Pacific Rim Review of Books

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The Big Book of Ballard

Carol Cooper

The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard
W.W. Norton, 2009

W.W. Norton’s new edition of J.G. Ballard’s collected short stories is now the thickest book in my library. This hardcover dwarfs a Tibetan/Sanskrit/English dictionary and a complete anthology of Victor Hugo’s poetry. In squeezing so much seminal Ballardian brilliance into one place the publishers had to push the envelope of standard packaging formats—you need both hands to steady and turn these pages, and high tolerance for necessarily tiny type. But trust me, Ballard’s target audience appreciates the effort and aspirations involved in taking this project beyond the ordinary… almost by definition.

Last April, James Graham Ballard died at the age of 78 after a three-year battle with prostate cancer. The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard now remains behind as a fitting tribute to one of Great Britain’s most influential literary stylists. Even those who don’t know his books may have seen Hollywood adaptations of two of his best known novels thanks to the admiration David Cronenberg had for Crash and the attraction Steven Speilbergfelt for Ballard’s semiautobiographical Empire of the Sun. But even with 18 respected novels to his credit (culminating with Kingdom Come in 2006), this review is all about the shorter stuff, much of which first appeared in classic science-fiction magazines, which clearly affirms Ballard’s identity as a writer of “genre fiction.”

Ballard himself says in an introduction which name-checks the kinds of writers he wants as peers : “At its best, in Borges, Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe, the short story is coined from precious metal, a glintof gold that will glow forever in the deep purse of your imagination.” Ballard goes on to praise the “snapshot” quality of a good short story; alluding to the kind of literary craftmanship that allows characters, setting, problem and resolution to be fully explained to a reader within a minimal amount of time and pages. Like a painting or a photograph, a great short story can deliver as swift and profound a sensory effect as any IV drug—something experimental writers from Poe to William Burroughs all found incredibly useful.

It’s worth noting that once Ballard returned to England from his native Shanghai after being interned for two years with his family by Japanese troops during WWII, the artistic movement that first captured his attention was Surrealist painting. He has said that after witnessing the violent and chaotic end of the British Empire as a young white expat in Asia, seeing wildly deconstructed images painted by Erst, Dali, and Tanguy, reaffirmed how he saw and understood the perceptibly unstable framework of human societies.

Little wonder that in college Ballard was initially drawn to psychiatry as a major although the demands of a formal medical career ultimately proved a less attractive reason to master Freudian analysis than professional storytelling.

Despite some minor successes in the early fifties, Ballard’s writing didn’t start paying his bills until after a short stint in the Royal Air Force and a series of odd jobs which included writing advertising copy and editing a scientific trade journal. Predictably, iconic elements of all his ancillary occupations would surface periodically in Ballard’s prose.

Impressed by the narrative potential of SF-nal ideas as they appeared during the post-War years in various pulp magazines, he started trying to publish elegant little fables that encapsulized his study of human nature and would prefigure signature novels like The Drowned World and Crash. But what most helped Ballard make the stylistic transition from aspiring pro to acknowledged innovator was the cabal of like-minded editors and writers who welcomed his work into the pages of New Worlds magazine. There, fellow hipsters and risk-takers like Michael Moorcock and Brian Aldiss encouraged each other to surprise and provoke their U.K. audience, spurred forward by the youthful exuberance already transforming the pop art, fashion, music and cultureof the swinging sixties. Inspired by synergistic Surrealist impulses, Ballard sometimes created graphic art and film projects to emphasize his written words, with often controversial results.

The 98 stories collected here are roughly chronological in order, and remarkably consistantin tone and perspective. These 1199 pages don’t contain every short piece he ever did, (title to the contrary), but includes those published tales he would have considered his most emblematic. Ballard’s authorial voice is as instantly recognizable as H.P. Lovecraft’s…and Ballard’s mythosof infinite psychological “inner space” is as seamlessly cohesive as Lovecraft’s twisted non-Euclidian cosmos.

It makes sense to compare Ballard and Lovecraft (or Ballard and Poe for that matter) as his short stories similarly pivot around the creeping horror of mysterious truths that are revealed as each protagonistdiscovers them. This technique of forcing a reader to share visceral experiences in real-time with the protagonist is not mere emotional identification with a fictional chararacter. It’s a more subtle and complex process of destabilizing the cognitive machinery justenough so that all theoretical distance between imagination and reality disappears. The brain gets thrown off it’s habitual hamster wheel and discovers fresh, uncharted territory. Ballard offers neither roadmap or flashlight for thatunpaved road. His stories just relentlessly push his readers in the unmarked direction.

