Wednesday, July 30, 2008
By J.G. Ballard
I tend to ration myself when it comes to British writer, J.G. Ballard. At any given time, I have maybe three or four unread Ballard books on my shelf, but I rarely plow through them in succession. Instead, I pace myself. I’ll read “The Drowned World” this month, “War Fever” the next. Putting such a span of time in-between reading each individual book only heightens the inherent sense of déjà vu that accompanies each of them. I’ve paused while reading one of his books, and had to double-check whether I’d read it before. Of course, this may be due to my own absentmindedness, but it’s caused me to consider what thematic benefits may be reaped from such reoccurrences. Each book echoes backwards and forward to the other books in Ballard’s oeuvre. I’ve also read a couple anthologies of his that share stories between them, which only adds to the confusion. But then again, this confusion isn’t really problematic. These persistent echoes pop up in short story anthologies and novels from Ballard’s earlier science fiction down to his later novels of bourgeois dread. And I contend that this is, far from a weakness of Ballard’s, one of his foremost techniques.
If you’ve read anything by J.G. Ballard, then the images in “Vermillion Sands” of mutated tropical flowers, abandoned aircraft and coral growth will be familiar. The stories in this anthology, written towards the tail end of Ballard’s first phase, when he was still considered a “science fiction writer,” albeit an eccentric one, center on a dilapidated living community that “…was still remembered as the one-time playground of movie czars, delinquent heiresses and eccentric cosmopolites in those fabulous years before the Recess.” The characters are predominantly artists and alcoholics, many of them either physically mangled, like Raymond in “The Cloud Sculptors of Coral D,” a pilot who will never fly again due to a shattered leg, or psychically mutilated, like Howard, a lawyer obsessed with a previous client in the story, “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista.” The protagonists (who are always male in Ballard’s stories, and often doctors, scientists and psychologists) are ciphers for each other and perhaps for Ballard as well, working through their fractured manias with Scotch and a fatigued, obsessive exhaustion.
Just as the protagonists echo each other, the same fractured story reappears throughout “Vermillion Sands,” as if put through a decayed series of decelerations caused by a faulty machine. Though these stories are narrative, and even follow a standard pulp formula, the intent of the sentences are not propulsion, but stasis. The most obvious influence on Ballard’s work is surrealism, though he is not so much inspired by the chimera-like word play of the Surrealist poets(though that also shows its influence in his more experimental work, such as “The Atrocity Exhibition,” or selected stories in “War Fever), as he is influenced by Surrealist painters such as Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy. The stories are set during “…the Recess, that world slump of boredom, lethargy and high summer…” before the government “…started up all the clocks…” again. That is, they occur in a zone of collapsed time. Many of the characters suffer from “beach fatigue,” a bourgeois disease of ennui and lassitude fabricated by Ballard, but one that could be very well applied to the middle class of today.
Vermillion Sands is a beach community populated by artists and their decadent, oftentimes malefic works of art – sound sculptures that attack homes, organic clothing that strangles its wearer, and psychic houses that assume the murderous tendencies of their previous occupants. The only one of these ekphrastic nightmares that falls flat is Ballard’s examination of poetry in “Studio 5, the Stars,” where poets have put down their typewriters and now rely upon automated VT screens to write their poems for them. That’s such a wonderful idea, as Ballard presciently zeroes in on the growing importance of the apparatus in the process of writing, and how composition itself becomes a sort of procedural mechanism in a capitalistic society. This story’s version of the crazy but beautiful femme fatale Ballard is so fond of writing, Aurora Day, fancies herself a personification of Melander, the Muse of Poetry, and along with the help of a Pan-like chauffer, she destroys the VT sets of every poet in the Vermillion Sands area in order to return poetry to its classical roots.
