Sunday, April 19, 2009

J G Ballard: an appreciation

From time to time radio programmes and newspapers come round to discussing the most important post-war English language novelist. To my mind there is only one candidate. Ballard was one of that select band of writers whose world view is so singular that it has become an adjective. We can describe a motorway flyover, shopping mall or stretch of industrial wasteland as Ballardian and instinctively expect our audience to know what we mean.

Ballard was attracted to these alienating structures not because he hated people, precisely the opposite. Ballard was a very sociable man who loved life. What Ballard disliked were people who relinquished their individuality to become part of some wider, blander community, whether it be the Home Counties conservatism of the expats in the Shanghai of his childhood or the zombie-ite consumerism of New Labour's Britain. He enjoyed individuals who rejected conformity and gave free rein to their enthusiasms, even if that led them into self-destructive psychopathology. The brutal concrete of a multi-storey car park or the glittering perfection of a science park on the Cote D'Azur serve simply to emphasize the humanity of the protagonists.

As a writer he was a superb stylist. Sometimes his relish for incorporating the language of modern professional writing - physics journals, medical advertising, corporate press releases - teetered on the verge of parody. But his books were always full of striking images and precisely targeted metaphors. He also had a sly sense of humour, for which I think he was under appreciated.

Although Ballard was pegged as a science fiction writer he was never interested in the technology so much as our response to it. His stories almost never deal with the struggle to get a man on the Moon but rather the isolation of the astronaut after he has returned to Earth. He always had an ambivalent attitude to technology, being in favour of things which increase our sense of vitality - cars, aircraft - and distrustful of those which deaden sensation - word processors, fitted kitchens. His awareness of the built environment extended to the virtual environment of television and advertising. He was one of the earliest writers to analyse the modern obsession with celebrity, seeing it as a logical development of globalised media. I think he was vindicated by the narrative arc of Jade Goody; Reality TV is very Ballardian.

Now Ballard has lost his own battle against cancer. I've been reading his books for over thirty years and the news that there will be no more is hard to comprehend. The obituaries will dwell on Empire of the Sun, Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition. I will always have a soft spot for Vermillion Sands, a collection of short stories set in a futuristic holiday resort situated in the middle of a desert. The melancholy surrealism of the golden sands and blue skies provides a backdrop for a series of psychodramas involving the usual panoply of damaged eccentrics. Ballard applied the techniques of science fiction to produce works with a haunting poetry. It's lovely, evocative stuff. His autobiography, Miracles of Life, is a fascinating, inspirational read too.

J G Ballard 1930 - 2009. RIP.

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