Thanks to Mike Holliday for finding this 1987 interview.
Traveller in Hyper-Reality
Fear, fear of the unknown and the illusions we create to push them into the unknown. The real life elevated to soap opera. Are you frightened? JG Ballard is. With The Drowned World, The Drought, Concrete Island, Crash, Empire of the Sun, and his new novel, The Day of Creation, Ballard sits back and watches the world on TV. And it’s called a disaster movie.
Interview by Jim McClellan and Steve Beard
With his last novel, Empire of the Sun, a semi-autobiographical account of life in a Japanese internment camp in World War Two, J.G. Ballard established himself as one of Britain's major imaginative writers. With the Steven Spielberg movie version scheduled to come out early next year and with a new novel, The Day of Creation, just published, he's set to mount another surreal assault on the pub?lic imagination.
I-D tracked him down to his semi-detached hideout in Shepperton and talked about media landscapes, hyper-reality, the British malaise of suburban psychosis… and fear.
“Surburban life is a big strain, you know. Everybody thinks it's very easy on the blood pressure but that isn't the case. To maintain this fabric of absolute normality requires powerful repressive forces -- all these double glazing and patio doors are sustained by a huge effort of will.”
Ballard smiles and gazes at his net curtains. He's lived in Shepperton for the last 25 years, producing some of the most startling literary visions of the post-war period from a little semi. Although his work resists simple classification, when he first started in the Fifties it was labelled as science fiction. It certainly isn't what you'd call realist. “The bourgeois novel, the English tradition, I loathe all that,” he comments. But ironically after years of experimentation, he found his largest audience with what is his most conventional work, the Booker Prize nominated Empire of the Sun. “It's safe to say that it sold more copies than all my previous books put together.” Now he should reach an even larger audience with the film version, scripted by Tom Stoppard and directed by Spielberg. A strange choice as director? Not at all says Ballard. “I was very impressed by Spielberg -- extremely intelligent, with a hard imagination. Completely unlike the image I'd been given of him. There was no trace of the sentimentalist.”
Ballard was not involved on the production side of the film, but he did wind up in front of the cameras. Offered a brief speaking part, he declined and settled for a silent cameo. “I was standing there with these real actors all around me, and I thought -- I don't want to ruin this film. Now the one thing I've got a lot of experience of is standing around with a glass of whiskey and occasionally lifting it to my lips. I thought I could just about manage that, but coping with a line of dialogue might be too much.”
The film stays close to the book, which tells the story of Jim, a young boy living in Shanghai during the last war. Separated from his parents, wandering through a bombed-out city, he watches the expatriate mansions where he has spent his life collapse and decay, before being interned by the Japanese for three years. The novel draws on Ballard's own wartime experience in Shanghai, revealing the origins of the imaginative infrastructure of his previous fiction. “In a way Empire of the Sun is my first book, except that I waited 40 years to write it. There were plenty of drained swimming pools in the Shanghai of the Japanese occupation, and they've always had a special magic for me, along with abandoned hotels and apartment houses and that whole psychological no-man's land of old battlefields. In all my fiction I think I was just trying to recreate the landscape of Shanghai in Western Europe and the US.”
Ballard has attempted this in a variety of ways -- from his early disaster novels of the Sixties, The Drowned World, The Drought and The Crystal World through to his novels of urban and suburban breakdown of the Seventies like High-Rise and Concrete Island. All in all, an extended imaginative revenge on the claustrophobically conservative Britain he found, when, as a young adolescent, he arrived in London after the war.
At the same time, it's an approach which was bound to invite trouble at some point. The manuscript of Crash, Ballard's technoporn novel of 1973, was returned by an outraged publisher with the note, “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.” The Atrocity Exhibition, his condensed novel of 1969, is a cut-up of psychobabble and sociological jargon which exposed the pathological side of Sixties America, received harsher treatment; as Ballard recalls, “Doubleday in New York were the first people in the US to bring out Atrocity Exhibition and one of the junior members of staff had the job of wheeling round a trolley loaded with the week's new titles. He happened to push the trolley into the office of one of the senior members of the firm who picked up my book wondering what it was, looked at the story titled ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ and apparently turned blue. Within two hours the entire edition had been pulped, all destroyed.”
OUT OF AFRICA?
His new novel, The Day of Creation, won't upset any new readers, or disappoint his older fans. Set in drought-torn Central Africa, the novel mixes elements of his early disaster fiction with his interest in the power of the creative imagination. It tells the story of Mallory, a doctor working in Africa, who creates a river in the image of his own fantasies. He dreams of regenerating The Sahara with his creation, but has to fight to save it from the competing obsessions of the other characters -- a cynical guerilla leader, a tin-pot politician, and his main rival, Sanger, a burnt-out TV documentary maker. Ultimately, Mallory is forced to the paradoxical conclusion that only by destroying the river can he remain true to his imagination. Day of Creation might describe a jungle river-boat journey, but travel writing it isn't. “Certainly I wasn't interested in trying to do a travelogue because the book in part is about the remaking of nature by the TV lens. Strange dreams have come out of Africa for centuries. What's happening now is that TV is imposing its own mythologised view of the Third World and of Africa in particular.”
