Will Self pays tribute to J. G. Ballard

J. G. Ballard

From Will Self's tribute to the author J. G. Ballard, who passed away this week:
'I had absorbed Ballard's fictional work in my teens, undifferentiated from the science fiction it was shelved alongside in the local library. I reread Ballard in my twenties, when his underground reputation was steadily increasing — and found in the books a vital spur to my own fictional work. Like many before me, I went to interview Ballard (for this newspaper), and was struck by the strange dichotomy between the extremity of the writing and his orderly life in a somnolent suburb. Ballard had been in London for many years — but he was never exactly of it.

'Yet from his outpost in the leafy London dormitory town of Shepperton (where he lived from the early 1960s), Ballard was engaged in nothing less than a complete re-evaluation of the contemporary world — and the strangest thing about this re-evaluation was that it produced more foresight than a legion of professional futurologists or massed divisions of social-policy think-tanks.

'It was Ballard who, in his seminal experimental novel The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), closely analysed the emerging media landscape of celebrity obsession, and foresaw how politics and popular culture would become interfused. Of course, with such chapter headings as “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”, The Atrocity Exhibition is no more likely to be a mass market bestseller in 2009 than it was 40 years ago.

'The same might have been said of the novel's companion piece, Crash (1973), a chilling exploration of the sexual potential of car accidents, seen through the eyes of a fictionalised “Jim Ballard”. However, while the book itself enjoyed a healthy underground celebrity, when David Cronenberg adapted it for film in 1996, the controversy became extremely public indeed, with Westminster council banning the film from exhibition in central London.

'While many more readers were attracted to Ballard's novel for prurient reasons, a significant proportion were struck by how the protagonist Vaughan's perverse desire to achieve orgasm at the same time as Elizabeth Taylor dies in a car crash on the Chiswick flyover so closely prefigured the mass orgy of grief that followed the car crash death of Diana Spencer.

'To the end of his life Jim Ballard was troubled by journalists asking him if he had “predicted” the Princess of Wales's death in Crash, and he was, naturally, dismissive. But the truth is that he did — well in advance — pick out the nightmare intersections of death and sexuality that were coming to dominate human consciousness. His early experiences led him to believe that in a world that had experienced the Holocaust and Hiroshima, a wholesale deadening of the emotions could only ensue — he termed this the “Death of Affect”, and believed that to go on writing well-mannered depictions of middle-class social and personal life under such circumstances was not only a mistake but an absurdity.'