The Imagination On Trial: J.G. Ballard
This interview was conducted by Alan Burns in 1973 or 1974, and published in 1981 in The Imagination On Trial.
J.G. Ballard was born in Shanghai of English parents in 1930, and remained there until he was sixteen. After two and a half years' internment in a Japanese prison camp, he was repatriated to England, where he studied at Leys School, Cambridge, and read medicine at King's College, Cambridge. He was married in 1953 and has four children, his wife died in 1966. Except for a brief period after the war as a Royal Air Force pilot, Ballard has always made his living as a writer. He has contributed to the leading science-fiction magazines and has had many collections of short stories published in Britain and the United States, including The Terminal Beach (1964), The Disaster Area (1967), The Overloaded Man (1968) and Vermilion Sands (1971). He is the author of eight major novels, among them The Wind from Nowhere (1962), The Drowned World (1962), The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash! [sic throughout] (1973), Concrete Island (1974) High Rise (1975) and the recently published Hello America! (1981).
Ballard is known as a science-fiction writer, popular and always in print, easily available in paperback to that group of bright students who read intelligent science fiction -- Asimov, Bradbury and others. His work does not run to space warfare, and the strange creature srunning amok in his books are not Martians but us. He has a strong grasp of scientific terminology, probably partly deriving from his medical studies, and he understands the distancing effect of such language. Ballard's first collection of stories, The Voices of Time (1962), was concerned with time distortions, and some critics found this limiting. A look at the titles above will easily show that his overriding interest has changed to place, and to a particular kind of landscape, the landscape of disaster, the waste land. The wasteland may be a beach or a remote airfield, but in his recent work the chances are good that it will be urban or suburban: one whole novel is set in a triangle of waste ground at the intersection of two motorways. Other stories concern themselves with those blank bits of land around cities which most of us deliberately fail to notice as we drive quickly by. Ballard is interested in place, he has said, because of the way outer space can be used as a metaphor for inner space.
The interview that follows frequently becomes a discussion about places, especially Ballard's home in Shepperton (southwest of London, in the pattern for Heathrow Airport) and the Shanghai which was his home and is lost to him.
JGB: Take the novel out of the context of the university Modern Literature Department, push back those plywood partitions and actually see the writer in his professional role, having all the problems (quite apart from the problems of writing) of persuading the publisher to publish what he's done -- writing in the context of whatever one's doing. In my case, writing in the context, for years, of science fiction: science-fiction magazines, English and American anthologies, hardback and paperback, mainly paperback. And the whole social situation of the writer and the problems of the audience as well. Also the decline of the mainstream novel, not just in terms of its sales, but the role it plays in people's imaginations.
Burns: Its social relevance?
JGB: Yes, the main underpinning of English culture for the last couple of centuries has been English literature. It has provided not only the literary vocabulary but also the yardsticks by which one's whole intelligent response to life is made. This applies not only to literary people but to anybody who is merely literate. Now this underpinning has completely gone, it's no longer part of the furniture of anyone's mind -- anyone under the age of forty.
It's only a small minority of people who happen to be enthusiasts for English literature who read, who expect themselves to have read the whole body of English fiction and poetry. That's a huge revolution that's taken place. It makes the task of doing something new that much more urgent, trying to get back into the game, as it were, from the sidelines.
In the case of most novels published today, if they were free, if the publishers gave them away, their "sales" would be no higher. I don't think any more would be taken out of the bookshops if they were literally given away.
Burns: A question I'd like to discuss with you is the influence on your work of the place in which you live. A recurrent phrase in your book The Atrocity Exhibition, a phrase with a good strong rhythm, like many of your phrases, is "The reservoirs of Shepperton and Staines".
