J.G. Ballard, 1930–2009 I always suspected that eternity would look like Milton Keynes.
J.G. Bal ard (1993)
With the recent outpouring of tributes to the late J.G. Ballard on the part of mainstream literary culture, it is easy to forget that he was in the 1970s the recipient of a reader’s report that read ‘This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.’ Ballard was belatedly launched onto the features pages of the broadsheets by the success of his 1984 semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, and his domestication as the acceptable face of a very British avant-gardism – all too apparent in his obituaries – disguised the degree to which he had once been genuinely regarded as more akin to ‘a grenade tossed into the sherry party of English fiction’.
Indeed, Ballard, who always remained profoundly estranged from the provincialism of a national literary culture defined by the particularist study of ‘human relations’ and the instrumentalized ‘craft’ of creative writing, was, up until the 1980s, disparaged twice over: first as a practitioner of that disreputable genre science fiction, and second as that most un-English of figures, the experimental artist.
In fact, he may be best remembered as a rare late-twentieth-century embodiment of the novelist of ideas (unsurprisingly it was the French who first paid him any serious critical attention), and one who sought, more successfully than most, to confront the postwar ‘crisis’ of the European novel itself in the face of new and ever more ubiquitous mass media forms. Hard though the work is to locate politically, beyond the kind of basic libertarianism that is notoriously resistant to positioning in conventional Left–Right terms, its critical significance resides in its ruthless engagement with the social forms of developed capitalist societies.
Like those of many of the most significant British and North American writers of the last few decades, Ballard’s roots lay, crucially, not in so-called ‘literary fiction’ but in the new mass cultural forms of genre. Ballard was drawn to the ‘ultra-low-budget’ B-movie crime thrillers coming out of postwar America; however, his immediate inspiration came from his discovery of commercial science fiction in the bus depot magazine racks of Moose Jaw, Canada, where he was stationed with the RAF in the mid-1950s.
While dismissive of the ‘planet yarns’ largely dominating the s-f of the time – stories of ‘an American imperium colonizing the entire universe’, ‘populated by Avon ladies in space suits’ – Ballard discovered a distinctively modernist ‘vitality’ in other stories of ‘the present or very near future’; stories that directly engaged an everyday ‘world of cars, offices, highways, airlines and supermarkets that we actually lived in, but which was completely missing from almost all serious fiction’.
While Ballard’s own early s-f novels belong most clearly to a genre of postapocalypse – ‘visions of world cataclysm’ depicted in a hallucinatory but sharply focused landscape of deserted half-ruined buildings and desolate natural terrains – they are also marked by an attention to landscape itself, as a generator and manifestation of unconscious collective drives, indicative of his debts to the ‘modern mythology’ of surrealism and to its Lautréamont-like conjunction of scientific and poetic imagery.
Precursors of the later fiction are, however, more obviously to be found in Ballard’s short stories of the period: in the consumerist paranoia of ‘The Subliminal Man’ or the encroaching urban landscape of ‘Build-up’, which seems to communicate directly with the contemporaneous architectural visions of Archizoom and Superstudio. Ballard’s first published short story appeared in 1956, the same year as the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’, which effectively launched Pop Art in Britain. In his 2008 memoir, Miracles of Life, Ballard recalled being most impressed by the exhibition’s projection of a ‘world entirely constructed from popular advertising’, as well as by the brutalist modernity of the architects Alison and Peter Smithson’s design of a ‘terminal hut’ for post-nuclear habitation. The social, architectural and psychological landscape evoked here, in which ‘thermonuclear weapons systems and soft drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudoevents, science and pornography’, was to become the central subject of almost all his work from the late 1960s, apparent in the fictional ‘Advertisements’ that Ballard began to produce at this time – short abstract texts superimposed on glossy, high-quality photos, which at one point he applied for Arts Council funding to have published in Vogue – as well as in a series of provocative events staged at venues like the ICA and the Arts Lab. Most importantly, around 1966 Ballard began working on a series of short interconnected prose pieces that would ultimately form the text of his 1970 ‘novel’ The Atrocity Exhibition, his most significant, and certainly most experimental, full-length work.
