Monday, 4 May 2009

J.G. Ballard: An Appreciation

In 1946, a young man of 17 joined Kings College, Cambridge, to study medicine. He was born in Shanghai to British parents and had spent his childhood and adolescent years in China, a good many of which were in a prisoner camp during the Second World War, when the Japanese captured Shanghai. The family returned to England when the war ended. The young man found life in England ‘cold, grey and dull’ and, he would later recall, he survived the school in Cambridge his parents enrolled him into only because of his earlier experience of the hardships of the internment camp in Shanghai. The young man wanted to be a psychiatrist. He also believed he had flair for writing, and had written some short stories. He disliked Cambridge. The academic snobbery around him left him underwhelmed. (Later in life he would describe Cambridge as an academic theme park). He plodded on for two years but got increasingly frustrated, as he found that the demands of the medical course were so onerous that they left him with little time and less energy to write stories, his first love. When one of his short stories (Violent Noon) won a short story competition held by the Varsity (the Cambridge student newspaper), he believed he had found his calling in life—and that was not medicine. He was going to be a writer. He switched to London University to study English (but dropped out after a year). After a brief stint in a trade magazine, he decided to become a full time writer, and followed no other vocation. Medicine’s loss was literature’s gain. The young man’s name was James Graham Ballard, who went on to become one of the most celebrated writers of his generation and enjoyed cult following.

Ballard is widely hailed as a new age science fiction writer, although he was apparently not very comfortable with this label, preferring instead to describe himself first as a ‘speculative’ and then as an ‘apocalyptic’ writer. Nevertheless, the label stuck, and more than one obituary when he died, paid glowing tributes to his contribution to the science fiction genre. Ballard certainly had passion for the genre. A close friend (and a science fiction enthusiast) reminisced how in the 1960’s he and Ballard attended a Science Fiction convention and how Ballard was disappointed by the pedestrian and commercial interests that seemed to drive many of the SF writers who attended the convention. Ballard published, in the 1960’s, many short stories—his first breakthrough came with the story Terminal Beach— which, while they were not in the typical SF genre, used, cleverly, many of its tropes to generate his unique narrative structure. It would be fair to say that Ballard was never a hard-core science fiction writer; his interests lay more in the realms of crumbling of societal fabric, dehumanisation and such other dystopian themes. Many of his narratives during this period are compiled in Atrocity Exhibition. He also wrote the serial Equinox for the New World magazine, which was later published as the novel The Crystal World, which, together with Crash, he was best known for before the publication of his fictionalized autobiographies (or autobiographical fiction, if you prefer to look at them the other way). It was because of this groundbreaking work (which later came to be known as the ‘New Wave Science Fiction’) that Ballard was hailed as the spiritual Guru of the cyberpunk movement of the eighties. In 1973 he published the surreal Crash (which was made into a film decades later by David Kronenberg) based on the outrĂ© concept that modern society found car crashes erotic. According to Ballard’s friends, as a young man he had great interest—bordering on obsession—in assassinations, car crashes and psychosis (probably the reason why he toyed with the idea of becoming a psychiatrist). One publisher allegedly found Crash to be so disturbing that he considered Ballard to be beyond psychiatric help (Ballard himself commented, years later, that the novel was written in a state of ‘willed madness’). While there was something of being deliberately provocative and shocking about Crash, Ballard can never be accused of being outrageous merely for the sake of it—most of what he wrote had the larger goal of making the readers re-examine their preconceptions. In an introduction to the French translation of Crash Ballard wrote that the only ‘reality’ left for the writer to offer ‘in a world ruled by fictions of every kind’ was ‘the contents of his own head, he offers a set of options and imaginative alternatives’. Another classic from the Ballardian cannon was The Day of Creation. In a densely atmospheric novel, in his hypnotic prose, Ballard, in paragraphs after paragraphs, constructed a moody, allegorical and eerie world of occult fear and imperceptible horror.

For those of us not conversant with science fiction, J.G. Ballard is best known for Empire of the Sun. The novel, a heavily fictionalized version of his childhood in Shanghai during the Second World War, was totally different from what Ballard had written until then. The book was a instant bestseller and, although it failed to win him the Booker, earned him world-wide audience. It was made into a highly successful film (by the same name) by Stephen Spielberg, and it is likely that it is this novel that has ensured that posterity will remember Ballard as one of the greats. A sequel (Kindness of Women) followed a few years later, which was a moving fictionalized account of Ballard’s later life, and drew high praise from critics.

Towards the end, Ballard’s writing took another turn as he became increasingly preoccupied with the structures created by modern technology, multinationals and into what abyss they were leading the world. Super Cannes, published in 2000, was not just a crime novel set in a business park (although it could be enjoyed at that level), it was also an indictment of the eve-of-millennium technological complacency and smugness. Millennium People, published three years later, tells, possibly foretells, the story of once-complacent middle-class and upper-middle class people, who, realizing how little they have, decide to start, of all things, a revolution. Kingdom Come, published in 2006, expounded further on these themes and looked at the meaning of middle class existence in the consumerist world of ideal homes and endless sporting events. These last novels, which can be considered as a trilogy of sorts, showed that Ballard had lost none of his inventiveness and still had the ability to suck readers into his world by his mesmeric prose.

J.G. Balard died in April 2009 after a long and stoic battle against prostate cancer. More subversive than Philip K. Dick and at least as shocking and radical as William Burrows, the prodigiously talented Ballard has left behind a vast cornucopia that captures the world in perpetual transit. Novelist Will Self, reacting to the news of Ballard's death, spoke about the influence of Ballard's work that transcended different arts, and described him as one of the writers that had inspired him the most, not in the sense that he wanted to ape Ballard's style or themes, but in the sense that reading Ballard in his formative years made him want to become a writer. A truly great writer has died.