JGB: I was struck by the fact, when I came here, that I was living in a sort of marine landscape, most unusual. There are these enormous reservoirs, the nearest is only four or five hundred yards away, the Queen Mary Reservoir, which is a gigantic reservoir about a mile in diameter. The whole area in fact is infested with reservoirs and settling beds and conduits and little private canals. When you fly from London airport, when you look down while the plane circles around, you will see what looks like a huge expanse of water, with the Thames of course here too. In fact, we're living -- we don't realize it -- we're living on little causeways. There are huge gravel lakes as well; for a hundred years they've been digging sand out, and some of these old pits are damn big, ten times the size of the Serpentine. We're living in these houses, these little quiet suburban streets, which are little causeways running between these reservoirs. Most of them are invisible because there are high embankments for obvious reasons; the Water Board doesn't want people peeing in them, throwing cigarette ends in and so on. So they're well screened off, but one is aware of a sort of invisible marine world, of living below the water line. It works on you imaginatively after a while. This landscape -- I think it's the most modern landscape in England in a way, because most of it was built in the thirties. In fact, most of it was probably built in the sixties, as far as houses and shops are concerned. It's built to a kind of Los Angeles pattern. Very poor public transport. It's full of people with cars. Everyone round here has a car, many families have two cars. It's all supermarkets, and rather nice-looking wives, about thirty, with two kids and a brand new Cortina… A lot of people round here work either at the film studios or at the commercial TV studios, making TV commercials. And people work at the British Aircraft Corporation factory at Weybridge across the river -- it's like Los Angeles, where everybody's working for Douglas Aircraft -- it's a very curious zone, and there is a sort of life style here. It's almost post-TV, they don't bother to watch TV anymore. They're too busy with their squash on Monday nights, learning to water-ski on Tuesday, judo on Wednesday, party on Thursday, wife-swapping on Friday. They have no time to watch TV.
Burns: I may be imposing on your work -- but I get this combination of the safe, domestic small-scale, right next door to the menacing large-scale, like the reservoirs, like the airport, and all the motorway stuff.
JGB: Sure, it's a landscape governed by the motorcar. The new motorway is, well, you can almost throw a stone to it, just across these houses.
Burns: You've lived here for years. What about those other places that arise in your books, frequently. Like Eniwetok Atoll, where they tested the H-bomb. Have you ever been there?
JGB: No, the nearest I've been is about four hundred miles away, in China, in Shanghai. I was interned by the Japanese, with my parents.
Burns: You were born in Shanghai -- do you remember the city?
JGB: Of course, I was sixteen when I left. It's extremely vivid. More real than this place in a way.
Burns: What does it do to you, that foreign origin?
JGB: It gives you a divided mind, there's no doubt about that. Very curious, actually, to spend your childhood and early adolescence in one place, and then never be able to go back to it. Because you can't, in a way, mature all those vintages or whatever you like to call them, that have been laid down. Large parts of you are forever… well, in a sort of artificially young state. I mean, I can go back in England, say, to see my old digs in Notting Hill, and I can see them with the eye of a mature man, seeing the penniless student living in a little rabbit hutch, who has since got married, had children… so in a way you mature that particular thing. By going back, in a sense you close it off. But if you're brought up abroad -- even if I could go back now, I wouldn't be able to do anything, things have changed so much. It gives you a divided self and a whole set of' potent images in one's mind.
Burns: That are still in movement, not settled?
JGB: Absolutely. I know that in my own writing, landscape, I don't mean merely physical landscape, psychological landscapes are very important to me. In a way, I am writing my Amerika without ever going there. All these inventions of imaginary landscapes are attemptsto recreate that...
Burns: Or to place yourself? To find your place?
JGB: To place oneself, to find oneself, to give oneself a certain sense and a set of map references, so one knows where one is! I had a very curious sensation several years ago, when I'd already lived in this house for about eight years. I took my children to Greece for a couple of months, down the Peloponnese where you've got these endless beaches which are totally deserted, rather uncanny in a way, because you've got this paradisial landscape, you expect to see centaurs, all sorts of mythological beasts. Standing on this totally deserted beach, I suddenly realized I'd forgotten where I lived in England. I forgot, it wasn't just a passing thing, I actually for about fifteen seconds couldn't remember where I lived. I had to work it out backwards -- Boulogne, Dover, Vauxhall Bridge Road, Hammersmith Flyover… Oh, of course! Shepperton! And I had to do that… Curious… [sighs].
Burns: On the one hand England is your home country, on the other hand you are almost exploring a foreign land, trying to place yourself in it?
JGB: Yes, I still regard England as a foreign country.
Burns: One thing that strikes me about your descriptions of landscape -- and Kafka and others did it -- is that they are hard, physical, mathematical, scientific, irrevocably there… yet clearly nowhere, clearly in a land of the imagination. This is certainly an aspect of your style, isn't it?
