Thursday, 23 April 2009
J.G. Ballard, 1930 - 2009
J.G. Ballard, 1930 - 2009
For days now, I’ve been struggling to find an opportunity to get something down in writing on the death of J.G. Ballard. A decent obit of such a contentious and fascinating character would be difficult at the best of times. A writer/thinker who added an entirely new, autonomous region to the landscape of twentieth century culture, who birthed an aesthetic which is forceful, definite and yet impossible to fully define upon the world… yes, an appropriate headstone for Ballard does not exactly roll off the chisel, so to speak.
Perhaps what’s most fascinated me about Ballard’s work, and what’s kept me coming back to it occasionally ever since I started working through his reserves of global disaster sci-fi as an apocalypse-obsessed teenager, is that I can never QUITE get an angle on where he’s coming from. As a kid, I was looking for catastrophe, ruin and reassuring daring-do in the Wyndham mould, and, I suppose in theory, Ballard delivered. But at the same time, his stories – if you can call them that; they’re often more like gigantic, slowly unfolding canvas of choreographed destruction – left me completely cold. This guy seemed to be approaching the end of the world not from the point of view of someone who WANTED it to happen, or from someone who wanted to STOP it happening, nor even from the point of view of someone who’d SEEN it happening and wanted to convey the experience. He seemed instead to be operating from a perspective completely removed from humanity, delighting in taking apart the pieces of the modern world, flinging them around violently to see what new shapes they make. Characters, such as they were, were just some poor, self-serving shmucks who got in the way. Even when characters are blessed with a bit of development in these early novels, they tend to exemplify the trend found in much ‘new wave’ British SF (also see Priest, Aldiss etc.), wherein heroic everymen are phased out in favour of new everymen who are shallow, immoral, deeply unhappy bastards who tend to spend their time running grim small businesses that they secretly hate and cheating on their wives just for the sake of it.
It is perhaps this sense of alien perspective, of emotional coldness, that helps make Ballard one of the most genuinely challenging of the pantheon of 20th C. modernist/punk novelists. Whilst most of his books might still ‘make sense’ in narrative terms, they lack the underlying humanitarianism of Burroughs or the humour of Joyce, and these absences prove far more disturbing and off-putting than the simple matter of one sentence following another; I know I’ve spoken to several people who find Ballard’s books borderline unreadable, impossible to connect with.
Was Ballard really a modernist though? It seems to me that on the one hand he was an ultimate, uncompromising futurist in the sense Marinetti originally intended – a proponent of vast, violent, impersonal action, of the artistic properties of physical, industrial weight, of the momentum of a movement, whether creative or destructive, being more important than it’s direction. But at the same time, how can you possibly throw a ‘modernist’/’futurist’ label at someone who seemed so obsessed with distrusting, disassembling, sabotaging all forms of post-industrial structure - indeed of pulling apart the whole veneer of socially constructed reality? Someone whose work seems so fixated on stasis, inertia, endless repetition, with the only peace to be found in sitting in a blankness beyond ruins, dreaming of nothing? You’d be forced to conclude that Ballard was at once modernist and anti-modernist; perhaps turning the tools of modernism against themselves in some appropriately Crash-like auto-destructive suicide pact? Quite what that makes him in the ‘-ist’ stakes, who the hell knows.
Some pretty jinky ideas there to try to get to the bottom of in a quick, belted-out-in-60-minutes weblog obituary, huh?
Like other such similarly omnipresent yet tricky characters as Lynch, Borges and Burroughs, Ballard lived to receive the dubious honour of seeing BALLARDIAN enter common critical shorthand, a quick shortcut to a common set of ideas/images/meanings that most of us implicitly understand, but couldn’t possibly express in words.
I’ve spent a long time reading Ballard over the years, and his ideas have no doubt filtered through me pretty thoroughly, but if challenged I’d probably hesitate before saying that I even LIKE his work. Appreciate, certainly, but LIKE? Even for his fans, there’s still an implicit threat within Ballard’s view of the world, a baffling ambiguity in the pictures he paints, that can provide a fly in anyone’s ointment…. but isn’t it that threat and uncertainty that keeps successive generations coming back? Unlike most of his contemporaries, Ballard’s pre-‘Empire of the Sun’ body of work has never settled down, never been tamed.
It seems appropriate then that Ballard picked an awkward time to die; just as I’ve been busy travelling, working, faffing around, settling into new house, lacking an internet connection, and I even bloody locked myself out yesterday and wondered the streets for hours instead of getting a chance to sit down and write this. So, a belated obituary I’m afraid to say farewell to a man for whom the more common deathblog standbys of “what a great guy” and “I’m really sad” and “watch this clip of him being awesome” just won’t suffice.
All I’ve said above is more or less random observation trimmed as it fell out of my head ; novices are advised to steer clear of the perplexingly bad string of recent novels currently choking up charity shops, and to take in everything he wrote up to, say, the mid 80s instead, for a whole universe of other notions to scratch away at.
Huge array of tributes and the like at Ballardian.com, including words from pretty much every surviving writer whose work I enjoy. In particular, this piece from Michael Moorcock makes me feel guilty for writing such a cantankerous obit for a guy whose personal life I’ve never really taken the time to experience/understand.