Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Crystal World

by J.G. Ballard

Prior to reading “The Crystal World,” the only other volume in Ballard’s world disaster tetralogy I’d read was “The Drowned World.” That book has long been a favorite of mine. It's thrilling to trace future developments, even in such early fare. Ballard, who despite his esotericism, is a fine devotee of canonical literature, fuses many of the trappings of, say, a Joseph Conrad novel, onto his own eccentric vision. It’s an excellent example of Ballard’ great skill, even at such an early point in his career. Where “The Drowned World” deals with the a world submerged as the ice caps melt, “The Crystal World” follows the light-infused crystallization of the earth. This epidemic originates in remote zones around the globe, such as the Russian marshes and the African jungles, and by novel’s end overtakes the entirety of the Florida peninsula, including Miami, with “All those hundreds of white hotels transformed into stained glass…like Venice in the days of Titian and Veronese, or Rome with dozens of St. Peters.” Needless to say, it will spread. This is not a globe-hopping epic though, but a deeply psychological and intimate novel. It’s not so much a psychological study, as the main character, Edward Sanders, a doctor specializing in leprosy, is as much a cipher as any Ballard protagonist, but is instead an intensely psychological chimera, trailing the path of time. Time itself, rather, is the subject.

The crystallization of the world creates “…a landscape without time.” My edition of the book has a beautiful wrap-around cover depicting the Max Ernst painting, “Eye of Silence.” I’ve included a decent scan of it at the top of this post. Look at how those looming egressions of luminescent globes and folded glass shoot out of the impossibly calm sheen of the water’s surface. It is almost as if Ernst painted this image specifically for “The Crystal World.” Such Surrealist painting may well be the perfect accompaniment for a Ballard novel, as such a painting visually evokes the inner space Ballard is concerned with portraying – the external manifestation of an inward psychology. It is also important to note that Surrealist painters such as Max Ernst extracted the element of time from their landscapes. “The Crystal World” follows just such an annihilation of time as the jungle becomes a paradise of stasis where a person “…might be free from the questions of motive and identity that were bound up with his sense of time and the past.” Needless to say, Sanders, the main character of the novel, is unable to stay away from this Crystal World, and is eventually drawn back into its jeweled canopies.

More than most Ballard novels I’ve read, “The Crystal World” is acutely paced. Ironic for a novel about the annulment of time. Early chapters follow Dr. Sanders as he travels to Port Matarre, an isolated region of the Cameroon Republic. Anyone used to Ballard’s trademark obsessive, hard-edged prose will be surprised by the smoothness of these opening chapters. One is even reminded of the portraits of Europeans abroad as seen in the novels of Graham Greene or Paul Bowles. The sentences are positively restrained. The similes don’t veer into quite as many disturbed abstractions as is characteristic of Ballard, but the atmosphere is certainly doom-laden. Ventress, a peculiar white-suited man who shares a cabin with Dr. Sanders on the voyage down-river, tells him “…that outside your colony there is merely another larger one.” The changing world down-river is foreshadowed by a letter Sanders receives from Suzanne Clair, the wife of a friend of his with whom he had an affair. The more restrained prose of these opening chapters reflect the normalcy that the crystallization endangers. As the novel progresses, and Sanders becomes further entranced by the crystal world, the prose opens into a luminous extravagance. This linguistic transformation is foreshadowed by a letter Sanders receives at the opening of the novel from Suzanne. She writes to him about how the the natives “…walk through the dark forest with crowns of light on their heads.” This is one of the first, if not the first, instance in the novel of Ballard’s trademark flourishes, as by the end of the novel there will have been countless descriptions of “…dome-shaped lattice[s] of crystal beams that reached from the rim of the forest like the buttresses of an immense cupola of diamond and glass.” The prose, by this point, has become as encrusted as the jungle itself.

The bizarre psychological underpinnings of the novel effectively position it outside a safe frame of normalcy. Sanders reflects on the long-standing love triangle between himself and Max and Suzanne Clair, and feels “…that his past affair with Suzanne if anything bound Max and himself together far more than it separated them.” Characters are not so much in love in Ballard’s novels, as they are inexplicably connected, drawn together more than acclimated to each other. Alcohol is, as always in a Ballard novel, available in large supply. Towards the close of the novel, Port Matarre has been almost entirely evacuated in the face of the encroaching crystal growth, even though Sanders remains in his hotel room, talking with “…the bartender downstairs –I’m glad to say that he, at least, is still at his post (almost everyone else has left)…” As the apocalypse approaches, alcohol is always well-stocked.

It makes sense that alcohol is such a persistent presence in this and other Ballard novels, as intoxication often has the ability to slow down or speed up one’s perception of time. Ventress, perhaps the primary mouthpiece in “The Crystal World” for Ballard’s ruminations on time, tells Sanders that “It is, perhaps, our unique achievement as lords of this creation to have brought about the separation of time and space. Ventress, speaking through different linguistic tropes, also indicates how language is bound up in temporal bondage, taunting Sanders, telling him that it “Sounds like the wrong century- you’re out of time, again…,” while earlier Sanders had teased Ventress when they ran into each other in the early hours of the morning on the docks of Port Matarre. Ventress comments “You’re up late, Doctor…,” while Sanders replies “No, Ventress, early. I’m a day ahead of you.” Time is here contingent upon variances of perception and different times may exist simultaneously. The world, strangely enough, which is encrusted in time, can only be liberated by the crystallization process, which is likened late in the novel to a religious eternity. In the crystal jungle “…everything is transfigured and illuminated, joined together in the last marriage of space and time.” A distinctly religious sentiment, and frightening in its inhumanity. But if paradise were to exist, wouldn’t it be similarly inhuman?

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