JGB: I don't know how far any of it's calculated, though. I don't think it is. I don't set out to define, in the sense that an architect would, providing the specifications for the building, the curtainwalling, the under-floor heating that will use so many amps of current… I don't set out specifications in that sense. It's just a matter of my style, I think.
Burns: A cool style. Its scientific precision distinguishes your work from that of many contemporary English novelists. Another way in which your work seems different from the others is that they seem more warm-hearted.
JGB: I regard myself as a very emotional person in my ordinary life. And I regard myself as a very emotional writer. I write out of what I feel to be a sense of great urgency and commitment. I'm certainly not a political writer, but I feel a great sense of urgency. One doesn't want to be too grandiose about it, but the moral and psychological pressure is very strong. When people say to me, "You're very cold and clinical," I always find that strange; they may be confused. I use the language of an anatomist. It's rather like doing a post-mortem on a child who's been raped. The anatomist's post-mortem is no less exact, he itemizes things no less clearly, for the rage and outrage he feels.
Burns: I've been surprised in talking to you, actually. I expected you to be much cooler, more analytical and self-mocking, but there's a degree of passion in your talk that is surprising.
JGB: Is it? I'm sorry it doesn't come through in the work. The topics my fiction covers are those I as an individual feet concerned about. They're summed up by all the fiction I've written. I can't really summarize them, fifteen books in fifteen minutes. When I began as a science-fiction writer, I felt that science fiction wasn't making the most of its own possibilities. It had become fantasy; its two main preoccupations were outer space and the far future, whereas in its best days it had always been a literature of commitment. I wanted to write a science fiction about the present day. My one ambition -- I don't really feel I've achieved it was to write an adult, mature, sophisticated science fiction. It's more difficult than you think, actually. Damn difficult, for very complicated reasons. Something about the cautionary tale, or expository fiction, that lends itself, that locks on like a damned leech, to all the worst elements, techniques, and devices that fiction has to offer: the too-contrived short story, the over-plotted narrative, and oh, all those other things. To write an oblique and open fiction in the cautionary mode is damn near impossible. But I began writing science fiction about the present day. My first novels were obsessed with time, their real subject matter I suppose is time, the finiteness of life. But by the mid-sixties, I think the assassination of Kennedy acted as a kind of catalyst. It seemed to me that by that point the fictional elements of reality had begun to overwhelm the so-called "realistic" ones.
I thought the balance between reality and fiction had tilted by the mid-sixties so we were living inside an enormous novel. As I've said elsewhere, the writer's job is no longer to put the fiction in, the fiction's already there; the writer's job is to put the reality in. Every writer worth his salt has got to use investigative, analytic techniques, like a geographer facing an unmapped jungle, or a chemist faced with an unidentified but potent material. People have enough fiction in their lives already, they're living the stuff, it's pouring out of the air, it's affecting everything, the ways people furnish their homes, the sorts of friendships they have, their vocabularies. It's quite amazing to see how people's lives are influenced by movies, television and constant advertising. Politics is a branch of advertising, the whole thing is a hothouse of fictions. So one's role as a writer has radically changed, and the techniques of the nineteenth-century novel just aren't appropriate.
BURNS: They're only appropriate in terms of nostalgia?
JGB: If you were writing a historical novel, or a multi-generation family dynasty sort of fiction...
Burns: What I meant was that for many readers the anachronistic character of the nineteenth-century novel is the basis of its appeal. They wish to remain in that time when God was good and Britain was great; they delight in fiction which feeds that illusion. You use the word 'fiction" to denote the half-life we live today, but another word is alienation.
JGB: By fiction I mean anything invented to serve someone's imaginative ends, or aims. For example, you don't buy an airline ticket just to take you from London to New York any more -- what you're buying is an image of a certain kind of transportation style. The food, the in-flight movies, the stewardesses' uniforms, all contribute to a fiction designed to serve an imaginative aim. It applies to almost everything, from the launderette to Harold Wilson. As for, alienation, I'm not sure about that. I don't know if people today are any more alienated than they were before.
Burns: You are describing a situation of alienation because the fictions are being imagined, cooked up, by someone else for the consumer, to satisfy artificially created needs. Its aim is not to meet real need but to make a profit or secure control. Our real selves become masked by these lies, and we are alienated from our real needs and desires.
