J. G. Ballard's Final Words

A retrospective of Ballard's life and work
Photograph: Mark Tucker
Rob Latham reflects on the life and career of British novelist J. G. Ballard. His article reviews Ballard's final novel, Kingdom Come (2007) alongside his memoir Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton and Norton's recent edition of The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard (link via Susan Tomaselli):
British author J.G. Ballard died on April 19, 2009 of an inoperable cancer that had spread from his prostate to his ribs and spine—a diagnosis he details in the final chapter of his 2008 memoir Miracles of Life with the calm, clinical directness characteristic of the author. During the 1960s, Ballard made a name for himself in the science fiction genre with a trilogy of disaster stories—The Drowned World (1962), The Drought (1964), and The Crystal World (1966)—that challenged just about every convention of the genre. Rather than battling doggedly to preserve the remnants of civilization in the face of monumental adversity, his protagonists pursued a psychic accommodation—almost a mystical fusion—with the forces destroying their worlds. Ballard was widely condemned by hard-SF types for this perverse connivance with catastrophe, so at odds with the genre’s standard defense of scientific reason and heroic action. Indeed, his work was at the center of furious debates surrounding the so-called “New Wave” science fiction movement in both the US and Britain, with his 1970 anti-novel The Atrocity Exhibition marking either a high point of sophisticated experimentation (from the perspective of the pro-New Wave faction) or a nadir of cynical incomprehensibility (in the view of the anti-New Wave crowd).

But Ballard wasn’t finished shocking sensibilities: his mid-career trilogy—Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1973), and High-Rise (1975)—was no less apocalyptic despite its abandonment of overt SF scenarios. Scathing evocations of contemporary culture, the novels exposed the secret pathologies lurking beneath the veneer of advanced urban life: the soaring motorways, the glass-and-steel skyscrapers, the vast apparatus of consumerist mass-media only served to stimulate “the infantile basis of our dreams and longing” (as Ballard put it in the introduction to a French edition of Crash). Modern technology had done little more than “provide us with hitherto undreamed-of means of tapping our own psychopathologies”—as in Crash’s harrowing depiction of a subterranean cult of car-crash worshippers, or High-Rise’s corrosive vision of a luxury apartment house descending into tribal warfare. This conviction that technoscientific progress is intimately entwined with psychosexual and moral regression is Ballard’s most quintessential theme, linking his early SF with his most recent fictional work, a quartet of novels—Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millennium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006)—that explore the deviant pleasures of crime and terrorist violence in a high-tech suburban world. So consistent and recognizable is his vision of the world that the term “Ballardian” has even made it into the Collins English Dictionary as a reference to “dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social and environmental developments.”

In Miracles of Life, Ballard credits his doctor, a renowned cancer specialist, with giving him the courage to tackle the writing of his autobiography, support for which we can all be grateful since the book is an eloquent and moving chronicle. Little in it qualifies as new information, however: his novels Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991) had already laid out the basic narrative of Ballard’s fraught childhood in Shanghai, including his two-year internment by the Japanese during WWII, and his postwar life in Britain as a medical student, RAF trainee pilot, widowed father, and celebrated writer of SF and avant-garde fictions. But those works were artistic inventions that took occasional liberties with the facts in order to produce compelling and carefully crafted stories. Empire of the Sun, for example, is one of the most brilliant treatments of the figure of the war orphan in contemporary literature, and a large measure of its impact stems from Ballard’s decision to edit his parents out of his account of his years of confinement in Lunghua Camp. While Empire was “firmly based on true experiences,” as he testifies, “some of the events described are imaginary” —and part of the pleasure of reading Miracles of Life is ferreting out the various changes Ballard made to his life in his fiction.

Many of the scenes described in Empire of the Sun are included here in their full vividness: the beggars dying on the Shanghai sidewalks while the wealthy Europeans drive past in their gleaming Packards; the youthful Jim bicycling through the war-ravaged streets; the casual brutality of Japanese soldiers beating Chinese peasants; the Lunghua prisoners consuming weevils to keep up their protein intake; American fighter planes swooping over the camp amidst exploding flak from anti-aircraft guns mounted on a pagoda, and so on. Other deeply affecting scenes—such as Jim watching teenage kamikaze pilots preparing for departure, or witnessing from afar the flash of the atomic bomb at Nagasaki—are absent from Miracles, but one understands (and is grateful for) the aesthetic license that led Ballard to include them in the novel. Still, it is amazing how much of that extraordinary work was rooted in real events, as Miracles of Life makes plain; it is evidence of just how formative these early experiences were on the author that almost half this autobiography is devoted to his first fifteen years of life. [Read more]

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