Monday, April 20, 2009

The Good Doctor: J. G. Ballard (1930-2009)

J. G. Ballard, who spent his adult life charting an extended pathology of the Twentieth Century, died yesterday. Though preliminary reports are sketchy, it appears he was killed, appropriately enough, by prostate cancer.

There was a bleak romanticism to Ballard's work, filled as it was with rusting rocket gantries, drained swimming pools, compulsive and joyless sex, and a sense that its people are all living in the aftermath of some unidentifiable atrocity. It was as if he were a citizen of some distant future, spinning tales about a barbaric, doomed civilization which just happened to be our own.

The beautiful monstrosity of his work, combined with Ballard's refusal to moralize, made him one of the most controversial and misunderstood of modern authors. Many readers (and later viewers) interpreted his clear-eyed analysis of the psychic ills of our times as a celebration of them. Gordon Van Gelder once told me of coming out of the movie theater after viewing Crash and being driven by the baffled and negative comments of his friends into rounding on them angrily, saying, "You're just upset because he won't tell you what to think!"

Which is precisely what was going on. Crash was one of Ballard's most challenging books. It followed an invented (I think) sub-culture of people who are sexually aroused by the thought and reality of car crashes, into a doomed inward spiral of violent erotic obsession. It was eventually made into a movie by David Cronenberg. "Don't get me wrong," Terry Gross said to Ballard in an NPR interview about the movie, "but it seems like all these people are . . . well, sick."

"Yes!" Ballard said. "Exactly!" Back in the Sixties, when he was doing things like publishing his collages as paid advertisements in art magazines, and placing wrecked cars on display in art galleries," he had a doctor friend who pulled medical journals and papers from his wastebasket, so Ballard (who was trained as a doctor) could work snippets of jargon and analysis into his "condensed novels" -- brief, experimental works with a density of content that placed them outside of the category of the short story. He took the findings of neuropsychology and applied them to society as a whole.

Ballard was best known for Empire of the Sun because Steven Spielberg made a major movie out of it, and because it was his only novel dealing directly with his childhood internment in a Japanese prison camp in China during WWII. But the movie can only hint at what makes the semi-fictional novel so powerful -- and a key as well to Ballard's other, sometimes cryptic work. I strongly advise you to start with the novel and then use the movie as a video scrapbook, a visual gloss on a work that is central to Ballard's oeuvre.

Similarly, the movie version of Crash occasionally manages a visceral glimpse of what drives the characters, but only the book manages to implicate the reader in the madness -- to suggest that whatever is wrong is not just something Out There, inhabiting other people, but has managed to colonize ourselves as well.

Ballard's cold, dispassionate affect turns a lot of people off. But it's the steely reserve of a doctor, one who is able to assess the trauma after a terrible event and describe what can and cannot be done in the aftermath.

Now the Good Doctor has left the building. God bless him. He was one of the greats.



David Stone said...

I have never read any of Ballard's novels, but he always seemed pretty hit or miss as a short story writer. Some of his short stories were great (Like the one where some guys try to prove that space is actually infinite and give up after circumnavigating the globe on a train, thinking that they have proven themselves wrong), but others (like the one that appeared in _Dangerous Visions_) were pretty weak. Whenever someone like this passes away I regret not having read more of their stuff.

Michael Swanwick said...

The safest way to get a sense of what we've just lost is to find a copy of VERMILLION SANDS, a collection of stories set in a decadent resort town in the future. Elegant women walk genmod sharks on leashes, artists sculpt clouds, machines write poetry, clothing is alive... This is the one everybody loves.

However, to get a sense of Ballard at his most breathtaking, you need to try CRASH or HIGH-RISE (in which the inhabitants of the eponymous building fight a war among themselves; which they keep secret from the outside world because they're enjoying it too much) or CONCRETE ISLAND (sort of a modern Robinson Crusoe, where the hero is stranded on a traffic island). Dark and challenging stuff.

Dumitru Statescu said...

The first of the Ballard's short stories I have read was "The Enormous Space", published in Interzone in the '80. It was dazzling for the adolescent that I was. He wrote there, I remember clearly: "...this overworked hologram called reality" - a few words that I could never get out of my mind.
He is, no doubt, one of the most important writers of the past century.

David Pringle said...


Thanks for your generous comments on Ballard. I'm intrigued by this:

" 'Don't get me wrong,' Terry Gross said to Ballard in an NPR interview about the movie, 'but it seems like all these people are . . . well, sick.'

" 'Yes!' Ballard said. 'Exactly!' "

That bit doesn't appear in the version of the NPR interview Terry Gross did with JGB in 1988 which has been made available online at the NPR site since his death. But I note you say: "... an NPR interview _about the movie_." The movie didn't exist in 1988 -- it wasn't released until 1996 (1997 in the US).

Does this mean that there were _two_ NPR interviews with JGB? The one we know about in 1988 (following Spielberg's _Empire of the Sun_), and another, probably in 1997 (following Cronenberg's _Crash_)?

Is your quotation from memory, or do you have a copy of that 1997 interview? I'd be very interested to know!


(Ballard bibliographer -- and former editor of _Interzone_.)