JGB: That's hard to say. I like Indian food, but that's not an artificial need, it's a genuine thing, a taste, though it was artificially imposed on me. I like American cars, I like their mastodonic outlines, etc. The American car is a complete artefact, of course, a fictional structure, a piece of sculpture, but that doesn't make it any less real. The Mona Lisa's pretty real to me.
Burns: I'm using the word "real" more in the Freudian sense of genuine wishes, real gratification of underlying infantile desires.
JGB: What you're saying is, are we having foisted on us a completely unreal world? I'm not so sure. There are unreal elements, fictions that don't work, but most of them do work. I think most people need Chinese take-aways, glammed-up packaged holidays… they'd much rather that. They don't want a square deal, they don't want Square-Deal Surf, as Lever Brothers found to their cost. Housewives don't want a square deal, they want glamour and excitement and Daz and Omo give them that.
Burns: To what extent do you try to give readers what they want? Are you concerned about that?
JGB: I don't write from any grandiose programs. I'm aware that I write from various obsessions -- the elements that make up my own skull. I just write what takes my fancy and grips my imagination at any given time. Being originally a science-fiction writer, there's a cautionary element in whatever I do. It's not necessarily a moral; there's nothing moral about shouting: "Careful, there's a car coming." In respect to all these things like pollution and over-population and so on, one is pointing out ambiguities in our attitudes toward these things.
Burns: In Atrocity Exhibition, you get pretty close to raw politics, with Ronald Reagan and the rest. Was there an abrupt change in your work at that point?
JGB: Fair enough, though I went on writing conventional science fiction while I was writing that stuff. Those stories that make up Atrocity Exhibition -- it's not a novel, that book, but it's not just a collection of short stories either -- took four or five years to write. A lot of time went by very quickly while I was writing those stories. Because there's an awful lot there. There's an awful lot of material, and that material came out of years of thinking, imagining, living, and so on. Very important events were contracted into literally three paragraphs. It was very exhausting. Then I wrote Crash! It's an extension of all the ideas and arguments Atrocity Exhibition advances.
Burns: You talk of Atrocity Exhibition in a way that I recognize; it is, as it were, the book. That's rather a grand thing and it can be a pretty bleak thing. It's all there… and from now on you've got to earn a living.
JGB: No, no, no, no, no. Atrocity Exhibition and Crash!, in which I equate the crash with sexuality, were both extreme hypotheses, extreme metaphors to describe an extreme situation. Then my mind turned in other directions. It just happened.
Burns: When I said your work "took a turn", you didn't really account for it, you said "it happened". Now you're using the same phrase to describe your next turn. (an you go beyond that? Or would you rather not think about it?
JGB: I do think about it. I'm conscious of the fact that in the midsixties something happened to me. On a personal level, my wife's death, which coincided with the Kennedy assassination and the changing landscape of the sixties… my own life, my three children were very young when I… when my wife died. In my own life this appalling crime is I thought it against this woman had taken place, and to some extent against myself. And there seemed to be it kinship, this meaningless act of gratuitous violence seemed to have some kinship with the Kennedy assassination. And people were becoming dehumanized and overcerebralized; emotional responses to everything were becoming so stylized that we were moving into a kind of mad Nazi world. I think I was trying to make sense of my wife's death by taking as a subject matter the world of the 60s, particularly that around Kennedy's death, and trying to make sense of it, trying to find in a paradoxical way something good. Now I know that's a sort of nightmare logic, but that's what Atrocity Exhibition is, a book of nightmare formulas… Desperate, desperate measures -- I suppose the whole of Atrocity Exhibition and Crash! is summed up under that heading. A kit of desperate measures, desperate devices.
Burns: Atrocity Exhibition was also part of your effort at personal survival? Did the book succeed at that in any measure for you?
