Ballard’s Legacy

Author’s Note, April 20, 2009: I began reading J. G. Ballard, who died yesterday at the age of 78, in U.S. science fiction magazines circa 1967, when I was thirteen years old. How I pity the youths of today, who are directed toward pre-packaged ‘young adult’ books! Ballard stretched my adolescent mind to new permanent fractal dimensions, an effect he had on many of my generation, and on plenty of adults as well, both forty years ago and for the next several decades of unfaltering artistic accomplishment. He was the truest prophet and journalist of everything we saw going down around us during those tumultuous days. His astringent yet joyous take on all our self-inflicted dooms, technological, sexual and cultural, assured us that the future would be much weirder than any Arthur C. Clarke prediction, even if we never left the surface of the planet, but only delved deeper into his patented realm of ‘inner space.’ The world is now deprived of a vital voice we still need, possibly more than ever. The appreciation of his work below was originally published on June 20, 2008, in this space.

One of the most visionary, autocatalytic, and influential writers of the past five decades, a genuine nonpareil and prophet, a true diagnostician of our postmodern malaise, is courageously but inexorably dying of advanced metastatic prostate cancer at the age of 77. He announced this sad news in the concluding chapter of his autobiography, published in February of 2008.

But if you?re an American reader — even if you?re a fan of this author?s many classic books and knowledgeable about his career — chances are good that you don?t know this sad fact, that you simply haven?t heard. That?s because the author is British, and his autobiography, in the eyes of U.S. publishers, has merited no U.S. edition — no more than his last two neglected novels did. And North American press coverage of his plight has been limited to a few genre journals.

The author in question is J. G. Ballard. His autobiography is Miracles of Life (London, Fourth Estate, 2008). His most recent novel (perhaps, in light of his debilitating condition, his final one) is Kingdom Come, released in 2006, the year he received his terminal diagnosis. Both books effortlessly attain the same incredibly high standards, in the realms of sentence-by-sentence craft, narrative surprise, and conceptual audacity that Ballard has exhibited since he first published a short story in 1956. That neither book has been welcomed in America is not a reflection of their merits, by any means, but rather a sad testament to the privileging of marketplace concerns over art, and also a hurtful slight to a writer whose main topic, in whatever elaborate guise, has always been the American Century.

Ballard?s vast and seminal contributions to the literature of the fantastic, his inescapable inclusion in the canon of postmodernism, remains beyond dispute and cannot possibly be summarized here. The beneficiary of several book-length studies, as well as numerous tribute volumes and awards, his novels and short stories chart an Odyssean course through the psychopathologies of the post-WWII era. His very name has been turned into a dictionary-sanctioned adjective — “Ballardian” — betokening harrowing dystopian scenarios of neurotic yet ludic intensity.

Ballard is of course best known for his autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun (1984), due to its adaptation as a 1987 film by Steven Spielberg. Luckily, this novel remains available in a U.S. edition and is the tastily baited, somewhat atypical hook with which many new readers might be lured. Indeed, nearly a quarter century onward from its debut, Empire of the Sun continues to provide, much like a more humanistic and uncluttered Gravity?s Rainbow (1973), both a shaping template for the birth of the “Anthropocene era” — while not a Ballardian coinage, the scientific phrase dovetails precisely with Ballard?s notions of a natural world, pre-existing for billions of years, recently reordered by the human cortex — and a portrait of a sensitive young boy rendered half mad and brutal by large-scale global forces.

Adolescent Jamie, soon to become Shanghai Jim, lives a life of privilege among the expat community in China in the late 1930s and into 1941. But Pearl Harbor brings the chaos of wartime to his sheltered environment. Separated from his parents, Jim begins a phantasmagoric pilgrimage through various milieus, the main one being the Lunghua internment camp. Ballard?s rendering of Jim?s complex psyche involves surreal visions and a guilty yet at times exultant complicity with the raw barbarism of warfare. Jim?s improbable ecstatic vision of the atomic blast that incinerated Nagasaki some 400 miles distant from Lunghua records the Promethean birth of our current condition. Unsparing in its depiction of suffering and yet somehow ennobling of mankind?s essential nature, the novel is a seductive whirlpool, a vivid fever dream.

Spielberg?s version? Not so much. A tidy and reverential screenplay by Tom Stoppard, and fine acting by Christian Bale and John Malkovich, among others, as well as craftsmanlike direction and gorgeous cinematography, all fail to capture the hallucinatory and claustrophobic effects of the book. The film exudes a Masterpiece Theatre glow at odds with the novel?s beheadings and open sores, and turns a tale of being erotically “half in love with easeful death” into one of standard Hollywood heroism.

If American readers can be grateful that, however far from the original, Spielberg’s film of Empire of the Sun has kept the book in print in the U.S., they should be equally hopeful that something will bring his two most recent — and perhaps final — volumes to these shores.

Kingdom Come is the fourth book in a thematically related quartet of late-career Ballard novels that examine the churning rivers of manic Freudian hellfire beneath the placid consumerist culture of the middle class. Ballard?s complex brief, simplistically rendered, maintains that the banishment of spirituality and the suppression of many primal human drives in favor of status seeking and the most limited hunter-gatherer reflexology has resulted in a crippled and clinically insane culture — a culture fated to erupt in irrational and often violent compensatory ways.

A British megamall known as the Brooklands Metro-Centre experiences a seemingly random fatal shooting. One of the victims is the father of protagonist Richard Pearson, ex-advertising man. Traveling from London to the scene of the crime, Pearson discovers that the mall and its associated sporting culture have become a nucleus of a militant new religion. At first staunchly opposed to the jingoistic and nativist cult, Pearson experiences a transformative revelation that leaves him at the apex of the mercantile hagiography, where he helps the movement blossom to new dimensions of “voluntary insanity.”

Ballard?s stock troupe of actors who have been his loyal partners forever — brutishly intellectual doctors, damaged femmes fatales, Fisher King sacrificial heroes — speaking their often hilariously out-of-sync lines, enact a perverse vest-pocket apocalypse. As always, Ballard?s vivid metaphors entice, and his acerbic aperçus provoke: “Wherever sports play a big part in people?s lives you can be sure they?re bored witless and just waiting to break up the furniture.” It?s Frank Capra?s Meet John Doe (1941) for the YouTube generation.

Miracles of Life — the title refers to Ballard?s three children and their centrality in his existence — was crafted in the wake of Ballard?s mortal diagnosis, and yet its tenor is composed, grateful, ruminative, and sweet. If this book is to serve as the capstone to Ballard?s career, he will be remembered as a man, satisfied with his life, who made his exit with nobility and dignity and an undiminished measure of artistry. Fully the first half of the book deals with his formative years in Shanghai — the very material that stoked Empire of the Sun. Readers will find revelations in how the reality veered from the fictional treatment of this core period in Ballard?s life. The latter half of the book tackles everything of note from 1946 to the present, including the sad death of Ballard?s young wife, also fictionalized in the underrated The Kindness of Women (1991). Overall, while lacking any major revelations, this autobiography highlights the roots of Ballard?s art while confirming that his insights into society at large extend to his own personal arc of being.

A Blakean Cassandra honored in his own country, Ballard deserves equal laurels in America, a dream country whose portrait and influence he has so indelibly etched in his books, and which exists in no truer form than in his skull.