Thursday, August 6, 2009

In Memoriam: J.G. Ballard

Jonathan has always been completely frank,” James Graham Ballard wrote of his doctor in the 2008 autobiography Miracles of Life, “leaving me with no illusions about the eventual end.” That end came on April 19, 2009, when he died of prostate cancer, but Ballard, to his great credit, never had many illusions about anything. This fervent insistence that we ought not to lie to ourselves, however distressing the truth may be, is likely was made him the Anglophone world’s greatest if most consistently underrated novelist.

To most readers, Ballard is best known for his bestselling Empire of the Sun, a fictionalized retelling of his own childhood in a Japanese prison camp near Shanghai, later adapted into a fairly mediocre film by Steven Spielberg. To others, not all of them charitably inclined, he was creator of the notoriously transgressive novel Crash, which was made into a great but highly controversial film by David Cronenberg. Neither of these momentary eruptions into the mainstream, however, can really convey the depth of one of the most consistently fascinating literary legacies of the late 20th century. Love it or hate it, it cannot be denied that Ballard’s oeuvre retains a place in contemporary fiction that is genuinely unique. In describing it, one is almost forced to fall into quintessentially Ballardian formulations: he was a forensic scientist performing an autopsy on the psychoneuroses of post-war civilization, a psychogeographic culture jammer posing as an unassuming suburban gentleman, a compulsive cartographer of the psychotic topography of the near future, an impish prophet of the erotic catastrophes to come…. One can go on forever with such formulations, but it is perhaps best to recount what he considered the most complimentary review of his life: the reader’s note to the manuscript for Crash, which simply read, “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.”

To some, this might suggest the kind of hell-bent, psychopathic literary showman typified by Hunter S. Thompson and resurrected as farce by the likes of James Frey. In fact, Ballard was, in life at least, almost preternaturally sane. He lived a quiet life in Shepperton, a suburb of London famous for its movie studios, and raised several children largely on his own. In speech and dress he was almost aggressively conventional, and at times seemed to delight in the incongruence between the hallucinogenic, apocalyptic world of his novels and the stolid, suburban lifestyle he maintained. This incongruence was illusion, however, because Ballard’s greatest talent was to diagnose the psychoses inherent in what is generally regarded as everyday life, and to explore the extraordinary new possibilities they offered for pleasure, beauty, and even love.

Read the rest at The New Ledger.