Monday, April 27, 2009

The Voices of Time

Ballard in front of Paul Delvaux's The Violation
[original lost, believed burned in 1940. Copy by Brigid Marlin]

James Graham Ballard
(born 15th November, 1930 in Shanghai
- died 19th April, 2009 in London)

Later Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool. An inch deep and twenty feet long, interlocking to form an elaborate ideogram like a Chinese character, they had taken him all summer to complete, and he had obviously thought about little else, working away tirelessly through the long desert afternoons.

I guess my first acquaintance with the work of J. G. Ballard must have come when I ran across the story "The Voices of Time" in some old Sci-Fi anthology in the school library. I was already a rabid fan of Clarke, Heinlein, Le Guin and all the others, but this seemed off-key somehow, from a rather different (though possibly contiguous) universe. The notes in the back of the book were less than helpful. Ballard, they said, was interested in the exploration of "Inner Space."

Now that I knew about. I'd been reading Hermann Hesse (Steppenwolf, The Journey to the East) for years. The back of one of my paperbacks even called him "the prophet of the interior journey." I'd read Kafka (The Castle, The Great Wall of China), too. I'd even heard of Absurdism, Existentialism, lots of other isms. Clever writing for clever people (my brother Ken had a thick, daunting-looking copy of Sartre's Being and Nothingness by his bedside, which impressed me inordinately). But that didn't seem to fit sentences like this exactly, either:

After Whitby’s suicide no one had bothered about the grooves, but Powers often borrowed the supervisor’s key and let himself into the disused pool, and would look down at the labyrinth of mouldering gulleys, half filled with water leaking in from the chlorinator, an enigma now past any solution.

“The Voices of Time.”The Complete Short Stories, 2001 (London: Flamingo, 2002): 169.

I wasn't sure if it was Sci-fi, but I liked it. It was languid, that was the word for it: languid. Ballard's heroes (and heroines) were cool, sexy, disillusioned. They didn't have adventures so much as play strange mindgames or develop inexplicable psychological tics ("Powers had watched him from his office window at the far end of the Neurology wing, carefully marking out his pegs and string, carrying away the cement chips in a small canvas bucket"). There was an air of consequence about it all, though. It was as if the moment one fathomed what was going on something wonderful would appear. It was, I realise now, the voice of the Postmodern.

After that I started to collect his books whenever I came across them, garish seventies paperbacks, with lurid covers, and titles such as The Unlimited Dream Company or Myths of the Near Future. There seemed to be dozens of them, novels and collections of stories, but that I was used to from my other Sci-fi heroes: Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick ...

The first ones that I read were (accidentally?) the first ones that he'd written: a series of Apocalyptic disaster stories in the tradition of John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids or John Christopher's the Death of Grass. I say in the tradition of, but certainly not in the same manner.

Wyndham and Christopher had gripped me with their bleak picture of a future of starvation and struggle. Ballard, by contrast, in novels such as The Drowned World, The Drought, The Crystal World and The Wind from Nowhere didn't really seem particularly interested in his human protagonists at all. His attention appeared to be more on the aesthetic frisson of great ruined vistas of desert cities, drowned swamps in the heart of the Home Counties.

He charted, in prose as lush as Joseph Conrad's, a series of journeys to the Heart of Darkness - but then his heroes decided to stay there. To stay and immediately start making excavations in the floor of an abandoned swimming-pool. It was, to impose a phrase which would not become current till long long afterwards, post-human writing.

It could become tedious, mind you. His books were nothing if not repetitive, and while reading a couple of them could blow your mind, surfeiting and over-indulging could lead you to long again for the simple boosterism of an Asimov or an A. E. Van Vogt. I dabbled in the shallows of J. G. Ballard, let us say.

"The imminence of a revelation that does not occur," said Borges, "is this not, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon?" That seemed to sum him up. I loved the idea of him more, at times, than the actual detail of his minutely-crafted, ingeniously-told stories.

[Steven Spielberg, dir.: Empire of the Sun (1987)]

Then came Empire of the Sun.

Say what you like about the movie - simple-minded, over-the-top in parts (the Spielberg factor) - it was powerful. And suddenly everything fell into place. J. G. Ballard was (as he'd been saying all along to anyone willing to listen) a Science-Fiction writer only by title. What he'd been writing all along was an exploration of his own inner space - the psyche of a child separated from his parents, imprisoned in a Japanese prison camp in the immense, turbulent incomprehensible world of wartime Shanghai, a literal witness of the first Atomic blast.

