A sharp and provocative visionary
INTERVIEWS:JG Ballard’s strange imaginative world was often misread during his lifetime, but now it seems uncannily like our own
Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews With JG Ballard, 1967-2008, Edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara, Fourth Estate 503pp, £25
The late JG Ballard might be the greatest English writer of the 20th century. He was certainly, for much of the second half of that century, the least understood, and most misread, when he was read at all.
In 1970, when a senior executive at Ballard’s American publishing house finally got around to reading a finished copy of The Atrocity Exhibition, he was so horrified that he ordered all copies to be pulped. In the UK, the reader’s report for Ballard’s 1972 novel Crash famously said: “This writer is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.”
But live long enough and respectability eventually covers you, like jungle vegetation claiming a wartime runway. In 1984, his most nakedly autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Martin Amis says on the back of this handsome hardback collection of interviews: “Ballard will be remembered as the most original English writer of the last century.” Will Self concurs: “Ballard issued a series of bulletins on the modern world of almost unerring prescience. Other writers describe; Ballard anticipated.”
He most certainly did. The chapter of The Atrocity Exhibition that so disgusted Nelson Doubleday was titled “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan”. In it, Ballard portrayed the former Hollywood actor, who’d costarred with a chimpanzee in Bedtime for Bonzo, as president of the United States. It would be more than a decade before reality caught up with the author’s imagination.
Indeed, some of the interviews here are almost comically prescient. For example, Ballard predicted Facebook before the internet even existed. In 1979, dismissing the BBC and ITV news as “that irrelevant mixture of information about a largely fictional external world”, he describes a future in which we video everything, and “the real news of course will be a computer-selected and computer-edited version of the day’s rushes. ‘My God, there’s Jenny having her first ice cream!’ or ‘There’s Candy coming home from school with her new friend.’ Now all that may seem madly mundane, but, as I said, it will be the real news of the day, and how it affects every individual.” (And, yes, he goes on to predict YouPorn.)
He predicted the future, but he also questioned the present. And many of the questions he raises here have not yet been answered. The real issue, behind all the fake issues, in this year’s American election was summed up succinctly by Ballard in 1984, talking to Thomas Frick: “Marxism is a social philosophy for the poor, and what we need badly is a social philosophy for the rich.”
As with a number of the more interesting American SF writers of his era (Philip K Dick, Thomas M Disch, John Sladek), Ballard became a science-fiction writer by default; that market was the only available outlet for fiction this odd. But he was not a science-fiction writer. He was not, indeed, a writer, in the normal sense of the term. Ballard was a visual artist. He makes the point again and again here: the greatest influences on his works are not other literary works but the paintings of the surrealists. As he said in an interview with James Goddard and David Pringle in 1975: “They’re all paintings, really, my novels and stories.”
And it is true. You read his spare, functional prose, and the most astonishing images erect themselves in your mind. The beauty of the sentence itself didn’t interest him. (This makes him hard to quote: reading Ballard, you drift into a dream state that can’t be evoked in a couple of lines.) Certainly he set much of his work in the future. But there isn’t a spaceship to be found. (Well, okay, one, in an early story.) As mainstream science fiction explored outer space, Ballard explored what he came to call inner space. He wasn’t similar to SF writers such as Heinlein, Asimov and Arthur C Clarke; he was their opposite, a point he makes in a 1975 interview: “You can’t have a space age until you’ve got a lot of people in space. This is where I disagree, and I’ve often argued the point when I’ve met him, with Arthur C Clarke. He believes that the future of fiction is in space, that this is the only subject. But I’m certain you can’t have a serious fiction based on experience from which the vast body of readers and writers is excluded.”
I get the feeling Ballard passed Ireland by. He was seldom piled high on the front tables in Eason. Seen, perhaps, as too English for our tastes? But, of course, he wasn’t English at all. His sensibility was formed in Shanghai, where he was born to English parents in 1930, and, in particular, in the vast civilian internment camp of Lunghua, where he was confined, aged 11, by the Japanese, along with his family. In this book he frequently talks of never getting used to the England he first encountered aged 16, in 1946, as a traumatised child of the tropics.
Exiled from Shanghai, an alien in England, Ballard nonetheless had a spiritual home. No matter where his books were ostensibly set, Ballard always wrote about America; not as a place, but as a state of mind. America as a condition. America as a psychological disorder . . . He loved America.
Though Crash is set in England, on the motorways connecting his quiet home in Shepperton to London, the cars in Crash are American cars. His Shanghai childhood – in an Americanised Asia – was a century ahead of its time. He grew up in the future. As a result, these interviews have aged well. It helps that Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara have edited this 500-page book with such love, intelligence and deep knowledge of the material and its context.
Extreme Metaphors presents, in chronological order, 44 interviews from the many hundreds he gave. (The editors estimate the total wordage of the novels as 1,100,000; short stories, 500,000 words; nonfiction, 300,000 . . . and interviews, 650,000.)
The interviews they’ve chosen have a very low fluff content. Many of the best originally appeared in long-vanished, never-digitised, photocopied fanzines and are genuine, deeply engaged and engaging conversations about important subjects. Nobody is trying to sell you anything. (It’s often impossible to tell what book Ballard is supposed to be promoting.)
The wide range of interviewers adds to the pleasure of the book. Ballard attracted intense, usually male, interviewers, who had a deep engagement with his work. There is a pleasantly kaleidoscopic effect, as each sees Ballard through the lens of their obsession. His fellow novelists Toby Litt, Will Self and Hari Kunzru take a literary approach. John Gray is philosophical. The Russian Zinovy Zinik gets Ballard to talk about Soviet Utopias and dystopias. With Iain Sinclair, Ballard discusses the design of 1970s multistorey car parks in Watford. (Ballard: “They covered them in strange trellises. It was a bizarre time.”)
And he is very open. When Joan Bakewell says of Crash, “Now, this is a deeply disturbing book. Were you very disturbed when you wrote it?” He replies: “I think I was. I think in a way the novel is the record of a sort of mental crash that I had in the mid-sixties after the death of my wife.” Ah, death. Yes, it’s everywhere in his work. Ballard’s fiction is largely set in the dead spaces of the modern world. Underpasses, flyovers; abandoned and disintegrating runways; nuclear test sites; blockhouses; drained swimming pools. The tide of humanity has gone out. What is left is returning to the natural world. The atmosphere is that of Max Ernst’s Europe After the Rain. The organic and the inorganic are inextricably linked. Things grow and things crumble. The work of man is absorbed by the jungle.
It’s hard, reading this book, not to think of contemporary, Americanised Ireland, with its motorways and drive-through McDonald’s. Of Dublin, with its low corporate tax rate, reckless financial zone and Euro-HQs of American corporations; with its expat communities of British, German and US workers in gated dockside settlements, surrounded by grinding native poverty. An open city in a State too weak to defend itself. Dublin was, for a decade there, the closest thing Europe had to the booming, buccaneering Shanghai of the 1930s.
Now, in neglected Dublin back gardens, the outdoor hot tubs fill with dead leaves. Ireland has become a Ballardian landscape. Given the extraordinary relevance of his work to Ireland’s psychological condition, it might be time for more Irish people to start reading Ballard. And this lovingly curated book of interviews is a fine place to start.
I will be very surprised if any novel this year gives me as much pleasure as this book. And I can guarantee (now that Ballard is dead) that no novel will contain so many provocative, intriguing and visionary ideas.