The New York Review Of Books, Volume 55, Number 15. October 9, 2008

J.G. Ballard: The Glow of the Prophet

By Diane Johnson

Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton, An Autobiography by J.G. Ballard. London: Fourth Estate, 278 pp., £14.99

1. In a January 2008 Times of London article about the fifty greatest British writers since World War II, J.G. Ballard was twenty-seventh, in a list that begins with Philip Larkin and George Orwell, and doesn't even get as far as such eminent figures as Margaret Drabble, Michael Holroyd, or Victoria Glendinning. Yet his work isn't well known in America, and many of his books, including his new memoir, have not so far been published here, maybe because of a limited audience for science fiction, social satire, and the avant-garde, three categories that claim this protean figure. The review quotes on the back cover of his novel Cocaine Nights (1996) refer to him variously as a mystery writer; "one of the few genuine surrealists this country has produced"; a detective-novelist; and "Britain's number one living novelist."

The fortieth anniversary of May 1968 finds us looking back with a certain wondering nostalgia at the political energy, and also the vigorous avant-garde art, of the Sixties — William S. Burroughs, the influence of Alain Robbe-Grillet on fiction and film, the arty movies of Andy Warhol, Susan Sontag's essays, and Ballard's early work — a rich and exciting time. Though strangely few of these figures are still alive, Ballard very much is, and has written an autobiography, Miracles of Life, the title of which we can take in part to mean that, given what he's been through, it's a miracle he's alive.

Ballard is in any genre a fascinating writer with a fascinating life. It's possible to divide contemporary writers into those to whom something has happened and those who have to wing it with the stuff of everyday (and often privileged) lives — the universal experiences that most fiction is made of, from the defining events to the small, from the death of parents to the fear of the first day at school, divorce, the perils of ethnicity, and so on. Most American writers come into this category.

But the British have a rich pool of colonial adventurers. Ballard will be best known to many readers from Empire of the Sun (1984), the first of two more or less autobiographical novels, and the film of it by Steven Spielberg (1987), which depict his childhood in Shanghai as a sheltered boy being chauffeured through the streets amid pitiful scenes of starving, dying Chinese: Begging boys ran after our car and tapped the windows, crying "No mama, no papa, no whiskey soda...." Had they picked up the cry thrown back at them ironically by Europeans who didn't care?

Like an intelligent, idealistic child brought up in a bordello who sees things from an early age that no one should have to see, he is permanently unsurprised.

When the war reached Shanghai in March 1943, Ballard was twelve. Europeans were interned by the Japanese, and he spent nearly three years in a prison camp. Whereas the lives of most writers are lacking in all but routine domestic drama, this singular wartime experience left a marked impression on the boy, and echoes of its basic situation appear everywhere in his subsequent works: prisoners of some circumstance or other develop artificial new, usually dystopic societies — exactly like the prosperous British businessmen's families, American pilots, and others kept in the Japanese camps. In Ballard's novels, people are taken hostage in a supermarket complex, or obliged to create a colony in a gully under a freeway from which they can't escape, or isolated in an African desert, or voluntarily assembled in a luxurious think tank or leisure world complex.

Ballard's adult protagonists are lone survivors, often of arduous circumstances, who must resort to guile, cleverness, and sometimes disgusting expedience, as when the fictional Jim in Empire of the Sun eats the maggots in his cereal, noting that those of his fellow prisoners who don't are likely to die sooner. A kind of desperate omnivorousness occurs frequently in his various fictions, below the freeway (Concrete Island, 1973) or in darkest Africa (The Day of Creation, 1987). Though in his later works the theme of hunger and survival changes to revolted satiety, the pattern and its source are obvious enough. These foretastes of the world to come, or of the real nature of human civilization, are often uncanny in their prescience.

Ballard continued to tell the story of the fictional "Jim" in The Kindness of Women (1991), another thinly altered autobiographical novel in which the real names of his friends and lovers are changed, but which captures the excesses and outré beliefs of the Seventies in England. When the war ended in 1944, he was sent to England to live with his aunt and uncle, finished school, and entered Cambridge to study medicine, something he decided after two years he wasn't suited for.