TV'S THIRD WORLD THEME-PARK
Ballard is particularly scathing about the standard nature documentary and in the novel he alludes to the way the old fashioned Attenborough TV tour of a ‘quaintly primitive’ Third World has been replaced by newer documentaries featuring famine victims and copulating animals, a response to a new public appetite for disease and death. The TV camerawoman in the book spends all her time relaying only images of poverty and degradation back to her insatiable audiences in the West. The signs of savagery in the crumbling European social landscape (which Ballard described ten years ago in High-Rise -- a punk primer documenting tower block terrorism) are exorcised, fictionalised and reappear as the supposed documentary ‘reality’ of the Third World. “What you're getting here is a pseudo-reality presented to the viewers in terms of the cliches, conventions and needs of the programme makers, rather than the needs of the people actually living in these places. The conclusion almost to be drawn is that a pristine nature doesn't exist anymore. What you've got is the whole planet as a huge safari park. If you want to broaden it out a bit, the planet is turning into a gigantic Disneyland. A gigantic theme park where Japan equals the future, Europe is the past and Africa is a giant apocalyptic disaster area, a continental disaster movie screened for the West's benefit.”
However, Ballard is keen to point out that this is only one part of the book. “I don't want to give the impression to any possible reader that this book is just about the media landscape. It's not. It's in many ways just a straightforward adventure story, a psychological romance.”
THE HAZE OF REALITY
Still, the ‘media landscape’ has been a consistent theme in Ballard's writing. It's his term for what others call hyper-reality, the disappearance of the real in a media induced haze. He explains, “In the media landscape it's almost impossible to separate fact from fiction and in many cases the ultimate switch has taken place. The fiction is the fact. Somebody's obsessions are as close to reality as you can get.” He's always been fascinated by this confusion, always on the lookout for new examples. The week we saw him he'd been catching the nightly glimpses into the good, bad and ugly world of the planet's most famous marine, Colonel Oliver North. “The Irangate hearings were quite stunning. Oliver North's testimony was like an audition for a part in his own movie, except that he already was the movie. If they make a film of the Oliver North story it can only be a sequel. Ollie Two they'd have to call it.”
Ballard is unashamed to admit that he's a TV junkie, spending most evenings not reading but slumped in front of the box. The research for his novel Hello America involved him catching not a plane to New York but reruns of The Rockford Files on BBC2. “TV does my travelling for me,” he says. The coming of satellite and cable TV is something which fascinates him. “It's going to be a problem, because TV produced a set of sustaining myths which kept this nation going. I think there will be a kind of inward collapse. But that's when things might start to get interesting. It's quite possible that deregulation of the airwaves will lead to a deregulation of the imagination. I've always believed that ultimately every home will be transformed into its own TV studio. We'll all be simultaneously actor, director and screenwriter in our own, soap operas. People will start screening themselves. They will become their own TV programmmes.”
CAR CRASH SEX
One of his most celebrated novels is the early Seventies psychosexual accident inventory Crash, which he described at the time as “The first pornographic novel based on technology.” It inspired Daniel Miller's ‘Warm Leatherette’, later covered by Grace Jones. With the massive publishing success of Empire of the Sun, Crash was reissued in the States recently, and he is pleased by its more sympathetic reception. “The response was much cooler and more perceptive than the first time around, when the book was a complete flop. Although it did have a small intense following -- a few psychopaths and amputees -- sending me their porno photos.” He still views the car crash as a high speed vehicle for sexual fantasy. “The car is that part of modern technology which we're most involved with and which offers us the greatest number of possibilities for aggression, death and self-mutilation. Crash is about the un?conscious marriage which takes place between the human imagination and technology, the way in which modern technology offers us a back door pass into the realm of psychopathology.” Ballard argues that the technological harnessing of perversity is ultimately beneficial. “We are vastly more tolerant of aberrant strains in the human character than we were 30 years ago. Before the war, people used to have to go to Brand's Hatch to see bodies burned alive in gasoline. Now modern technology tames these aberrant desires and makes them part of the furniture of everyday life.”
A SMALL STEP FOR MANKIND
For Ballard, the most spectacular example of technological transition was provided by the Apollo moon landings. “The satellite information relays that transmitted the images of Armstrong landing on the moon themselves made the whole exercise redundant and out of date.” The Apollo programme marked the final limit to a logic of expansion and signalled a passage from pioneer perils to armchair adventurism. Once the moon had been conquered, there was nothing else to do but sit back and fine-tune your TV set. “The reason why the space programme as a whole failed to touch the popular imagination was that people perceived it as belonging to a kind of nineteenth century heavy engineering technology -- a technology of giant engines and vast outputs of physical power belonging really to that age which threw railroads across the world and liners across the oceans. The Apollo programme's Saturn rockets represented not the start of a new era but the end of an old one. People already knew that the future of technology lay in invisible, streams of data pulsing down post office lines to produce an invisible loom of world commerce and information. They knew at the time of the Apollo landings that this was already a nostalgic enterprise.”
Photo by Simon Durrant
J.G. BALLARD ON:
Live Aid “I'm certainly not knocking Live Aid. It was admirable. The only trouble is that you couldn't mount another one. The TV tube is like a flagging piece of nervous tissue -- you need a bigger and bigger charge to get a kick out of it.”
Malcolm McLaren “I've always thought that Malcolm McLaren was brilliantly clever. He's the English Andy Warhol, isn't he?”
Yuppies “Yuppies aren't interested in having kids, they are their own kids. They are the ones they want to give all the treats to -- they're their own pampered children. All stable relationships are a bit of a bore for them. They wouldn't last a minute in suburbia -- they're not selfless enough.”
On starting work “At nine o'clock in the morning you take the cork out of the bottle, you wait three minutes and everything becomes a lot clearer.”
Obsessions “My advice to anybody in any field is to be faithful to your obsessions. Identify them and be faithful to them, let them guide you like a sleepwalker.”
TV “It's not news that appears on TV, it's entertainment news. A documentary on brain surgery is about entertainment brain surgery. But then again, maybe the vital discoveries are going to be made in the area of entertainment brain surgery.”