JG Ballard: Theatre of Cruelty

Interview by Jean-Paul Coillard

In the December 1956 issue of New Worlds was published a short story by a then-unknown writer who was to become a reference. Its title was "Escapement" and was about a couple locked in a time loop. The writer was James Ballard. His first two novels [sic] are published in '62, "The Drowned World" and "The Voices of Time", "The Drought" in '64 and "The Crystal World" in '66. They established the future author of "Crash!" as the master of the cataclysmic novel, representing a frightening vision of the future spiced up by a touch of pitch-black humour. This "traveller unlimited", who has always been fond of ecology and studies his contemporaries' lifestyles like a futuristic Diderot, was born in Shanghaï on November 18th 1930. At 10, he goes though the trauma of the Japanese concentration camps, later described in "Empire of the Sun". "Cocaine Nights", published by Flamingo, tells about the mainly British but mostly lunatic microcosm of a holiday resort in Southern Spain, a double-faced world in a disturbing medical atmosphere reminiscent of Cronenberg's "Dead Ringers". An exclusive interview with the master of British SF. Lights, camera, action…

Coillard: You said once that your first short story, "Escapement", was, except for the fantasy aspect, a good description of your first year of wedding; can we find the same thing that you lived, adapted for two brothers in "Cocaine Nights"? In other terms, was "Cocaine Nights" a way to describe or transcend your feelings about yourself and your brother?

JGB: No, I don't think so. When I referred to "Escapement", I really meant the domestic atmosphere. In "Cocaine Nights", the relationship between the brothers in no way resembles that between my wife and I 40 years ago. It's a complete invention, since I have no brother. The relationship between the narrator James Ballard and his wife Catherine (in "Crash") is in some ways an accurate portrayal of that between myself and my then girlfriend at the time of writing. But I've always been interested in the underlying personal myths more than in the mise en scene.

Coillard: What was the influence of your childhood in Shangai and your experiences during the war with Japan on your life and on your writing?

JGB: Too vast to sum up in a single reply, since it pervades almost all my fiction. The confusions and sudden transformations of war, which of course were well known to the French during WW2, taught me that reality is little more than a stage set, whose cast and scenery can be swept aside and replaced overnight, and that our belief in the permanence of appearances is an illusion. All my work as a writer has been an attempt to discover the reality beyond that of appearances, and I like to think that I follow faithfully in the footsteps of the surrealist masters.

Coillard: You said in your book that crime is the only world where everything is possible. Could you explain this?

JGB: We all lead enormously conventional lives, and much if not all of our sense of freedom is an illusion. We may think that we can fly on holiday to anywhere in the world, adopt any lifestyle and pursue a career change, but in fact our decisions are largely shaped by very strict social conventions and the mass media. People today, although materially far better off, have far less freedom in their lives than did those 50 years ago. Today we have the illusory freedom of visitors to a theme park. Crime, which of course is an attack on everything valued by society, at the same time asserts its unique identity. The criminal possibilities inherent in anything are always greater than the thing itself.

Coillard: Your story takes place in Spain, but in a British enclave, a kind of no man's land, as often in your books. Do you feel more British or citizen of the world ?

JGB: I hope I am a citizen of the world, though most people would regard me as totally British. Estrella de Mar is a largely British enclave, as is the pattern on the Costa del Sol, where the Germans, French, Dutch, etc. have tended for convenience to gather in national groups. As a writer I have never been interested in the phenomenon of Englishness and those of my novels that are set in England (such as "Crash", "High Rise", "Concrete Island") are really set in an international zone of the kind that one finds, say, outside major airports anywhere in the world, terrains that seem identical.  Cronenberg was able to translate "Crash" from London to Toronto without the slightest difficulty for this reason.

Coillard: Where does your obsession with planes come from? Would you like to be a pilot if you weren't a writer?

JGB: Planes? I would rather not look too closely at obsessions like this one. I think flight has always represented escape and transcendance for me, as for everyone else, but also in my case I'm aware of the role played by military aircraft, both Japanese and American, during WW2 in the skies over Shanghai, and by the B29s that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagazaki. Flight represented both death and life -- the total destruction from the air that would end the war and save my life in a way I have never fully disentangled. I did train to be a pilot in the RAF in 1954.

Coillard: What does writing mean to you?

JGB: Writing is the way in which I have validated the world for myself.

Coillard: Were you satisfied with your two novels adapted to the screen: "Empire of the Sun" and "Crash" and why?