It was perhaps from his medical training that he derived his remarkable, detailed, clinical writing about such things as sex and childbirth — coldly anatomical, often tinged with faint aversion: "I hesitated to enter her, nervous of tearing her scarred anus, but she pressed my penis into her, adding more spit between the gasps of pain." One finds in his work the essential coldness and the mixture of contempt and disinterested affection for mankind that marks both the social critic and maybe the doctor, with the clinical detachment that is also his stylistic signature. Ballard's anatomy class cadaver was in most respects... indistinguishable from the male cadavers — her breasts had subsided into the fatty tissue of her chest wall, while the genitalia of the males had shrivelled into their groins — but she was already an object of attention. Most of the students had spent the war in their boarding schools relocated far from the cities and had probably never seen a naked body, let alone that of a mature woman.

He is present in these scenes but seldom mentions his own reactions.

Ballard had long wanted to be a writer, but also a pilot: the boy had revered the American pilots in his prison camp but also — an example of his detachment and accepting attitude — the Japanese pilots and soldiers, many of whom in his experience were brave and admirable.

These were some of the first symptoms of a contrariness that would continue to make him feel set apart from his more sheltered contemporaries. After leaving medical school, he became an RAF pilot in training in Canada, a boozy, bad-boy period marked by risky flying and partying with the hookers of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

He returned to England, and in very short order held down various jobs while trying to write, married, and became the father of three children. This formulaic beginning for a struggling writer was shattered when the oldest child was only six years old; his wife died suddenly during a family vacation in Spain. The young writer, now left with small children, balanced a life of somewhat puerile hedonism, justified philosophically in the fashion of the period, with the preoccupations of a conscientious single father in Shepperton.

The protagonist of The Kindness of Women finds himself in Brazilian whorehouses, on the set of woman-and-dog porn films, and at druggie London literary parties. How he manages all this while giving his children a solid bourgeois upbringing may interest the practical reader — he seems to have led a somewhat precarious double life by managing the complicated timing: "I usually had a strong Scotch and soda when I had driven the children to school and sat down to write soon after nine.... I finished drinking at about the time today that I start" — i.e., when it was time to pick them up again. Or again: "I disliked this cocksure young woman enough to have sex with her while the children waited in the car with the Nordlunds."

The mood of Miracles of Life, with its characteristically dispassionate tone and uncharacteristically celebratory title, differs considerably from that of Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, and corrects a few details. The novels had some efficient abridgments — the fictional boy Jim's parents and sister are conveniently separated from him, for example, matters Ballard corrects now in this new memoir. Whereas the fictional Jim is gloriously free of these constraints, in reality Ballard's parents and sister were with him in the same Shanghai camp. He also acknowledges real friends like Kingsley Amis and Martin Bax, and generally tidies up the record.

2. Though the turbulent events of Ballard's life are, to a greater extent than for most writers, key to understanding his preoccupations — dystopias, captivity — his life story doesn't necessarily explain his eerie prescience, or the extent to which things predicted in his novels of forty years ago have mostly all come true — the water crisis, global warming, traffic problems, drugs, violence, and war. The arc of Ballard's writing career recapitulates the history of recent decades. When he began in the Fifties, he thought of himself as a science fiction writer, which in Paris "was popular among leading writers and film-makers like Robbe-Grillet and Resnais," figures he admired, and "assumed that I would find their counterparts in London, a huge error."

But though he was drawn to science fiction, his work was always allegorical and didn't really concern itself with technology like the work of, say, Larry Niven, whose Ringworld was published in 1970, the same year as Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition. Ballard's worlds, though set in the near future, have very recognizable contemporary features — leisure-world complexes or supermarkets — and rarely involve high technology or futuristic detail, whereas in Niven's Ringworld people are two hundred years old, live in an artificial ring around a star, and have teleportation and other advanced technology, elaborated with careful attention to internal consistency, as in books by Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov.

Ballard moved instead into the 1960s world of English avant-garde art, the world of Ambit magazine, and of global countercultural fascination with assassinations, the Vietnam War, LSD, hippies, and the rest of the cultural phenomena that gripped the US. America had Warhol's Jackie; England, in the atmosphere of general perversity and transgressive behavior (always a more tepid version of ours), had Ballard's "Project for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" and his other elaborate metafictional efforts — "A project for a new novel," with its nod to Robbe-Grillet, and especially two novels, The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash (1973).

