Will Self talks to JGB in the Evening Standard, 8 September 1994:
A horror story from paradise
The human male sex is a sort of rust bowl, says JG Ballard enigmatically. Will Self, his greatest admirer, beards the Shepperton sage to talk testosterone and The Tempest
JG Ballard rolls the phrases around in his mouth as if they were ironic boiled sweets. 'Since I've always been interested -- keenly interested -- in the next five minutes, where we are and what happens next, it's helped to have a sort of distance. Because a lot of English fiction is too rooted. The writers are too comfortable one feels... um, they're like people returning again and again to the same restaurant... um, they're comfortable with the flavours on offer and the dishes on offer.'
For a man giving a profoundly uncomfortable disquisition he looks well at ease. This month sees the publication of JG Ballard's 16th novel, Rushing to Paradise, a book which its author describes as a 'quasi, or partial satire on the wilder fringes of the animal rights movement and feminism'.
The novel is vintage Ballard. It employs -- like several of his other books -- the mise-en-scene and main character designations of The Tempest. Set on a remote Pacific atoll, Saint Esprit, used by the French government for nuclear testing, the role of Prospero is played in this instance by a Jack Kevorkian-like doctor, Barbara Rafferty, whose manifest aim -- to create a sanctuary for endangered species on the island -- soon falls away to reveal a more extreme project: a test laboratory where she can socially experiment with a feminist future in which the redundancy of men -- except as sperm donors -- is fully realised.
'The satire on the animal rights movement -- I mean the extremist fringes, because I'm all for saving as many pandas, minke whales and dolphins as possible -- is fairly straightforward. But the satire on the extremist fringes of the feminist movement is more ambiguous, because I actually take the side of Dr Barbara. That, I hope, gives the book more depth.' Gives it more depth, yes, and also the distinctively Ballardian sense of uneasiness, of horrific anticipation.
This is, after all, the man who wrote Crash in 1970, a book which anticipated the 'nightmare marriage of sex and technology'. A marriage which is now being flamboyantly consummated everywhere we look; 'in the form of video games, a culture of violence, sensation for its own sake. In the future strange diseases may flare up, that will be positively welcomed by the bored inhabitants of the super-Switzerland the world has become.'
The impact of Ballard's Crash has been profound on an entire new generation of readers, who, inspired by the success of his novel Empire of the Sun, went back to read his earlier, apocalyptic novels. There they found some of the spice that is all too often absent from the literary fare on offer at the English restaurant.
Reclining in Ballard's Shepperton sitting room, I certainly wasn't the first interviewer to be struck by the disjunction between the unsettling and phantasmagoric landscape of his fiction and the manifest sanity and normalcy of the man that has produced it.
'It's something about myself that I've never really understood,' he told me, sipping a glass of water ('I don't have a drink until eight in the evening now, after all you have to have something to look forward to.') In the Seventies interviewers would come out here expecting a miasma of drug addiction and sexual perversion, and be surprised to find me bringing up three children and playing with my golden retriever.'
But really this was a very provisional normalcy, and the death of Ballard's wife at a tragically young age, pushed him into a far more sensitive and nurturing role than men are commonly placed. It may be that which lies behind the strong sympathies he has shown towards feminism, in his autobiographical novel The Kindness of Women, and now in Rushing to Paradise. The small sitting room is dominated by one of Ballard's favourite Surrealist paintings: a refulgent gardenscape in which the tuber-white bodies of naked women recline, the whole bracketed by two further, bare-breasted women, who appear hierophantic.
'The human male sex is a sort of rust bowl,' says Ballard, with what might just be relish. 'The feminist movement has meant that women have resexualised themselves and resexualised their imaginations. Dr Barbara is a very particular kind of feminist. She would endorse the pro-pornography lobby: that women have as much right as men to produce and consume pornographic imagery... She says somewhere that women were the first domestic animals, because they domesticated themselves. She wants a new kind of undomesticated woman, who can take the stage now that men have become obsolescent.'
He goes on to expand on this, extemporising a picture of a world in which 'there's just too much testosterone flying about' -- because genetic engineering will enable couples to choose the sex of their children, and most will choose male; leaving only 'a few ghettoes in Europe and North America where people opt for girl children, and there is a kinder more tolerant form of society.' As he speaks I can see another Ballard fiction beginning to emerge. His conversation has the same character that he ascribes to his fictional method, that of a kind of 'forensic imagination', a curiosity about the world and the psyche that involves pushing every idea to its logical (or illogical) conclusion.
And I can't help feeling that in doing this Ballard is also trying to keep himself amused: 'The psychopathic should be preserved,' he tells me, 'as a sort of nature reserve, a last refuge for a certain kind of human freedom. This applies to the deviant imagination, which should also be treasured, because imagination itself is an endangered species. This utterly conformist world that we all live in... the whole world is turning into a suburb of Dusseldorf!'
If you want to return again and again to the same restaurant, then by all means taste the Booker shortlist. It's nutritious, healthy and the writers on it don't believe in 'death as a sort of career move', but if it's stronger meat you're in search of, look no further than Rushing to Paradise. It's a long way from Dusseldorf, and further still from Shepperton.