The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard
The Best American Short Stories 1978
There was a time, some ten or fifteen years ago, when the notion of “inner space,” usually associated with the writings of J.G. Ballard, threatened to change the direction of science fiction. The mind, it was suggested, was the genre’s true subject. Down here in the human head, away from the galaxies, was virgin land, Freud’s new frontier. Hamlet would no doubt have been surprised to learn that the mind was a fresh topic for literature, but the arriving slogan did bring an altered emphasis, since, effectively, it entangled certain fading symbolist doctrines with certain strands of contemporary psychology. Verlaine, so to speak, was revisited by R.D. Laing, and “every landscape is a state of mind” became “most states of mind can be depicted as eerie landscapes”: the objective correlative turned to nightmare. Surrealist painting also lurks somewhere in the background here.
Science fiction soon settled back into its old tracks and took to the stars again, but fantasy and dream, long outlawed by the more earnest practitioners, had found their way back into the form—at least in some of their more clinical aspects. The word terminal, for example, echoes mournfully through Ballard’s stories and novels. Visions of endings are everywhere: a world winding down, its inhabitants dropping off one by one into a collective final sleep; an all but abandoned earth, its oceans bleached dry, its surface a desert of sand and salt; a group of dead astronauts circling the planet like satellites, doomed to orbit for decades until their capsules cave in; Eniwetok, a cluster of disused concrete bunkers and runways and weapons ranges, littered with broken B-29s and Superfortresses, natural home of a missed apocalypse, “an ontological Garden of Eden,” as one of Ballard’s characters ironically says.
It is difficult, in these scenes, to separate the private terror from the public possibility, the personal nightmare from the nightmares of history. In all the stories the stress clearly falls on the mental conditions being shown, the inner spaces of psychosis and the approaches to psychosis. The historical places and imaginable historical disasters are figures; they are shapes and traces the psyche has found for the making of its own portrait. “This island is a state of mind,” a character says of Eniwetok, unconsciously (or perhaps even consciously) paraphrasing Verlaine. “The psychotic never escapes from anything,” a doctor says in another story. “He merely adjusts reality to suit himself. Quite a trick to learn, too.” And yet another character thinks, “If primitive man felt the need to assimilate events in the external world to his own psyche, twentieth-century man had reversed this process….”
But however much these stories point us toward the adjusting, projecting mind, the fact remains that our own history has provided all the adjusted material, has set the scene for every projection. It is the literal content of all these disturbed and disturbing metaphors. And indeed history skulks inside even the most insulated mind, infecting every privacy with its preferred varieties of madness; just as a number of famous private madnesses, loosed upon the world, have made up a good deal of modern history. In this context fantasy scarcely seems a mental or optional affair at all, since some of our worst dreams are identical with our worst realities.
The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard has a brief and handsome introduction by Anthony Burgess, and collects nineteeen stories, chosen by Ballard himself, and written over a period of twenty years or so. Ballard is a master of conventional science fiction, and shares its cherished worries about crowded city life, the domination of time, the encroachments of technology, and the ravening consumer society. Concentration City, in the story of that name, is an infinite cube of streets and avenues, an endless set of Manhattans piled up on top of and alongside each other—“The Gregsons lived up in the West millions on 985th Avenue….” In another story the city is so packed that there are pedestrian jams that sometimes last for days, and everyone lives cramped in tiny cubicles.
In “Chronopolis” the Time Police pursue everyone who is in possession of a watch or clock, because time was once so fiercely organized that programmers became the real rulers of the country. Three families, in “Thirteen for Centaurus,” are locked in a space ship for several lifetimes. Only the fourth generation will see the end of the voyage. It then turns out that even this dim prospect is an illusion, since the space ship is still firmly planted on earth, and the whole simulated trip is a heavily funded and now regretted experiment set up by the Space Department. The families cannot be brought out because no one believes they can be trained to live in the world again. In “The Subliminal Man” a society is saturated with consumer goods it cannot want or refuse. There are four television channels, but only the commercials are different. Telephone calls are free but are interrupted by commercial breaks which get longer as the distance of the call increases—“for long distance calls the ratio of commercial to conversation was as high as 10:1.”
