Don't Crash: The J.G. Ballard Interview
By Lukas Barr
Reading J.G. Ballard is like waking up with brain fever in a very foreign country. The angles are wrong and so is everything else, the surreal narrative in your head uncoils a waking nightmare, your eyes glow blue like miniature projection TV screens. And then the plot kicks in: radioactive vegetation, assassination attempts, war simulation experiments, or, most famously, car crashes. In Crash, Ballard stretches the moment of impact into a pornographic play of flesh and metal, the plastic curves of the instrument panel imprinting themselves on victims' bodies. What makes it all so terrifying isn't the gruesome fetishization of torn skin and death-ejaculations, but the dazed, silent moments after the crash, when anything can happen, when reality recedes for a moment leaving two drivers, bleeding, looking into each other's eyes...
Published in 1973, Crash established Ballard as the premier millennial writer, and a very prolific one. He's written science fiction, political satire, and autobiography -- his childhood story, Empire of the Sun, was made into a movie by Steven Spielberg. David Cronenberg is currently making Crash, a very different movie. His latest novel, Rushing to Paradise, tells the story of a feminist-environmentalist cult that takes over a small island in the Pacific with very sinister results.
Ballard speaks with dry erudition. He has the Burroughs affectation of slowing his speech dramatically for emphasis, and the ability to make apocalyptic predictions sound perfectly believable. He spoke from his home in England.
Lukas Barr: Tell me about cultism in your book. We have all sorts of cult news here since the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma.
JG Ballard: As far as Rushing To Paradise is concerned, there’s nothing far-fetched at all about the events described there. I mean, in fact, the central action of the book is loosely based on the attempt by Greenpeace…
LB: … down in New Zealand
JGB: Right. When the Rainbow Warrior was sunk in Auckland Harbour by the French secret service agents, it was actually on the way to the French nuclear test islands. They’d made a lot of attempts to get onto these islands, and had been flung back into the surf. So there’s nothing unusual about that. We’ve seen the effects of cults themselves since the Manson gang what happens when a charismatic leader goes too far James Reverend Jones in Ghana, Waco Texas, now these weird militias that are springing up all over the States, or have been there for years, actually, culminating in this Oklahoma bombing. There’s something de-stabilizing in the air today. It’s worth writing about, particularly as we see extremist fringes popping up all over the place. The feminist movement also has its own extremist fringes, and one could imagine a nightmare scenario of all these extremist cults coalescing, and some very sinister movement emerging.
LB: You’ve taken on the left wing, right? You’ve got environmentalism, feminism, all that.
JGB: I don’t know where female separatists fit on the political spectrum. They want to destroy the social contract between men and women and replace it with nothing; they seem to believe that all penetrative sex is rape; if a wife loves her husband she’s exhibiting a “slave mentality”. Well, I mean, how do you cope with that sort of fanaticism? Satire seems one way.
LB: It’s the tinges of euthanasia that are the most sinister aspects of the story in Rushing To Paradise.
JGB: Oh, absolutely, because this is the trouble always: enlightened legislation or enlightened social activity of whatever kind, does play into the hands of people with agendas of their own, with secret agendas. And, of course, if you legalize euthanasia, you provide a field day for people who like killing other people. And they’ll find plenty of reasons for doing so.
LB: I want to ask you about space, not as in outer space but as in geography, rooms, the space around you. There’s that story called “The Enormous Space”, about a man who decides not to leave his house, and gradually shrinks his geography until he’s sitting in a cupboard. And then I remember another story. I don’t remember what it’s called, about a doctor who has a sleep deprivation experiment. He does an operation to prevent his subjects from sleeping, and they’re all in this large gymnasium, and by the end they’re all huddled together in the middle of the room.
JGB: “Manhole 69”, a very early story of mine.
LB: So talk about the interaction between the interior space of one’s mind, and external space of reality.
JGB: The thing is we take external reality, our everyday external reality, very much for granted: the room that we sit in, the streets around us, the virtual space of billboards, and movies and TV, all the rest of it, highway networks we take all this for granted. But in fact it is, literally speaking, an illusion generated by our central nervous system. It’s as much a virtual reality as the one the cyber people are working on. I’ve tried to decode this everyday space. What happens when we see presidents or prime ministers Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher or whoever on television? Within our minds all these different planes of spatial reality are intersecting.
LB: And they also tend to become flattened in your mind, there’s an equality…
JGB: Yes they do. Everything turns into a kind of billboard. We’re effectively living inside an enormous TV program. In Atrocity Exhibition in particular I’ve tried to decode, to decrypt that multilevel space that we create.
