From The Scotsman, 9 January 1996:
A crash course in realism
By Pat Kane
The Lagavulin warms beautifully in our palms, a reproach to the January rain. JG Ballard nestles into his battered armchair, and unspools another fond memory in resounding, imperial tones. "I always found dissecting cadavers a profoundly moving experience." Gulp. This whisky needs water.
"You're in intimate contact with a human being in a way which you can never be otherwise. Because you're literally" -- soft and lyrical here -- "dismantling the flesh. You dismantle a face, revealing the layers of muscles that make up the everyday expressions of pleasure, surprise, anger. You see the machinery of the emotions.
"That's very instructive in its own right. It taught me to respect the human body, and the human spirit, in a very direct way." Ballard creaks his pensioner's bulk sideways; outside the bay windows, Shepperton slips into early darkness.
There are two ways to react to this material. For those who only know of JG Ballard as writer of Empire of the Sun -- the autobiographical tale of a boy surviving in a Shanghai prison camp, turned into a Spielberg spectacular -- it is just interesting biography: Ballard was once a medical student at Cambridge, doing anatomy and physiology. But for those who know Ballard as the violent futurist of English letters -- a man whose stories have described the erotic attraction of car crash victims, the assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy, adolescents mass-murdering their parents, eco-feminists murdering all men, and more -- it is almost too revelatory. So this is where he gets his inspiration from?
The other side of Ballard -- the disruptive techno-surrealist who has thrilled and chilled two generations of cult readers -- is also going to get its big-screen treatment.
Canadian director David Cronenberg, who attempted the impossible (and failed respectably) by filming William Burroughs's The Naked Lunch, is putting the finishing touches to his version of Crash -- Ballard's 1973 novel of tangled autos, mangled drivers and perverse pleasures. Due out in March, Ballard seems puffed and pleased by it. "It's starring James Spader and Rosanna Arquette, you know, I think Cronenberg understands the book, that it's about where our obsession with technological violence may lead us. A cautionary tale."
Yet that is the problem with Ballard's most notorious fictions: the caution is almost lost in his meticulous and fetishistic rendition of the crime. Stop anywhere in Crash -- where you might find a "uterus pierced by the heraldic beak of the manufacturer's medallion", or "semen emptying across the luminescent dials that registered forever the last temperature and fuel levels of the engine" -- and you might be tempted to go along with the judgment of the first proof-reader of Ballard's novel: this author is beyond psychiatric help.
"But I took that as a sign of complete artistic success!" Ballard smiles expansively in the book-strewn front room of his Shepperton semi. A large reproduction of a Belgian surrealist painting stands before me, consisting of four melon-breasted women with clocks on their legs. Add this to the hefty Lagavulin measures, and I am suspecting some kind of psychic disorientation exercise. But Ballard is into full explanatory mode about his literary extremism, and I am powerless to resist.
"When I was writing Crash in 1972, I was in a climate where it seemed obvious that people were finding the combination of technology and violence incredibly exciting. Vietnam, the Biafran wars, Hollywood movies, graphic material on our screens every night a I remember seeing the Zapruder film of Kennedy's assassination -- you know, a comparatively young man with his wife behind him, having his head blown off as he rode in a limousine -- being used as a backdrop to some rock show, a fashion spread in some magazine. I thought, what is going on here? People are obviously unalienated from all this violence, they're embracing it, it's irrigating their imaginations in all these amazing ways. What strange flower is going to bloom from all this?"
Sudden rain on a Shepperton picture-window. "So I thought I'd adopt the Jonathan Swift approach in A Modest Proposal: I'll take for granted from the very first word that car crashes are sexually fulfilling and life-enhancing. Take this nightmare logic, this psychotic logic and see where it leads me. A psychopathic hymn, utterly without moral redemption." The rain, slowing down. "And remember, I wrote this book as a single parent, a widower, bringing up three very young children, who crossed the road every day to wherever very young children go. And nature could have played a horrifically bad joke on me."
The imaginative world of Ballard -- where nude old men videotape their own deaths; where forensic doctors organise their own atrocity exhibitions; where black is white, and evil is transparent -- sits so strangely with this clubbable Cambridge grandad, ensconced in his cosy semi, passing out whisky and sodas.
His talk is peppered with neat slogans ("we now experience pain as an imaginative construct"; "media technology has pulled the plugs on our psychotic selves"; "environmentalism is a children's crusade"), which at least gives you the sense of a fully-worked out theory underpinning his literary excesses. And his new book of essays, A User's Guide to the Millennium, shows him to be a model of English prose writing -- if you can swallow the frequent eulogies to De Sade and pornography. But there is a link, which Ballard will readily avow, between the amoral terrorist of the imagination and the little boy adrift in Shanghai.
"Empire of the Sun opened windows for me that had been closed for 40 years," says Ballard. "I don't understand to this day why I had to wait so long to write this. But once I did, I saw that metaphorical traces of my wartime memories had come through the paving stones of all my other fiction -- Drowned World, Crystal World, Crash, High-Rise, the short stories." What were these traces? "Oh, the abandoned hotels and streets, the drained swimming pools, the low-flying aircraft, the drowned landscapes -- everything I'd seen in Shanghai as a child, lost in the war."
What did this experience do to you as a child? "I think it had a very beneficial effect on my make-up. I was present during the Japanese fighting around Shanghai from 1937 onwards. It gave me a very realistic view of the world." He details his strong thesis against CND and nuclear protest: that without Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many more hundreds of thousands would have died in border wars along Singapore, Hong Kong, Saigon, at the hands of Americans and Japanese.
"I think the Atom bomb saved lives, as well as being of apocalyptic significance -- archaic myth and the fantasies of 20th century superscience colliding together, of course."
Of course. So Ballard's transgressive technological imagination -- which can conceive of a surgeon's scalpel that both heals and tortures -- would seem, by this account anyway, to have a root. The small, resourceful boy, alone in a blasted adult world, saved from his alien oppressors by a cataclysmic technology. What other kind of fiction could JG Ballard have possibly written? And to tie things up, even his love of dissection has a forgiving coda to it.
"Anatomy meant a lot to me in particular, because only a few years beforehand I'd seen thousands of bodies on the streets and pathograms [sic] around Shanghai.
"You'd almost go out like a tourist to see the battlefields, and you'd see the dead lying mutilated in the fields, legs waving in the canals. And becoming a medical student, I felt I was redeeming some of those meaningless dead lying in those wretched paddy fields. It was a profoundly moving experience, one I hope I've reflected in my writing."
Thanks for the whisky, James.