Thanks to Mike Holliday for finding this 1976 interview.
Future Perfect - the Crystalline World of J.G. Ballard
By Martin Hayman
“Something glittered in the dusk behind me. I turned to see a brilliant chimera, a man with incandescent arms and chest, race past among the trees, a cascade of particles diffusing in the air behind him. I flinched back behind the cross, but he vanished as suddenly as he had appeared, whirling himself away among the crystal vaults. As his luminous wake faded I heard his voice echoing across the frosted air, the plaintive words jewelled and ornamented like everything else in that transmogrified world.” (The Illuminated Man c. J. G. Ballard 1964).
James Ballard is the uncrowned king of science fiction in Britain, an intrepid explorer of inner space and an influence on practically all experimental fiction written in Britain since the early Sixties. Alone among his contemporaries he flashes on landscapes where the reader's imagination has never trodden: gingerly we moved into terrains whose terrible beauty was not governed by the laws of natural science, nor whose events bore any resemblance to the ray-gun toting swashbuckle of cosmic adventure. It was like setting foot in a surrealist painting; they were the landscapes of the mind. Who could fail to be entranced by the Cloud Sculptors of Coral D? By the hedonism of Sunset Boulevard transmuted into the ethereal sybaritism of the Vermilion Sands... or the Garden of Time, where Count Axel reaps his dwindling harvests of crystallized time-flowers, pushing backwards in time the relentless advance of the trampling, sweltering hordes of barbarism?
Ballard's own crystalline world contained in it the seeds of disaster. His universe was always teetering on the brink of dissolution as it leaked away the energy necessary to maintain its fantastically vast structure; the structure was in a constant state of implosion, collapsing in on itself. In this entropic landscape there appeared figures of men and women who sought in quiet desperation to find some rationale for their own presence. Potboiling novels like ‘The Wind From Nowhere’ and ‘The Drought’ were no mere Hollywood-style disaster epics of old homo sapiens in extremis. The future was past, the study now. The die was cast and its stamp worn out, the molecule chain of DNA breaking down. In its present form man's lifespan was limited; for a future he would have to adapt his metabolism and psyche.
But Ballard was not taken seriously until he published ‘The Atrocity Exhibition.’ Before, he could be conveniently be relegated to the ‘non-serious’ genre of Sci-Fi and his style as mannerism which too often lurched into self-parody. It was a novel, or rather a collection of short novels, where the study was explicitly the present: a new order was emerging from the old, whose energy was not sufficient to maintain the elaborate political and social structures which were the flower of Western civilization. Entropy had arrived. For most readers it was a terrible present symbolized by the unholy alliance of artefact and psyche, a nightmare conjunction of flesh and vinyl welded by napalm. There were not the extenuating circumstances which softened the blow dealt by Burroughs a decade previously, nor the body heat of Genet's fierce sensuality, for Ballard's techno-eroticism was as lucidly and dispassionately laid out as before. As a blueprint for future possibilities the entropic world looked a nightmare.
But that is all now nearly a decade ago, and the new man, the whizz kid of the Sixties, where is he now? And what has happened to his vision? For if, obscurely, Ballard felt himself as a corrosive moralist whose ruthless logic laid open possibilities which as yet only he could extrapolate, from a society which we all could see, how had his prophet's voice been ignored so successfully? And how had his most recent novel ‘High Rise’ come to be so universally snubbed? Had he let the moment slip?
