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Believe It or Not

Prolific and astonishingly inventive, J.G. Ballard has in the last quarter century established himself as perhaps the most “literary” of contemporary writers of science fiction. His highly idiosyncratic stories and novels have won the enthusiastic endorsement of Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene, and Susan Sontag as well as (more predictably) Ray Bradbury and Ursula Le Guin. But the term “science fiction” is itself questionable when applied to Ballard’s work, which has more in common with the imaginary cities of Calvino and the scholarly conundrums of Borges (though it lacks their playfulness and wit) or with the paranoid projections of Pynchon and Burroughs than with the space odysseys usually associated with the label. Recently, with Empire of the Sun and with the book under review, he has moved (almost) altogether from the realm of the fantastic to experiment with a hybrid of fiction and autobiography that seems to me to confuse genres in ways that are troubling.

Regarding Ballard’s fictional writing, I see him as primarily the creator of powerful, feverishly detailed situations—situations that give rise not so much to stories as to the night-marish expansion of images involving, typically, claustrophobia, dismemberment, and apocalypse. At their best these images are arresting, often haunting. One thinks of the lethal, jewel-like crystallization spreading like an ice sheet from the heart of a dark, Conradian jungle in The Crystal World (1966) or the piecemeal dismembering of a beautiful, Praxitelean giant washed up on a beach like a stranded whale in “The Drowned Giant.”1 In the genuinely shocking novel called Crash (1973), Ballard presents us with a group of characters obsessed with the possibilities of combining Eros and Thanatos in an age of automotive high-tech. Orgasms are induced through contact with instrument panels and steering wheels in cars hurtling toward fatal impact; the hideous wounds and mutilations of crash victims provide new opportunities for sexual penetration.

The setting of Crash is confined to the concrete landscape of motorways, flyovers, transient apartments, and high-rise parking lots surrounding Heathrow airport, details of which—together with accounts of the accompanying traffic jams and accidents—are repeated in a litany of dehumanized horror. The novel, in Ballard’s words, is “an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation, a kit of desperate measures only for use in an extreme crisis.” It is, he writes, “the first pornographic novel based on technology.”2

By no means all of Ballard’s work springs from fantasies so disturbing. His Warhol-like fascination with pop culture—and especially the televised image of celebrities—can often lead to glibness or to jeux d’esprit that fall flat—as with the piece called “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy” or, more recently, “The Secret History of World War 3,” in which a senile Ronald Reagan is brought from retirement to serve a third term.

During the past decade, Ballard has ventured further into realism than before—in his pure fiction as well as in his quasi-autobiographies. His most accomplished recent novel is The Day of Creation (1987), which was a best seller in Britain and well received, though less widely read, in this country. Set in a former French colony just south of the Sahara, the book explores much of the same postcolonial terrain—geographical and political—that we have encountered in fiction by V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux, and William Boyd. The grounding in seemingly well-documented physical detail is impressive. But at the same time the book depends on a deep fantasy—what one reader has called “a urethral fantasy of continental magnitude”—in which a bulldozer removing a huge tree stump accidentally unplugs a mighty underground river, a “third Nile” capable of irrigating the parched land and turning back the encroachments of the Sahara. The imagery arising from and accompanying the narrator’s struggle to reach the source of this river is so vivid as to render almost negligible what seems to me an endemic problem in all of Ballard’s fiction, including the most successful: the comparative shallowness—emotional and psychological—of the characters and the largely mechanical nature of the dialogue.

This is a problem that is, I think, inherent in fantasy writing itself. The contrived situation or major premise, with its proliferating images, tends to dominate all other fictional considerations. In Ballard’s work, as in the more orthodox brand of science fiction, the subordination of human richness and idiosyncrasy to the dominant system creates what might be called a literary equivalent to totalitarianism—and accounts, I think, for the boredom that so many readers who are used to richer fiction experience once the power of the contrivance or image has been exhausted. Do even the most avid fans of science fiction ever feel impelled to reread the novels that most excited them?

One might speculate that the move toward greater realism in Ballard’s fiction—of which the short novel called Running Wild (1988) is another example—is connected with his two experiments in fictionalized autobiography. The first of these was Empire of the Sun,3 which, though labeled a novel, reads for the most part like a documentary account of Ballard’s boyhood experiences in a Japanese prison camp in China during the Second World War. The images of prewar Shanghai, lurid and corrupt, of the conditions in the camp with its slowly starving prisoners, and of the surrounding countryside with its canals filled with bloated Chinese corpses—these are as vivid as any Ballard has produced in his most visionary work. Indeed, the boy himself is periodically given to fantasies that border upon the hallucinatory. What seems to me the major weakness of Empire of the Sun I find in most of Ballard’s other writing: the lack of inwardness and psychological depth. Ballard’s account of his younger self seems curiously extroverted and almost callously unaffected by his separation from his parents, who, in this fictionalized account (although not in fact),4 were in another camp and may well have been dead for all that the boy knew. But despite the lack of convincing interior experience and the uncertain balance between documentary and fiction, Empire of the Sun has great narrative and descriptive energy. It was probably for these qualities that it won the James Tait Black Award, was nominated for the Booker Prize, and was made into a successful movie by Steven Spielberg.