JGB: I think it did. Now Crash! was a much more exhausting and deranging book to write… such an extreme metaphor… the effort of maintaining the logic of 2 plus 2 equals 5 or minus 7, or 99, anything but 4. 1 sort of hated myself as I wrote the book because I felt I was dealing in things, deadly things, like a sort of arms salesman. Much of the book was morally highly objectionable, there's no doubt about that. One of the publisher's readers was either a psychiatrist or the wife of a psychiatrist, and she wrote the most damning and vituperative reader's report they'd ever received. It included the statement: "The author is beyond psychiatric help." That's a pretty terrible thing to say about someone, particularly if you've got scientific qualifications. But I was quite pleased by the report, because it represents, in a sense, total artistic success. The book had worked if somebody could respond like that to it. But doing that book was morally and emotionally exhausting. I felt far better for it afterwards, though, like being swallowed by a whale and then climbing, cutting your way out again.
Burns: Was she implying that it's a deranged or evil book? Did she suggest that it would harm people?
JGB: I think it probably is an evil book, yes, it may be a corrupting book. But not too corrupting. If you read it, you'll see what I'm driving at. I'm trying to look at the sort of logic that allows -- I think the latest figures published by the World Health Organization on automobile fatalities show that probably 250,000 people are killed, and that's probably an underestimate. Millions are injured, and seriously too. What logic is at work that allows this to happen?
I think we're all perhaps innately perverse, capable of enormous cruelty and, paradoxically (this is difficult to put into words), our talent for the perverse, the violent, and the obscene, may be a good thing. We may have to go through this phase to reach something on the other side, it's a mistake to hold back and refuse to accept one's nature. We're making a marriage, you know… the equation, sex times technology equals the future. This uneasy and sinister marriage between ourselves and technology is going to change all our values. We're living in an abstracted world, where there aren't any values, where rather than fall back, one has to immerse oneself, as Conrad said, immerse oneself in the most destructive element, and swim. Anyway, those, books are in the past. I'm drawing breath before perpetrating another atrocity [pause].
Burns: On the cover of the Panther edition of Atrocity Exhibition, the book is summarized and sold as "a novel". Yet you refer to it in the plural, as though it is a collection of pieces.
JGB: Well, I don't know. In the strict, conventional sense of the term, it's not a novel. It doesn't have that self-conscious continuity that we tend to expect from a novel, but at the same time it's much more than just a collection of stories. They're all very tightly locked together. The whole thing reflects back on itself internally in all kinds of different ways. Partly, it's a conventional narrative with all the unimportant pieces left out. In the conventional novel there's far too much machinery, narrative machinery, narrative translational machinery, you know: "He went out of the door and down the steps. As he crossed the square, he saw his best friend approaching." I simply cut all that out. The modern mind is used to cutting, we're trained to accept not just cutting, but the tradition of modern sculpture, where mass is defined not by ten tons of basalt carved in a huge block but by a couple of apparently unrelated armatures. Also if you break up the narrative, you can rotate, each episode can be inspected from a number of angles. You don't have to look at the thing from one elevation. And I can annex a huge amount of material into the narrative using this method, which is one proof that it works. The category of the novel should be sufficiently elastic to accommodate what I did in Atrocity Exhibition.
In the conventional novel, there are limits as to how much you can jump around: you've got to maintain the stretched skin of the narration or the whole damned thing begins to sound funny. With the fragmented technique, you can move about in time, you can move from realism to fantasy, and you can play on the fact that it is sometimes difficult to tell what is "real", what is being presented as a piece of realistic narration and what is being presented as, say, the interior fantasy of one of the characters. And this reflects a characteristic ambiguity of everyday life today, when something is presented as sheer fantasy - watching Nixon on TV is just the crudest example. Is your doctor really trying to cure you or is he a sinister psychopath who is actually trying to maim you? Are the police defenders of right, or are they naturally professional criminals? Science fiction is full of these reversed roles, and you can play on these ambiguities. That's what the technique is about actually. Because I feel it reflects on modern life. The proof of the pudding is this: I feel that from The Atrocity Exhibition you could reconstitute the late sixties almost in toto, and get it all right. I don't mean the superficial aspects, but the whole psychology, the landscapes, the sum total of living, dreaming, dying during that period. That's a grandiose claim, but I may as well make it, dammit, it's my book. I'm not knocking Kingsley Amis or Iris Murdoch or Margaret Drabble, in fact I haven't read anything by any of them, but I don't believe from the majority of mainstream fiction -- tiny, little, drying up -- you could reconstitute the character of England. They're terribly parochial; it would be London probably, or Highgate. You could not reconstitute the England of the 1960s from the work of novelists who are reputed to most represent --
Burns: Social reality?
