainstream work Empire of the Sun may have bought him a larger audience, but is untypical.

The contrast between his mild manner and the ability of his work to shock middle-class sensibilities was striking. As with William Burroughs, who always dressed like a banker, he seemed to be a man in disguise sent, like de Sade - who wouldn't shut up even when put in an asylum - to remind us of the dark currents beneath the surface of the social world. I can't help thinking that Crash and The Atrocity at Exhibition weren't written firmly with his tongue in his cheek. It is their ambiguity which unsettles. Just as Waiting for Godot or Endgame can be performed as deadpan comedies or as tragedies, it seems that this devoted family man took refuge in imagining the extreme in order to feel comfort in his conventional environment. Or perhaps it was the other way round.

I feel compelled to mention de Sade again, because what really shocked his contemporaries wasn't what he did, but that he wrote about it. Let's face it, all the aristocracy were screwing the hired help anyway they could. As far as we know, Ballard himself lived a clean life, but his reflections of the sides of our existence that we preferred not to reflect upon, bear comparison in that society likes to draw a line between the acceptable and the unacceptable, but often what is deemed "acceptable" actively encourages the "unacceptable", and it is this effect that fascinated Ballard.

It seems strange that much of his work is characterised as science fiction since it has very little in common with spaceships. A well-known fan of Surrealism and Salvador Dali, Ballard claimed that science fiction of the form he knew it, which imagined tendencies of the present, and psychological reality, as the future, was the dominant and most useful literary form of the 20th century. Both Surrealism and science fiction, though themselves not popular labels, have spawned a vast territory of our collective unconscious, thousands of dynamic icons and terms of reference through every conceivable media.

The sexual aspect of car crashes as a subject for writing seemed absurd and offensive, but its metaphorical resonance is felt in every single advertisement for automobiles. Man's fetishism of the car bears a large responsibility for global warming. We are human-automobile hybrids. Our clutches engage with metal and flesh. And it is no coincidence that the car industry is one of the major casualties of the banking crash, which we watch ourselves with horrified fascination.
My own work lies partly on the territory which Ballard and Burroughs laid out, and I remain eternally indebted as a writer to Ballard's advice: "follow your obsession". Bring on the middle-class riots. Thank you James Graham Ballard.

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