The Art of J.G. Ballard

David James
Ballard’s Artistry of Agitation

19 Minutes


‘I would sum up my fear about the future in one word: boring’. By giving voice here, in the early 1980s, to his ‘one fear that everything has happened’, and that ‘nothing exciting is ever going to happen again’, J. G. Ballard predicts the polemical material from which Millennium People (2003) fashions its dystopian prophesy. The chiliast denunciations of Ballard’s most recent novel indeed dramatize his longstanding worry that the ‘future is just going to be a vast, conforming suburb of the soul [...] nothing new will happen, no break outs will take place’. Through his protagonist’s selfimplicating investigation of Chelsea Marina’s campaigning anarchists, we detect Ballard’s faint resignation that London’s elite settlements are aiding the city’s spiral into a territory of inaction — its population stalled by the scarcity of original thought. How Ballard employs his riverside locale in counterpoint to those failed acts of resurgence is the concern of this paper, orienting its analytic focus from urban territory to literary technique. I explore the way the novel develops a figurative disproportion between the Thames as a setting and the community resurgence it hosts, using the cipher of that ancient river, flowing from time immemorial, to prospect the hazards of resisting its bank-side domestication.

By synthesising visionary and agitating modes of address, Ballard corroborates Raymond Williams’s claim ‘a commitment to examining our most settled commitments might be the most literate thing we could attempt’. In this twofold respect, its focus at once immediate and prophetic, Millennium People thus outstrips the present by inclining toward the future’s emaciation. Ballard’s oracular plots reveal him to be unapologetic antagonist of reparation, a prodigal diviner of spiritual bewilderment who extends the contemporary London novel as a proleptic genre, for which spatial descriptions giving way to the aesthetics of disturbance.

Biographical note: David James is Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at the University of Nottingham. He has most recently published articles on Pat Barker, Graham Swift and Sylvia Townsend Warner. While co-editing with Steven Barfield and Philip Tew a collection, New Versions of Pastoral, tracing the evolution of the bucolic tradition from the nineteenth century to the present day, he is currently embarking on a study of Hardy's prose alongside a project entitled Inheriting Modernism.