J. G. Ballard's manner on the telephone was curiously “wingco” when I invited myself to talk to him: he directed us, via the Crossroads pub, to a tiny and none-too-well maintained semi in a backstreet of Shepperton. His manner: affable, with an air of the old-time intellectual. Dress: informal, a greying Aran sweater and hound's tooth slacks, suede shoes, a figure no longer youthful. The overall effect not prophetic, more perhaps that of a professional writer, but certainly a professional writer who had yet to write a bestseller, or whose film rights lay dormant in somebody's vaults (as is indeed the case). But alert, of course, eager and willing to discuss, defend but still perhaps not giving it all away: for why should he? Pleased to rebut criticisms of his new novel ‘High Rise,’ yet reluctant to admit more than that, the reader must assess the possibilities, the credibility, of such a nightmare actuality. Yet still, to my mind, more convinced than he lets on of his veracity, a strong belief that he is right and will be shown to be right, maybe not now, nor perhaps within his own lifetime, but that circumstances will prove him, the while holding back his modest right to say “I told you so.”
For who would want to be proved right when the ‘civilised’ tenants of an expensive new high rise apartment block turn to internecine war, rape, incest and primitive ritual?
Obsessions, we pressed him, a one-dimensional world. “Obsessive... maybe it is,” he countered with a vehemence uncharacteristic of his candid but slightly detached interview manner. “Yes I do follow my obsessions but I'm writing abut the present day. Be careful you don't get misled by the books you read about the world you live in.”
If Ballard's life has been extraordinary to arrive where he has, let it be said that it does not show. Born in Shanghai of English parents (I quote from Penguin's potted biography) in 1930, he was interned in a Japanese civilian P.O.W. camp during the war and returned to the England to which he was presumed to have some allegiance in 1946, where he went to study medicine at King's College, Cambridge. He felt out of place. Shanghai was a cross-cultural city with strong American influences and a consumer society which was as “advanced” as anywhere. Among the non-indigenous populace there was an almost complete absence of the class structure which Ballard found so stultifying upon his return “home.” It was a culture shock: like stepping back into an archaic society. This in itself places Ballard at the opposite end of eminent English “future realists” like Wells and Orwell, both of whom were brought up in strict accordance with the English class system and were later to rebel (Wells sexually, Orwell politically). By contrast, Ballard, at least to outward appearances, has moved towards reconciliation with the existing society. After a stint as a bohemian during which he tried various occupations as a copywriter, a Covent Garden porter and an R.A.F. pilot, he married and settled on the outskirts of London and had a family of three children. Lest the finger become too pointed, it must be said that he has brought up that family of children single-handed since the death of his wife 11 years ago; from a practical point of view this has obliged him both to maintain a rigorous writing routine and a personally modest way of life; it comes as a shock to find that Ballard is a nine-to-five writer, though equally one can't imagine his cutting a Harold Robbins-style hedonist figure, even were he to become fabulously wealthy overnight.
Never perhaps cut out to be a social celebrity, Ballard did enjoy a period of brief personal notoriety in the Sixties, and it is to that period that he owes his allegiance, for he is something of a victim of that generation's failure permanently to transform English society. “By the time the transformation took place I'd been waiting for it for 20 years,” he told us. “And although I've been here for 20 years I still feel I'm a stranger -- it's a strange country to me. For the first time, in the Sixties, I felt that England was becoming a good place to live in, that there was some change in the archaisms of the 1940s.” It would be speculation to suggest that this is fundamental to Ballard's work, though his own evidence [sic] rootlessness is a background against which his characters' alienation can be gauged. He certainly admires the spontaneous achievements of the big wheels in the culture explosion of the Sixties and suggests that what was happening was a breakout of (and he's not very happy with the word) the “working class,” although I sense that he knows his peers are the vast nomadic populaces of professionals who pass through his pages, mysterious but with no secrets. And whatever his attractions for warmth and a proletarian lifestyle, he knows it would make unviable his mandarin stance. Though it would be solecism to identify the writer in his work, thereby seeing Mr. Ballard as a Mr. Natural for the Nineties, the new guru of emotionless, affectless technologically sexualised man, I can hardly believe that an intelligence so keen, an imagination so disturbing, and a lucidity so evident can have been preoccupied since the mid?-Sixties in a series of explorations that have lost him friends, readers and credi?bility if he does not believe that he is the first to isolate and describe vitally important aspects of the psyche in its present state of evolution.