JGB: Yes. In a way it's a test. From Shakespeare you could reconstitute not just the superficial characteristics of the age, but its essence. Everything that was going on then is in those plays. The same is true of a very stylized writer, or one whose subject matter is treated in a very stylized way: Kafka. I feel you could reconstitute real life in Cracow or wherever he was living --
Burns: Prague. Actually, there's the whole of the twentieth century in Kafka.
JGB: Right, it's there. And in Burroughs!
Burns: The particular aspect you get from Kafka, and Burroughs, and from your book too, in that events move with such speed through such a range of extreme contradictions that one is left unsure of the nature of reality. Out there is moving, I'm moving, you're moving, so one's constantly unsteady, unstable, unsure. In your book, you get the reader to appreciate that experience because you're putting him on the spot, a particularly shaky spot, all the time.
JGB: Needless to say, I'm constantly getting people who say: "Atrocity Exhibition, oh, couldn't understand it, couldn't read it, impossible to read." I don't think it's a very difficult book; it's written in a very easy and open style. It's not difficult, but unfamiliar. This is where the experimental writer (it's not a term I like, but there doesn't seem to be any other) has the cards stacked against him. People are so lazy or so rooted in established conventions in their reading that they won't make the effort.
Burns: It's also fear. They would prefer not to have this question of unreality presented to them. It is rather worrying.
JGB: Fear too. And the separated paragraph form puts people off. People are used to having narration in short chapters, with a heading. Discontinuity worries them.
Burns: Your overall construction is fragmented and new and energetic and profoundly realistic, but when I look closer, at the sentences themselves -- there's no fragmentation there. Why not be consistent and carry it further and break up the sentence too?
JGB: I quite see your point. It probably sounds preposterous, but I don't see myself as a literary writer (that's neither compliment nor criticism) and I don't want to write fiction that is in any way about itself. There are plenty of examples, not merely in the novel, but in music and painting. I'm tremendously responsive to painting of every school from Lascaux onwards. There's hardly a painter in the whole of the Renaissance I don't find some merit in, and almost every painter since Manet plays a vital role in my life, with the exception of abstract expressionism because that is painting really about itself. I want to avoid in my writing any hint of that. There are too many other things to be getting on with.
Burns: You would say, "The hell with it, there are more important things to talk and write about than the novel"?
JGB: Right. Now, I know there are writers interested in that sort of thing, and I don't want to put it down, but I think they're missing the point. I appreciate the difference between Manet and all his precursors, the frankness with which the modern painter acknowledges the nature of his paint surface. He doesn't say: "This is a piece of drapery." He says: "This is a piece of drapery and a paint surface." Fair enough, but I don't think one should get to the point where one is playing a whole series of conceptual games, elaborating a series of conceptual relationships about the nature of the medium itself. In this case, paint or words are our servants. They are not the subject, we are the subject.
Burns: In the summary which preceeds Atrocity Exhibition, you say: "The central character is a doctor suffering from a nervous breakdown. His dreams are haunted… Are you betraying your work by suggesting that this smashed up or fragmented view of reality is a sick view, just as conventional writers will adopt a device -- make him mad, make him drunk, make him concussed, say it's all a dream?
JGB: I take the point. It occurred to me that I was perhaps too close to my Travis character… the whole thing just sprang out of the first story, which was "You and Me and the Continuum", and which actually is printed towards the end. Once I'd written about two of them, I saw the great breakthrough for myself that this technique represented. I suddenly had a completely new terrain.
Burns: Why are some passages, like the one beginning "In the suburbs of hell…" on p. 16, set in italics? I caught no more than a change of tone, but it brings to mind a problem I've also come up against. If you're going to make these paragraphs like this, then it's difficult to make a paragraph within that paragraph, to make a conventional indentation. You're compelled to make the whole separated section read straight through, but the demands of the narrative may mean that you don't always want to do that.
JGB: That's right. In the context of that "suburbs of hell" passage, I wanted to suggest a sort of mythological stratum… it's rather like a film, watching a film, where the action is suddenly overlaid by another image, just briefly, and one's conscious of a different system of time, perhaps a more dream-like atmosphere, something that touches another level of the mind, or what have you. To imply that the psychic levels have changed.
