A review/interview in Time magazine on the U.S. publicationof "The Day of Creation", by Paul Gray in the edition dated 25 April 1988:
A Tale of Time and the River
The best place to look for most of J.G. Ballard's 20-odd books is still in the paperback racks displaying science fiction, somewhere between Asimov and Bradbury. But the popular success of Ballard's "Empire of the Sun" (1984), an autobiographical novel about an English boy's coming of age in Shanghai during the World War Il Japanese occupation, was followed last year by Steven Spielberg's acclaimed screen adaptation. Thanks to this double-barreled triumph, Ballard has been transformed from a well-kept cult secret into something resembling a household name, with the luxury and burden of knowing that his next book would generate widespread curiosity among a general audience. "The Day of Creation", his eleventh novel, has finally arrived and no fans, old or new, are likely to be disappointed.
But few will agree on what they are enjoying. Ballard is a master of hard-edged hallucinations, of improbable scenes so vivid that they enter the subconscious without checking in first at the front desk of reason. Reading him seems like dreaming, and interpretations of meaning tend to be resented as invasions of privacy. So it is here. There is an old-fashioned adventure tale going on, along with a peculiar love story, a mythic quest, a laborious fertility rite and a perilous journey of psychological discovery. And that is only for openers.
Dr. Mallory, the narrator, is an Englishman working for the World Health Organization in the arid northern province of a former French colony "in the dead heart of the African continent, a land as close to nowhere as the planet could provide." The southward creep of the Sahara and the drying up of nearby Lake Kotto have driven most of the native residents away, leaving the physician with hardly anyone to treat but General Harare and his ragtag band of Marxist guerillas. But these rebel patients do not trust Mallory, because he has conceived a scheme to drill the dry lake bed and tap into a potential third Nile, which will turn the parched land green and fruitful. Such a happy result would bring credit and profit to the government in power, so one morning Harare and his men take Mallory down to the former lakefront to shoot him. The doctor is saved by the arrival of a plane bearing Captain Kagwa, the provincial police chief, and Professor Sanger, a maker of television documentaries.
Sanger has come to publicize himself giving rice to the starving natives. Mallory replies, "One problem is that the people here don't eat rice ... The second is that there aren't any people." Sanger, whose career is on the skids, responds glumly, "Even my disaster area is a disaster." Then something amazing occurs. A tractor under Mallory's direction tips over the huge stump of an old oak tree, and water begins to bubble up from the cavity below. First a trickle, then a stream. Soon a broad brown current several hundred yards wide spreads itself north and south. Knowing a dramatic photo opportunity when he sees one, Sanger revises his plans and sets out to videotape the birth of the River Mallory.
By all reasonable standards, the revegetation of a dead land should be cause for rejoicing. But in Ballard's world, reason seldom prevails. The benign flood nourishes the dormant seeds of private manias. Captain Kagwa sees himself as the head of a fertile, secessionist province, controlling access to the "Black Nile" and the route by which sub-Saharan Africa "will move north against the Arab world." The first step is to kick out Mallory, who has overstayed his usefulness. The doctor has another idea. He wants, in a leap of sublime illogic, to get to the source of his river and stifle it: "All this water has ruined my irrigation project."
And so the chase is on. Mallory steals a 30-ton car ferry carrying Kagwa's beat-up Mercedes and heads north up the river bearing his name. Along his 200-mile journey, he acquires a confederate in the person of the adolescent girl who had pointed a rifle at him during his near assassination at the hands of General Harare's soldiers. In her dialect she communicates her name as N'oon: she is noon on the day of creation. Mallory also picks up Sanger and a jumble of TV equipment and tapes. The technology dazzles N'oon. She installs herself in front of a flickering monitor. Mallory marvels, "In a few months she had stepped from the Stone Age and crossed from the spoken to the visual realm in a single stride, dispensing with language on the way."
As this ferry of ostensible fools crawls upriver, suffering helicopter attacks from the enraged Kagwa and waiting for the inevitable ambush by Harare, other literary adventures come unavoidably to mind. Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", Bellow's "Henderson the Rain King". To its enduring credit, "The Day of Creation" is not swamped by such reminders. Ballard has successfully created a new myth, a late 20th century saga of distracted humans making a lonely voyage through time and the river to the well-spring of their parched imaginations.
At one point, Dr. Mallory mentions "those English suburbs which I had fled, where on a summer's afternoon everyone would sit behind drawn blinds watching a tennis final or a royal wedding." Oddly enough, Mallory's creator has lived in just such a place since 1960: a modest semi-detached house on a quiet street in Shepperton, a village about 20 miles southwest of London. "I cultivate anonymity, I relish it," says Ballard, and Shepperton gives him plenty. Few of his neighbors know his occupation, and Ballard thinks it would make no difference if they did: "Some really famous people have lived around here - TV stars, Tom Jones. Compared with them, a writer is nothing."
Ballard is alone now. After his wife died of pneumonia in 1964, he took on the raising of their son and two daughters by himself. "In fact," he says, "fathers make very good mothers." A house-husband before it became fashionable, the author looks back fondly on the "rich compost" of his domestic life. He also speaks of the "huge vacuum" created when his children grew up and left home. "Nature's contingency plan for this loneliness," he says, laughing, "used to be death."
At 57 the author maintains the same work schedule he has followed for a quarter-century: "I set targets, at least 800 words a day." The Day of Creation proved especially challenging and exhausting: "For a year and a half that river was roaring through my head." Ballard believes the novel flowed naturally out of "Empire of the Sun", from his memories of the "huge riverine world of Shanghai," where he grew up as the son of a chemist employed by a British textile company. Writing about that period in his life "opened a lot of interior doors and windows. I remember Shanghai as a place where anything was possible, where the collective imagination, for good and evil, was allowed full rein. I have spent my whole life as a writer trying to reach and realize that vision."
Indeed, Ballard's vivid, eventful youth accounts for much of the eerie power of his books. He has never considered himself a writer of science fiction but rather an explorer of "inner space." Surface reality interests him chiefly as a starting point for the mind: "I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world." That power needs to be pitted against Shepperton and its calm environs: "The wave of the future breaks here in the suburbs. This and all places like it are becoming a geography of concrete and credit cards. My fear is that the exercise of the imagination, an intensely private act, may die out. People may live in an eventless world, where nothing new will ever occur."
As a young man, Ballard was drawn to surrealist art and its realistic images of fantasies. He retains this enthusiasm. Using money he earned from Empire of the Sun, he commissioned an artist to re-create two paintings by the Belgian Paul Delvaux that had been destroyed in London during the Blitz. One of these large canvases sits in Ballard's front parlor, and the other presides over his workroom, an unsettling tableau of dream maidens and bare breasts in an otherwise comfortable setting. "Sadly," Ballard says, "the only surrealists around these days are psychopaths. But we all need to fight off the growing suburbanization of the soul. I want the sane to become surrealists."