The novels which did the trick followed, and expanded some of the themes of ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’: ‘Crash’, ‘Concrete Island’ and ‘High Rise’, which form a sort of trilogy; triptych, if you like, of grotesques depicting respectively the conceptualized sexuality of the motor-car, the man who didn't go round the bend, and the machine stops -- the last being an extension of the previous two in macrocosm. As a general proposition we can understand this as the “hook-up between man and technology”, in order to create a landscape which offers human possibilities. (Man is excluded from his own landscape which is created for essentially practical purposes). In the words of Dr. Nathan in ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’: “This obsession with the specific activity of quantified functions is what science shares with pornography” though what has freaked and alienated more readers is the specifically violent link between flesh and inanimate structure which is typified at its most extreme and potent form in the car-crash, with its attendant fusing of flesh and vinyl, skeleton and steel; though as a broader set of references for understanding the world it did not go down well in other quarters: “… it is only in terms of a psychosexual module such as that provided by the Vietnam war that the American public can enter into a rela?tionship with the world generally characterised by the term ‘love’.” (‘The Atrocity Exhibition,’ 1969). It's a proposition which can lead to some wayward and bizarre conclusions: “A low crime-rate is a sure sign of social deprivation”, claims one of the characters in ‘High Rise.’
Ballard's involvement in quasi-sociological explorations dates from about 1965 when he started to write some of the stories of ‘The Atrocity Exhibition.’ “I'd been writing related chapters since 1965 against the background of things like the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam and the so-called communications explosion. It struck me that people were ambiguous in their response to the assassination… strange reverberations were set up... there were the same mixed feelings about car crashes. I'm sure one is attracted to any large disaster just because of the dislocation of normal perspectives, just like the collapse of any large engineering structure.” An anthropocentric analogue can be found in the extremely telling short story ‘The Drowned Giant.’
“With the car crash there's conscious tie-in... there's no doubt the car plays a potent role in people's lives. They spend substantial parts of their day in the car, it's the focus of so many different strands, of consumer goods, status... the experience of driving at speed through an elaborately signalled synthetic landscape, which a modern superhighway is. It's a conjunction of all kinds of different strands. When a driver is involved in the collapse of this system lots of other sys?tems come into play. In ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ I started looking at this col?lapse and a whole lot more other topics. I had a character who quite speculatively mounted an exhibition of crashed cars. This set-off other trains of thought... I thought it would be worthwhile mounting an exhibition designed to inspect the terrain.”
Your own piece of psychosexual research? “Absolutely right.” Ballard warms very much to the notorious exhibition of crashed cars and describes it with enthusiasm: “I remember when the first car arrived on this huge truck. It was a huge Pontiac from the mid-Fifties period with tail-fins, emblematic devices and a wrap around windshield, immaculate condition except for the front three feet which were entirely smashed in. In the street nobody noticed it but as soon as the truck stopped suddenly it became an object of great fascination and concern. Already people were beginning to laugh nervously. On the first night party Hoppy (John Hopkins) set up closed circuit TV and I had a topless girl to interview the guests. Even as we were setting it up there were people walking around laughing, in a light state of hysteria. At the opening party I invited all the art critics and the figures from the then London demi-monde: I've never-seen people at a party get drunk so quickly. There was a sort of vibrancy in the air. There was something about the crashed cars, though we did nothing but light them.
“The topless girls [sic] interviewing the guests about what they thought of them, the closed circuit picture of themselves being interviewed about their feelings against the background of the smashed cars, with all the alcohol and party atmosphere -- it was a total sensory overload. Everybody got drunk, bottles got smashed over the cars, the topless girl nearly got raped in the back of the Pontiac (Life emulating Art?)... it was quite fantastic. During the month of the exhibition I nearly got into a fight, the cars were kicked and abused, slashed with white paint, trim ripped off, all the remaining windows smashed. It was not hostility, but there was some tremendous repression going on which the sight of these cars had unnerved. There was a great sense that a vent had opened. This is what convinced me that I must go on, that people must get over their repressions, their nervousness and look at what technology is all about.”