LB: This goes to the heart of what I think is the most impressive quality of your work: once you start to do the decoding either explicitly or not, the subject at the centre of that becomes untethered from any kind of base-reality. And has the ability to spin of any number of directions, into different psychoses. When I read your work, it’s a claustrophobic feeling, it’s so powerful, so vivid, and it’s so moody. You evoke a psychosis, and tell it so straight.
JGB: I think your use of the word psychosis is absolutely right. All my characters are trying to escape from whatever situation they find themselves in. They do so largely by -- their way out is to construct a psychosis which dramatizes their own predicament, and to come to some sort of solution. The man in “The Enormous Space” who doesn’t leave his house is a perfect example of that. In The Atrocity Exhibition, the central character is this psychiatrist who’s suffered a nervous breakdown. He sets up a whole series of psychodramas, each one of which is a separate psychosis. He wants to kill Kennedy, again, but in a way that makes sense. Now, psychosis is the most dramatic re-making of the mind that one can embark upon. In Rushing to Paradise, Dr. Rafferty is transforming the island of Saint-Esprit into a huge psychosis of her own. Of course, not all the characters in my fiction, thank god, are as mad as she is. Though I admire her.
LB: This brings up two other interesting points. Whatever happens in terms of space, in terms of perception, in terms of the mind, you always still have to deal with the body, which isn’t subject to the same types of flexibility. So in a way, going back to Crash, you can see that the body is one answer to this problem, that you can ground yourself in your body, that you can mark your body, that there’s some sort of permanence and weight there.
JGB: Absolutely. In the body, and in particular, in pain, and in its sexual activity, Crash explores the relationship between sex and technology, and in a sense celebrates the marriage of sex and technology. I agree. In a lot of my fiction I’ve tried to root the realities of the characters in their sexuality, and in their sexual imagination.
LB: Well, what about drugs? Because they fit into this as well. You must get asked about drugs all the time.
JGB: I’m a bit of a disappointment to people who are into or influenced by the drug culture of the 60s and 70s. You’ll be disappointed to hear that I’m very much a whiskey and soda man.
LB: I’m not disappointed as well.
JGB: I took LSD back in ’67. Up to that point I’d smoked a bit of pot. When I was a student at Cambridge, I regularly - you could then in England buy amphetamines across the counter, in drugstores, without a prescription. And we took them regularly without even thinking about it, if you wanted to work all night, or just feel a bit keyed up. I’d had experiences with drugs, but then I took LSD -- I’ve never taken heroin, never have done. But then I took LSD, and had a classic bad trip, which I won’t bother to describe.
LB: You should though, tell me about
JGB: I had such a negative trip, a real paranoid journey of despair. It was over in a day, but little vents of hell went on opening for years afterward, as I gather they do. I don’t know, it sort of turned me against drugs. And then people started saying about an early novel of mine called Crystal World, which described a crystallizing world, going beyond time and space - ah, that book was written after your LSD trip. I said no, that’s not true actually, it was written before my LSD trip. It confirmed, I felt, that human imagination can achieve anything that drugs can achieve. So, I stick to my whiskey and soda.
LB: How would you describe the mood as we head toward the end of the millennium?
JGB: It’s very strange. I remember years ago, I think in 1984, I said we could expect as at the end of past centuries, there might be a spread of decadence. But that the decadence might take form in our case, not of sexual licence, but of a new kind of Puritanism. Puritanism of a sort of little-Red-Book-Maoist-guard type. That is exactly what we’ve seen: a huge rise in puritanical zealousness, in which a whole range of new vices have been invented -- people are never happier that when inventing new, or rather, exposing new vices. People are full of puritan relish. We had a bizarre case here, yesterday or the day before yesterday, some animal rights activists attacked a dairy and planted bombs under a whole lot of milk wagons. Those big tankers that drive milk all over the country, like gasoline tankers. They blew up about 30 of these vehicles, protesting the farming of the ox for human consumption. And you know there’s another group of weirdoes that are anti-car. And they closed off London streets for a mass demonstration against the car, turning them into pedestrian zones. These are not sort of little shopping streets where you can have a cake, these are main thoroughfares.
People believe in nothing. There’s nothing to believe in now. All ideology is gone. The great churches are empty, political ideology is finished, there’s just a scramble for power. There’s this vacuum… what people have most longed for, which is the consumer society, has come to pass. Like all dreams that come to pass, there’s a nagging sense of emptiness. So they look for anything, they believe in any extreme. Any extreme nonsense is better than nothing.
LB: What do you predict now? You’ve just told me what you said in the ‘80s, how about your predictions for the ‘90s?