JGB: Yes, in their very different ways both were superb films. I think that Spielberg was completely faithful to the spirit of ES, and conveyed the desperate psychology of the teenage hero as he learned literally to love the war, since it was the only secure reality he knew. "Crash" is Cronenberg's best and most original film, in many ways the first psychopathic film, the first to dispense completely with moral frameworks and assume the complicity of.the audience in its Sadeian universe. Just as "Psycho" has exerted an immense influence on the cinema of the past 30 years, so "Crash" will influence the cinema of the next 30. I consider it the first film of the 21st century, the prototype of the psychopathic cinema which will liberate the film from its reliance on redemptive story-lines. The French, being more intelligent and sophisticated than the British, saw this immediately.

Coillard: Do you think that better sex is coming after a disaster or a vision of a disaster?

JGB: I'm not sure what you mean by this. If you suggest that violent action triggers a heightened sexual response, of course this has always been true. Sex has never been merely a genital matter, and the input of the imagination can transform it, especially if that imagination contains strong elements of fantasy, passion, fear, jealousy, love and obsession.

Coillard: What is for you, through your books, the meaning of art ("art and criminality have always flourished side by side" p. 181)?

JGB: I think that art is the principal way in which the human mind has tried to remake the world in a way that makes sense. The carefully edited, slow-motion, action replay of a rugby tackle, a car crash or a sex act has more significance than the original event.  Thanks to virtual reality, we will soon be moving into a world where a heightened super-reality will consist entirely of action replays, and reality will therefore be all the more rich and meaningful. Art exists because reality is neither real nor significant.

Coillard: Why did you stop writing such novels as "The Drowned World" or "The Crystal World"? Do you think that today's real world is more scary and heavy with menace for people, like in "Cocaine nights"?

JGB: I felt I had exhausted the possibilities for myself of the disaster novel, and became more interested in the evolving urban landscape of the 1960s and 1970s, a man-made disaster of a different kind.

Coillard: What do you think of cyberpunk novels, like William Gibson's? Do you think it is the future of sci-fi or just a trend?

JGB: I much admire Gibson's novels, and feel that he has revived sci-fi and brought it back into contact with the real world.  Sci-fi has always suffered from the danger of moving sideways into fantasy. I'm afraid I don't read as much sci-fi as I once did. I think my own writing gets in the way, which is a pity.

Coillard: What do you think of all those British writers who are compared to you, like Will Self, Jeff Noon?

JGB: I greatly admire Will Self, who seems to me to be one of the most talented of the British writers today, a powerful intellect and a genuine free spirit.

Coillard: What do you think of the cloning of animals? Is it a new form of madness?

JGB: I don't object to cloning, even of human beings, who after all are almost identical anyway.

Coillard: Do you have a hope for mankind?

JGB: For the sake of my children and grandchildren, I hope that the human talent for self-destruction can be successfully controlled, or at least channelled into productive forms, but I doubt it. I think we are moving into extremely volatile and dangerous times, as modern electronic technologies give mankind almost unlimited powers to play with its own psychopathology as a game.

Coillard: After have written so many books, how do you look at your work?

JGB: Almost impossible to answer, like asking me what I think of myself. I never read my own fiction -- the mistakes seem to leap off the page and I avoid mirrors for the same reason.

Coillard: About Crash: did you encounter the same kind of censorship in England and America when the novel was published and what do you think of the polemic surrounding Cronenberg's movie?

JGB: There were no censorship problems when the book was published, which reflects the different status of films and novels. The book was very well received in France, a reflection of French intelligence and perhaps of its Catholic traditions. In the Protestant and very Puritan U.S. and Britain, there is a fear of the unknown, which is why surrealism has never taken root in either country. The huge scandal in England over Cronenberg's film reflects very sadly on us.

Coillard: Who were your favorite writers (Sci-Fi or other) when you started writing and later?

JGB: When I started to write, I was a great admirer of Ray Bradbury (still the best), of Robert Sheckler and Frederic Pohl. I also greatly admired Bernard Wolfe's Limbo 90.

Coillard: William Gibson said that the best insight you could have of a society when you study it a long time afterwards is not through realistic novels, but Sci-Fi ones, which are more representative of this society. What do you think about it?

JGB: I agree with Gibson. I have always said that I consider Sci-Fi the true literature of the 20th century.

Coillard: What would you say about Cocaine Nights?

JGB: The central idea is that peace of mind and security can be bought at too high a price.