Made up entirely of short titled paragraphs, and reflective of a world where the ‘public dream of Hollywood for the first time merge[s] with the private imagination of the hyperstimulated TV viewer’, The Atrocity Exhibition constructs a radically non-linear narrative of obsession, in which a cast of often interchangeable characters or ‘psychological roles’ – like abstract elements in some ‘geometric equation’ – act out an ‘authentic mythology of the age of Cape Canaveral, Hiroshima and Belsen’. The book also marks an explicit turn towards what Ballard called ‘inner space’: an interiorization of the catastrophic landscapes of his earlier science fiction that would seek to investigate ‘the pathology that underlay the consumer society, the TV landscape and the nuclear arms race’. As in the apparently more conventional work, Crash (1973), that came after it, the novel thus becomes here less the nuanced Jamesian study of human relations prized by English literary criticism than something akin to a clinical case study or test report, in which the novelist’s role is to be ‘that of the scientist, whether on safari or in his laboratory, faced with a completely unknown terrain or subject’. The brutalist urban novels which followed, Concrete Island (1974) and High-Rise (1975), similarly suggest some pulp modernist revision of the novel of ideas, reconceptualized as the vehicle for ‘extreme hypotheses’ and a fictionalized social anthropology of those ‘new lifestyles’ which modern technology produces. As he put it in a 1975 interview:
Above al I’d like to examine the psychological modifications which occur without the knowledge of the inhabitants themselves, to see to what degree the mind of someone who drives a car or lives in a concrete high-rise has been altered. … The life led there seems to me very abstract, and that’s an aspect of set ing with which I’m concerned.
Ballard’s last series of novels continued to advance this concern with ‘setting’.
Starting with Running Wild (1988), and extending into the more thriller-like Cocaine Nights (1996) and Super-Cannes (2000), such works follow an increasingly standardized narrative pattern in which the apparent emotional deadness and tranquillity of some near future gated enclave of corporate or domestic bourgeois privilege descends gradually into atavistic, socially transgressive violence and criminality. Presaged by the Debordian revelation that, as he once observed, there was nothing at all surprising about the emergence of a group like the Baader–Meinhof gang from a world that promised a future that ‘was going to be like Dusseldorf … a consumer goods paradise with not a leaf out of place’, these late writings flirt with a formal banality and blank evenness of prose which, fittingly, suggest some attempt to infiltrate the literary space of the middle-class airport novel, of ‘fictions wrapped in metallized jackets that we scarcely notice on our way to the duty-free shop’. In such ways, with their stripped-down language of dislocation and unvarying stylistic register, they appear self-consciously mimetic of what, in the late 1960s, Ballard had already described as a mass cultural ‘death of affect’. As Manfredo Tafuri writes of Mies van der Rohe’s postwar buildings,
Ballard’s texts progressively ‘assume in themselves the ineluctability of absence that the contemporary world imposes on the language of forms’.
The spaces that (far more than the flattened characters traversing them) thus constitute the central subjects of these late fictions read, as several critics have remarked, like an effective checklist of what Marc Augé, in his ‘Anthropology of Supermodernity’, famously designates as ‘non-places’: ‘areas peripheral to great airports [which] are identical all over the world’, populated by retails parks and flyovers, ‘the same car-rental agencies and hotel rooms, with their adult movies and deodorized bathrooms’. But, unlike Augé, and despite his frequent (mis)identification as a dystopian writer, Ballard also finds, elsewhere, in the afterlife of utopian–modernist urbanism – in the ‘high-rise sink estate’, the brutalist concrete plains of the Barbican development and London’s South Bank, or the glass atrium of Michael Manser’s Heathrow Hilton – the generation of some new logic of social being-in-the-world to be glimpsed within their abstract spaces of encounter and exchange. Such spaces harbour not simply a tragic negation of place, nor mere existential absence, but a kind of occluded phenomenological intensity, an unintended deliriousness at the heart of contemporary metropolitan life. (Not for nothing were Ballard and Rem Koolhaas the two last defenders of Salvador Dalí’s kitsch, paranoiac surrealism during the 1970s.)In his 1936 essay ‘The Storyteller’, Walter Benjamin saw the novel, which had once deposed the story as a ‘present force’, being itself displaced by a ‘new form of communication’: a form he called ‘information’. Today, this is the linguistic terrain of what Ballard termed ‘invisible literatures’: ‘scientific journals, technical manuals, pharmaceuticals company brochures, think-tank internal documents, PR company position papers’, and ‘faxes and electronic mail’. As he once wrote of his time working as an editor of the journal Chemistry & Industry, ‘any scientific magazine is the most wonderful mail drop. It’s the ultimate information crossroads … [and] I was filtering it like some sort of sea creature sailing with jaws open through a great sea of delicious plankton’. The power of Ballard’s writings come from the ways in which they imply the irresistible submission of the novel’s narrative modes to these forms of an ‘electronic present, a realm where instantaneity rule[s]’. As in The Atrocity Exhibition, found texts of medical procedures have celebrity names inserted, to create an uncanny neosurrealist spark, and fiction most plausibly assumes the form of psychiatric assessments or war reports. The interpolation of a distinctively modern language of abstraction and dislocation – of advertising copy, journalism, technocratic jargon and cheap pornography, ‘sinister bureaucratic memos and medicalese’ – into the very fabric of the novel becomes the fundamental condition of its social contemporaneity. Few other writers of the late twentieth century did as much to remake and remodel the novel itself as a truly contemporary form.