rereading jg ballard
by Zhou (Chew) Hong Jie
by Martin Amis
Is prescience a literary virtue? And should the work of JG Ballard be particularly prized (as some critics maintain) for the “uncanny” accuracy of its forecasts? The answer to both these questions, I suggest, is a cheerful no.
In The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) Ballard famously tapped Ronald Reagan for president. His Hello America (1981), on the other hand, surmised that the United States in its entirety would be evacuated by 1990. The meteorological cataclysms envisaged by his first four novels still look plausible. But the social crisis envisaged by his last four novels – violent and widespread anomie brought about by a glut of leisure and wealth – now looks vanishingly remote.
So here’s a prophecy: fictional divination will always be hopelessly haphazard. The unfolding of world-historical events is itself haphazard (and therefore unaesthetic), and “the future” is in a sense defined by its messy inscrutability. Besides, the art of fiction owes allegiance to a muse, a goddess as pure as her nine sisters, and not to some bustling Madame Sosostris (Eliot’s “famous clairvoyant”, with her “wicked pack of cards”). Nevertheless there are certain writers whose visionary power is indifferent to the corroboration of mere upshots – writers who seem to be able to feel, and use, the “world hum” of the “near-after”. That first quote is from Don DeLillo, who is one such; the second quote is from James Graham Ballard (1930-2009), who is another.
Ballard foresaw manmade climate change, not in The Drowned World (1962), but in The Drought (1964). In The Drought (originally entitled The Burning World), industrial waste has thickened the mantle of the oceans and destroyed the precipitation cycle, transforming the planet into a wilderness of dust and fire. In The Drowned World, ecological catastrophe has a quite different set of causes. The median temperature at the Equator is 180 degrees and rising, the polar icecaps and the permafrost have melted, Europe is “a system of giant lagoons”, the American Midwest is “an enormous gulf opening into the Hudson Bay”, and the global population (down to five million) huddles within the Arctic and Antarctic circles (where the thermometers, for now, record a “pleasant” 85). And how did all this come about? Solar instability, pure and simple, with no help whatever from Homo sapiens. So, on the basis of this one novel, Ballard could unobtrusively add his voice to the current Republican debate on global warming – slightly to the left of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, true, but slightly to the right of Mitt Romney.
This is an irony we need not fear: indeed, it speeds us on our way to more central questions. As a man (and as a good Green), Ballard was naturally on the side of the angels; but as an artist he is unconditionally of the Devil’s party. He loves the glutinous jungles of The Drowned World and the tindery deserts of The Drought – just as he loves the superhurricane, or express avalanche, of The Wind from Nowhere (1961) and the mineralised multiplicities of The Crystal World (1966). It is the measure of his creative radicalism that he welcomes these desperate dystopias with every atom of his being. When he turned away from hardcore SF in the 1950s, Ballard rejected “outer space” in favour of its opposite: “inner space”. Accordingly, he merges with his conjured futures, internalising them in a kind of imaginative martyrdom. The fusion of mood and setting, the mapping of a landscape of the troubled mind – this is what really matters in Ballard. It gives the novels their tight clench of waywardness and fixity.
“Soon it would be too hot” is the laconic first sentence of The Drowned World. Its hero, the marine biologist Robert Kerans, is staring out from the balcony of his suite at the Ritz; he is the only (mammalian) occupant of the hotel; the rising water is 10 storeys from his feet.
“Even through the massive olive-green fronds the relentless power of the sun was plainly tangible. The blunt refracted rays drummed against his bare chest and shoulders … The solar disc was no longer a well-defined sphere, but a wide expanding ellipse that fanned out across the eastern horizon like a colossal fire-ball, its reflection turning the dead leaden surface of the lagoon into a brilliant copper shield.”
The sun is alarmingly distended. It is also alarmingly noisy; it “thuds” and “booms”; we hear “the volcanic pounding” of its flares.