While the other stories in the collection may offer examples of the destruction these decadent devices of the future can wreck, they often indicate the terrible glamour of the new as well. The sound sculpture in “Venus Smiles” is eventually melted down and integrated into a thousand new pieces of metal, all which contain its horrible, cancerous ability to grow. The main character of “Venus Smiles” realizes the extent of this mutant contamination, he begins “…to dance to the strange, abstracted music, for some reason as beautiful now as Lorraine Drexel’s wistful eyes.” The horror of the new has transformed into a deranged beauty. That’s a far cry from the retrogressive conclusion of “Studio 5, the Stars,” which ends with the protagonist tearing up the IBM invoice for a new VT screen, as he finds new inspiration in the classical, and “Time seemed to dissolve. Within five minutes, I had produced a beautifully turned sonnet, the first piece of verse I’d written in ten years.” This is a strange anomaly in the oeuvre of Ballard, where progress is not an invariable course, but something that an individual can choose to spurn. This is a far cry from the inevitability and sheer lack of choice in the matter the characters face in most of Ballard’s work. And while elsewhere Ballard shows a fine awareness of art world, referencing Giacometti, John Cage and Stockhausen, he doesn’t seem to have as much interest in contemporary poetry, as the most current reference in the story is to Ezra Pound. Contemporary poetry, the New American poetry being written in the sixties and whose continuity is seen in Donald Allen’s anthology “New American Poetry,” simply doesn’t seem to hold as much interest for Ballard as the contemporary art world did. Ballard, as I’ll get into further below, has always operated in many ways more like an artist than as a poet or novelist, even though his medium is the novel and the short story.
Stylistically, “Vermillion Sands” fits nicely in Ballard’s body of work. It was published in 1971, and exists as an excellent bridge between his science fiction disaster tetralogy and Ballard’s middle period of “The Atrocity Exhibition,” “Crash” and “The Unlimited Dream Company,” amongst others. Even though “Vermillion Sands” came out a year after “The Atrocity Exhibition,” the stories contained in it were written between 1956 and 1971. Due to this span of time of composition, it is possible to see Ballard progress from the leaner prose of ‘56’s “The Prima Belladonna” to the more Byzantine, hard-edged style he is famous for. Compare a line like: “The next three or four days at the shop were an audio-vegetative Armageddon,” with its crisp overtones of Cold War annihilation, with the more florid, almost diseased sentences of some of the later stories. For example: “The purple curtains draped behind the sofa resembled an immense velvet sail, collapsed against the deck of a becalmed ship, while the spiral bolster emerged as an ornamental prow.” The intention of description and metaphor, and particularly simile, is no longer anchored to narrative and pacing. It has severed its ties to any objective reality. The story, which in a way has become negligible due to these constant recapitulations, is adrift in an inner landscape. Simile is an indispensable device in Ballard’s arsenal. I can’t think of any other writer of his stature whose work hinges upon a device more frequently seen in amateur work. The simile enacts a paranoid-critical ambiguity remarkably similar to what Dali did in painting.
And perhaps that is why Ballard seems to have a great deal more acolytes in the art world than he does in the literary. My friends who are visual artists are more likely to have read J.G. Ballard than they are, say, Ron Silliman. Ballard reworks the same images and plots like an artist habitually returning to a theme. In the final story of the collection, “The Screen Game,” one character comments that “Now I know that only the artist can create an absolute reality.” That line, perhaps, illuminates much of Ballard’s intent. He is not a writer or realism, and though his stories are narrative, the characters and plots are often so interchangeable that they become irrelevant. Ballard is not involved with the illusion of reality, but the crafting of an actual space, the “inner space” which he habitually returns to in interview. He might, then, be said to have some correlation with Alain Robbe-Grillet and the nouveau roman, as the typical focus on plot, action and characters is secondary to the object and the work itself. Though I see a lot of work that draws influence from the surface of Ballard’s work – the suburban refuse, the tropical fervor, and the diseased transcendentalism, I would be thrilled to see more artists and writers actively drawing upon Ballard’s role as an intriguing example of the integration of techniques of reoccurrence and objectification as intent itself.
Well, expect two more posts on J.G. Ballard to closely follow, as I’m bucking my usual trend and decided to read in succession the three unread Ballard books I have on my bookshelf. Expect a post on “The Crystal World” next, followed by a look at one of Ballard’s later novels, “Millennium People.”