From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

An Appreciation of J.G. Ballard

J. G. Ballard died last week, April 19, 2009. His distinctive writing led the Collins English Dictionary to define Ballardian as “resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in J. G. Ballard’s novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.” I first encountered Ballard’s work in the form of the collection Vermillion Sands, which I read while babysitting one summer evening, loving the language, the characters, and above all the setting. My friend Jason Heller, though, describes Ballard’s appeal more eloquently than either the Collins English Dictionary or I. -Cat

J.G. Ballard passed away Sunday. He lived a long time and wrote a great many books, some of which — like The Crystal World, The Drowned World, Concrete Island, The Atrocity Exhibition, Chronopolis, and High-Rise — changed my life forever. They changed not only the way I wrote, but the way I thought, the way I looked at science fiction, and the way I looked at the world. They affirmed my greatest fears and fortified my morbid cynicism, sense of irony, eye for the fantastic, and love of the perverse and unreal.

When asked by Jeanne Cavelos to pick my all-time favorite speculative-fiction short story to examine in preparation for my upcoming six weeks at Odyssey, I chose the bone-chilling psychic dystopia of Ballard’s “The Intensive Care Unit.” When asked by my bosses at The A.V. Club to pick the number-one book I’d wholeheartedly recommend to someone, I chose Ballard’s The Crystal World. Here’s what I had to say about the latter:

Sometimes I wonder how the world really sees J.G. Ballard. As a Burroughs-ish, postmodern provocateur? A clinical social satirist? That sick dude with a hard-on for car wrecks? He’s sort of all those things, but to me, he’ll always be the science-fiction master who ushered my love of the genre—and maybe the genre itself—into adulthood. When I was 17 and in the midst of falling in love with Joy Division, I read that the band’s song “The Atrocity Exhibition” was based on a book by some guy named J.G. Ballard. I tried to track down some of his stuff and eventually found a collection of his mind-warping short stories from the ’60s, Chronopolis—but it didn’t prepare me for the next Ballard book I discovered, The Crystal World. The 1966 novel is a sluggishly paced, oneirically plotted metaphysical mind-fuck that seemed to break most of the rules of literature I’d learned up to that point. I’d later figure out that it shared much with Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness—anyone who’s read or watched Empire Of The Sun knows Ballard’s view of colonial decay—but with The Crystal World, Ballard encased his demons in a vision of the world that was slowly turning, as if by some quantum leprosy, into crystal. And his prose? Like a hypodermic needle hovering over my eyeball. The book marks Ballard’s turning point from the catastrophe-of-the-month formula of his early work to the richer, ingrown dystopia of his ’70s masterpieces like Crash and Concrete Island. It’s also the novel that changed my idea of what science fiction could be—and rewired my teenage brain along with it. If, God forbid, you only get to read one Ballard book in your life, The Crystal World should be it.

One thing that comes up a lot in examinations of Ballard is the cold, antiseptic, detached, dispassionate, clinical, cerebral qualities of his work. That’s true in a lot of ways — but I always got the sense that he was painstakingly pruning/sculpting all the wild, messy, erratic, ugly, primal parts of his own psyche into these very classical shapes. I mean, his prose and plotting were airtight.

But the themes, imagery, and worldview that suffuse his stories… it’s some of the fundamentally darkest and most brutally intimate stuff ever committed to the written word. Even The Atrocity Exhibition, which is one of the greatest experimental postmodern texts I’ve ever read, was more of a playful fugue of conventional form rather than a true subversion or rejection of it (a la Joyce or Burroughs or whatever). And Ballard quickly reverted to orthodox storytelling almost immediately after Atrocity. Unimaginable horror meted out in the most disciplined packages–I just love that about him. A quote from him that’s always stuck out in my mind: He once said that, when he started getting a lot of his science fiction published in the ’60s, the rest of the SF community viewed and treated him as a “virus,” a tiny pathological agent that sought to gain entry into the body then destroy it from within. He, of course, felt he was just writing what came naturally to him. Fuck! Amazing. My hero.

Other Ballard pieces:

When not sifting through the beautiful wreckage J.G. Ballard made of reality, Jason Heller writes about popular culture for The Onion A.V. Club and various other publications. His weird fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Sybil’s Garage, Farrago’s Wainscot, Apex Magazine, and others. He’s also currently trying to break his inexplicable habit of quoting Iron Maiden lyrics every 15 seconds. Can I play with madness?

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