The new novel, The Kindness of Women, is a sequel to Empire of the Sun and, like that book, may be read as either a fictionalized autobiography or an autobiographical novel. It begins with another version of Ballard’s boyhood experiences in Shanghai and the prison camp at Lunghua. Anyone who has read the earlier account will be puzzled by the discrepancies—both major and minor—between it and the latter. The end of the war and the reunion with the parents are strikingly different in the two versions, though both maintain that the parents spent the war in a different camp. Only The Kindness of Women records an episode in which Jim is allowed to look on while four Japanese soldiers crush the chest of a Chinese clerk with slowly tightened telephone wires. The sadism of this little scene reverberates throughout The Kindness of Women. Did it really happen? the reader wonders. On what principle was it omitted from Empire of the Sun, in which Jim is exposed to many other horrifying—though less protracted—scenes of violence and cruelty that underscore the cheapness of life in China during the war?

The story next leaps ahead seven or eight years to Jim’s medical studies at Cambridge. He moves on to his stint as a hard-drinking and whoring pilot with the RAF in Saskatchewan, and then briefly settles down to a happy, almost lyrical account of his years as a young husband and father living in the middle-class suburb of Shepperton some miles up the Thames from London. A tragedy overturns this domestic idyll: Jim’s wife, Miriam, is killed in a freak accident during a family holiday on the Costa Brava, leaving Jim to manage as best he can with his small children and his own blighted life.

The second half of The Kindness of Women serves as an example of the rather bland introspection that periodically surfaces in the book:

The kindness of women came to my rescue, at a time when I had almost given up hope. Within a few weeks of her death I discovered that I had lost not only Miriam but all the women in the world. An unbridgeable space separated me from Miriam’s friends and the women I knew, as if they had decided to isolate me within a carefully drawn cordon. Later I realised that they were standing at a distance, in the nearby rooms of my life, waiting until I had faced my anger at myself.

The first such act of kindness occurs when the sorrowing Jim and his children are met on their return from Spain by Miriam’s sister Dorothy and her husband. After lunch, while the husband takes the children to the zoo, Dorothy and Jim climb into Miriam’s still rumpled bed and make love in a scene as pornographically described (though without the technological additives) as any of the sexual episodes in Crash—i.e., “Smiling in a distant but reassuring way, Dorothy took it from my fingers and began to massage the head between her hands. She forced a little spit onto her fingertips and moistened—“ The total and explicit recall of every tumescence and secretion in this long ago sexual interlude imposes some strain on the reader’s credence; the conventions of pornography have replaced what might have been a recollection more of the emotions than the mechanics of such a scene.

Since there has been no previous mention of Dorothy in the book and no indication of a previous flirtation or relationship, certain questions inevitably arise. Though such an episode could certainly be made to happen—even plausibly—in a novel, did it occur in fact? The tone and assumptions of the book raise the question whether there was a real sister-in-law named (or not named) Dorothy? (We know from Who’s Who that J.G. Ballard’s deceased wife was named Helen, not Miriam.) In any case, Ballard dismisses this odd scene, out of which another kind of novelist or memoirist might have drawn some interesting psychological or moral implications, with the mere statement that “She [Dorothy] had met her obligations to her dead sister, calming the widowed husband and reminding him that Miriam endured within our affection and shared memories.”

Such acts of kindness, each provided with a loving account of all the anatomical parts and the uses to which they are put, recur at regular intervals in the narrative as it moves into the drug-crazed Sixties and their aftermath. Jim is swept into the action by a rich, amphetamine-fueled American hippie named Sally and her English friend Lykiard, who persuades Jim to read a piece on the sexuality of Jacqueline Kennedy during an open-air concert at Brighton. Another major influence on Jim during this era is a handsome Cambridge psychologist named Dick Sutherland, who has abandoned the laboratory in order to become the glamorous introducer of popular science programs on the BBC. It is he who persuades the highly suggestible Jim to allow himself to be tape-recorded while taking a dose of LSD. Again and again the spirit of the Sixties is evoked in rhapsodic if banal passages that form a sort of running commentary on Ballard’s fiction of the period, particularly Crash:

In this overlit realm ruled by images of the space race and the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, and the suicide of Marilyn Monroe, a unique alchemy of the imagination was taking place. In many ways the media landscape of the 1960s was a laboratory designed specifically to cure me of all my obsessions. Violence and pornography provided a kit of desperate measures that might give some meaning both to Miriam’s death and to the unnumbered victims of the war in China. The demise of feeling and emotion, the death of affect, presided like a morbid sun over the playground of that ominous decade…. The brutalising newsreels of civil wars and assassinations…were matched by a pornography of science that took its materials, not from nature, but from the deviant curiosity of the scientist.

