I met J.G. Ballard once—it was a car crash. We were sailing down the Thames in the middle of the night, I don’t remember why. A British Council thing, maybe? The boat was full of young British writers, many of them drunk, and a few had begun hurling a stack of cheap conference chairs over the hull into the water. I was twenty-three, had only been a young British writer for a couple of months, and can recall being very anxious about those chairs: I was not the type to rock the boat. I was too amazed to be on the boat. (Though it was no pleasure barge, more like a Travelodge afloat, with an interior that put you in mind of a Shepperton semidetached. A Ballardian boat. Everything brown and gray with accents of tube-seat orange.)
I slunk away from the chair hurlers and walked straight into Ballard. That moon of a face, the shiny tonsure, the lank side curtains of hair—ghost of a defrocked priest. An agonizing ten-minute conversation followed in which we two seemed put on earth to vivify that colloquial English phrase “cross-purposes.” Every book I championed he hated. Every film he admired I’d never seen. (We didn’t dare move on to the visual arts.) The only thing we seemed to have in common was King’s College, but as I cheerily bored him with an account of all the lovely books I’d read for my finals, I could see that moon face curdling with disgust. In the end, he stopped speaking to me altogether, leaned against a hollow Doric column, and simply stared.
I was being dull—but the trouble went deeper than that. James Graham Ballard was a man born on the inside, to the colonial class, that is, to the very marrow of British life; but he broke out of that restrictive mold and went on to establish—uniquely among his literary generation—an autonomous hinterland, not attached to the mainland in any obvious way. I meanwhile, born on the outside of it all, was hell-bent on breaking in. And so my Ballard encounter—like my encounters, up to that point, with his work—was essentially a missed encounter: ships passing in the night. I liked the Ballard of Empire of the Sun (1984) well enough, and enjoyed the few science fiction stories I’d read, but I did not understand his novels and Crash (1973) in particular had always disturbed me, first as a teenager living in the flight path of Heathrow airport, and then as a young college feminist, warring against “phallocentricism,” not at all in the mood for penises entering the leg wounds of disabled lady drivers.
What was I so afraid of? Well, firstly that West London psychogeography. I spent much of my adolescence walking through West London, climbing brute concrete stairs—over four-lane roads—to reach the houses of friends, whose windows were often black with the…
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