"Scanning the Empty Road with Binoculars" by John Sutherland, in The Good Book Guide (September? 2000) Interview to publicize Super-Cannes.
Scanning the Empty Road with Binoculars.
Writer and literary enquirer John Sutherland talks, on behalf of The Good Book Guide, to the highly esteemed author J G Ballard -- the respectable face of S-F. Here he explains why S-F is not the hot-line to the unconscious that it once was, how he feels about England, the future and cars.
JS: I am, increasingly, struck by how true your fiction is: that is, if one looks at the Paulsgrove Estate lynch mobs (spawned out of that most idealistic of ventures, the postwar council housing estate) I can't help thinking how Ballardian it is. So too, Desert Storm seemed to me war catching up with JGB. Do you regard yourself as a truth-teller?
JGB: Yes, I try to tell the truth, though I'm probably as self-deluding as the next man. Although I've lived in Britain for over 50 years I suspect I still see everything through a visitor's eyes, and I think that gives my fiction its particular perspective, that heightened awareness of the ordinary we all share when we visit New York or Venice or Hong Kong for the first time. People don't smile, or they have odd ways of doing things that they themselves are unaware of. There's a lot of that in England, and always has been. I hated England when I first arrived here -- a self-deluding, class-ridden place -- and I longed for change, so mentally I was standing on tip-toe, waiting for change to arrive. Scanning the empty road with binoculars has been my stance. World War II in Shanghai was a huge cautionary tale, it made me realize that reality was just a stage set that could be swept aside. As a boy, ten times a day, I asked myself, what is really going on? The adults around me didn't know. The habit of mind has stuck.
JS: I don't know the hyper-modern region of the Cote d'Azur that supplies the background to Super-Cannes. But I did a web search on Sophia-Antonopolis. How do you avoid libel problems in your fiction? And how did you do the research for this novel? Did you stay at the science park which inspires your Super-Cannes?
JGB: I first visited the South of France in 1947, and I've spent a lot of time there over the years, and seen it change from an old-fashioned playground of casinos and luxury hotels into something close to Europe's silicon valley -- science parks and conference hotels, airports and autoroutes. The people sharing the hotel lift with you are probably thoracic surgeons or Chrysler dealers. It's the way I see the future -- endless gated communities, high technology taking the place of human relationships, and a deep unconscious boredom. Four years ago, in a lift in a Juan Les Pins hotel, a Ciaco executive I had got to know (I'd never heard of the company) said: 'Buy shares in Gisco'. If only I had. Libel? Most of the real figures in my fiction -- Jackie Kennedy, Reagan, Liz Taylor -- are so famous that they wouldn't be aware of my gnat-size existence. The US libel laws are very different from ours.
JS: There is an obvious linkage between Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes: Club-Med catastrophe. Your fiction has tended to move in clusters (as in the great natural catastrophe novels of the 1960s). What comes next?
JGB: Clusters? Yes, partly because I've always followed my obsessions and I don't like to finish with a bone until I've gnawed thoroughly at every bump. The novel I'm writing now takes a look at urban terrorism. (No, I don't think it's a good thing.)
JS: In my view, acknowledgement of the greatness of your fiction (which is, I think, the finest achievement of one of our finest literary eras) has been obscured by the limiting term 'genre'. In the earlier period, 'S-F' of course. But both Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes strike me as being, on at least one of their levels, gripping detective novels (this last work, particularly). What crime or detection novels (novelists) have influenced you?
JGB: Genre fiction. To some extent, in today's climate, literary fiction is itself a genre. S-F was once an exhilarating medium, with a hot line to the unconscious, as Kingsley Amis, to his credit, recognized. Today the sociological S-F that Amis admired has been crushed by Hollywood special-effects giantism. S-F is probably a dinosaur on the edge of extinction. Yes, there are detective-story elements in Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, but these after all are crime and murder mysteries. In a sense one could say that the 20th century was a vast murder mystery. One day our grandchildren will say: these people were always killing each other -- why? A novel exploring the subject might well adopt the murder mystery procedural as its form. I suspect that the 'serious' novel in the future may be serious in the way that Hitchcock's films are serious (though there are detective-story elements aplenty in 'serious' fiction -- who killed old man Karamazov?).
JS: Like Morse, you love old cars and, like Burroughs, the newest technology. Could you comment on your attachments, loves, erotic feelings about machinery?
JGB: In fact, I don't like old cars at all -- I'd rather drive a Buick than any other car. When I tried to rent a Buick at the Beverly Hills Hilton Hotel the Avis man was appalled: 'Sir, we have Porsche, we have Mercedes, we have Jag-U-R.' I think they had to smuggle one in from a blue-collar suburb. In Super-Cannes Paul Sinclair drives an old Jaguar, and dreams about his damaged Harvard plane, as a way of establishing that he belongs to a pre-high-tech tradition. This nostalgia for an era of oil rags and hand-tuned carburettors blinds him to what is really going on in the business park. By contrast, his young doctor wife responds instantly to the deviant 'possibilities'. No erotic feelings, attachments, about machinery. I'm intrigued by technology, which I see as a powerful facilitator, releasing all manner of suppressed and deviant impulses -- cars, high-rises, gated communities are potent engines of possibility.
JS: At one point in your recent writing past, it seemed that you were moving into a more personal, or self-revelatory mode (I'm thinking, banally perhaps, of Empire of the Sun). Can we expect more insight into Ballard? You have the reputation of being the most private of writers. I once saw a letter of yours, replying to an invitation by the Royal Society of Literature to speak, which as I recall ended with something like: 'No. Do not ask me again. JGB'. I suppose I might get the same reply to this impertinent question.
JGB: More in a biographical mode? Nothing is more difficult than telling the truth about oneself. The very act of memory fictionalizes the past. Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women (a quasi-sequel that is really a short-story collection) are my life seen in the mirror of the fiction prompted by that life. Being a writer is a very dull business. Crash is much closer to telling the Truth than Empire of the Sun. I hope I wasn't rude to the Royal Society of Literature, and I don't remember replying so brusquely. Twice, I think, they offered me membership of the society, without spelling out what it actually offered. I hadn't realized that one had to pay each year to retain one's membership, like some diploma bought from a degree-mill in the States. Besides, as an ardent republican I couldn't join any society with Royal in its name -- I have to send my letters through the Royal Mail, and be defended by the Royal Air Force, but I have no choice there.
JS: I'm interested in the whole contours of authors' careers -- the long rhythms, and late work particularly. What shapes do you discern in your career, from The Drowned World to Super-Cannes?
JGB: There clearly are deep-laid patterns in writers' works, though I sometimes suspect that a writer is really writing the same book throughout his career. I never re-read my own stuff -- as the much-missed Anthony Burgess said, the mistakes leap out of the page at you -- but I suspect that the underlying deep structures are very much the same. In my own case, there's an embracing of the threat, some sort of neuro-pathic flip by which a feared evil becomes a welcomed good. So the psychopathic is a blessing in disguise, or so it seems. Dangerous, but then religions themselves represent vast psychotic distortions of consciousness that mysteriously served useful roles, or would never have survived.
JS: Are there moves to film any other of your works, after the successes of esteem and scandal of Empire of the Sun and Crash?
JGB: I'm glad to say that Super-Cannes has been optioned, along with Running Wild. A Swedish film director, Solveig Nordlund, has just finished filming a Portugese-language version of my short story 'Low-Flying Aircraft'.