There are mosquitoes the size of dragon flies, hammer-nosed bats, wolf spiders. There are iguanas and basilisks – at one point a large caiman sees Kerans “waist-deep among the horse-tails” and veers towards him, “its eyes steadying” (that “steadying” is awfully good). The water gives off an unendurable reek, “the sweet compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcases”. Kerans watches the “countless reflections of the sun move across the surface in huge sheets of fire, like the blazing facetted eyes of gigantic insects”. Beneath the lagoon is a city: “Free of vegetation, apart from a few drifting clumps of Sargasso weed, the streets and shops had been preserved almost intact, like a reflection in a lake that has somehow lost its original”. The city is London.
Kerans is nominally engaged with a team of scientists on a waterborne testing station, but the work has become pointlessly routine. Fauna and flora are faithfully following “the emergent lines anticipated twenty years earlier”, namely an accelerated counter-evolution, a retrogression into a world of lizards and rainforests under a Triassic sun. The human actors have embarked on a parallel process – within the diameter of their own skulls. Early on we learn that something has gone wrong with sleep: at night, the protagonists enter the “time jungles” of uterine dreams, descending into their amniotic past and also into the past of the species, experiencing the “archaic memories” (the “organic memories” of danger and terror) encrypted in their spinal cords. Some fear these dreams. Kerans, of course, embraces them, and yearningly submits to their domination of his waking mind:
“Guided by his dreams, he was moving backwards through the emergent past, through a succession of ever stranger landscapes, centred upon the lagoon … At times the circle of water was spectral and vibrant, at others slack and murky, the shore apparently formed of shale, like the dull metallic skin of a reptile. Yet again the soft beaches would glow invitingly with a glossy carmine sheen, the sky warm and limpid, the emptiness of the long stretches of sand total and absolute, filling him with an exquisite and tender anguish.”
Ballard gives The Drowned World the trappings of a conventional novel (hero, heroine, authority figure, villain), and equips it with a plot (jeopardy, climax, resolution, coda); but all this feels dutiful and perfunctory, as if conventionality simply bores him. Thus the novel’s backdrop is boldly futuristic while its mechanics seem antique (with something of the boys’-own innocence we find in John Buchan and CS Forester). In addition, Ballard’s strikingly “square” dialogue remains a serious lacuna. Here as elsewhere, his dramatis personae – supposedly so gaunt and ghostly – talk like a troupe of British schoolteachers hoisted out of the 1930s: “Damn’ shame about old Bodkin”, “Capital!”, “Touché, Alan”. (Cf DeLillo, whose dialogue is always fluidly otherworldly.) We conclude that Ballard is quite unstimulated by human interaction – unless it takes the form of something inherently weird, like mob atavism or mass hysteria. What excites him is human isolation.
The “otherness” of Ballard, his mesmeric glazedness, is always attributed to the two years he spent in a Japanese internment camp in Shanghai (1943-45). That experience, I think, should be seen in combination, or in synergy, with the two years he spent dissecting cadavers as a medical student in Cambridge (1949-51). Again the dichotomy: as a man he was ebulliently social (and humorous), but as an artist he is fiercely solitary (and humourless). The outcome, in any event, is a genius for the perverse and the obsessional, realised in a prose style of hypnotically varied vowel sounds (its diction enriched by a wide range of technical vocabularies). In the end, the tensile strength of The Drowned World derives not from its action but from its poetry.
“Soon it would be too hot.” Yes, and soon it will be time to abandon the lagoon and the drowned city; they will evacuate north, to one of the last human redoubts, Camp Byrd, in Arctic Greenland. There are, after all, pressing reasons to go: the mutating mosquitoes and mutating malarias, the new skin cancers caused by the evaporating cloud cover, the increasingly brazen encroachments of the reptiles, the coming of the Equatorial rain belts and the Equatorial heat. Kerans is, inevitably, the last to leave. He does so on foot (on foot singular, with an infected leg wound and a crutch). And which way is he heading, as the novel closes? Even a reader quite new to Ballard will by this stage consent to the logic of it. “There isn’t any other direction.” He is heading south.