JG Ballard: The Seer of Suburbia

August 1998 / Prospect, Issue 33

The near future, JG Ballard once wrote, provides a better key to the present than does the past. For much of his career, certainly until the publication, in 1984, of Empire of the Sun, a fictionalised account of his childhood in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai, Ballard was marginalised as a maverick science fiction specialist. He was seen as a writer trapped in a circle of generic obsession, a futurologist whose exotic preoccupations were out of step with the bland realism of the postwar period. He contributed to the hard-edged science fiction magazine New Worlds and organised exhibitions of crashed cars at the Arts Laboratory. He was, in short, not one of us; not strictly a literary writer; not someone really worth taking seriously. Yet he was not strictly a science fiction writer, either. He wasn’t interested in space travel or in the far future; rather, he explored inner space, a huge subterranean realm of unconscious motivation and psychic disturbance.

The twin engines driving so much of British contemporary fiction have long been a kind of enfeebled realism-with its class and social anxieties-and nostalgia. But Ballard operated outside this loop. The drowned worlds, scorched cities and overgrown jungles of his early fiction; his focus on the media landscape of global celebrity and stylised catastrophe; his exploration of the connections between sex, eroticism and death; his fetishism of motorways, highrises and car crashes-almost alone among contemporary British writers, Ballard wrote about the 20th century in its own idiom. As a result his work is exaggerated, pumped-up, often preposterous; a prose surrealist mining a strange, blurry, psychopathological landscape. It is hard to believe in his fictional world precisely because it is so invented, so radically imagined. Like the paintings of Dali, Max Ernst and de’ Chirico which he so admires, Ballard transports you into a fabulous realm, at once real and hysterically unreal.

You can read a Ballard novel without believing a word of what is written. Yet something lingers disturbingly in your imagination, something to do with his understanding of the inherent instability of the contemporary condition-as if we are all actors in our own self-referential drama, as if we are all trapped within a set of immense inverted commas.

“I’ve always thought that life was a kind of disaster area,” says Ransome, the disturbed narrator of his third novel, The Drought. For Ransome read Ballard: a writer addicted to disaster and urban extremity. The motifs in his work are abandoned runways, drained swimming pools, crashed cars, flooded lagoons, overlit motorways. His male heroes-doctors, architects, engineers-are last men, moving uneasily through a disintegrating world of diminished aspiration (in their impassive striving they recall the sad urban landscapes of Edward Hopper).

“I have always needed to pump up the pumice stone of the imagination more than other writers,” Ballard tells me. “Kingsley Amis was full of praise for my early stuff; but as with so many English novelists he was vaguely suspicious of the power of the imagination: it could be too much of a good thing. Yet surely the radical imagination is what we seek in a writer; when we read we want to encounter a very different world that will make sense of our own.”

Ballard constructs closed, artificial worlds-a tropical island, a fortress community, an apartment block, a seaside resort-then watches as they collapse under the strain of their own contradictions. In Concrete Island (1974)-the second of a trilogy, including Crash and High Rise, which explores the psychopathology of post-industrial society-a 35-year-old architect crashes on his way to work. He lands on a traffic island below three converging motorways. The days pass without anything happening: he is trapped on his island of “seething grass,” marooned in a sea of concrete and steel, living in a condition of ontological shipwreck.

The theme of urban alienation is developed in High Rise (1975), where the tenants of a luxury apartment block become warped by the synthetic perfection of their environment: the soporific hum of air conditioning, the artificial warmth, the soft sighs and wheezes of the elevator. As order breaks down, the tenants reveal their capacity for depravity. Most recently, in Cocaine Nights (1996) a group of British expats on the Costa del Sol become corrupted by a life of boundless leisure, listlessly sliding into a life of crime and debauchery amid the “memory-erasing white architecture.”

But it is in Crash where Ballard’s vision of the apocalyptic marriage of sex and technology is most fully realised, where his trademark cool, glazed prose is fully refined. It is hard to think of a more wilfully skewed book; the original editorial reader at Jonathan Cape, the publishers, was so disturbed by the subject that she wrote: “The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help.” Even Ballard himself was disconcerted when he read an early proof copy.

