From the International Herald Tribune, 9 January 1992.
J.G. Ballard, at home with his furies
By David Streitfeld
Washington Post Service
Shepperton, England - More than two decades after the 1960s officially ended, J. G. Ballard is finally finished with them. The extravagance of his fixation with that troubled time makes Oliver Stone look mellow, but Ballard insists that's all in the past now, "You move into more serene meadows as you get older," he says. "Wait until you're 60."
Serene? Horizontal on his recliner chair, James Graham Ballard looks positively comatose. He doesn't seem to have enough energy to get up, let alone have written the two dozen books of always offbeat, frequently brutal fiction that have won him a distinguished if rather unclassifiable reputation.
Those stories, he says, just marched up and presented themselves to him. "It's 100 percent inspiration and no perspiration in my case. I've always followed my obsessions. I was being driven by a tremendous sense of indignation."
Some of the wellsprings of that rage can be glimpsed in the titles of the stories in "The Atrocity Exhibition," a 1970 collection: "You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe," "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race," "Love and Napalm: Export U. S. A." and "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy."
These stories, like most of Ballard's fiction, deal with American topics; his native England, in fact an exhausted land, produced events far too tame for his imagination. Of the greatest concern to Ballard, a near-constant preoccupation, was the shooting of President Kennedy.
"It was a catalyst for so much that followed," the writer says. "Within a year my wife was dead. I think these two deaths reminded me of the terrible crimes the human race committed against itself - the tragedies I had witnessed, and the even greater ones I hadn't witnessed. Life was becoming an atrocity exhibition."
In the books there were no children's parties, ever. Astronauts had bad dreams and were abandoned by Mission Control, men were marooned on the concrete islands dividing highway sections.
What this fiction may have sometimes lacked in plot and character development, it made up in intensity. Ballard needed merely to turn on the television or open a newspaper to work into a frenzy, and his stories vibrated with anger. The language, though, always remained cool and precise, almost eerily detached.
It's less a contradiction than it may seem. Ballard once compared himself to a medical examiner looking at a child who's been raped and killed. "The anatomist's postmortem is no less exact, he itemizes things no less clearly, for the rage and outrage he feels."
What is it about certain authors, that they can write these patently autobiographical novels and then blithely claim they're complete fiction, all made up?
Sure, they say, the hero may have the same name I do, live in the same house in the same suburb, have three kids and a wife who died young just like me, and have a past that resembles mine in numerous ways -- but hey, he's not me.
"What I don't want to do," says Ballard a bit petulantly, "is go through the whole book saying true, true, false, false, invented, true, true. Why should I?"
The volume in question is titled "The Kindness of Women". The newly published sequel to "Empire of the Sun," Ballard's novelized account of his imprisonment in a Japanese camp during World War II, "Kindness" is about an English writer named Jim who is born in China, gets interned by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, lives in Shepperton, becomes a writer, has a wife who dies after stumbling and hitting her head, has these obsessions, etc.
True to Ballard's assertions that he is now more of a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, "The Kindness of Women" is a warmer, more expansive tale than usual. The fragmentary and surrealistic style of the early years has been replaced by a conventional narrative of the type used by those conventional English novels Ballard despises.
The key incident happens early, on the day the war with Japan ends. The 15-year-old narrator is making his way back to Shanghai along the railway line. At one small station, he encounters four Japanese soldiers lashing a Chinese youth to a telephone pole. "You know the war's over?" Jim asks. They continue with their killing. Jim tries amateurishly to dissuade them again, to no avail.
This is simply a transcription of his own experience, Ballard is willing to concede. Why did it make such an impression on him? "I was standing about six feet from a man being stabbed to death. You try it once or twice. Try it once. It leaves a profound impression."
In "Kindness," Jim's friend Peggy, who first befriends him in the prison camp and becomes the voice of reason when she meets him again in London, accuses the writer of an unhealthy interest in "glamorized violence."
"That terrible afternoon on the railway line near Siccawei - you'd seen dozens of atrocities by then. ... But for once you were too close," Peggy says. "A part of it actually happened to you. All those car crashes and pornographic movies, Kennedy's death, they're your way of turning it into a film, something violent and glamorous. You want to Americanize death."
There's Kennedy again, You can't open a book of Ballard's without seeing him killed again and again and again, always in the hope that this time it will all make sense.
In "Kindness," Jim reflects that "stills from the Zapruder film had seemed more poignant than a Grunewald crucifixion." Notice the past tense, the "had seemed." As you move up through the decades - Ballard's now 61 - it's hard to maintain a young man's fury. "One grows - oh, not wiser, but calmer and more reflective about these matters. One sees them in a larger perspective. I successfully brought up my three children, have known and loved one or two other women since my wife's death. It doesn't make everything better ..."
The sentence isn't completed, but his silence suggests that he sees himself as someone who has come through to the other side. He recently went to China, his first visit in more than 40 years, to be filmed for a BBC documentary on his life and work. Writer and crew searched for the railway station where he had seen the killing, but to Ballard's secret relief never found it. He didn't need to make a literal return to that spot or, for that matter, the country; seven years ago, in "Empire of the Sun," he successfully reclaimed his childhood in fiction.
"The Kindness of Women" brings the story full circle, ending with the premiere in Los Angeles of Steven Spielberg's film of "Empire." As Ballard watches his youth enacted on the screen, the celluloid image replaces his recollections in a way that he once would have despised.
"I could almost believe," Jim says, "that my memories of Shanghai had always been a film, endlessly played inside my head during my years in England after the war." The media landscape has triumphed after all. Fact and fiction are now indistinguishable.
Ballard is still lying prone on his chair. Perhaps he's trying to levitate. "Well, Melville went to sea on a whaler," he says, attempting one more time to carve out a distinction. "But 'Moby Dick' is a work of fiction. ... It doesn't really matter, does it? If we all vanish in some eco-disaster, and the book somehow survives on microfiche, it'll have to stand by itself."
The prospect clearly pleases him, and he stretches his hands above him and closes his eyes.