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J.G. Ballard: Pathologist of the Postmodern

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J.G. Ballard. Photo: Paul Murphy. All rights reserved.

My review of J.G. Ballard’s nonfiction memoir Miracles of Life is out, in the L.A. Weekly.

Read it here.

“Nonfiction,” meaning: scrupulously factual, a distinction one makes in the wake of bogus confessionals such as James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and Margaret B. Jones’s Love and Consequences, and in light of Ballard’s bestselling autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun and its less-than-bestselling (but by my lights more lyrical) sequel, The Kindness of Women, both of which are forthrightly fabulist.

Ballard’s latest account of his Shanghai boyhood, his wartime years in a Japanese-run internment camp for British civilians, and his postwar exploits, playing the discreetly subversive Marcel Duchamp of New Wave SF (to Michael Moorcock’s gonzo Salvador Dali) while raising three children single-handedly, may be his last, or at least his penultimate, book. As devout Ballardians know, the 78-year-old author is battling advanced prostate cancer. Ballard’s longtime agent Margaret Hanbury is reportedly shopping a report from the cancer ward, Conversations with My Physician (mordantly subtitled The Meaning, if any, of Life), but Ballard’s condition casts doubt on whether he’ll have the strength—or time—to midwife the manuscript through the publishing process.

I’ve corresponded with Ballard, at intervals, ever since the mid-’90s, when he gave me the thrill of a lifetime by graciously consenting to blurb my first book, Escape Velocity, and then, no less thrillingly, lavished praise on my second, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium.

William F. Buckley loved to repeat the anecdote that, when asked by a Playboy interviewer if in he’d discovered any “novel sensual sensations,” in middle age, the crocodile-smiling apologist for American empire recalled the experience of being summoned to the Oval office by Nixon for a debriefing. Buckley, a former CIA operative, had been going to and fro and walking up and down in Saigon. “My novel sensual sensation,” he told Playboy, “is to have the president of the United States take notes while you are speaking to him.” (The revelation that Nixon, as twitchy-eyed a war criminal as ever perverted the constitution, took notes from the conscienceless conservative would explain a lot.)

My “novel sensual sensation”—I’d call it a New Drug, a reference Buckley, who admitted to a fondness for pot, would surely appreciate—was the sight of an incoming Ballard fax spooling out of my machine, and the subsequent buzz of deciphering the quintessentially Ballardian tropes and bon mots encrypted in JGB’s galloping, Hancockian scrawl. Fax technology being far inferior to the papyrii of the Middle Kingdom, most of those ’90s faxes have faded into illegibility. Still, Ballard’s old faxes are talismans I can’t bear to throw out; I’ll keep them until their loopy scribbles have vanished altogether, leaving the pages blank as the day they were born.

Recently, I discovered another Novel Sensual Sensation: admission to the charmed circle of correspondents permitted to address JGB as “Jim.” I had sent a sympathy note to Ballard about his cancer, offering to take up a collection on his behalf via fansites such as Simon Sellars’s Ballardian. With his usual, pitch-perfect combination of British reserve and social grace, he politely declined, saying that while he appreciated my offer to pass the hat on his behalf, he wasn’t in such dire straits, at least not yet.

In response to my inquiry about who would be bringing out Miracles of Life in the States, and when, he replied (with exasperation mellowed by resignation) that the book wouldn’t be coming out in America because—my paraphrase, not a direct quote—he was well and truly fed up with American reviewers’ middlebrow moralizing and pop-psych insistence on Deep Feelings over astringent ideas. American critics complain that his characters are crash-test dummies; that his books are plotless film loops, obsessive-compulsive meditations on the pathologies of everyday life in postmodernity.

Ballard’s point exactly, as he writes in his incomparable introduction to the French edition of Crash (a virtual graduate seminar in a few pages, richer in insights into the postmodern condition than all of Lyotard’s books laid end to end):

The marriage of reason and nightmare that has dominated the 20th century has given birth to an ever more ambiguous world. Across the communications landscape move the spectres of sinister technologies and the dreams that money can buy. Thermo-nuclear weapons systems and soft-drink commercials coexist in an overlit realm ruled by advertising and pseudo-events, science and pornography. Over our lives preside the great twin leitmotifs of the 20th century—sex and paranoia. […] Options multiply around us, and we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for life-styles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied instantly.

[…] Given these transformations, what is the main task facing the writer? Can he, any longer, make use of the techniques and perspectives of the traditional 19th-century novel, with its linear narrative, its measured chronology, its consular characters grandly inhabiting their domains within an ample time and space? Is his subject matter the sources of character and personality sunk deep in the past, the unhurried inspection of roots, the examination of the most subtle nuances of social behaviour and personal relationships? Has the writer still the moral authority to invent a self-sufficient and self-enclosed world, to preside over his characters like an examiner, knowing all the questions in advance? Can he leave out anything he prefers not to understand, including his own motives, prejudices and psychopathology?

[…] I feel that the balance between fiction and reality has changed significantly in the past decades. Increasingly their roles are reversed. We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind—mass-merchandizing, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the pre-empting of any original response to experience by the television screen. We live inside an enormous novel. For the writer in particular it is less and less necessary to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.

Which Ballard has done, with a psychosurgeon’s steady hand and a clinical eye unmatched in contemporary fiction. Of course, Ballard is no more a novelist than Freud was a scientist or Marx a political economist. Adopt the parallax view, and everything makes sense: Freud and Marx were, in fact, gothic storytellers in the tradition of Hoffmann and Stoker; Baudrillard and Haraway are among our greatest sci-fi writers (Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr.
argues a similar point in his essay “The SF of Theory”); and Ballard, as I note in my L.A. Weekly essay, is one of our foremost postmodern theorists:

Long before deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida were slinging around references to the “decentered” self, Ballard is talking, in his trenchant introduction to Crash (1973), about “the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect” and about “the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods.” Before postmodernists like Jean Baudrillard were announcing the Death of the Real and its unsettling replacement by uncannily convincing media simulations, Ballard is claiming that “we live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind”—advertising, “politics conducted as a branch of advertising,” P.R. “pseudo-events,” et al.—where “Freud’s classic distinction between the latent and manifest content of a dream, between the apparent and the real, now needs to be applied to the external world of so-called reality.” And before neo-Marxists like Fredric Jameson and Mike Davis were pondering the deeper meanings of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel and Frank Gehry’s Hollywood library, Ballard is pondering the psycho-spatial effects of the built environment: the experience of swooping around a freeway cloverleaf; of walking through a cavernous, empty multistory parking garage; of waiting, alone, in an airport departure lounge; of walking the privately policed streets of an obsessively manicured exurban community. How, Ballard wonders, is our sense of our selves as social beings and moral actors—our very understanding of what it means to be a self—being transformed (deformed?) by the whip-lashing hyperacceleration of technology and the media, the blurring of the distinction between real and fake? Ballard was the first to ask how we became posthuman.

One Comment

  1. Boing Boing wrote:

    Mark Dery on JG Ballard’s memoir

    One of my all-time favorite writers, JG Ballard, recently published his memoir, titled Miracles Of Life. Ballard is the author of such fantastic fiction as Crash, Concrete Island, Cocaine Nights, and Millennium People. A year ago, he publicly revealed …

    Monday, February 16, 2009 at 6:40 pm | Permalink