Ballard's further explorations appeared as the novel ‘Crash.’ If ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ was unnerving, this was appalling; not only in its subject matter -- the title is self-explanatory -- but for its hammer-blow repetitiousness. Hardened disaster fans wilted. Nobody was enthusiastic about the book in the UK, not in the US (where anyway the sci-fi field is pretty well paid-up and unionised) though it created a sensation in France, where it enjoyed front-cover publicity in Paris-Match and sizeable solo reviews in the heavy newspapers. I suggested that ‘Crash’ was Ballard's least acceptable book; but that also it is a book which becomes a weapon to bludgeon the reader, in the same way that Godard's later films attempted to become an actual political weapon rather than a film about politics and violence.
“Horrifying? Well of course, it's meant to be. I wanted to write a book in which there was nowhere to hide. The reader just couldn't get away short of just closing the book and throwing it away from him. It was huge act of provocation in a way but provocation has a role in the theatre and movies and the visual arts. How else could I have written the book? I could have written the story of ‘Crash’ but adopted the traditional novelist's view and said ‘Look there's this madman who gets a perverted pleasure out of thinking about car crashes and finally dies in one’ and the reader can think ‘Oh yes, the author is on the side of sanity and reasonableness’. I was trying to show in terms of my own obsessions where the possible conjunctions between ourselves and technology was leading. Is the car crash a metaphor for a nightmare marriage between ourselves and technology? Is it a marriage we should look forward to?
“I admit my own motives when I wrote the book were confused. I remember when I read the printed proofs nine months after I had last read the manuscript, I had to hang on to my chair. My first reaction was ‘The guy who wrote this must be nuts.’ But it was not hard to write in terms of subject matter. I found that I had to will myself into a deliberate psychosis, the psychopathic two plus two (again the resonances of Godard) equals five. It was a tremendous ordeal. You must remember that I have three children and any one of them might be killed in a car crash, still could. It was a tremendous effort. I was morally exhausted because I appeared to be saying that bad is good and good is bad, inverting all the common assumptions of our lives. But maybe readers' assumptions need looking at in a new light. Maybe the light that ‘Crash’ throws is a baleful glare but at least it is a light which one doesn't get from my fellow writers, to put it mildly.”
Ballard confesses that with the last of the trio, ‘High Rise,’ he feels he has explored this particular vein as far as he wishes, not maybe to his own satisfaction, but sufficiently. And it's intriguing (and perhaps welcome for long-time readers) that he feels the need to return to what he calls a more ‘imaginative’ style of writing. His next volume, completed at the beginning of the Summer, is a collection of unpublished short stories filled out with a specially-written novella. For me, I find it good news, for although the subject matter of the trilogy is vitally important, I feel that it has led to a coarsening and degrading of the quality of Ballard's imagination and the stultifi?cation of his lucid prose style. I believe this to result inevitably from the incorporation of psycho-social models, which is the main weakness in the credibility of ‘High Rise’. For although the landscape of ‘High Rise’ is the same, effectively, as that of ‘The Terminal Beach,’ it is in its very specificity of its psycho-social milieu that it becomes tendentious. The social norms represented by the three protagonists, Royal, Laing and Wilder are unoriginal and hold back the reader: Royal is an old-fashioned patriarch, Wilder the old-fashioned ‘roaring boy’ who becomes more savage and masculine as well as more infantile during his rise through the social strata of the building. Laing, the middle ground, is apparently the model of the new affectless man, a class which is defined only by its absences: a professional class whose functions are rooted in the servicing of the new technological lifestyle, and which owes alle?giance to no particular politics, sexuality or morality but those the environment demands.