But in spite of the skill and the invention that go into these pieces, Ballard’s heart, or his head, is elsewhere. He is not primarily interested in the narrative line of his stories, or in the people caught up in the situations he has devised for them. He is interested mainly in images of the kind I have mentioned, an abandoned Eniwetok, an earth without oceans, a universe of sand or coral or salt or concrete. He hints, in two stories, at the horrors of life without sleep—operations are performed to allow men to stay awake all the time. He has characters collect, again in two different stories, what he calls “terminal documents”: Beethoven’s final quartets, a transcript of the Nuremberg Trials, the fusing sequences for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. In one story a man discovers he can convert the physical world and ultimately his wife into a simple set of geometrical forms, cut loose from all human meanings and associations. In another, the protagonist is planning a psychic version of World War III in order to blast us all back to a lost sense of symmetry. And in still another, a mock-scientific report proposes correlations between erotic fantasies, Kennedy’s death, and certain makes of automobile.
As these instances suggest, I think, this is writing which is often obsessive, and frequently in energetic bad taste. It evokes a mind, or a series of minds, haunted by dreams of emptiness and annihilation. We may not share these dreams at all—I don’t—but the best of Ballard’s remarkable stories—“The Voices of Time,” “The Cage of Sand,” “The Terminal Beach,” “The Atrocity Exhibition”—confront us with landscapes we can neither disown nor forget. Even the most cheerful and least speculative of us will remember moments when this burned and ending world might have been ours.
The Best American Short Stories, an annual volume, was edited for thirty-six years by Martha Foley, who died in the autumn of 1977. The policy now, we are told, is that each new book will have a different editor, so that the series will be sustained by “a variety of fresh points of view.” This year’s selection was made by Ted Solotaroff, for ten years the tireless and generous editor of American Review. Solotaroff, following and correcting Walter Benjamin in one of his more willful and sentimental moments, suggests that the short story can help keep together what society is furiously setting asunder; can “locate the possibilities of coherence” in the broken motions of change; can fight for “the human scale of experience and its communication against the forces that seek to diminish and trivialize it.”
In the sense that it may focus our ills for us, of course any piece of good writing will do something of this. But Solotaroff means rather more than that. He means conscientiously to overlook the loneliness which is central to so many short stories, both inside and outside this anthology; to ignore the immaculate cruelties of the stories of Maupassant and Maugham, the chilly alienation depicted in Dubliners, and the ferocious disorders of the stories of Lawrence; above all, he means to forget that literature of all sorts can only tell us the truth it has to tell—harsh, strange, noble, endearing, or whatever it is—and that the fights we then choose to fight are our own.
Solotaroff is a very good judge of the most varied kinds of fiction, and confronted with the task of choosing the best short stories of the year, he felt, he says, “rather like a polymorphous perverse sensualist whose new bedmate practices only the missionary position.” This is splendid, but what seems to have happened is that somewhere between Benjamin and the material he was looking at, Solotaroff actually converted, let us hope temporarily, to the missionary position. A few pages after that disarming joke, he is offering a list of literary dislikes that might make even a missionary blanch. No fuss, no antics, no cleverness or indirection. “I am disposed toward stories with a strong narrative movement that clearly gets somewhere….” Solotaroff’s principle is sound—truths are better than tricks—but the formulation is oppressive, and one begins to wonder whether Chekhov would have got into the book on these terms.
Still, the six or seven really outstanding stories in the volume do lend some support to Solotaroff’s argument. They don’t offer coherence in quite the sense he is after—their acts of salvage are too secret and too particular for that—but they do show us people facing loss and disruption with courage and wit and an authentic gift for moral survival. In this sense these sober tales are not all that distant from Ballard’s nightmares. It is true that a concern for survival is quite different from a compulsive curiosity about the ways in which we may not survive. But survival remains the subject, and survival, if it is not to be simply a matter of luck, must count the cost, must know just which things ended so that others could go on.
The stories I am thinking of here are Joyce Carol Oates’s account of the despair of an American editor and publisher visiting an East European country, and falling in love across a daunting language barrier, only to discover that what he really loved was the translation, or the translator; Elizabeth Cullinan’s evocation of an unmarried woman who meets an old boyfriend, now happily married and settled, and concludes that his happiness, while genuine enough, is far more fragile than her sorrow; Peter Taylor’s marvelous study of the way in which a teenage boy in old Nashville unwittingly conspires with his parents to turn his wild old grandfather into a mere “character,” a decorous Southern soldier, a tame peacock—“In those days in Nashville, having a Confederate veteran around the place was comparable to having a peacock on the lawn….”