It was at this period that he organized a memorable event of the London avant-garde scene, the "Crashed Cars" exhibition. This was a gallery installation of automobile wrecks. The London exhibition attracted extensive crowds who, according to Ballard's account in Miracles of Life, vandalized the exhibits and assaulted the topless female hostess he had hired, confirming his thesis about the connection of sex, celebrity, and destruction, an observation suggested by the mythic deaths of James Dean, Albert Camus, Jayne Mansfield, and others.

Years later, the car crash of Princess Di seemed perfectly to reenact this central preoccupation, prefigured also in his novel Crash and its precursor The Atrocity Exhibition: the violence of the modern world, and the connection of cars, sex, and violence. In work after work Ballard would go on to expand on the relevance of this conjunction, in the same elegant and exact style. Though some of the most resolute attempts at metafiction — whether Coover or Acker — have foundered in jokey pop-cultural allusions for the same reason that "postmodern" architecture flirts with kitsch, Ballard has never been tempted by either, just plain denotative language and considerable descriptive power.

William Burroughs wrote in an introduction to The Atrocity Exhibition that Ballard was trying to do in fiction what Rauschenberg was doing in art, "literally blowing up the image," magnifying it, the more easily to examine its meaning. "A profound and disquieting book" remains a good description of Ballard's work in general, but The Atrocity Exhibition is a particularly strong example, featuring the disturbing images and violent events of the era — Jackie's blood-stained pink suit, Marilyn, the photo of the South Vietnamese official shooting a man in the head, the little naked, burning Vietnamese children, James Dean, and so on. It wasn't published in the US until 1972 because, he says, after the US version was printed, Nelson Doubleday was so appalled by the chapter called "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" that he had the whole edition pulped. (It was published as Love and Napalm: Export USA, and was both praised and reviled.)

Susan Sontag said: Enviable, admirable Ballard! His subtle, brutal, cerebral, intoxicating Love & Napalm, which I have just finished reading... seems to me his best book.

Paul Theroux called it: a stylish anatomy of outrage, and full of specious arguments, phony statistics, a disgusted fascination with movie stars and the sexual conceits of American brand names and paraphernalia, jostled by a narrative that shoves the reader aside and shambles forward on leaden sentences strung out with words like "conceptual" and "googoplex" and "quasars" and "blastospheres," one sees his craft (not to mention his Krafft) ebbing, and one is tempted to ridicule or dismiss it.

Both reactions must have delighted Ballard. Theroux also called Ballard's novel Crash (which in turn influenced David Cronenberg's 1996 film Crash, honored with a special prize at Cannes) "monstrous."

3. Ballard says he thinks of himself as a "scout sent on ahead to see if the water is drinkable or not." From early experiments like The Atrocity Exhibition, he has since turned to more subtly organized forms of social criticism of a world that will be here tomorrow, if it isn't here already. Happily for his readers, and perhaps unluckily for his more serious aims, to his philosophical preoccupations are added the powers of a skilled, amusing, comic novelist, and the ability to spin absorbing and salient variations on his themes, ensuring that he has become more and more widely read, especially in England, as his work has moved closer to realism and reality has moved closer to it.

Ballard's early brush with adventure undoubtedly accounts for his special freedom as a writer to venture into Africa or the Côte d'Azur, and into unexpected realms of sustained parable, for instance Concrete Island, where a London architect on his way home from work crashes over a freeway barrier in his Jaguar and lands in, or, literally, ends up eking out an existence in, the cement wilderness below the freeway interchanges, in a small society of similar victims, his former concerns gradually replaced by the problems of survival and the impossibility of escape.

And the world has moved closer to his reiterated vision: a somewhat crazy doctor, dodging guerrillas, makes a strange, allegorical journey up an African desert river to its origins (The Day of Creation); all the privileged residents of an exclusive housing estate are dead and all their children have vanished — "the murder victims were enlightened and loving parents, who shared liberal and humane values which they displayed almost to a fault" (Running Wild, 1988) — and this is the fault for which they were murdered. In Cocaine Nights a character commits crimes to lend interest and texture to the lives of the bored, spoiled, somnolent retirees of the Costa del Sol. Even at his most fanciful, Ballard is an ironist in a certain realistic tradition, it's just that he writes realistically about "the fourth world... the one waiting to take over everything."

