Tales From the Dark Side

I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels.

From the New York Times Review of Books, September 9, 1990

The man who wrote those words is not at all what one might expect -- he's altogether healthier, jollier, more optimistic and more progress-minded than either the haggard prophet of doom or the consumptive dandy they might conjure up. James Graham Ballard, 59, looks a bit like a vacationing Oxbridge don with his long, thinning hair and a shirt whose open collar gives the impression of just having been released from the grip of a necktie. From his first book, The Wind from Nowhere (1962), to his latest, Running Wild (1988), through such significant titles as The Drowned World (1962), The Crystal World (1966), Crash (1973) and High Rise (1975), Ballard has been depicting the dark underside of civilization, a darkness that seems to increase in the human psyche in inverse proportion to what we call progress. His novels are complex, obsessive, frequently poetic and always disquieting chronicles of nature rebelling against humans, of the survival of barbarism in a world of mechanical efficiency, of entropy, anomie, breakdown, ruin. Yet his focus is always on the human -- there are no extraterrestrials in his fiction -- and the blasted landscapes that his characters inhabit are both external settings and states of mind.

Ballard's habitat, too, defies any preconceived image. The village of Shepperton, in Middlesex, where he makes his home, does have its Late Modern connotations -- it lies off the M3 Expressway just below Heathrow Airport, and is home to England's second-largest studio complex. But one might not necessarily know any of those things from a visit to the suburb, some 15 miles from London. The place seems to consist mostly of a railroad station, a high street, a crossroads and a Crossroads Pub. Ballard lives mere steps away from the crossroads on a demure residential street, in a yellow stucco semidetached house that invites the adjective ''modest.''

Inside, the rooms are small, and they seem even smaller than they are, since the living room and the study are each dominated by an enormous framed canvas of somnambulistic nude woman in a neoclassical landscape of pillars and porticos. Ballard recently commissioned artists to reconstruct a pair of paintings -- ''The Mirror'' and ''The Violation'' -- by the Belgian surrealist Paul Delvaux. The originals were destroyed in the 1940's, possibly during the London Blitz, and Ballard knew them only as black-and-white reproductions in books. Delvaux's voluptuous nudes clash oddly with the pastoral scene visible through the french doors open to Ballard's small backyard, which is thick with bird songs and children's shouts drifting in from adjacent gardens. Ballard lives alone. He moved here in 1960 with his wife and three children, when he was still an editor of scientific journals and author of only a few scattered short stories. Mary Ballard died in 1964, and afterward Ballard raised his children (now aged 30, 32, and 33) by himself. The house and the surrounding village are dear to him, both for the memories they hold (although he makes a point of being almost aggressively unsentimental) and for the low-keyed suburban neutrality of the place, which he finds conducive to imaginative work. He is a determinedly private man, reticent in speaking about himself and reluctant to talk about his family or how he spends his time. It's obvious from the guardedness of his conversation that the village and the small suburban house provide him with the anonymity in which he feels most comfortable.

Ballard's writings have been admired in literary circles since the early 1960's. Kingsley Amis, reviewing The Drowned World, called Ballard ''one of the brightest new stars in postwar fiction'' and predicted that he may turn out to be the most imaginative of H.G. Wells's successors; Graham Greene said that his short story collection, The Disaster Area, was ''one of the best science-fiction books I have ever read.'' Susan Sontag has labeled him ''one of the most important, intelligent voices in contemporary fiction.'' And Anthony Burgess asserted that ''the first thing to say about J.G. Ballard is not that he is among our finest writers of science fiction but that he is among our finest writers of fiction tout court, period.'' Indeed, Ballard's writings over the years have ranged far beyond the boundaries of genre. Nevertheless, for much of his career his work was confined to the science-fiction ghetto by marketing decisions of publishers, by choice of cover art and by the placement of his books in shops. ''His work is more than science fiction,'' says Blake Morrison, literary editor of The London Independent. ''It concerns a fear that all people have about the planet. With Empire of the Sun, you could see where his extraordinary fictional world came from. Everything fell into place.''

For many general readers, Ballard only appeared on the map of contemporary literature in 1984 with his autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, the least typical of his books but in many ways the key to his entire body of work. Like Jim, the novel's hero, Ballard was born and raised in Shanghai, where his father ran a large textile firm. The family enjoyed the luxury of a large, well-staffed house just outside the city's foreign compound, leading a colonial existence far removed from the turmoil that Shanghai, and China in general, suffered increasingly through the 1930's: a dizzying succession of governments, street fighting, food shortages, bank failures and, ultimately, invasion by Japan.

