Jim Ballard died in April, 2009, after losing the fiercest of battles: a tumultuous 3-year fight with cancer. I learned of his death through the cruelest of mediums: Facebook. A fellow champion of his prose had posted it only minutes before as a status update; I exited my browser and sat in silence for a half hour. My first reaction, like many of those borne of someone’s passing, was selfish: why didn’t the bloody bugger ever reply to my letter?
I had written to him only 3 weeks previously, offering my appreciation for the profound affect his fiction had one me, and best wishes for his future health. I now know he never read it, nor less received it, as he had left his home months previously for hospitalisation. My next reaction was sadness – I would never read a new word from him again
I had first encountered Ballard, not through literary circles, but through one of my favourite bands: Joy Division. Their doomed singer, young Ian Curtis, was an ardent fan of the Shepperton-native, and paid homage to the writer by entitling one of the band’s songs Atrocity Exhibition – Ballard’s infamous, profoundly challenging collection of little novellas.
I subsequently bought The Drowned World and read it whilst holidaying in Italy’s Lake Garda. With its wide-stretching plethora of ominous lakes and intense heat, the setting was apt. I gorged on it in one sitting. Toughly written, vividly cataloguing an estranged Doctor, who, rather than escape the derangement of a landscape in calamity, chooses, instead, to further bore into its decrepitude – its affect was obscure, perhaps even unsettling.
Never before had I read such a distinctly unerring portrayal of psychological trauma. It stayed with me for days – a peering shadow at my shoulder, incessantly conjuring up ideas that at once felt deeply claustrophobic and unnerving. Ballard’s themes prodded at the most perilous of human traits: withdrawal, loneliness, insanity.
Though written in a simplistic, fictional form, harbouring an otherwise linear plot development, Ballard’s world unearths a branch of misshapen reality. Out of the mundane comes the extreme (we’re showcased Kerans, diving into the bowels of submerged streets, in an allegory of one’s journey into the unconscious unknown), always challenging, always unsettling -but, most importantly, always vividly enrapturing.
Thus the infatuation started. Novels, novellas, short story collections, non-fictional works – all were snapped up and amply devoured, each and everyone circumnavigating around the lonely planet of contemporary fiction quicker than a sputnik with a fuselage pumped with acid. Despite the anarchical nature of his writing, through Ballard’s work, through the mediums of these frenzied landscapes, emerge the most potent forces of self-destruction laboring the world.
In Crash, a novel later adapted by David Cronenberg for cinema, the juxtaposing menace of the car-crash and the ethereal high of sexual intercourse are interwoven, depicting a sordid fetishism only Ballard – or, at a stretch, William Burroughs – could have produced. The spectre of celebrity looms fervently throughout, with the main protagonist, Vaughn, envisioning his dream-death through a head – on collision with Elizabeth Taylor.
Again, with The Atrocity Exhibition, Hollywood’s shadow spreads throughout. Marilyn Monroe, J.F.K, and President Reagan (whose name features in the crudely entitled ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’) all feature in a work that, from experience, lies awkward, perplexing, almost inapproachable. Ballard himself gently nodded to the general feeling, advising readers to dip in, pick one of the ‘condensed novels’ from it, and take from it what they wished.
It doesn’t take long for one to realise that Ballard’s work isn’t enjoyable, in the literal sense of the word. There are no restrictions; there are no guarantees of fortunate endings. Obliteration is as likely an end-note, as recovery is; if the climate summons disablement, all traces of hope is abandoned. And though in a few of his works we’re offered a lick of flame, the prospect of it being quenched by the issues that have arisen out its establishment forever hover.
In later life, Ballard shed his earlier work’s illusion of fantasy to explore the pressing issues of modern-day’s realism. Dystopian societies, led by the cruel shackles of harbored secrets, wealth, the reemergence of radical fascism and the struggles wrought amongst society’s classes, permeate his last 4 novels: Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People – and his last novel, 2006’s Kingdom Come. With them, Ballard appears prophetic – communities wreaked with tension are openly disgorged, offering a terrifying glimpse into the vacuous heart of modern-day culture. Even now, as I read of the English far-right group, The E.D.L. (English Defense League), stirring up race-hate through thinly-veiled incitement masked as protest, Ballard’s visions break through.
And it’s for this reason, and those discussed above, that I always return. I’m not the voracious reader of his work that I used to be. I dip now and then, of course, when the mood suits, but I’ve found myself drawn to the light-bearers of this deranged fiction – chiefly Martin Amis and the irrepressible, ridiculously lucid, satirist, Will Self. Within their work, Ballard’s foundations – England’s ceaseless highways, the landscape’s imprint on the unconsciousness, the future – all raise their sorry heads, wonderfully frightening in their apparent mundanity.
But yes, it’s Ballard’s inkwell that stemmed the fascination I now hold for the obscure. Whilst some suggest art’s primary function is to supply answers to life’s wordless wonders, it is my belief that an artist’s work is also to reveal questions that were, before then, hidden.
Whether it’s the internal struggle of an apartment block spiraling into dull skies (High-Rise), or a semi-autobiographical account of a young-man’s growing up in a war-torn Shanghai (Empire of the Sun), or a surreal journey into the streets of an abandoned America (Hello America) – Ballard, through the power of words, brings us somewhere no other writer can. He brings us into the fear of ourselves, and the fragility of the world that surrounds us; the world we wreak havoc both in and upon. There will be no other writer like him again. He will never write another word again – I shall always be returning.
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