Crash is sinister and pornographic-as many discovered when they saw David Cronenberg’s faithful film adaptation. But it is also a compelling exploration of the disturbed psyche, of how we can become warped by living in a huge atrocity exhibition, thriving on a culture of violence and sensation. Crash, according to Ballard, is a cautionary tale, a critique of the dangerous emptiness of Hollywood films, with their simulated violence and moral vacuity. If you enjoy watching car crashes, he seems to say, this is what really happens, here are the wounds and injuries-and the sex between the maimed. You can question Ballard’s preoccupation with violence and deviance, but the hallucinatory quality of his prose is such that we derive a perverse pleasure from his narrative excesses even as we recoil at the comic awfulness of the characters’ plights.

The book’s central character is a scientist called Vaughan, “the nightmare angel of the highways.” He cruises the network of motorways which surround London airport, waiting to photograph the mutilated victims of road accidents. Suffering and atrocity inspire his fantasies. In one vision, the whole world is “dying in a simultaneous automobile disaster, millions of vehicles hurled together in a terminal congress of spurting loins and engine coolant.” When Vaughan meets the ironically named Ballard, a scarred survivor of an earlier accident, the two men form a charged, latently homosexual alliance. Sustained by dreams of catastrophe, they haunt the highways together, leading each other on to ever greater acts of obscenity, halted only by Vaughan’s spectacularly violent death.

One of Vaughan’s erotic obsessions is with the actress Elizabeth Taylor, whom he imagines dying in a gruesome accident, her mutilated body caught in a glare of exploding camera bulbs. One thinks, inevitably, of Princess Diana, speeding into a tunnel on her way from the Ritz, the most famous woman on the planet dying under the dazzle of the paparazzi’s flashlights. Here was an emblematically contemporary, Ballardian death, reminding us, if we needed it, of his second sense as a writer, his feel for the spirit of the age.

“In Crash, I explore the connections between sex, eroticism and death,” he says, pouring me a glass of wine. “We’re living in an entertainment culture where sex plays a huge role. I want to explore the subliminal connections between, say, the Marilyn Monroe figure on a giant billboard, one’s own personal life and sexual relationships, and the unconscious layers of sexual memory and desire stowed away in the cargo hold of one’s psyche. All this is creating a mix that is unique to the 20th century. Thanks to Freud, modern psychoanalysis and now the modern neurosciences and evolutionary psychology, we are aware that we aren’t simply social intelligences interacting with each other. We are layered creatures making our way through a storm of confusing signals, of which sex is probably the strongest.” Ballard speaks as he writes, in long metaphorical sentences full of synapses of insight and pungent observation. Tall and stout, his receding hair worn long at the sides, he is elaborately courteous-he could pass for an old-style military gent, or a retired diplomat home after a long spell in the east.

After a turbulent screening at Cannes (there were both jeers and cheers), a Daily Mail campaign blocked the film’s nationwide distribution in Britain. But it was belatedly released on video last month. Cronenberg is an uneven film-maker, his work veering between the meritricious (Videodrome) and the inspired (Dead Ringers). Ballard is a fan; he was delighted by the film and contemptuous of the timidity of the film’s distributors. “I thought Cronenberg caught the spirit of the book,” he says. “His film was very elegant and cool; it was wonderfully perverse without using any of the normal trappings of sexual perversity-which was exactly what I was trying to achieve. We both dispensed with any moral framework. This unnerves an audience, reduces the distance between them and what is going on… Reactions to Crash were intensely defensive, tied up with an exaggerated fear of the new. The Daily Mail plays on middle class and lower middle class anxieties.”

Crash, published in 1973, propelled Ballard towards cult status (it was a bestseller in France and Italy but a curious flop in the US, the world’s great motor culture). To a generation of younger readers, he was offering a bridge between the ephemera of popular culture and the avant-garde; an inspiration for disaffected youth, particularly among the long-coated, NME-reading brigade of the post-punk period. Ian Curtis, frontman of Joy Division, who later hanged himself, used to cite Ballard as an influence; several of his songs took their titles from Ballard stories.

What trauma lies behind Ballard’s unsettling visions? Or are they drug-induced hallucinations (Ballard did take LSD once, tripping badly), or the workings of a deranged mind? The explanation, belatedly provided by Empire of the Sun, was simpler: James Graham Ballard had a childhood as surreal as anything dreamed up in his fiction. As a detainee, between the ages of 12 and 15, in the Lunghua prison camp in Shanghai, he looked on as Chinese soldiers were decapitated by the occupying Japanese, as the teeming streets of Shanghai were bombed by low-flying aircraft and as his fellow internees were harassed and brutalised.