No wonder so many of his stories were set on Pacific atolls covered with bunkers and equipment manuals, no wonder he was obsessed with urban wastelands (one of his most effective, in Concrete Island, is set in the grassy zone between two motorway ramps - no-one can escape because the cars will never stop). He wasn't imaginative so much as brave - what he was writing was a series of description of the furniture of the inside of his head ...

[J. G. Ballard: The Writer's Room]

"Why I want to fuck Ronald Reagan" - that was the title of one of his short stories. Another was "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race." Empire of the Sun was all very well - beautifully, sparely written, correcting all the excesses of the Spielberg version when I finally got round to reading it. He succeeded in making his "real" childhood landscape a legitimate province of the Ballardian cosmos. But there was something just a little too easily-assimilable about it, I suspect, for him.

World War II had been slobbered over and preempted quite enough already, I suspect he thought. His interests were in the now, or (rather) in the now-plus-one. The coming Apocalypse preoccupied him far more than those past disasters (not that they could ever be truly "past" for him). Hence Crash.

[David Cronenberg, dir.: Crash (1996)]

For once a book of his found adequate incarnation in the movies. David Cronenberg's inspiration did not so much run parallel as in closely analogous territory to Ballard's. Crash shocked, disgusted, fascinated, repelled - most of all turned on audiences all over the world. It was shocking, garish, tasteless, hard to take - banned in some countries, cut in lots of others. Talk about drawing a connection between sex and violence!

It might have looked a bit worrying on the page, but by now Ballard was rapidly becoming a G.O.M., a Grand Old Man of letters. Translated onto the big screen, though, no polite masks or evasions were possible. This man was sick. What's more, he was telling the rest of us that we were too - that is was time to wake up and smell the coffee with a vengeance. Put on the Jackie Kennedy wig, roll over, and spread 'em ...

His later work may have been more subtle - certainly his books were now packaged as serious "literary novels" rather than pulpy sci-fi - but he never lost that subversive edge, that bleakness of vision, that sense of a world spread out before us not so much like "a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new," as like a radioactive motorway offramp leading down to an airstrip littered with abandoned bombers and fragmentary, water-soaked instruction manuals for the maintenance of same ...

There, there'll always be a beautiful stranger flitting round at the corner of your eye. Be warned, though: the only way to attract her is to start right away on your project of assembling old bicycle parts into a mandala. Then she'll come, when you're lying there dying of thirst, and sit just out of arm's reach, idly making a daisy-chain out of spent fuel rods as you try in vain to remember the opening verses of the Bardo Thodol ...

On that note, then, a heartfelt farewell and thanks to J. G. Ballard. There's never been a greater visionary (I firmly believe) than this humble man. He enriched us all - those who were willing to listen, at any rate - with his multiple, various body of work, which will survive him. As for his own body, that now departs into the void:

Oh you compassionate ones possessing the wisdom of understanding,
the love of compassion,
the power of acting,
& of protecting in incomprehensible measure,
one is passing through this world & leaving it behind.

No friends does(s)he have,
(s)he is without defenders, without protectors and kinsmen.
The light of this world has set.
(s)he goes from place to place,
(s)he enters darkness,
(s)he falls down a steep precipice,
(s)he enters a jungle of solitude,
(s)he is pursued by karmic forces,
(s)he goes into a vast silence,
(s)he is borne away on the great ocean,
(s)he is wafted on the wind of karma,
(s)he goes where there is no certainty,
(s)he is caught in the great conflict,
(s)he is obsessed by the great affecting spirit,
(s)he is awed and terrified by the messengers of death.

Existing karma has put hir into repeated existence
& no strength does (s)he have
although the time has come to go alone.


Chad C Mulliagn said...

And that is prolly the best obit of JGB I've read so far. Ta muchly.

Shalmanizer said...

"Boy, what an imagination you've got!" And so does Ballard.

Tim Jones said...

Amazing! "The Voices of Time" was the first Ballard story I read - it was 1/3 of the anthology "The Inner Landscape" (pb, Corgi Books, 1975), which also contains novellas by Mervyn Peake and Brian W. Aldiss. I think I read it at school, and it had as big an effect on me as it did on you. Thank you for writing such a fine obituary for a fine writer.