Burns: The term used in the book is "planes of consciousness", often a bit tongue-in-cheek?
JGB: If you take the Nathan character, Dr Nathan, who pontificates away throughout the book, now when the book was published, some people attacked it as being terribly pretentious, probably because they were thinking of the Nathan figure. Now Nathan's ideas are pretty close to my own, all the things Nathan says, I to some extent believe them too…
Burns: You're also taking the mickey out of them to some extent?
Balard: Yes, that's the point I'm making, that I'm poking fun at my own ideas. There's a note of irony in the way Nathan's got it all tied up, the vocabulary he uses. He is an example of the pornography of science, and the particular vocabulary he uses, and the total detachment as he describes these horrendous events, it's an armchair view of damnation. I don't want to say he's my Dr Benway, because Benway is Burroughs's most powerful character. Nathan is a minor character in this book.
Burns: Nathan is a man who doesn't feel. Is there any character who does? Are they all tainted this way?
JGB: Travis is a sympathetic figure. He is the man, myself I suppose, who is aware of the nightmare, who is repelled by what seem to be the new logics unfolding. He has to go through all of them to find out what's on the other side. Maybe some of these desperate measures will work. He's like Schopenhauer's knight, in a way, beyond hope, but still riding on. His response is emotional. He abhors violence, he's not in any way attracted to it, he's repelled, but he's trying to understand what's happening.
Burns: The headlines to each paragraph are also ironic?
JGB: Of course: "The See-Through Brain", "The Sixty-Minute Zoom", "A History of Nothing". They're all meant to be ironic; practically no one saw that. The Atrocity Exhibition got some of the worst reviews I've ever seen in this country. I didn't worry. I was disappointed. As all the stories had been previously published, I'd already had a lot of response. If you write for a magazine, you have a visible readership, you can go to the offices and look at the subscription lists and actually know the names of those who read your stuff. And magazine readers are much more vocal than novel readers. The novelist has an invisible readership, this is part of the problem of being a novelist. We're living in an age of direct communication where everybody's in contact with everybody else. But the novelist… Anyway, yes, I was disappointed, but the response on the continent was terrific, they were really tuned in, they used my language: "Media Landscape" and "On the Spinal Battlefield". They're the only reviews I've ever kept. Now, the response in this country was absolutely nil. Why?
Burns: Was this because they had the war on the continent, more physically and immediately?
JGB: Yes. And the world of the sixties materialized there almost overnight. My books explained that. Here it's different, we've been an imaginative satellite of the United States for thirty, forty years. We're rooted in the past. People here are slightly blotto. Changes are taking place, but they don't want to took too closely at them. They want to go on with their strange mixture of Sotheby's and Betty Grable and royal weddings. Oddly enough, Crash! had a much better reception. Curious. I don't spend my time moaning about reviews -- partly as a result of having come up as a science-fiction fiction writer where you don't get any reviews. But some of the reviews of Atrocity Exhibition were absurd, absolutely ridiculous. I think it was the Sunday Times had a very dismissive piece by Julian Symons referring to my "evident relish for the nasty". He's a crime writer who spent his time writing not just novels but he actually published a book which I've got upstairs somewhere, called Crime. Great fat book, with hundreds of photographs, an encyclopedia of crime with descriptions of every conceivable criminal act from rape to mass murder. It's quite well done because it's got all the gory details: how many little girls this cannibal killer of Cologne ate between 1927 and 1933. This is a man who says I've got an evident relish for the nasty! That's one of the paradoxes: everything becomes so conventionalized that you can write about "crime". Very genteel and refined people make a living writing about crime for fifty years. Polite society allows this, no one raises an eyebrow. Someone comes along with a slightly fresh or original approach: "Oh, my god. Relish for the nasty." It's absurd. But Crash! had a much better response. Some people actually got the point. The man in New Scientist began: "This is the first pornographic novel based on technology." He absolutely got the whole thing; he really got it.
Burns: When you use figures like the Kennedys, Marilyn Monroe or Ronald Reagan as mythical characters in your work, are you concerned they'll become dated?