Like Jim, Ballard was sheltered from this violence and dislocation but observed it all the same, mostly through the windows of the chauffeured automobile that took him to the English Cathedral School and back. It was a childhood of stunning juxtapositions and galloping ironies. His parents held formal balls; Ballard precociously wrote a manual for playing contract bridge. At the same time, however, he was seeing dead bodies in the streets, hearing shells fired throughout the night, becoming obsessed with the military aircraft that flew overhead. The Sino-Japanese War began in 1937. Ballard and his family managed to retain their genteel standards in spite of the anarchy raging around them until 1942, when Ballard, again like his hero, was sent along with his family to an internment camp for the rest of the war.

Those four years of normality in the midst of crisis were the crystal that formed Ballard's imagination, directly leading to the hallucinated terrain of his work. ''Prewar and wartime Shanghai was a huge Surrealist landscape,'' says Ballard, waving a hand at the Delvaux. ''It was a time of sudden changes; regimes changed all the time. Atlanta was burning in a poster for 'Gone With the Wind,' while just beyond, real fires tore through the city. There was a complete transformation of everything, complete unpredictability, while formal life went on, just as in Bunuel's films or Delvaux's paintings -- a bizarre external landscape propelled by large psychic forces.''

Ballard has no doubt that his childhood experiences gave him a lasting appreciation for Surrealist aesthetics. ''The techniques of science fiction allowed me to recreate this world and its transformations.'' Indeed, things witnessed by Ballard, and transferred to Jim in Empire of the Sun, directly foreshadow scenes and events that turn up in his other, more explicitly fantastic fiction. The drained swimming pools, deserted suburbs and empty highways of Shanghai became the devastated worlds of Ballard's disaster novels: The Wind from Nowhere, with its flattened cities; The Drowned World, with its few remaining inhabitants camped out on the top floors of high rises; The Drought, with the whole earth combustible.

In 1987, Steven Spielberg made Empire of the Sun into a movie, starring John Malkovich, Christian Bale and Miranda Richardson, that garnered several Academy Award nominations. That Spielberg and Ballard, two men who made their careers in science fiction, should meet in a project that fell quite outside the genre was only one of the lesser paradoxes. The scenes set in Shanghai were actually shot there, since the city has, remarkably, maintained its prewar skyline (seeing it again on film was ''an eerie sensation,'' says Ballard, who has not returned since moving to England in 1946); but the scenes of Jim's family home could not be filmed in Ballard's childhood residence, now a ruin. Instead, Spielberg and company decided to use a house of the same general age and type, familiarly known as ''stockbroker Tudor,'' in Sunningdale, not far from Shepperton.

Many of the village's residents work as extras in the local film studios. Since Ballard lived nearby, Spielberg asked him to play a small role in a party sequence shot in the Sunningdale house. Thus, Ballard enjoyed the distinctly odd experience of collaborating with his present-day neighbors as bystanders in scenes of his own childhood. ''It was like a sort of waking dream,'' he says. ''The mind recruits material from the day, nearby houses and neighbors, and assigns them the parts of people last seen across the water 40 years ago.''

The conclusion of the party sequence saw the guests emerging from the house into a driveway where 1930's Packards and Buicks driven by Chinese actors costumed as chauffeurs were waiting for them, a tableau that dislocated Ballard entirely: ''I thought I'd step into a car and be driven back to the Shanghai of 40 years ago. I've lived here for over 25 years. Why pick Shepperton? Did I unconsciously know that I would write a novel about Shanghai, which would be filmed in Shepperton, with neighbors and ambiance brought into it?'' He laughs.

After three years' confinement in the Japanese camp -- for a teen-ager, more of an adventure than a hardship -- he ''returned'' to a homeland that he had never seen. England appeared preposterously narrow to him, both in physical scale and in mental attitude. He has lived there ever since, but he seems to feel the same resentment today. England is, as Ballard puts it, ''the opposite landscape to China -- repressed and hierarchical.''