In Empire, as he calls it, he writes of returning to the International Settlement where his parents lived in affluent seclusion, to find the houses inexplicably deserted (“It was like coming home to this street in Shepperton and finding everyone gone”); and of watching the distant glow of the atom bomb explosion in Hiroshima, “that spectral mushroom cloud”-an eruption which reverberates across his oeuvre.

Ballard writes with the conviction of painful experience. His prose is calm, pared-down, his usual imaginative brio checked by a reporter’s eye for detail, as if he is seeking to preserve a whole world before it is buried under the rubble of history. There is a touching naïvety about many of his observations of camp life: Ballard writing as an adult, but trying to see the world as only a young boy can see it.

It was as if Ballard had reached a terminus in his life and work, the point beyond which he could only go forward by going backwards, by wading through the submerged stream of childhood memory which, in any event, had been rising to the surface of his more experimental fiction. Despite the realism of Empire, the chapter headings-“The Abandoned Aerodrome,” “The Terrible City,” “The Stranded Freighter”-echo his earlier obsessions, as if Lunghua camp was the original disaster from which all else sprang, more grotesque than any fantasy.

Why did he hold on to this material for so long, waiting until his middle 50s to write directly about his wartime experiences? “When people read Empire they were amazed that I had this story inside me. I had given little away about myself in my early fiction. Even my wife, to whom I was married for ten years, knew I was born and brought up there, but we hardly talked about it. The reason for this, I think, was that I was so bound up with the present. I was very interested in the 1960s: in this whole new world we lived in. The Kennedy assassination, which I saw as a catalyst for change in a tragic way, gave that decade a peculiar spin. The 1960s were an amazing time. The threat of nuclear war, the space race, the youth explosion, pop, drugs… Another reason for writing Empire when I did was that my children had grown up. While they were the same age as I was in the book, I couldn’t really begin to write about my younger self, whom I protectively saw as one of my own children. Once my children were adults, I felt free. I could face anything that happened to my younger self.”

We are in the sitting room of his cramped, dishevelled, semi-detached house in the Thames-side suburb of Shepperton, where he has lived for four decades and where he raised his three children alone. A huge surrealist canvas, a copy of a Paul Delvaux painting destroyed in the second world war, is propped against the wall, as if left behind by a burglar disturbed before he could complete his work. A layer of dust as thick as volcanic ash has settled over the room, largely unchanged since his wife died suddenly of pneumonia, in 1964, during a family holiday in Spain. She was 34.

Ballard’s elder daughter, Fay, once remarked that some objects in the house have not been moved for several decades. The house certainly has the feel of a mausoleum: as if he is waiting for someone who will never arrive. The baffling death of his wife, he says, recalled all the hurt and perplexity of his wartime experiences, and left him with a feeling of natural injustice, of the arbitrariness of fate. Her death reminded him, too, of the Kennedy assassination, which had taken place the previous year and had been televised endlessly; and of all the other meaningless deaths which were to follow: in Vietnam and the Congo, in car and aviation disasters, in the fall out from the counter-culture. “What I was trying to do was make sense of this meaninglessness. If I could give it some meaning, make sense of Kennedy’s death-all these other deaths-I could find a rationale for my wife’s death.”

So his writing life became a kind of search for lost meaning. “The experience of being a civilian in war-time is, in many ways, more moving, richer, more charged than if you are a combatant. As a trained soldier you have a goal: to attack the enemy, to defeat the enemy. And you have the whole esprit de corps of the military unit holding you together. As a civilian, by contrast, you are in constant confusion, nobody knows what’s going to happen, if you are going to be separated from your parents, for instance. A sense of dislocation can have a profound effect on a young imagination; it also leaves you with the sense that life is just a stage set: the whole cast and scenery can be cleared away at any moment. This gives a surrealist edge to existence, and leads you to think that there must be a truth to all of this. But where to find it?”

He returned with his parents to England in 1946, finding a country debilitated by exhaustion. He was nostalgic for the bright sparkle of his Americanised life in the International Settlement of Shanghai: the big cars, the nightclubs and bars, the street women, the terrorist bombings, the edge of danger. England seemed small and dismal. He remembers looking down from the troop ship which carried him into Southampton at strange moving objects which resembled nothing so much as coal scuttles. “These turned out to be British cars,” he says, throwing up his arms. “I never got over the shock of that, nor the shock of encountering these strange, strangulated people-my countrymen-with their weird class system.”

Ballard, a self-styled right-wing republican libertarian, describes the class system as an instrument of political control. “Institutional privilege is killing this country, squeezing the life out of it. I’d abolish the monarchy, hereditary titles, the public schools, too.”