JGB: My most successful prediction was made in 1967. I predicted that Ronald Reagan would become president.
LB: Did you really?
JGB: Yes, I did. In The Atrocity Exhibition there’s a short story called, “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan” which got me into terrible trouble and had the book pulped when it was first published.
LB: This is when he was governor of California.
JGB: Right, exactly. I took one look at him and thought, “that man is going to be president”. For reasons I won’t go into now but which I explore in the short story. And, as for the year 2000, I’m slightly nervous of making predictions as I shall then have reached my biblical three score and ten, and might not be around, or might have to answer for my predictions in another place. Well, I think we’re well on the track to all kinds of craziness. I think there’s no end to what sort of nonsense will come out of the woodwork, and a lot of very dangerous nonsense. I could sum up the future in one word, and that word is boring. The future is going to be boring. The suburbanization of the planet will continue, and the suburbanization of the soul will follow soon after. At the same time there will be extraordinary unpredictable outbursts, a sort of volatility, largely driven by extremist cults of one sort or another. You know, you may live in a quiet suburb, outside Des Moines or somewhere, and suddenly your local school will be burned down by some gang of fringe fanatics protesting against the use of lead-filled pencils in classrooms. I think that’s what we have to look forward to. That plus the internet and virtual reality. People will retreat into these electronic hideaways.
LB: Virtual reality is such a great tool in the abstract to think about all the things you were talking about earlier: perception, reality, geography, all those things. Yet as it becomes more and more real, and you actually try it out, it just turns out to be an incredible disappointment.
JGB: The number of pixels per square centimeter is way below that processed by the human eye, but there is a point where it will equal it and then, conceivably, exceed the processing powers of the human brain and eye, at which point ordinary reality will look rather shabby. And the whole thing raises enormous philosophical questions. Within this world of virtual reality, we will be free to fulfill one of mankind’s oldest dreams, that is the ability to play games with our own psycho-pathologies without hurting anyone. You’ll be able to run your own concentration camps, assassinate Kennedy, and do it all in a completely innocent way. The mind boggles.
LB: So, what’s your next book?
JGB: It’s about the nature of crime. I won’t tell you any more because with your advanced word processor, you’ll be able to tap it out before I can…
LB: How about the two British kids in the papers recently? Kids and crime are sort of an interesting pairing.
JGB: You mean the ones in Liverpool?
LB: There are lots of stories like that. That’s not an isolated case.
JGB: Absolutely. It happens all the time. It certainly wasn’t the first. What was interesting about that case was that it was caught on all those surveillance TV cameras. That was what tapped people’s mind. I think people felt as if it were almost a television programme. It was kind of an indictment of TV and its logic in a curious way. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Moors murders over here 25 years ago, a young couple in the north of England strangled a number of kids and buried them on a moor outside Manchester and it prompted incredible interest, quite rightly, there’s nothing more horrific than sexual torturing and sadistic killing of children. What was striking was that this couple tape-recorded the screams and preliminary conversations they had with their victims. These recordings were played in court, and everybody’s blood just turned to ice. Again it was as if people realized that it was the technological interface between the psychopaths and the public, in the form of tape-recordings in their case and in the form of surveillance camera film in the recent one, that grips people. They look at a tape-recorder and think, “my god, this thing has the potentiality of being a murder weapon, in a particular way”.
LB: Speaking of crime and TV, we’re getting a lot of OJ [Simpson] coverage. I don’t know how it’s playing over there.
JGB: We get a one hour summary once a week which I sometimes watch with enormous fascination because the court procedure is so completely unlike all that we watchers of American films and TV series have been led to expect. Where was the incisive cross-examination? It’s completely absent.
LB: Well, we’re getting more than an hour a week. It’s on all day long live and then all night long on recaps and discussion shows.
JGB: It’s very difficult for an outsider to judge because looking at it, just glancing in on the thing as it were, you get the impression that these aren’t real lawyers. These are the inmates of some institution who are taking part in some sort of remedial psycho-drama, where a tragically brain damaged woman is being given a script and told to behave like a public prosecutor. The judge, it’s hard to believe this man is qualified, he seems so totally incompetent. You know he could be… it’s something like that play Marat Sade one of those plays that Sade put on in his lunatic asylum using the patients. You’d think that Ito was some sort of brain-damaged Japanese-American who’s car crashed, asked to play the part of The Judge. He’s the one that doesn’t have a script. He fumbles and stumbles. Nobody seems to have a grip on this and it’s completely obvious to me that Simpson is going to walk out of that court and be paid a hundred million dollars to star in the film of his life, which will of course include the murder of that poor couple.