You and Me and the Continuum: In Search of a Lost JG Ballard Novel

By David Pringle

A brief profile, headed “J. G. Ballard, London” and published on the inside front cover of New Worlds No. 54 (December 1956), introduces the 25-year-old writer and says: “After winning the annual short story competition at Cambridge in 1951 he wrote his first novel, a completely unreadable pastiche of Finnegan's Wake and The Adventures of Engelbrecht. James Joyce still remains the wordmaster, but it wasn’t until he turned to science fiction that he found a medium where he could exploit his imagination, being less concerned with the popular scientific approach than using it as a springboard into the surreal and fantastic.”

This profile (probably written by Ted Carnell, the magazine’s editor), adds that Ballard gets most of his inspiration from painters, and that “outwardly, at any rate, he lives quietly in Chiswick with his wife and baby son Jimmie. He admits that though she doesn’t actually write his stories his wife has as much to do with their final production as he has himself. She hopes to have his novel You and Me and the Continuum finished by the end of this year.”

There are hints of two lost Ballard novels here: firstly, an “unreadable” pastiche of James Joyce and Maurice Richardson which he wrote immediately after leaving Cambridge in 1951; and secondly, a work called You and Me and the Continuum which, it seems, was nearing completion in 1956 at a time when he was already making his first professional short-story sales to Carnell’s magazines. What became of this second novel? Was it actually finished and was it ever submitted to anyone?

We don’t know.

Yet we do know that almost ten years later he was to publish a short story called “You and Me and the Continuum” (Impulse no. 1, March 1966; subsequently reprinted in slightly revised form in his book The Atrocity Exhibition, 1970). Was this story linked in any way, other than by the coincidence of title, to the lost novel of 1956? I raised the matter with Ballard in a 1981 interview (published as “The Profession of Science Fiction, 26: From Shanghai to Shepperton” in Foundation no. 24, February 1982), and he replied as follows: “I did write a sort of experimental novel, nothing like the subsequent story of that name or any of the Atrocity Exhibition stories. At the time I wrote the story ‘You and Me and the Continuum,’ in 1965, I’d completely forgotten this -- ten years in your 20s and early 30s is a long time -- but the phrase must have stuck in my mind. That was a long time ago, I can’t really remember. I suppose it was fiction of an impressionistic nature, no attempt at straightforward narrative or storytelling -- a highly stylized mixture of dramatic dialogue, in some ways rather like a film script, with interludes of prose poetry, a very hot steaming confection with bits and pieces from all quarters.” Ballard said no more, and I remain curious.

Apart from his published science-fiction stories of the period, what other evidence do we have of Ballard’s literary experiments in the 1950s? Just one item that I know of, an eight-page untitled collage which appeared in New Worlds no. 213 (Summer 1978) and was referred to in the editorial of that magazine as “J. G. Ballard material originally done in 1958 and published here for the first time.”

This gnomic but very interesting item has since been reprinted in Re/Search 8/9: J. G. Ballard (San Francisco: Re/Search, 1984, pages 38-40) with the following prefatory remarks by the author: “[These are] a series of four facing-page spreads that were specimen pages I put together in the late 50s... sample pages of a new kind of novel, entirely consisting of magazine-style headlines and layouts, with a deliberately meaningless text, the idea being that the imaginative content could be carried by the headlines and overall design, so making obsolete the need for a traditional text except for virtually decorative purposes... The pages from the Project for a New Novel were made at a time when I was working on a chemical society journal in London, and the lettering was taken from the US magazine Chemical & Engineering News -- I liked its very stylish typography. I also liked the scientific content, and used stories from Chem. Eng. News to provide the text of my novel. Curiously enough, far from being meaningless, the science news stories somehow become fictionalized by the headings around them.”

The Re/Search book also contains, on page 121, an old photograph of the author which is captioned: “Ballard in front of pages of his text, 1960.” This serves as proof that the collage material, which is pinned to a long board behind his head, was indeed in existence by 1960, and it also reveals the intended running order of the pages; alas, the editors of Re/Search reproduce them in the wrong order elsewhere in the book -- their sequence is: spreads 3, 2, 1, 4 -- although, given the nature of the material, this may not matter in the least. If we ignore the lumps of text evidently taken direct from the American science journal, it is precisely in Ballard’s “headlines” or “headings” that the peculiar interest of this item -- let us call it “Project for a New Novel” -- resides. They include haunting phrases, fragments of narrative and elusive references to fictional characters, most of which have recurred in Ballard’s fiction since. Here are some of them, roughly in the order that they appear:

Spread 1:
zero synthesis
COMA: the million year girl
KLINE: rescoring the cns
mr. f is mr. f
Xero Run Hot with a Million Programs Starts
xero “I am 7000 years old”

Spread 2:
am: beach hamlet
pm: imago tapes
: the existential yes!
TIME ZONE.......
pre-uterine claims KLINE
the A-girl COMA
Time pack MR F
...Coma slid out of the solar rig

Spread 3:
Thoracic drop
“Mainline,” Kline dialled “L-5 on the big routes.”
...depth squad:
programming the psychodrill: coded sleep and intertime

Spread 4:
time sea
time probe
Volcano Jungle: vision of a dying star-man
...Coma,’ Kline murmured, ‘let’s get out of time.’

The phrase “Mr F. is Mr F.” was later used as the title of a 1961 short story (reprinted in The Disaster Area, 1967), about a Mr Freeman who regresses to the womb -- his wife’s womb. The references to a “Volcano Jungle” and the “vision of a dying star-man” immediately suggest the 1959 short story “The Waiting Grounds” (reprinted in The Day of Forever, 1967), in a which a settler on another planet discovers a sort of alien temple and experiences a vision of the grand cycle of cosmos. The phrases “TIME ZONE,” “Thoracic drop” and “time sea,” and the references to “T-1” and “T-12,” would seem to prefigure the 1962 novel The Drowned World with its central notion of a night-time dream-journey down humanity’s collective spinal cord to earlier, prehistoric, states of being. But some of the other phrases, and also the allusions to the characters Kline, Coma and Xero, are what most interest me here. (In passing, I should note that a character called Coma appears in the 1960 story “The Voices of Time,” where she is described as “raven-haired” with “intelligent but somehow rather oblique eyes” and is referred to jokingly as “the girl from Mars.”) Now I am not about to claim that the 1958 “Project for a New Novel” is the lost 1956 novel You and Me and the Continuum, or a segment thereof, but it occurs to me that there may well be strong links. Just as Ballard borrowed material from a science journal, so he may well have borrowed words, phrases and fictional persons from his own recently-written but unpublished novel. For further clues, let’s turn to the 1966 short story which bears the same title -- and to its immediate successors.

“You and Me and the Continuum” was the first of the stories which later went to make up The Atrocity Exhibition. It did, however, have a stylistic predecessor: “Confetti Royale” had been published two months earlier, in the January 1966 issue of Rogue magazine (it was later retitled “The Beach Murders” and collected in Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories, 1976). This was Ballard’s first fully non-linear story, in effect the first “condensed novel.” Originally subtitled “An Entertainment for George MacBeth,” it is clearly influenced by that writer’s prose poem “The Ski Murders” (published in Ambit, a magazine with which Ballard was now associated, in 1965). Like MacBeth’s piece, Ballard’s “Confetti Royale” is a narrative broken up into non-sequential paragraphs, each headed by a mysterious word or phrase in bold face, with those headlined paragraphs presented in alphabetical order as elements of an insoluble puzzle. Clearly, this pastiche of MacBeth was a jeu d’esprit for Ballard, an “entertainment” indeed: its subject matter is that of a James Bond-type spy thriller, with such characters as a CIA man, beautiful femmes fatales and various Russian agents. The content of the story is completely unserious (and unoriginal) but the form seems to have been an inspiration to Ballard; for, in writing “You and Me and the Continuum” immediately afterwards, he used exactly the same form (including the alphabetization) to a much more original purpose. Thus the condensed novels of The Atrocity Exhibition sequence were born: the later stories drop the alphabetization gimmick, but they retain the other features, so that “You and Me and the Continuum” can be seen almost as a halfway stage between “Confetti Royale” (and MacBeth’s “The Ski Murders”) and Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition stories proper.

But why did he call that first story of the new sequence by the old (to him) title of “You and Me and the Continuum”? In the interview quoted above Ballard claimed that the lost 1956 novel was “nothing like the subsequent story of that name or any of The Atrocity Exhibition stories.” However, he also admitted that he couldn’t really remember, and my suspicion is that there were indeed some links in terms of the content and possibly the theme. In its specific form the novel may have been “nothing like” the later story and its successors -- for the evident reason that the condensed novels couldn’t have come about until after Ballard had read MacBeth’s “The Ski Murders” and written his own pastiche of it -- but in its ideas and characters the novel may well have prefigured some of the elements which go to make up the 1966 short story and several others which follow it.