As early as the mid-50s Ballard depicted futuristic communities serenaded bybio-engineered flowers and mutating statues that grow. His women wandered such environments being willful, independent, and vaguely hostile; while his men—whether just earnest students from “The Concentration City” (1957) or the dilettant playboy in “The Volcano Dances” (1964) remain oddly obsessed with findingtheir way out of ordinary time and space altogether. Again and again, we encounter twin themes of claustrophobia and jailbreak, where even actual physical barriersare shown to be merely mental constructions. In “The Enormous Space” (1989) a suburban drone becomes desperate to escape his divorce, his depression, his job, and all the contextual reference points which define his existence. His method resembles a monsterous version of a shaman’s vision quest: isolation and slow starvation until all familiar perceptions disintegrate, allowing him to briefly live free from conditioned behavior before he dies.

Despite the repetition of key motifs, Ballard’s topical comments and intertextual embellishments show the author continuing to experiment with literary form and effects. Although the slow madness triggered by self-imposed isolation is addressed several times, sometimes it’s treated as a function of physics like entropy, other times it’s described as quasi-religious hysteria, and sometimes it’s handled like a psycho-sexual disease, as in the Hitchcockian exercise titled “Motel Architecture.” (1978)

But between all the mannered psychodrama he also penned deliberately playful riffs that pose narrative puzzles or tease meaning out of gimmicky structures, likeconcrete poetry. 1977’s “The Index” was a list of annotated subject headings purporting to be salvaged from the suppressed autobiography of a well-connected “great man” and debunked spiritual leader. Similarly irreverent is 1985’s “Answers to a Questionaire” listing 100 witty and potentially scandalous replies to conveniently absent queries. Other, less simple marriages of form and function are less felicitous I think: “Zodiac 2000” for example, accomplishes what it was designed to do, but was built on a shakier conceptual foundation.

Because of his Freudian fascination with sexual pathologies, there have been many censorship battles over alleged perversity and pornographic content in Ballardian fiction. But in truth there is nothing in any of these stories that would render De Sade,or any of the French Decadants redundant. Indeed, Ballard’s brilliant homage to Alfred Jarry, “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” (1966) is automatically less offensive than the original as it considers only the murder of an American president, not (like the ever imprudent Jarry) of the only son of God.

In interviews Ballard has admitted his distrust of all organized religions and most existing governments. He’s not exactly a misanthrope, but he allows the historical record to vindicate his somewhat unflattering take onhis own species. But it’s clear throughout this definitive collection that Ballard writes in large part to explain us to ourselves, which is why so much of his work vibrates with apocalyptic energy.

Ballard wrote many stories about war, and many stories about terrorism. He was better prepared for 9/11 than most because he had never forgotten the political bombings that plagued British and European civilians in the 1970s. Overtly political broadsides are nestled between the futuristic fantasies and arty techno-fetishism Ballard is famous for. “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” (1968), a vicious and only slightly toungue-in-cheek lampoon of Ronald Reagan associating his media image with latent homo-eroticism and his facial tics with Nixon and Hitler, emerges from the same unholy blend of Guy Debord and subversive media studies that Situationist International would send to the bookstore and the barricades. Indeed, “Theater of War” (1977)—written to resemble a television documentary about U.S. troops occupying England to defend American interests during class-based civil unrest— was a shrewd enough prediction to resonate like a warning shot across the bow of Thatcher’s ship of state.

My favorites among his war stories were all written between ’88 and ’89. “The Secret History of World War 3” aims more pot-shots at Reagan; “The Largest Theme Park in the World” considers ways to sabotage a future “United States of Europe”; and “War Fever” puts a whole new spin on the Middle East situation. Each begins as a nuanced, plausible political conceit draped over a sturdy science-fictional premise which then is rendered air and water tight with compelling logic. Ballard might be celebrated for his dark, pervy tone poems, but he deserves equal acclaim for his manic cautionary tales.

In science fiction (or speculative fiction, as Ballard might prefer) Ballard became one of the tireless standard-bearers of “New Wave” SF, determined to raise the bar for how sophisticated, insightful and dynamically written genre fiction could be. In the 1980s young bands would take their names and song titles from his stories. He made America’s cyberpunk vanguard debate how far language itself could be pushed to serve and embody complex ideas. Ballard dazzled them all by blending art and politics and science and sex in his work with cinematic intensity and enough semiotic savvy to help define the current age. And I’m betting this posthumous collection will only increase the ranks of his disciples.

Read J.G. Ballard’s short stories. Then decide for yourself if he got any of it right.

Carol Cooper is a freelance culture critic at the Village Voice. She is the author of Pop Culture Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race. She lives in New York City.