"Jim's Story" by Peter Huck, in Sydney Morning Herald (November 2, 1991): 42. Interview about The Kindness of Women
by Peter Huck
J. G. Ballard has the reputation of being a weird sort of cove. He lives in a dreaming '30s suburb in West London, bounded by vast gravel lakes, Heathrow airport and the Shepperton film studios. His quiet street is as disorientatingly dinkyish as Pee Wee Herman's toytown. Despite the enormous success of his most popular novel, Empire of the Sun, he lives in a modest semi-detached house and parks his car on the front lawn. This is not a man easily seduced by material things.
He greets me at the door, ushering me through the hall past his monocycle ("A present from my girlfriend"), before dashing off to fetch me a whiskey. I wait in his study, admiring an enormous Paul Delvaux reproduction. The surrealistic painting, copied from a photograph after the original was lost in the war, depicts an Elysian dreamscape populated with semi-naked women and flooded with delicate pastel colours and mysterious symbolism. Outside, small flocks of birds wheel tightly across the afternoon sky.
Surrealism is integral to Ballard's work. He is a master at exploring the troubled currents that ripple beneath the blandest exteriors. He started writing in the '50s, acquiring a cult reputation as a science fiction author before winning a popular public with Empire of the Sun, a surrealistic blend of autobiography and fiction based on his boyhood internment by the Japanese in wartime Shanghai. The sequel, The Kindness of Women (Collins, $32.95), continues in the same vein.
"I've always been interested in the Surrealists," explains Ballard as I nurse my whiskey, "because I see elements of the surreal not just in my past life in Shanghai -- any country at war is surreal -- but in the present world as well." He describes a giant hot-air balloon shaped like a hamburger that landed on a nearby park. "Life is full of sudden wonderful glimpses of the miraculous. We live in a world that is largely a product of the human imagination. The artificial is the real. Layers of unreality have been laid down on us by advertising and commerce like the strata of a new Troy. We live in a fictional universe. The kind of dramatic collisions that you get inside works of fiction take place in our everyday lives."
Ballard has often compared life to a novel. As such, science-fiction -- a term he hates; he prefers "apocalyptic" -- is the most apposite genre. When he began writing, he was disillusioned with England and felt unable to fit in, a stranger in a strange land. Paradoxically, he felt more trapped than he did in the Japanese camp. Nothing matched its intensity.
He still feels like this. "In a way, I feel I've wasted my life in England," he muses as the shadows lengthen in the autumn sky. "I should have gone to the States. There's no doubt about that. On the other hand, England does have a certain interest... This is where the American dream comes to die."
The American dream is the consumer society, powered by affluence and the new technologies which emerged in the 1950s. Stranded in Shepperton, Ballard became obsessed with change. "I thought this country needed a great deal of change -- still does -- and I could see it coming. I was interested in the psychology of change, of people living in the matrix of the new. I wanted to write about the next five minutes."
While other sci-fi writers roamed through outer space, Ballard reinvented Earth, fusing apocalyptic fantasies with surreal landscapes. He escaped suburbia through his imagination, investing everyday life with an almost hallucinatory quality. His greatest imaginative feat in this phase was Crash (1973), in which Ballard explored his obsessions with the latent sexuality of car crashes. His vision was not to everyone's taste. One reader returned his manuscript with the warning: "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish."
He seemed destined to remain a cult writer until the huge success of his 12th novel, Empire of the Sun, in 1984. The Kindness of Women is similarly based on Ballard's experiences, using the Japanese internment camp as a launching pad for his adult life in England.
He describes the book as semi-autobiographical, in that it draws on real experiences for inspiration. On the other hand, the characters, who drive along he action, are wholly fictional. "It's a mixture of truth and fantasy," explains Ballard. "The point of writing a novel is to try and reach some imaginative truth about events. That's why, in Empire of the Sun, I depicted Jim, my younger self, as being alone in the camp, even though I was really with my parents. I tried to reach some sort of psychological truth about my childhood. Likewise, in the sequel, I'm trying to reach some sort of psychological truth about my life. Fiction is a very good way of finding that truth."
The Kindness of Women illustrates the psychological trauma of internment. Back from China, Jim is unable to settle. He enrols as a medical student but dreams of nuclear war -- the flash of the Nagasaki atomic bomb which ends Empire is a recurring image, even featuring in a LSD trip -- and joins the air force. Marriage and children allow him to escape into a "magic world". But his life continues to be stalked by violence. When his wife dies in an accident, he carries on as a solo parent, fuelled by the kindness of women.
He recently returned to Shanghai for the first time with a BBC documentary unit. There he had the bizarre experience of locating his old home and the room he shared with his family in the internment camp. He feared that reality would explode his memories, but instead found them confirmed.
"I found everything exactly as I'd left it. I felt tremendously elated. I'd recovered a piece of my lost past. Most of my life I've assumed that I'd never go back. So I forgot about it for 40 years. By going back, I rendezvoused with my younger self in a marvellous way and closed the circle."
He has left sci-fi behind, though it is doubtful if he'll abandon his surrealistic vision. "I think as you get older, you become more interested in the here and now," he says. "The mundane world of sunlight in a garden has a tremendous excitement. I think that my writing has shown a return to the naturalistic world, although it's pretty heightened, of course... I suppose I'll just follow my obsessions. That's all I've ever done."