In this view, there are no pods or robots, only people sitting in "the trembling glow of the television screen." In other words, he writes about the world at hand, thinly disguised as an ambiguous, possibly future time, prefiguring social developments as they hurtle toward us, especially the ennui of privilege: "The Costa del Sol is the longest afternoon in the world, and they've decided to sleep through it." His most recent novel, Kingdom Come (2006), takes place among people barricaded in a perfectly contemporary shopping mall. Super-Cannes (2000) exists in the real world, actually a posh suburb above Cannes, in his novel a showcase of the extremes of self-indulgence and druggy abandon he excoriates. Even his most far-fetched fantasies, heavy with metaphorical and satirical implications, have usually come to pass in some modified form in the real world.

The role of prophet in the manner of Orwell or Huxley gives him a singular place in today's English letters—marginal, standing to one side of the mainstream stars like Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, and Ian McEwan, older than they, loyally admired by more offbeat younger contemporaries like Will Self, with a cult following of science fiction lovers and the avant-garde.

4. Ballard's novels, especially the early ones, have been treated by a range of serious critics, most notably in France. The late Jean Baudrillard, for example, wrote: After Borges, but in a totally different register, Crash is the first great novel of the universe of simulation, the world that we will be dealing with from now on: a non-symbolic universe but one which, by a kind of reversal of its mass-mediated substance (neon, concrete, cars, mechanical eroticism), seems truly saturated with an intense initiatory power.

In fact this initiatory power was to wane along with the avant-garde itself, which, also like Ballard, simply got appropriated by the antiwar movement and eventually absorbed into an accepting, even welcoming mainstream. Though he, Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, and others were striving for and finding a personal manner or experimental view, the Sixties mood of experiment seems to have had no legs. The experiments of the Sixties, like the experiments of the Thirties, were widely welcomed, and acceptance is after all a kind of abandonment, perhaps because if an experiment fails to generate a meaningful critical dialogue that can interest the writer himself, he has no context. He's left alone with his manner, free to perfect it, refine it, parody, imitate, or discard it in relative isolation, and returns to find an audience that has conveniently broadened its views to include as readable and fashionable what was hard or odd at first. This is what seems to have happened to Ballard, now the center of a cult of enthusiasts who comment in the "Ballardosphere," in books and articles, or via the Web site and elsewhere.

It appears that Ballard isn't entirely comfortable with his embrace by the mainstream, and he speaks out against the triumph of "the bourgeois novel," of which he writes that it is the greatest enemy of truth and honesty that was ever invented. It's a vast, sentimentalizing structure that reassures the reader, and at every point, offers the comfort of secure moral frameworks and recognizable characters. This whole notion was advanced by Mary McCarthy and many others years ago, that the main function of the novel was to carry out a kind of moral criticism of life. But the writer has no business making moral judgments or trying to set himself up as a one-man or one-woman magistrate's court. I think it's far better, as Burroughs did and I've tried to do in my small way, to tell the truth.

Elsewhere Ballard says, "honesty is what I prefer to call it." Probably he just means willingness to write about distasteful anatomical details, and physiological or psychological matters writers usually skip over. Even today, the purity of his indignation seems barely diminished, at least in his fiction, but it's fair to say that he, like writers he deplores, is outed as a moralist by the judgments implicit in his choice of material, and in its particulars of depravity or ennui; like other writers of fiction, he can't evade this implicit feature of the novel form, this vestige of and continued allegiance to its bourgeois origins.

He seems to be a mostly unreconstructed Sixties person, suffused with his sense of himself as an artifact of that purer and more honorable time, a member of a countercultural generation that moved through society, in someone's phrase, "like a rat through a python," a bulge discernible in the smooth musculature of the rest; but this position can now seem a valuable, even cherishable corrective. One enthusiastic Ballardian writes of him that even if some of his novels are better than others, even when Ballard doesn't appear to be trying he still urinates from a great height on the likes of your Iain Banks' and Alex Garland's. Which I suppose goes some way to illustrating that the great are only great when they have to be.

This is maybe the real lesson of J.G. Ballard's dramatic life and impressive career.