The Draining Lake Reverence and Importance of JG Ballard
Crossing frontiers is my profession. The ironic opening line to J.G Ballard’s Cocaine Nights (1996) displays a sentiment that could quite effortlessly sum up Ballard’s career in fiction. Phrases that have in the past described the notion of originality in the fictional field have included ‘fantastically original’ or ‘a triumph of artistry and feeling’ and so on. Of course similar phrases have been directed towards the work of J.G Ballard himself and in many cases rightly so. Therefore I feel that nobody has managed to encapsulate the same sense of originality, experiment and obsession that engages in a distant avenue of a readers mind in the same way as the work of J.G Ballard. Therefore I do feel that since Ballard’s passing in April 2009 there has been a body of distempered and enigmatic talent that remained vacant in the field of experimental fiction.
Although I am writing this over two years after Ballard’s death I was only recently drawn to the realisation of the literary space left by Ballard. At the beginning of this year, whilst scanning the university bookshop for some non-vocational reading I was drawn to the science fiction section, a genre of fiction that I am admittedly ambivalent in my attitude towards and found nothing of real interest. It wasn’t until I went back to my retched bombsite of room to search through a small tower of books; I had a moment of culmination and leapt into all things Ballard. Re-opening the cryptic fragments and unnerving nature of the Atrocity Exhibition (1969) I then preceded to become encapsulated.
Whilst scraping through the pages at random I then proceeded over the following weeks to digest other Ballard novels such as Drowned World, High Rise, Crash, Cocaine Nights, The Day of Creation, The Drought and the Crystal World. After a few weeks purchasing and re-reading Ballard’s work I slowly (and perhaps feebly) came to understand in further depth the conceit features that the Ballardian novel effortlessly exerts. I then made the decision through raw sensibility to create my own utterly subjective compendium.
The first feature that I started to identify with was the rhetoric of existence something that I do not think anyone else in the literary world can quite replicate. It is the way that Ballard uses the surrounding topography when describing the seemingly mundane, whether it is a swimming pool, derelict car park, billboard or an airport escalator Ballard makes it his own obsessive symbolism. Furthermore Ballard’s technique has an almost insidious external reach to the reader. As his symbolism and themes are used in order to describe the structural features of life as well as playing on the technique of surrealism in order to probe the obsessions that dwell inside not just the reader but the human condition.
Indeed, the experimental nature or structure of Ballard’s writing is something that complements his themes. Like William S. Burroughs, Ballard in the Atrocity Exhibition (1969) used the form of the ‘condensed novel’ a technique that borrowed from art traditions found in the Surrealist and Cubist modernist movements. But aside from collages of technique the characteristics it is Ballard’s own experimental nature of expression and creative narcissism that remains a paramount feature of his work. The ability to re-imagine the mundane and the ability of his un-apologetic feral imagination combined with his symbolic juxtaposition is all central to the obsolete nature of ‘Ballardian’ novel.
Although Ballard was himself ambivalent towards the label of being a Science Fiction writer, he felt it was the only rational way to write about the situation we find ourselves in, something the mainstream fiction novel cannot. The idea that Science Fiction does not confine itself to the small social surrounding that we all know and are aware of. In essence the way Ballard used Science Fiction was as a clear slate or level playing field in a way that no familiar localised, social or institutionalised surroundings can prevent an examination of our situation.
The domination of physical surroundings, however, was a prominent feature within Ballard’s fiction whether it was the semi-biographical bestseller Empire of the Sun (1984) or his ingenious collection of short stories Vermillion Sands (1971). But the most prominent feature of Ballard as a ‘Science Fiction’ writer was his detachment from the habitual inclination of themes such as outer space and alien life forms, and his focus of what Ballard called the ‘inner space’. An area Ballard explained as being between the external world of reality and the internal world of the psyche. Creating an interesting platform for protagonist or character interaction in a fictional landscape of dystopian modernity and socio-moral decay. Indeed this becomes all too apparent with characters of Ballard’s novel High-Rise (1975). In which characters such as Dr Robert Laing, Richard Wilder and Anthony Royal become emaciated into territorial tribalism, perversity and paranoia. Eventually excluding themselves from external society outside of the High Rise building they inhabit.
But despite rough details of the technique and endless creativity of Ballard, I believe that is the resonated impact of a large proportion of Ballard’s work after the reader has absorbed the last page that his most powerful attribute comes to prominence. To me personally (in my arguable literary ignorance at the age of 21) I have never witnessed the same kind of absorbing yet disquieting impact on the reader as some of Ballard’s work. Neither have I witnessed any ersatz attempts at replicating his direct impact on the reader. On the contrary I am most certainly not the first to highlight the position. As novelist Martin Amis wrote in the Observer in September 1987 when reviewing The Day of Creation. ‘Ballard is quite unlike anyone else; indeed, he seems to address a different – disused – part of the reader’s brain. You finish the book with some bafflement and irritation. But this is only half the experience. You then sit around waiting for the novel to come and haunt you. And it does.’
The fact that Ballard was himself in tune and infatuated to the eventual outcomes of the post-modern world very early on compared to most post-war writers gives him his prophetic title. Most interesting of Ballard’s early prophecies was his post-modernist identification of humankind’s loss of confidence in all things scientific and technological in the immediate future, in as much as the notion that humankind’s ever increasing cravings and demands were trying to be met in that same future. Thus Ballard again redefined the nature of the genre of Science-Fiction.
When asked about his large capacity for imagination Ballard stated that it was down to the experiences he absorbed as a child. As is commonly known J.G Ballard and his family were interned in Shanghai into a Japanese prisoner of war camp in 1943 at Lunghua Civilian Assembly Centre, and during that time he witnessed some harrowing and exciting episodes as a child. This period of his life arguably identified him with some of his themes and symbols such as emptiness, isolation and decay which he witnessed in war-time China.
Perhaps in an age where ideas, conventions and archetypes of reality are seemingly spoon fed, the sense of imagination is seemingly now lost. It is now so easy to conjure up images from a screen rather than through the ideas provoked through the human psyche. Indeed the ideas of disbelief and liberation have suffered in the media age as Ballard predicted himself as the ‘Death of Affect’. Although I think it would also be wrong to suggest that Ballard’s dystopian visions are purely conventional in the sense that he only relished in identifying an imagined place that is reminiscent of Orwellian totalitarian features or is inherently unpleasant and challenging. Contrary to this it seems that there is a peculiar sense of potential to be found within Ballard’s visions of the future portraying a journey into delirium.
I do not feel that this world will see another writer like J.G Ballard. You can attempt to replicate him at your peril. Indeed, I do feel it is not only the esoteric reader or writer that can absorb from him, as his body of work certainly surpasses the literary field. Therefore I think it is worth considering an extract from his prose poem ‘What I Believe’ (1984):
‘I believe in the non-existence of the past, in the death of the future, and the infinite possibilities of the present.’
Alex Miller-Fik 19.06.11
Alex Miller-Fik - About the Author:
I write on a variety of subjects in my spare time. Subjects areas include current affairs, literary and political comment. I currently reside in the UK.