Book World: Michael Dirda Reviews 'The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard'

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By Michael Dirda
Thursday, September 17, 2009


Introduction by Martin Amis

Norton. 1,199 pp. $35

J.G. Ballard, who died earlier this year at the age of 78, was once acclaimed by the novelist Kingsley Amis as "the most imaginative of H.G. Wells's successors." Not a bad encomium for a British science-fiction writer. On the other hand, Martin Amis goes his father one better by suggesting that Ballard might well be "the most original English writer of the last century." In particular, Amis fils praises "the marvelous creaminess" of Ballard's prose and "the weird and sudden expansions of his imagery." Ballard is, in truth, a literary surrealist, and his dreamlike narratives reveal a psychoanalytic intensity reminiscent of Kafka's more somber fables, Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" and both William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" and William Burroughs's "Naked Lunch."

As Ballard once said, "The only truly alien planet is Earth," and so his sui generis science fiction relentlessly explores the darker reaches of what he once dubbed "inner space." There are no ray guns and bug-eyed monsters in the nearly 1,200 pages of "The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard." Instead, Ballard's stories are, in his own words, "mental explorations, evocative journeys in the mind." Little wonder that the sf author he most resembles is our own homegrown chronicler of paranoia Philip K. Dick.

Yet Dick's work is fundamentally sociable, a paean to unacknowledged goodness and the quiet satisfactions of ordinary life. Ballard's protagonists tend to be isolated visionaries who inexorably pursue their obsessions to the point of madness or death, typically reaching self-fulfillment through nothing less than self-immolation. In their exaltation, they all feel that they are -- to borrow the title of one of Ballard's books -- "Rushing to Paradise," and rushing, moreover, ecstatically, with arms outstretched. Ballard's greatest fictions are nearly all examples of the liebestod -- the love-death.

This is most obvious in his novels. In "The Drowned World" (1962), Earth's temperature has risen, the ice poles have melted, and cities lie half-submerged in steamy Triassic swamps. The scientist-hero ends by offering himself to the blazing sun and heat, half sacrificial victim, half man-god. "Crash" (1973) -- made into a controversial film by David Cronenberg -- dissects the perverse sexuality of car crashes. Ballard boldly called the novel "pornographic science fiction," but one editor, after having read the manuscript, put it more simply: "The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help."

Ballard pushed his vision to its limits in "The Atrocity Exhibition" (1970), which contained a half-dozen experimental, nonlinear meditations on the intersection of celebrity, sex and death. The original American publisher of these "condensed novels" suppressed his edition because of such stories as "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" and "Why I Want to [Expletive] Ronald Reagan" (both included in "The Complete Stories" -- but where are the others, including "You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe"?). Even very late novels, like "Super-Cannes" (2000), examine violence, drugs and deviant sexuality as a response to the stresses of modern life: "Sexual pathology is such an energizing force. People know that, and will stoop to any depravity that excites them."

Despite the unsettling provocation of nearly everything he wrote, Ballard's most perfect work -- filmed by Steven Spielberg -- was his most seemingly conventional: Depicting the schoolboy Jim as he struggles to survive during the Japanese occupation of wartime Shanghai, "Empire of the Sun" (1984) is one of the great novels of our time, with something of the brutal beauty found in the fiction of Cormac McCarthy. The real Jim's youthful experiences in "this terrible city" later provided Ballard with his trademark iconography: low-flying aircraft, wrecked automobiles, drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels, fetid rivers and lagoons, even an affectless, half-mad protagonist (near the end of the novel, Jim comes to believe he can raise the dead to life). All these motifs -- along with a few others, like barren deserts and empty beaches -- recur throughout "The Complete Stories."

Perhaps surprisingly, Ballard believes strongly in plot, and, with a few exceptions, his stories are intensely gripping without ever being upbeat or reassuring. In style, his work combines an almost medical precision with an astonishing power for evocative description by the simplest means. "Not one of the twenty elevators in the apartment building now functioned, and the shafts were piled deep with kitchen refuse and dead dogs." There, in miniature, is the world of "High Rise" (1975), a novel in which the tenants of a luxury residence gradually regress to savagery.

