Monday, April 20, 2009

J. G. Ballard (1930-2009)

J. G. Ballard died on Sunday. The BBC, in its report of his death, refers to him, perhaps a tad dismissively, as a "cult author." The label is actually a fairly amusing one, though probably not in the way it was intended. The image of Ballard the author as the central figure of an curiously focused, obscurely depraved post-apocalyptic cult would have fit comfortably into several of his curiously focused, obscurely depraved post-apocalyptic novels, and I think the description might well have raised a wry chuckle from the man himself.

As far as I can figure, of the sequence of his most typically "Ballardian" novels, which make up a substantial but not exhaustive subset of his output, I've read The Drowned World, The Drought, The Crystal World, Concrete Island, and The Day of Creation. Each is essentially a variation on a single theme: a hero, who may be a physician or other professional (Ballard had some medical training), is thrust into a situation defined by extreme environmental distress, either because of some global catastrophe or because of some freak local occurrence. Events take place, characters come and go and return again, all more or less without discernible pattern. These books have a great deal of affinity, in their basic premises, with H. G. Wells's science fiction or with John Wyndham's wonderful novel The Day of the Triffids. But the sense of aimlessness and the emotional detachment in Ballard's narratives are very much his own, and may incidentally go a long way towards explaining his appeal to postmodern audiences.

Among his other works, I read The Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women, both of them at least semi-autobiographical and drawing (the former in whole, the latter only in part) from Ballard's experiences as a civilian internee in Japanese-occupied China during the Second World War. (Spielberg adapted The Empire of the Sun as a flawed but respectful movie.) I didn't much care for the brief suburban nightmare called Running Wild, which felt too much like Ballard was only going through the motions, and I never got very far into Crash -- frequently cited as one of his most iconic works -- which was filmed, rather tiresomely, by David Cronenberg. Ballard also wrote a number of tight, venomous stories, some of which are quite good indeed.

His works are sometimes described as prophetic, in that they addressed issues like global warming long before most people were aware of them, but Ballard was not for the most part a speculative writer. His gift was not so much the ability to peer into the future as it was the knack of looking at the present world and seeing things that most of us are unable to discern. In any case, much of what he saw belonged to internal, not external, landscapes. As is often the case with prophets, his insight carried a bit of a downside: it was to be waved off as a genre writer, a "cult author." And yet his influence on younger writers has been widespread and profound.

It's a bit of a cliché to say that the barren, devastated geographies through which many of Ballard's fictional characters wander were influenced by the wasteland he lived in during the war, but there's no question that going, for instance, from The Empire of the Sun to The Drought does not entail a major shift in style or theme. Of course many people -- including some writers -- had similar wartime experiences, but they didn't write J. G. Ballard novels.

1 comment:

David Petersen said...

Of course, JG Ballard is a different and separate writer among others. Empire of the Sun was memorable, in the sense that I didn't find it interesting at first. First few pages were really boring but eventually it got better and I'm glad I finished it.