The circumstantial evidence for this comes largely from the “Project for a New Novel,” produced so soon after the 1956 You and Me and the Continuum was (presumably) abandoned. The following phrases occur in the 1966 short story, and all of them echo very strongly some of the words which I quoted above from the 1958 collage (the page references are to the 1979 Panther paperback edition of The Atrocity Exhibition):

“Coded Sleep and Intertime” -- page 102
Imago Tapes -- page 104
the spinal level T-12 -- page 104
the need to re-score the C.N.S. -- page 106
pre-uterine claims -- page 106
this beach Hamlet -- page 106

This nearly word-for-word repetition of material from the “New Novel” collage would indicate that it was not only the title of the 1966 story which was a hangover from the 1950s. Clearly, many of the same ideas and images had been present in Ballard’s mind in 1958 -- and perhaps in 1956.

But what is the short story actually about? In its original magazine version, “You and Me and the Continuum” carries a brief author’s introduction which describes the piece as concerning “the Messiah or, more exactly, the idea of the second coming and how this might take place in the twentieth century. In my version, which I would describe as a botched second coming, the Messiah never quite managing to come to terms with the twentieth century, I have used a fragmentary and non-sequential technique ... and have tried to invoke some of the images that a twentieth century Messiah might see.”

This theme of the Second Coming is amply borne out by the text. The central character remains nameless, but he is possibly “a returning astronaut suffering from amnesia... or, as some have suggested, the second coming of Christ” (page 101). There follows a series of baffling anecdotes, as clues to the identity of this mysterious visitor are gleaned from science, technology and the media landscape; e.g.: “The X-ray plates of the growing foetus had shown the absence of both placenta and umbilical cord. Was this then, Dr Nathan pondered, the true meaning of the immaculate conception -- that not the mother but the child was virgin, innocent of any Jocasta’s clutching blood, sustained by the unseen powers of the universe as it lay waiting within its amnion?” (page 106). In the last act of a second coming which is after all “botched,” the stranger breaks into (or attempts to break into) the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and is then seen walking into the sea: “He had come bearing the gifts of the sun and the quasars, and instead had sacrificed them for this unknown soldier resurrected now to return to his Flanders field” (page 109). Exactly what has “happened” in the story is never made clear, but the language and imagery are hauntingly allusive.

The second-coming motif has recurred in Ballard’s fiction and non-fiction, and would seem to have a strong appeal to his imagination. A short interview about the psychological significance of car crashes, by June Rose (Sunday Mirror, May 19, 1968), quotes him as follows: “Crash victims like Jayne Mansfield, James Dean, Aly Khan, Jim Clark and President Kennedy (the first man to be murdered in a motorcade) act out the Crucifixion for us. Their deaths heighten our vitality in a blinding flash. The death of Kennedy was a sacrificial murder, connived at by the millions of people who watched it endlessly recapitulated on television. If Christ came again, he would be killed in a car crash.”

The short story “The Comsat Angels” (Worlds of If, December 1968; reprinted in Low-Flying Aircraft, 1976) is explicitly about a second coming of Christ and his twelve apostles. And a much later story, “Answers to a Questionnaire” (Ambit, Spring 1985; collected in War Fever, 1990), also touches effectively on the theme. In a recent conversation, Ballard makes a similar allusion: “Imagine Christ being born in his manger surrounded by all the TV networks buying exclusive rights on this, that and the other as the baby opens its eyes to reality” (unpublished interview by Lynne Fox, recorded in January 1991). Given the persistence of this sort of notion in Ballard’s mind over several decades, is it too much to suppose that the lost 1956 novel, the ur-You and Me and the Continuum, was also about a second coming?

The next story in the sequence, “The Assassination Weapon,” published in New Worlds just one month later (April 1966), has an even richer array of allusions in common with the 1958 “Project for a New Novel.” These familiar names and phrases occur:

Kline, Coma, Xero -- page 37
Coma: the million-year girl -- page 41
Pre-Uterine Claims -- page 41
An Existential Yes -- page 46

But more important than the mere occurrence of such phrases in “The Assassination Weapon” is the fact that the mysterious Kline, Coma and Xero actually appear several times as on-stage personae. They follow the central character, here called Traven, and on page 45 they are described as “his watching trinity.” Who are these strange figures? Certainly not the well-rounded characters of any conventional piece of fiction; rather, they seem to be personifications of the Super-ego, the Anima and the Id: “Of the three figures who were to accompany him, the strangest was Xero. For most of the time Kline and Coma would remain near him, sitting a few feet away on the embankment of the deserted motorway... Coma was too shy, but now and then he would manage to talk to Kline... By contrast, Xero was an archangel, a figure of galvanic energy and uncertainty. As he moved across the abandoned landscape near the flyover, the very perspectives of the air seemed to invert behind him. At times, when Xero approached the forlorn group sitting on the embankment, his shadows formed bizarre patterns on the concrete, transcripts of cryptic formulae and insoluble dreams. These ideograms, like the hieroglyphs of a race of blind seers, remained on the grey concrete after Xero had gone, the detritus of this terrifying psychic totem” (pages 38-39).