Usually, Ballard's stories open with a striking sentence, then plunge the reader directly into some hallucinatory environment -- a super-crowded city ("Billennium"), the deserted bunkers of Eniwetok ("The Terminal Beach"), the decadent resort of Vermilion Sands ("Prima Belladonna") -- and eventually conclude with an ambiguous and enigmatic epiphany. Eerie and melancholy, they unsettle like a Dalí painting or a Helmut Newton photograph.

Consider, for instance, the ominous first sentence of Ballard's "The Voices of Time":

"Later Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool." Immediately, Ballard creates a sense of mystery. As in a ghost story, the word "Later" implies that Powers will be forced to reconsider his understanding of Whitby. That a biologist cut the "strange grooves" somehow makes them all the more sinister. Finally, there's the quiet shock of that adverb, "apparently." Something deeply disquieting is happening to our world in this science-fiction classic.

And it is science fiction. Of course, when people hesitate to use that dreaded phrase, they generally resort to talking about "magic realism" or "fable." Certainly, Ballard's sophisticated sf readily allows for just this sort of weaseliness. "The Drowned Giant," for instance, might actually be by Borges or García Márquez, though it is also an oblique homage to the man Ballard regarded as "the most intelligent writer who ever lived," Jonathan Swift. It opens this way:

"On the morning after the storm the body of a drowned giant was washed ashore on the beach five miles to the north-west of the city." This satirical parable was originally published as "Souvenir," but that title probably makes over-explicit its meaning: At first the dead giant resembles a perfect Greek god in form and beauty, but before long the loutish locals clamber all over its body, sit on its face "like flies," and cut swastikas into the dead flesh. Within a few days they are slicing off body parts as mementos, before finally boiling the remaining bits in great vats, like whale blubber.

Sometimes Ballard pays even more obvious homage to an earlier work of art. "The Sound-Sweep" and "Studio 5, the Stars" play variations on their author's favorite film, "Sunset Boulevard," as hapless protagonists are drawn to aging divas and femmes fatales. "A Question of Re-Entry" updates "Heart of Darkness," when a U.N. investigator, searching for a downed space capsule, encounters a Kurtz-like figure in the South American backcountry.

"All day they had moved steadily upstream, occasionally pausing to raise the propeller and cut away the knots of weed, and by 3 o'clock had covered some seventy-five miles. Fifty yards away, on either side of the patrol launch, the high walls of the jungle river rose over the water." We may have made this journey before, but who would want to stop reading?

Ballard's most influential stories were written mainly in the early 1960s, and typically focus on people breaking down as a result of radical environmental and technological changes. But this hefty volume permits a reappraisal of his excellent, if somewhat neglected, short fiction of the 1970s and '80s. Look, for instance, at "The Dead Time," which is a trial run for "Empire of the Sun"; "The Index," which is literally an index, but one that gradually reveals a hidden mastermind in 20th-century cultural, political and religious life; and "War Fever," wherein the city of Beirut is kept in a state of constant civil war because it allows the rest of the world to be at peace. Several of the late stories deal with what Ballard called "memories of the space age" and are even set around Cape Canaveral. "Just as the sea was a universal image of the unconscious," a character speculates in "The Venus Hunters," "so space was nothing less than an image of psychosis and death." Even in his later work Ballard brilliantly evokes spiritual torpor, with a characteristic soupcon of dry humor:

"I, too, was once an astronaut. As you see me sitting here, in this modest café with its distant glimpse of Copacabana Beach, you probably assume that I am a man of few achievements. The shabby briefcase between my worn heels, the stained suit with its frayed cuffs, the unsavoury hands ready to seize the first offer of a free drink, the whole air of failure."

This speaker -- the narrator of "The Man Who Walked on the Moon" -- appears in a hundred movies, and in a dozen previous Ballard stories, always unkempt but "composed and self-possessed, like a Conradian beachcomber more or less reconciled to his own weaknesses."

In "The Complete Short Stories of J.G. Ballard" devastated worlds are matched with even more devastated psyches. But these aren't simply "myths of the near future," they are probes sent down into the desolate heart of the here and now. As Ballard knew, reality has become just a subgenre of science fiction.

Michael Dirda -- writes each Thursday in Style.

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