“There's a new class emerging which I guess didn't really exist until the Thirties, or the Twenties in the US, a sort of professional class which includes everyone from cost accountants to dentists to air-traffic controllers, etcetera, all the people who make up the ‘High Rise.’ Now these people, regardless of their background, have more in common with each other than with the children they played with at home. A working class dentist, by the time he's my age, has more in common with a dentist from another background than with the kids he used to play with in a backstreet in Blackburn. High technology has given these people a very strong sense of identity. Now I was interested in studying this new class and wondering what would happen if it came under extreme internal stresses.
“Of course I'm not suggesting that the gap between the air-traffic controllers and pilots who occupy the lower rungs of the High Rise and the rich entrepreneurs who occupy the top reflect the inherent social divisions in society at large but was merely pointing out that these divisions tend to assert themselves in such a way that people when threatened tend to divide up into rival clans.
“I'm trying to say something about the anonymity of say, such a huge high-rise building as the one I describe, which plays into the hands of barbarism, but also provides a new set of connections on the other side: what that new order is I leave to the reader to decide. Royal and Wilder are not tuned into the logic of the High Rise. A new type of person is emerging, a neutral, affectless, emotionless character who doesn't mind the intrusion into his life of data processing outfits, credit registers and so on, and in fact welcomes it because it provides a sense of togetherness -- maybe all the togetherness that people need. Laing is at one point in the book reflecting on this new kind of cool, unemotional type who just likes sitting in his room with the TV on but the sound turned down. But it's ironic that at the end of the book he turns into just such a person as he apparently feared. He enters into a rather complex relationship with his sister and this other woman; his whole role vis-a-vis the mad dentist who fools around with corpses; all the aspects of himself he finds himself moving through in the second half of the book: all this is to show the beginnings of a new order. He is a happy tenant of the High Rise. I leave it open to the reader to decide whether it's a good thing or bad; he is not a completely passive spectator of events. After all, according to some research I did, I found that one in ten people in this country live above the sixth floor.”
However convincingly Ballard advances this thesis, one doubts that the people who do actually live in the high rise buildings are the class likely to read his novel; and those who might read it find it a landscape pitifully bereft of the stimulation for the imagination which they have seen in his writing. Thus perhaps, the suspension of the further work. For although this cool, rootless class may in actuality be emerging, it's not after all very interesting except as a phenomenon. And the more Ballard gets outside himself into the role of observer and chronicler, rather than imaginer, the more his ability to convince sags. And if his characters are not very interesting except as types, that's because Ballard is not really very interested in them except as part of a landscape. One notes for example the recurring triangle situation between the narrator and two women, one from whom he is moving, the other towards whom he is travelling: another obsession?
“Sounds like life to me,” says Ballard with untypical flippancy. “To be honest the relationships between my characters don't interest me very much. There is only one character I am interested in by and large. All my fiction is in a sense about isolation and how to cope with isolation. I'm talking about man's biological isolation in relation [to] the universe, his isolation in time, the sense of his finite life in the face of this panoply of alternatives from which he is excluded, and latterly the isolation between man the individual and this technological landscape, which offers more hope perhaps. This is what impels me to write books like ‘Crash’ and ‘High Rise’, where I feel for the first time, that far from being the alienating landscape which most people assume, the technological landscape offers the possibilities of peace, some sort of union with everything. And that's what my novels are about rather than the relationship that hero X might have with ladies Y and Z: I start with one character in a landscape and then populate.”
Anyone who has read Ballard will testify to the mesmerising beauty of his landscapes; it is further confirmed by his extraordinary and illuminating essay on the surrealist painters and his description of de Vinci's ‘Crucifixion’ in the naturalistic short story ‘The Lost Leonardo’. It remains to me only to suggest that J. G. Ballard is a twentieth century pantheist, a modern-day Wordsworth: a solitary walker through a landscape which is in its each and particular object informed by a spirit which is singing the same tune as the single informing spirit of the walker, such that he is the landscape and the landscape is his own mind.
For the record: Ballard drives a yellow Ford Consul L Estate.