(Published in the Business Standard, April 2009)
Writers collect rejection slips all the time, but few have been as emphatic as the one that accompanied the manuscript of a novel by J G Ballard in 1972: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.”
Ballard’s Crash was published in 1973 and became an object of horror to its detractors, a shrine for its supporters. Ballard, who died this week at the age of 78, was a collector of quirk, a man whose precise observations of his times rivaled those of his equally celebrated and vilified fellow writer, William S Burroughs.
Crash was born when Ballard began to question the modern-day obsession with the automobile, and especially with car wrecks, junkyards, dangerous driving—he pre-empted the death of Princess Di by several decades. He speculated about a group of misfits who develop a deviant sexual obsession with crashes. He employed a style that was almost deliberately detached, employing the language of the technical guide rather than the over-the-top descriptions of pornography. Crash, film and book, continues to haunt our imaginations; it’s the kind of classic people wish they could forget, but can’t quite abandon.
The general public will remember Ballard chiefly for Crash, and for Empires of the Sun, which drew heavily on his memories of spending almost three years in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai as a young boy. But science fiction aficionados revered him for the rest of his corpus, which established Ballard as one of the sharpest, most unflinching thinkers of his time. Ballard’s real importance was as a thinker, a relentless explorer of the darker parts of the human psyche: writing was just the medium through which he communicated his fascinated, but often bleak, view of the human condition.
His ability to record what he saw, no matter how frightening, developed early. In his autobiography, Ballard wrote about the sudden shift in his life as the family migrated from the comfort zones of the conservative expat in Shanghai to life in a prison camp. Among his many memories of the war was one of a group of Japanese soldiers driven by the announcement of peace to an abandonment of any form of wartime restraint. “They were fully armed and sat on their ammunition boxes, picking their teeth while one of them tormented a young Chinese man in black trousers and a white shirt. The Japanese soldier had cut down lengths of telephone wire and had tied the Chinese to a telegraph pole, and was now slowly strangling him as the Chinese sang out in a singsong voice.” It took him twenty years before he could write about his experiences in Empire of the Sun, but when he finally did cannibalise his life for fiction, he made sure that every small detail rang true.
Ballard led a normal, even bland, life, a circumstance that often surprised his readers. He wrote for about three to five hours every day in his quiet home in Surrey, where only a reproduction of Paul Delvaux’s surrealist and disturbing The Violation in his study hinted at what was going through his mind. In The Drowned World (1974), Ballard visualized the melting of the ice-caps; in The Atrocity Exhibition (1966), he examined love, napalm, Marilyn Monroe, and “the assassination of John F Kennedy considered as a Downhill Motor Race”, among other artifacts of the media-driven world. Super-Cannes (2000) set suicide and insanity in an imagined ‘Eden-Olympia’, and even the relatively weak Kingdom Come (2006) could offer an unsettling vision: “Madness is the key to everything. Small doses, applied when no-one is really looking.”
How does one read Ballard today? I don’t know—how do you not read Ballard today? There are other, more obviously literary writers; and even among the canon of science fiction greats, others are more easily accessible. But for the last three decades, as the news grows steadily more Ballardian, I am not alone in discovering that his short stories and books have probed the multiple personality disorders of our planet with clinical rigour.
In many of his interviews, he returned to a favourite line of thought: “We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind — mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the pre-empting of any original imaginative response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary for him to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.”
Ballard spent a lifetime inventing that reality. Every so often, the real world would catch up with him, though it could take a while.