For most of his 20s, Ballard wandered from job to job, never settling for long. His first important novel, The Drowned World, about a society rendered unstable by global warming, was published in 1962. “When I began to write, Britain was beginning to change. The supermarkets were arriving, motorways were being built, we had television for the first time, the first jet planes. We had the beginnings of a consumer culture. I became aware of these huge undercurrents flowing through our lives and wanted to reflect them.”

He wrote about the corrosive effect of mass advertising in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), his most experimental work and his first to redefine the boundaries of science fiction. It is a series of interconnecting collages, each comprising numbered paragraphs, drawing subliminal links between the Kennedy assassination, the rise of Ronald Reagan, the space race and the emerging media landscape. The work prefigured many of his later obsessions: the tyranny of the electronic image, the eroticism of car smashes, information overload, the cult of celebrity, the perversion of science. Not surprisingly, it offended nearly everyone who read it. The final collage, “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” was an exhibit in a 1968 obscenity trial.

Reading the book is a bit like being stuck in an elevator with a maniac on speed: you glimpse the occasional half-truths through a blizzard of rhetoric. “Powerful erotic fantasies of an anal sadistic character surrounded the image of the Presidential contender,” he writes of Reagan, with unintentional hilarity. “Subjects were required to construct the optimum auto-disaster victim by placing a replica of Reagan’s head on the unretouched photographs of crash fatalities. In 82 per cent of cases massive rear-end collisons were selected with a preference for expressed faecal matter and rectal haemorrhages.”

“It was obvious to me, in the late 1960s,” Ballard says of the novel, “that Reagan was going to become president, employing a new set of techniques from Hollywood. My novel is as much about the world that allows Reagan to become president as the man himself. My publishers should have put a health warning on the jacket: do not try to read this book from beginning to end. I wanted to produce something which worked through random connection.”

Nowadays Ballard reads little fiction, seldom mixes with writers and draws most inspiration from the visual arts and science-particularly medicine, which he studied for two years as an undergraduate at Cambridge, before dropping out to become a pilot in the RAF. He is anxious not to be characterised as what he calls a literary man. “Too many writers, I feel, have read English literature at university, which means they tend to think in terms of literary associations-of the mental library inside their head,” he says.

In A User’s Guide to the Millennium (1996), his collection of reviews and essays, he expresses his contempt for the “bourgeoisification” of the novel, for the shameless jamboree of career novelists “pontificating like game show hosts” at literary festivals. “Many writers I meet approach the career of writing in the same way as, say, solicitors, accountants and architects approach their careers,” he says. “They work towards establishing themselves as a successful literary professional; they accept the rules of the game and judge themselves by yardsticks laid down by their peers, fitting neatly into the world of publishing, reviewing, of literary conferences and festivals, of signings and committees. And it isn’t working. Judge the career novelists by their fruits, and the fact is that there’s not much written in the past 30 years that is worth reading.”

JG Ballard is an original, a literary outlaw. His fiction is driven by a restless quest to understand modernity. Where are we going? What are our deepest fears and motivations? He understands how the bourgeoisification of all aspects of life leaves layers of repression and desperation. But there is a paradox in his work: he is simultaneously enthralled and repelled by the alienated, technologised, post-industrial world of which he writes. He complains of the levelling threat of technology, of the “suburbanisation of the soul”; of how the whole world is “turning into a suburb of DÜsseldorf.” Yet Shepperton appeals to him precisely because of its suburban anonymity: its marina culture, its many concrete highways, its industrial and science parks, its proximity to Heathrow airport and the constant low whine of its low-flying aircraft. Shepperton, he feels, offers a glimpse into the near future.

“Shepperton is part of what I call the television suburbs; its culture is electronic, dominated by the television and the video recorder,” he says. “It’s also pretty classless around here: the people are well travelled, they lead very active lives devoted to leisure pursuits; they learn to fly, or take up abseiling, or buy a boat and keep it in a marina. I like that, I think that’s where the future is going: a suburban calm coexisting with terrific volatility, as when the local shopping centre is suddenly destroyed by a maniac with a mail-order Kalashnikov. After all, this kind of lifestyle is what I’ve been writing about all these years, it’s what I’ve been predicting would arrive.”

With that Ballard rises from his chair and peers out of the window before showing me out on to the quiet summer streets. He stands at his door, raises his arm in a gesture of farewell and then turns, a calm, inscrutable figure withdrawing into the shadows of his dusty house with a head full of the darkest imaginings.