By Alan Glynn
So I can have his babies, that’s why. Though I am reliably informed that for various reasons this may no longer be possible, if indeed it ever was . . . which is a pity, because I’ve been a big fan of Ballard’s since the late 1970s when I first came across The Atrocity Exhibition.
Your mid to late teens is a great time for discovering new ways of seeing things, new stuff – thrilling works of transgression that make an indelible impression on your imagination. Someone hands you a copy of The Third Policeman, or you sneek in to see Taxi Driver, and somehow your world changes. I found it especially thrilling back then to come across a copy of The Atrocity Exhibition, because not only did it change my world, it cut it up and re-arranged its face. I remember scanning the chapter headings in the shop, still trying to work out what the damn thing was – a novel? short stories? a catalogue? – but when I got to ‘Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy’ and ‘Why I want to fuck Ronald Reagan’ I knew it didn’t matter. Whatever this shit was, I had to read it.
So it wasn’t too long before I was devouring Crash, Concrete Island, High-Rise and The Unlimited Dream Company. I then followed Ballard through the years, reading every new book that came out, as well as many of his always fascinating articles and interviews. And when he died last year I felt – along with so many others – a real sense of loss. Ballard inspired great loyalty in his readers. There was this idea that he had been our guide through the supermediated psychoscapes of the twentieth century, and both havles of it, too – because as centuries go, the twentieth had definitely been a game of two halves. In the first half fascism happened and was more or less quashed. In the second half certain unresolved energies left over from the thirties and forties spurted forth and flowered in a thousand weird and rarely wonderful little ways. Ballard absorbed the first half, and then – luckily for us – chronicled the second.
And that is one of the reasons, I think, for his continuing appeal – especially to young writers who may be striving to find a voice and subject matter of their own. Ballard seemed to arrive on the scene with a voice and subject matter that were ready-made and fully assembled, a set of concerns and themes that would be the envy of any writer at any time.
For Ballard, there were two controlling influences, fascism and Surrealism – a marriage made, if not in heaven, then at least somewhere north by northwest of there. It wasn’t just Ballard’s time in Shanghai and the camp at Lunghua that formed the young writer’s imagination – and informed so much of his later work – it was WWII itself, this epic template for the breakdown of order . . . social, psychological and physical. Afterwards, as a schoolboy in England, the young Ballard discovered Surrealism, an early OMG moment if ever there was one. Because here was a rich, visual correlative to the global rupture he, and millions, had just lived through. Ballard quoted Odilon Redon’s observation that Surrealism put the logic of the visible at the service of the invisible. In fact, he quoted it often, and it’s clear why. Reading that comment for the first time must have been like a revelation to him, and – for the young writer starting out, unsure how to corral his imagination – a form of license, a liberation even.
But there was another essential element in the equation. Ballard was “English” and he was a “writer”, but he wasn’t – curiously, and thankfully – an “English writer”. If he had been, this would have entailed, in the mid-fifties, a good deal of looking over his shoulder, of anxiety about tradition and influence. The thing is, Ballard had read widely – he’d read nearly everything, it seems – but he didn’t feel beholden to any of it. So when he he was stationed with the RAF in Canada and read some SF stories in a magazine, he found he had no compunction (or snobbery) about embracing the form and giving it a go himself. And it worked. Gloriously. By taking the genre route, Ballard also gave himself a solid grounding in story and structure. Later on, as a result, he managed to avoid what he himself regarded as the great literary cul-de-sac of metafiction – all those turgid, self-reflexive, pomo tomes from the 60s that no one reads anymore. Ballard had many interests – Freudian psychology, anthropology, political philosophy, the visual arts – but as a writer what he chiefly wanted to do was tell stories.
The SF community, however, wasn’t that kind to Ballard, and he didn’t think much of them either. Most American SF in the 60s he regarded as a sort of displaced colonialism, fantasies about policing the galaxies – Pigs in Space, if you will. Whereas what he was exploring was inner space, and that of today rather than tomorrow. In any case, the publication of The Atrocity Exhibition in 1970 was really the point at which the whole Ballard project became unmoored from the SF mothership and drifted off into new territory – and its own eventual entry in the dictionary: Ballardian.
It was with this book that Ballard began to explore what is, I believe, his primary theme: the idea of a collective psychopathology – society itself having a nervous breakdown. It’s a theme he carried right through, in various forms, to his great final run of novels, from Cocaine Nights to Kingdom Come. In ‘WIWTFRR’, he presents us with a mock-psychological position paper on the subliminal sexual appeal of the then governor of California. The piece is Swiftian in tone and register, and as with the rest of The Atrocity Exhibition it reflects the perverse fragmentation of what we may now – jaded, exhausted – regard as a very early, almost Edenic incarnation of ‘the media landscape’.
Of Ballard’s many novels, my personal favourite is 1975’s High-Rise. It seems to me to be just perfect, and if I could have one of his babies, that would be it. The civilized, largely professional inhabitants of a forty-story tower block conspire in a gradual descent into madness, as petty disputes erupt and “cocktail parties degenerate into maurauding attacks on ‘enemy’ floors”. An atmosphere of menace is established from the very first sentence: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months”. In High-Rise, Ballard sketches a complex human ecosystem held together by brittle social codes and the irresistible force of technology. Break through the repression, however, open the floodgates of impulse, and you find what might be called the Freedom Delusion. Ballard isn’t judgemental, but he does shine a torch down neural and moral pathways that we don’t often see illuminated like this.
In language that is always lucid and controlled (check out his magnificant short story ‘The Drowned Giant’) Ballard’s prose style is the logic of the visible serving at the pleasure of the invisible . . . the subterranean, the repressed, the irrational. This applies to his non-fiction, as well. In his autobiography, Miracles of Life, he tellingly describes the first dissection room he entered at medical school as being “halfway between a nightclub and an abattoir.”
Miracles of Life was Ballard’s last published work and for a writer with a reputation for being cool and detached it was a remarkably frank and moving account of his life – a life whose emotional centre was his children, his real babies. He describes being present at the births of his two daughters: “Far from being young, as young as a human being can be, they seemed immensely old, their foreheads and features streamlined by time, as archaic and smooth as the heads of pharaohs in Egyptian sculpture, as if they had travelled an immense distance to find their parents.”
Ballard turned Cyril Connolly’s famous dictum on its head – the idea that the pram in the hall was an enemy of promise. Rather, Ballard said, it was his greatest ally. And this, I think, was the mark of a true artist. His confinement in the suburbs unleashed an astonishing imaginative vision which he then dedicated the rest of his life to working out in his fiction – nearly twenty novels and dozens of short stories that are essential to any full understanding of the last century, and indeed, what has unfolded so far of this one.