Another, more baleful, player in the drama of Ballard’s life is David Hunter, his boyhood friend from Shanghai and fellow RAF pilot. Obsessed by his war-induced hatred of the Japanese, Hunter nearly kills himself and Sally by crashing his Jaguar into a taxi carrying Japanese stewardesses to Heathrow. Sexually aroused while telling Jim about her brush with death, Sally bestows an “act of kindness” on him in her cramped MG, while David, jealous and demented, is prowling the streets of London in his car, hoping to run the pair down and kill them. Jim himself is subsequently inspired to mount a notorious exhibition of crashed cars in a London gallery.

The relevance of these events (invented? real? heightened?) to Crash is obvious. Curiously, Ballard never mentions that novel in The Kindness of Women. Indeed, he hardly even refers to the fact that he is a writer at all, much less such a prolific one. Nothing whatever is said about his ideas on the subject of fiction (about which he has written eloquently elsewhere) or on the genesis of his stories and novels. Only at the very end of the book does he inform us that Empire of the Sun is being filmed; even when he goes to Los Angeles for its premiere, his primary interest lies in the fact that he encounters there a Mrs. Weinstock who turns out to be Olga, his White Russian nanny from Shanghai; though now in her sixties, Olga promptly confers on him a long-deferred “act of kindness.”

Ballard’s wavering between fact and fiction has ultimately a trivializing effect, which is, I think, much more damaging to The Kindness of Women than to Empire of the Sun. Taken on its own, Empire of the Sun works reasonably well as either novel or memoir. It has a formal shapeliness, a unity of tone and situation, and a concentrated impact that its sequel conspicuously lacks. The Kindness of Women suffers from the banality of its many observations about electronic broadcasting and the substitution of the televised image for reality, from its forced reconstruction of long-past sexual encounters, and from a callowness in its psychology. The link between Jim’s boyhood experience of death on a vast scale and his adult preoccupation with eroticized death and dismemberment is suggested but never convincingly established. Too often the semi-fictionalized dialogue is either flat or else has a subtly false or portentous ring to it. Here, for example, is an exchange between Sally and Jim after the accident in which she nearly died:

Sally, he’ll kill you.”

Great! I might like that….” We had stopped on the Westway flyover, and the traffic lights flared across Sally’s sallow face and its wild smile…. “Don’t worry. David wants to get himself killed, he isn’t interested in me. He’s always trying to hit other cars. Every shunt reminds him of something—the war, I guess. You never talked about your camp, Jim. Did he have a bad time physically?”

Physically, nothing happened to him at all.”

And what about you—mentally maybe?”

Sally, that was long, long ago.”

Not for him. Car crashes bring it all back for David. They mean for him what bullfights mean for everyone else—sex and death….”

How much more effective is the wholly fictional treatment of such themes in Crash. In The Kindness of Women even the most moving scenes—the death of Miriam, for instance—or the most sensational, are to some degree vitiated by a gnawing doubt that they happened in the way described or even that they happened at all.

One does not mind when Philip Roth subverts the autobiographical base of The Facts with a disclaimer by his fictional alter ego; he is making a point about the elusiveness of facts and at the same time playing a sophisticated game with his readers. I have no sense that Ballard is making a similar point or playing a game when he fictionalizes—to whatever degree—the events in his autobiography. The question of the reader’s response is crucial. However difficult it may be to get at the facts—psychological as well as literal—and however easy it is to deconstruct the very notion that it is possible to do so, an avowed effort to deal truthfully with real events or people or past states of mind evokes in the reader a reaction that is fundamentally different from that induced by a novel, no matter how much that novel has been drawn from the writer’s immediate experience. More than a subtitle or label is involved. Good novels are deeply truthful lies; good autobiographies are inevitably falsified attempts to present the truth.

  1. 1

    Published in The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard, edited by Anthony Burgess (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978).

  2. 2

    Introduction to the French edition of Crash. Reprinted in the Vintage paperback edition of the novel, 1985, p. 6.

  3. 3

    Reviewed by D.J. Enright, The New York Review (November 22, 1984).

  4. 4

    In his review, D.J. Enright points out that Ballard’s parents were actually in the same camp as their son.

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