From Crash [French magazine] No. 43 (Autumn 2007): 264-265.
Meeting James Ballard.
by Yann Perreau
(Brief interview probably conducted by post or fax. From internal evidence, it dates from some time after 16 April 2007, as the Virginia Tech massacre, perpetrated by a Korean-born American gunman on that date, is referred to. The text is also provided in English at the back of the magazine.]
Perreau: The name of our magazine and the name of one of your books [is] CRASH! How do you understand retrospectively the success and the polemic toward your fiction?
JGB: I'm grateful to all my readers and glad that they have found something of interest in my novels. At first many readers say: "it's absurd -- he can't be serious." Then they think: "Well maybe there's something there." Then again: "absolutely, he's right." Finally: "it's absurd... but..."
A new kind of terrorism?
Perreau: When I saw on the TV the mass killing on that campus in the United States I immediately remembered some of your points. This is something you've been predicting for a long time... As you said in a previous interview "there is a new kind of terrorism in the Occidental world, motivated by nothing." How do you understand this tragedy?
JGB: Of course, the perpetrator in this case was a Korean, an Oriental, so I'm not sure we can blame the West. But Koreans are quick to anger -- the guards in my Shanghai camp were mostly Korean and had been brutalised for generations by their Japanese masters. Unmotivated and meaningless actions have a special kind of appeal because no logic can refute them.
Perreau: There is, more precisely, a strange echo of this in your last book. Kingdom Come begins with an irrational gun shooting in a commercial centre. Can you compare the two tragedies -- the fictional and the real?
JGB: The shooting in Kingdom Come wasn't irrational. The gunman wanted to kill the TV presenter, and then tried to shoot the teddy bears. But we live so passively in the West that all violent acts seem crazily disproportionate. Set fire to a car in a suburb and it seems like the Kennedy assassination.
A suburban world
Perreau: In the same interview, you were saying that "we are doing such things because we are entering into a world that is totally 'suburbed.'"
JGB: We are bored with everything without realising it -- sex, politics, consumerism, religion. Meaningless violence is our only hope.
Perreau: Kingdom Come explores a suburban city of London, Brooklands. A place snubbed by the rest of the country in which consumerism is the only rule and "the most important moral choice is which refrigerator to buy." Do you really believe this is happening or is it more of a dystopic vision of our future?
JGB: Yes it is happening. London is now a city state cut off from the rest of the country. Out in the suburbs, which the intelligentsia never visit, people are quietly going mad. Camus wrote about all this sixty years ago. The dead afternoons in Oran. Everything is so boring that you shoot a man on the beach without noticing it. Your mother dies but you're not sure.
Perreau: There is also this religious element to your view on consumerism. The Metro-Centre, in the book, is like a shrine. And people are beginning to pray for its TV presenter. What is religious, more than just material, in the act of buying objects?
JGB: We celebrate a communion, in which the object bought is the wine and bread. We are taking part in a small religious sacrament. We believe in the commercial transaction, a transfer of magic from seller to buyer. We are taking part in a ceremony of mass affirmation.
Perreau: Consumerism isn't a recent phenomenon though, and it seems that you are interested in the analysis of its history. In the book, your narrator describes how we will soon reach "the terminal phase of consumerism which will be, after fascism, madness." You also said in an interview "madness is the only freedom in our society, which is too reasonable, because the human isn't a rational creature." How philosophically do you defend that?
JGB: I don't need to defend it -- look how the human race behaved in the 20th century.
Cultural elitism/motorway culture
Perreau: Your hero in Millennium People denounces the mediocrity of an official culture (the National Gallery, the Tate, the NFT etc.) only created to please the taste of the middle-class. Is this what you think and why you don't really go to these places?
JGB: I do go to these places all the time. I am not my characters. At the same time I am aware that there is an "official culture" which is designed to keep the middle classes quiet.
Perreau: Do you think, as Iain told me when he brought me to Bluewater, that somehow the big shopping-centres will be the art galleries of our future?
JGB: They already are.
Perreau: Iain Sinclair once said: "I think we (England) are a motorway culture and Ballard is the prophet of that." Do you think this is a global phenomenon? In Kingdom Come you write that "the clients of Holiday Inn could easily imagine they were in an amusement park of Tokyo or Shanghai suburbs..." Is all our urban future going to be, everywhere, like in that suburb?
JGB: Yes. It's already happening, everywhere in Europe and America. Just as all hotels now tend to look the same, all cars, all refrigerators, all watches, all computers.
Predicting the future
Perreau: I heard you one day, explaining that you have for years collected and stocked hundreds of goods -- washing machines, microwaves etc. -- in your garage to see how these objects change, as the best way to understand how society changes?
JGB: Not true. I don't have a garage. But scrap-yards full of old cars and washing machines are snapshots of our society at an earlier stage of history.
Perreau: Your view on sport is quite sarcastic (your narrator talks in Kingdom Come about the stupidity of a population so bored that sport begins to have such importance...). How do you see the Olympic Games? Is it going to create even more of that motorway culture?
JGB: I loathe the Olympic Games, and always have. It's really a political rally, a quasi-fascist celebration of the least interesting aspect of human beings -- how far they can throw a lump of metal.
Perreau: You have been asked a lot about cars. I would like to understand more your interest in airplanes.
JGB: The magic and mystery of flight, the dream of transcendence and escape, lies deep within the human psyche.
Perreau: You once said "Nothing has any sense except in terms of ephemeral airplane culture." Motorways, airplanes, shopping centres... What is the link between these things? What do humans do?
JGB: They take planes and fly around, like the great soaring birds who endlessly cross and recross the oceans. Like the albatross, we are looking for our soul. Tourism is a rehearsal for death.
Perreau: You once wrote a text "I believe in." I believe in the "mystery of multi-storey car-parks? In the poetry of abandoned hotels..." What is beautiful in these things? ... "I believe in the imagination as the key of the human mystery." Is it just a strategy of refuge from the ugliness of reality, or a power that one can use to change reality -- the power of imagination?
JGB: Not refuge, but attack. With the imagination we can attack reality and defeat it.
Perreau: This brings us to your interest in surrealism. "Surrealism exhibits links between love, death and eroticism. This is the heart to what it is to be human" you once said. The last hope is to bury oneself in a dream world of fantasies, images and memories?
JGB: The whole point is that they aren't fantasies. They are the new reality.
Perreau: Is this why you are so interested in the 20th century icons that tragically disappeared (JFK, Marilyn Monroe) -- they would have that sort of surreal beauty? The beauty of death that one finds when seeing that portrait of James Dean smoking a cigarette in front of his car just before the accident?