JGB: First, I'm not too concerned about posterity because I don't think we can plan ahead for what the future will find interesting in us. Making writing so generalized that it has no local connections doesn't necessarily increase its survival potential. But in the case of Atrocity Exhibition the odd thing is that the figures I selected as public personalities, like the Kennedys, Reagan, Elizabeth Taylor, are still in the news. I would guess in fifty years people will still know who the Kennedys, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe were. If one could look at the greatest: Shakespeare's plays are thick with topical allusions. The same is true of Ulysses -- it's packed with local references which Joyce must have known would be meaningless to anyone who didn't know Dublin as well as he did. But that didn't matter. These are just the armatures that hold up the whole structure.
Burns: In so far as you have a certain attitude to and are processing material that derives from the media, these sensational myth figures are bound to crop up, because the media personalizes news in that way… you say your language isn't "literary" and I accept that, but there is a certain recognizable tone. I've a feeling that you may to some extent have been trapped by your own tone, by its constancy. I've been trying to get out of the stylized language I got saddled with by using the tape-recorder and otherwise experimenting to escape my own style, to use the raw stuff of social reality, even as I chop it up and change it around. How do you feel about this?
JGB: I've often thought of using a tape-recorder; one wants to lower the fictional threshold. Even if one's fiction is a self-conscious model of existence, one would like the model to have the texture and tone of the original. I wrote a couple of pieces for New Worlds, one called "Princess Margaret's Face-Lift". I got a textbook of cosmetic surgery -- this was an attempt to lower the fictional threshold right to the floor -- and I used the description of a face-lift word for word except I made it all happen to Princess Margaret. But I'm an imaginative writer basically and one writes in a kind of allegorical mode, so that one must be wary of using too many of the techniques of realism. I think they would break the skin of the bubble; mine is an illusionist technique to some extent. If I was a more realistic writer, I'd be more tempted to use the tape-recorder, but for an imaginative writer, one's throwing away one's best tools. Like a beautiful woman hiding her face.
Burns: I use the tape imaginatively. I transform the material entirely. I will change the nouns and keep the verbs or vice versa. I'll alter all the tenses and the locality, but I'll keep the tone and rhythm.
JGB: I know what you mean: the freshness. I'd like to do that. Maybe I will. But most of my fiction has been straightforward narrative, like Concrete Island, or my short stories. All together I've written about ninety short stories, and all but fifteen of them are completely conventional.
Burns: As so often in your work, Concrete Island is a physical, almost geographical representation of a state of mind?
JGB: Absolutely. It's about a man marooned on a traffic island, a man who's already marooned psychologically, before he gets trapped on this island by accident. The island is a state of mind. This traffic island is not the Belisha-beacon zebra-crossing type of traffic island. It's a big triangle of waste ground between and below three converging motorways, somewhere like Westway, surrounded by high-rise concrete blocks. The waste ground is strewn with industrial refuse, old car bodies, all the refuse of post-technological man, and he survives. Quite apart from his ”problems", he's within the intense technological landscape, which is an extension of the things I'm interested in in Atrocity Exhibition.
Burns: Do you distinguish between "pulp" work and "serious" novels?
JGB: I don't make any exaggerated claims for myself, but with the great bulk of my fiction, I did my best. With the exception of an early book which I wrote when we were quite destitute many years ago, everything I've written has been of equal value in my mind. I've never sat down to make money from a short story or a novel. I've written what I wanted to write - one must be realistic about this - much of the time within the context of the science fiction magazines. And it's always been important to me to be published.
Burns: Economics apart?
JGB: Let me just say that half the stories that went to make The Atrocity Exhibition were, when they first went into magazines, never paid for at all. "Terminal Beach" was published in New Worlds by Mike Parnell. That was my first "separate paragraph" story, that's where I got the idea from. Publication was the key thing, so one had to write within the context of what was possible. It was lucky for me that New Worlds was around when I began.
Burns: That conditions the work, not just as an extraneous force but almost internally… the completed story lives partly in your typewriter, partly as envisaged in the magazine.
JGB: In a magazine, not necessarily in a particular mag. I've always been conscious since I started writing that the tide was running the wrong way for the writer, whereas the visual artist, the painter or sculptor, was in a seller's market; the direction of the twentieth century was ever more visual. I sensed way back in the late fifties when I started that the tide was running away from the written word towards the visual mode of expression and therefore one couldn't any more rely on the reader, you couldn't expect him to meet you any more than half way. One's in the arena on the lion's terms.