Again and again he makes a point of contrasting England and the United States, to the detriment of the former: ''European intellectuals believe that American society is dominated by the image, whereas Europe and England have much more of a real culture -- in fact the opposite is true. England is much more dominated by the mass media; Americans take it more in stride. In England, the media is all there is, since life is dictated by a tiny number of TV channels. The BBC played a large role in the postwar decline of Britain through setting a national agenda, somehow making people believe that dividing up a small cake more fairly would result in larger slices for everybody. It was anathema to suggest a bigger cake.''

After studying medicine at Cambridge (he never practiced), Ballard decided to become a writer. He won a college short story competition and then spent a desultory term reading English at London University. He spent his 20's writing short stories for some of the more progressive English science-fiction magazines -- in particular New Worlds, which, under the editorship of E.J. Carnell, was to revolutionize the English sci-fi scene of the 1950's and '60's and produce, besides Ballard, such writers as Brian Aldiss and Michael Moorcock. He worked in libraries; then, after his marriage in 1955, joined the staff of a technical journal called Chemistry and Industry. The job, besides supporting his family, fed him a steady diet of technical jargon, which he read as a sort of poetry. In the late 50's, Ballard experimented with texts assembled from fragments of this material: evocative phrases -- ''programming the psychodrill: coded sleep and intertime'' or '' 'Mainline,' Kline dialed, 'L-5 on the big routes' '' -- are dropped like headlines between blocks scissored directly from American trade journals.

This collage technique determined the shape of his later works in more ways than one. Some of the fragmentary characters who appear fleetingly in these early works later resurface more fully fleshed in stories and especially in Ballard's most elliptical work, The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). They also contributed to an enduring taste for what he calls ''invisible literature'' -- the interoffice memos, handouts, circulars, newsletters and such that make up the professional reading matter of specialists in all fields. A close friend of Ballard, Dr. Christopher Evans (now deceased), was a computer scientist at the National Physical Laboratories. For nearly 10 years Evans would send Ballard the contents of his wastepaper basket nearly every week. ''It was wonderful stuff,'' recalls Ballard a bit wistfully. ''I kept it in the coal shed for years. When I finally cleaned it out, about five years ago, I could hardly bear to throw any of it away. I can't have enough information coming into my life -- I want to read everything. I want to eavesdrop on the shop talk of specialists in any field.''

After the early disaster novels and the hallucinatory The Crystal World, in which time is converted into crystals so that the world gradually turns into an enormous cluster of jewels, Ballard began work on The Atrocity Exhibition. This book drew on a number of fascinations: the taste for technical language; an interest in Pop Art that had begun with Ballard's visit to Richard Hamilton's ground-breaking 1956 exhibition ''This is Tomorrow'' and developed through his friendship with the English pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi, and an admiration for the Warren Commission Report, which he considers one of the great works of avant-garde literature, with its chapters on bullet trajectories, disposition of cardboard boxes and the like. The book is composed of chapters, themselves divided into paragraph blocks set off by titles. The text alternates between cold fragments of narrative and slices of what appear to be scientific data: ''The latent sexual content of the automobile crash. Numerous studies have been conducted to assess the latent sexual appeal of public figures who have achieved subsequent notoriety as auto-crash fatalities, e.g. James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Camus. Simulated newsreels of politicians, film stars and TV celebrities were shown to panels of (a) suburban housewives, (b) terminal paretics, (c) filling station personnel. Sequences showing auto-crash victims brought about a marked acceleration of pulse and respiratory rates. Many volunteers became convinced that the fatalities were still living, and later used one or another of the crash victims as a private focus of arousal during intercourse with the domestic partner.''

Published in 1969, The Atrocity Exhibition was instantly notorious, not even so much for its ''difficulty'' as for political reasons. Its subject was the intersection of sexuality, violence and the mass media, and within this frame occurred several satirical episodes that raised hackles, notably a section entitled ''The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race'' (itself modeled after Alfred Jarry's pre-Dada outrage, ''The Crucifixion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race'').

The book's original American publisher, Doubleday, printed and then pulped the entire first edition, and it was not until three years later that Grove Press issued it under the title Love & Napalm: Export U.S.A. Reviewers mostly reacted with affronted shrieks; in The New York Times Book Review, Paul Theroux complained, ''He blackmails us with our sentiment and outrages our compassion; it is the novel as a form of abuse, the dead-end of feeling.'' Even so, The Atrocity Exhibition attracted a sizable cult following of readers, and it is regularly reissued.