Kline, Coma and Xero, singly or in differing combinations, are present in stories Three, Four and Five of the sequence: “You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe” (Ambit, Spring 1966), “The Atrocity Exhibition” itself (New Worlds, September 1966) and “The Death Module” (New Worlds, July 1967; later retitled “Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown” for the book). As usual, they seem to haunt the central character, whose name changes from piece to piece (Tallis, Travis, Trabert). On page 10 the watching figures (not actually named in this instance) are referred to as “couriers from his own unconscious.” Later, Coma is described as “madonna of the time-ways” (page 56), and we have the reappearance of a familiar 1958 phrase to describe the alarming third member of the trinity: “Xero: run hot with a million programmes” (same page).

In summary, my tentative hypothesis is this: Ballard’s lost You and Me and the Continuum of 1956 was probably a modern-day novel about a botched second coming -- or, at any rate, about a “man who fell to earth” -- with a Christ-like central character who is haunted by three personae from his unconscious named Kline, Coma and Xero. Although it didn’t closely resemble the condensed novels of later years, it was no doubt unconventional in form, with parts resembling a film script and parts which amounted to prose poetry: a “hot steaming confection” incorporating a good deal of scientific and psychoanalytical terminology and many surrealistic juxtapositions. Perhaps it was never finished, and it is likely that it would have been considered unpublishable in its day. But parts of it remain embedded, as literary fossil remains, in The Atrocity Exhibition. This conclusion is highly speculative, and one day it could be proved wrong. For the moment, however, I believe there may be some truth in the theory I have outlined here.

A Subsequent Letter from J. G. Ballard on His "Lost" 1950s Novel

20th December 1993

Dear David:

Thanks for the latest newsletter [_JGBN_ 21]. The profile in
New Worlds [December 1956] was written by me, as were most of the others that Carnell published. To be honest, I think I was over-gilding the lily when I said that I'd already written a first novel (the Finnegans Wake/Engelbrecht pastiche) and was about to finish a second (You and Me and the Continuum). While I was at Cambridge I'd written about 50-60 pages of an experimental novel (the hot, steaming confection), which I added to over the next few years until I had a totally unpublishable farrago of apocalyptic material on which I drew when I produced the collage pages in '58/59. As for the theme being the second coming of Christ, you may be fairly close to the mark -- I'd been bowled over when I first read Graves's White Goddess and Joseph Campbell's Hero With 1,000 Faces, and also Graves's King Jesus, and I think my "novel" was trying to be an updating of the heroes of religious myth -- but it was all totally mad as well as unpublishable, the product of too much scattershot reading.

Yes, George MacBeth's "Ski Murders" did impress me, and "You and Me and the Continuum" was prompted by it, though in fact I think I would soon have found my way to The Atrocity Exhibition had MacBeth never written his piece. "Terminal Beach," in '63, was pointing the way, with its non-linear narrative and section headings, and there are hints of the Atrocity Exhibition technique in "Build-Up" ("The Concentration City") and in one of my earliest sf efforts, "Passport to Eternity" -- I loved all those lists and paragraphs which carried the real story, and which I took from Jack Vance's marvellous "Meet Miss Universe" (I think I read it in Canada, actually) -- it struck me as so intelligent and witty and imaginative, though most sf was really very traditional in its story-telling. I'd been very impressed by Limbo '90, which I'd read in '53/54 (if I'm right), and by the visual panache of the whole thing -- the headings and diary inserts and the full-page YES and NO which were in the original hardback edition. I loved Ape and Essence with its story within a film-script, and Nigel Balchin's experimental novel Lord, I Was Afraid, now totally forgotten, like the Auden/Isherwood plays, Ascent of F6 and so on.

You're right about all these early ideas being buried like fossils in "You and Me and the Continuum" -- in many ways "You and Me and the Continuum" is a later and more accessible (if anyone can believe that!) version of the earlier "novel."

-- J. G. Ballard, Shepperton

Copyright © David Pringle, 1993