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The Art of J.G. Ballard

Dan O’Hara
Reading Posture and Gesture in Ballard’s Novels

24 Minutes


Critics of all kinds have been less than charitable about Ballard’s ability to characterize convincingly, largely viewing his characters as either so much dead wood or as mere spokespeople for Ballard’s own views. Martin Amis, for example, has always found Ballard's characterization wanting, "hardly more than a gesture" in Concrete Island, whereas in High-Rise "his characterization is merely a matter of 'roles' and his situations merely a matter of 'context'". In reviewing Hello America, Amis considers that Ballard's "eye for the comedy of human variety is non-existent, and this is why landscape naturally dominates his fiction". It is a view shared by academic critics: Colin Greenland also believes that "Ballard parades his disregard for characterisation [...] Characters are flat and functional, their humanity subordinated to their values as roles or signs." Ballard himself has of course inveighed against the social novel and its concerns.

This paper proposes that the critical consensus judges Ballard against the wrong yardstick; we cannot fully appreciate his innovations if we measure his fictions against the inappropriate conventions of Realism. The active elements of Ballard’s brand of anticharacterization - of gestures, roles and contexts – are systematically organized, and any meaning to be found in Ballard's characterization resides in the formal system, not the individual agents. What is damaged or altered in Ballard's fictional worlds is the set of abstract relations between characters, a situation that has required Ballard to devise a method of non-naturalistic characterization.

A reading method of disregarding dialogue as a means of misdirection from the real action works well in much of Ballard’s fiction from the early 1970s onwards. Demonstrating this method, this paper will look at the interrelations of inanimate objects, postures, gestures and contexts in Running Wild and Super-Cannes in particular, in order to reveal how the scientific field of cybernetics, as filtered through the psychiatric theories of R.D. Laing and Gregory Bateson, shapes not only Ballard's characterization but also his narrative structure, prose, and ideas.

A comparison with Bernard Wolfe, himself a novelist influenced by the study of cybernetics, and one of Ballard's major influences, will serve to clarify the genealogy of this influence.