Ballard perpetrated a further and perhaps more profound outrage with his next novel, Crash (1973). In it, he explored more conventionally and in greater depth a subject that had surfaced briefly in The Atrocity Exhibition: the sexuality with which 20th-century culture has invested the automobile. The novel tells the story of a deviant, Vaughan, who is obsessed with car crashes, but it tunnels so far into his state of mind that it never gets out. When Ballard first sent this book to his publisher, the firm's reader returned the manuscript to her employers with the note: ''This author is beyond psychiatric help. DO NOT PUBLISH.'' This was a reaction well known to actors who regularly play villains, but less familiar to authors: depiction being mistaken for espousal. Crash, too, has been quietly and steadily selling over the years, having garnered a substantial underground reputation. The option for cinematic adaptation has been acquired by Jeremy Thomas, and will be directed by David Cronenberg, who is working on a version of another seemingly unfilmable text, William Burroughs's Naked Lunch.

Another novel of Ballard's that has been regularly mentioned as a candidate for screen treatment is High Rise, the story of inhabitants of a many-storied apartment building who revert to primitive behavior when they find themselves cut off from the outside world.

The book is, among other things, a powerful critique of contemporary architecture; but that, too, is a subject about which Ballard has second thoughts. The spectacle of the Prince of Wales assailing modern design makes him irate: ''Prince Charles loves nostalgia -- pitched roofs, pastiche, details, Victorian architecture. The institution of monarchy is preposterous in a technological society -- you can't wear a crown in midtown Manhattan. But if the gentry are in their Palladian houses, the stoical artisans in their pebble-dash cottages tugging their forelocks -- if you recreate the past, then the institution of the monarchy and class privilege is tenable.''

For Ballard, the thing to be feared is the ''suburbanization of the world,'' a totally eventless landscape made up of television and theme parks. He points out that television has created a consciousness in which upheavals, disasters, cataclysmic events of all sorts register only as momentary images that are quickly forgotten. Given this state of affairs, he warns, passive media spectators might well allow a lunatic to come to power, since they would be unable to distinguish between someone posing a real threat and a minor character in the passing show. Ballard is much given to musing in this vein. Perhaps Kingsley Amis was more prescient than he knew in identifying Ballard as a descendant of H.G. Wells. Ballard, like Wells, has been ordained a seer by the English popular press. The millennial frenzy just beginning has brought him, he says, ''a barrage of requests to sum up the 20th century and predict the 21st.''

Ballard's ruminations about the distorting powers of the mass media were an inspiration for his latest book, a novella called Running Wild. One event that got him started was the serial killings perpetrated by one Michael Ryan in the English village of Hungerford in 1987, with a body count of 16, including the killer's own mother. Ballard notes that the media dwelled on Michael Ryan's isolation, his knowledge of weaponry, his obsession with survival skills, his identification with Rambo. For Ballard, the event conjured up the liberal family -- a family, perhaps, like the one he himself grew up in, with ''kindly, humane, intelligent parents'' (his father, as it happens, was a Wellsian), who ''solve problems through sensible discussion, without displays of unseemly emotion.''

Imagining an extreme version of such a family, in a protected environment such as the private developments of the affluent, complete with private security forces, that are cropping up in the English suburbs these days, Ballard began thinking of the need for rebellion that adolescents in such a milieu would experience. ''Kids need emotional roughage in their lives,'' he says. ''Even in well-rounded families there are elements of competition and exploitation.'' The underclass is so containable these days, so isolated, that ''blacks in the ghettoes, Arabs in bidonvilles, they're not the ones to fear. Their rebellion is expected. It's the inexplicable rebellion from within that's impossible to predict.'' He cites the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, one of whose principal members, Gudrun Ensslin, was the daughter of a liberal, socially-conscious clergyman.

But Ballard's work is not about the future, or no more so than any worthwhile art, which always finds a subterranean way to be predictive. His novels, although mostly set in an indeterminate tomorrow, are entirely about the present, and their catastrophic landscape is a darkly satirical vision of the here and now. In Ballard's novels, winds or floods or droughts ravage the world, sparing only a few artifacts of civilization - cars, pate de fois gras, Christmas trees, contraceptives; robbed of their context, they look pathetic and absurd. At the same time, Ballard is a poet, an abrasive satirist of the late 20th-century spectacle. In the end, he really loves the ridiculous detritus of modernity, celebrating it in its most highly refined language -- literary and technical -- even as he strews its wreckage on an imaginary beach.