Screened Out (screenedout) wrote,
Screened Out

JG Ballard

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth
within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate
ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

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 elegence of
automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of
abandoned hotels.

I believe in the death of tomorrow, in the exhaustion of time, in our search for a new
time within the smiles of auto-route waitresses and the tired eyes of air-traffic
controllers at out-of-season airports.

I believe in JG Ballard. I believe in the reality of his fictions, the seduction of his dystopias, the
clarity of his visions. I believe in his dreams of Shanghai, Shepperton and the Kennedy Space
Center, in his deeply ambiguous images of war, catastrophe, technology and sexuality. I
believe in his deadpan humour, his perverse trajectories, his flights of fantasy, his memories
of the future and hopes for the past. I believe in the anonymity of his protagonists, the
liberating power of his metaphors and the sublime rhythm of his sentences...

Crucial to Ballard's success as a writer was his rejection of novelistic conventions of plot and
character in favour of the marginal and interstitial material which, largely unnoticed, connects
and limits these structures: the 'invisible literature' of scientific reports and advertising copy,
and the amnesic non-places of travel, commerce and media. In a style more akin to the visual
arts (and paradoxically more poetic than many 'classic' works of literature) this outline is
filled in from a vivid palette of surrealism, psychoanalysis and popular culture. A certain
detachment from the institution of literature was vital to his craft. Indeed, one of the
broadsheet obituaries (one can imagine Ballard's dismissal of these interchangeable
biographies, preferring instead to read an autopsy report) serendipitously has him sharing
a page with Maxine Cooper, the actress known for her role in apocalyptic 1950s film noir
Kiss Me Deadly, and Flight Lieutenant Ernest Schofield, an RAF navigator who carried out
secret missions during the Second World War; arguably more fitting and entertaining company
for the man himself than any delegation of literary greats.

Ballard's influence upon my own writing is obvious throughout this journal, and for the last
twenty years his fiction has irradiated my view of the world. I was introduced to his work in
the late 1980s at the age of seventeen, through Empire of the Sun, which was on the English
A-Level syllabus at that time. The Atrocity Exhibition, High Rise and (part of) Crash followed
soon afterwards (I needed a second attempt to finish reading the novel, and then finally, a
few years later, it became the topic of my undergraduate dissertation). I have been guided by
his texts ever since, like the willing patient of a hoodlum analyst. Even my experience of
the internet is closely bound up with Ballard: the JGB discussion group, to which I have posted
under a variety of names over the years, was the first online forum I joined, and the first
piece of writing that I uploaded to the web, in 1997, was a Ballard homage/pastiche (as, of
course, is this). More recently I have noticed, almost inadvertently, that his ideas inform a
number of the blogs that I follow.

In interviews Ballard often said that living in our media-saturated era is like being inside an
enormous novel. To take this analogy a stage further, our fictitious world increasingly
resembles a JG Ballard novel: not a realist linear narrative of rounded characters but a
fragmented hypertext full of advertisements and celebrities, remote controlled wars and
cosmetic surgery clinics, virtual communication networks and vast empty tracts of time spent
in transient zones. Imagine, for instance, the series of complex technological operations
involved in sending an email, or the barrage of sexual imagery one must negotiate - indeed
looks forward to negotiating - in order to complete the smallest errand. Just in the past
month or so, we have seen yet more Ballardian chapters laid out for us: the fatal illness of
a Reality TV performer played out as a slow-motion media spectacle... a contrived simulation
of a protest in which the demonstrators found a positive outlet for their largely unconscious
rage, and police officers discovered their latent psychopathic roles - the event only
becoming real through the tragic death of a passer-by... and (a mere aside in a Ballard
paragraph, a flickering background image on a television set in a darkened room, as it were)
a minor political scandal hinging on the sexual proclivities of the Home Secretary's husband...

And of course the internet itself, with its array of virtual identities and invitations to share
one's innermost fears and fantasies with people we do not know and will never meet - and
most of all, with ourselves - is surely a Ballardian scenario come to life. The potential for
liberation or captivity is there on the screen, inscribed in our complicitous performances.
Are the dour faces we see in the mirror every morning now mere avatars of our real selves,
zooming energetically around cyberspace?

It is as if Ballard were some kind of program, an application which decrypts (un)reality and
gives us a head start on the future. The author may have run out of ink, but the fiction
keeps on writing itself.

Perhaps for this reason, it is said by some that his language - at first glance mechanical,
even surgical - lacks warmth and emotion; but this overlooks the deep currents of desire
and loss in Ballard's writing, its romantic, incantatory style (see for instance the prose
poem 'What I Believe', excerpted above, or the novel The Unlimited Dream Company,
quoted below) and mischievous humour (Ballard's skill as a satirist has only really been
recognised in the last few years, but parts of both Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition
can be read as parodies of the academic/scientific writing of their time).

Ballard used the props and tropes of everyday life as portals, peering obsessively into them
as if they were secret exits to another reality. He led us through the looking-glass-screen,
showing us the strangeness in the familiar, the alienness of our home planet: television as
hallucination, motorway route indicator as art exhibit, shopping centre as prison camp, our
bodies as machines, and, most of all, outer space as a metaphor for inner space, for the
interior journeys we have embarked on and the destinations which await us.

Shepperton was silent now, abandoned by the birds. The empty river touched my
feet, a calm sleeper nudging me in its dream. The park was deserted, the houses

The Cessna was almost submerged, its wings tipping below the sweeping tide. As I
watched, the fuselage turned and slipped below the coverlet of the water. When the
river had carried it away I walked across the beach to the bone-bed of the winged
creature whose place I was about to take. I would lie down here, in this seam of
ancient shingle, a couch prepared for me millions of years earlier.

There I would rest, certain now that one day Miriam would come for me. Then we
would set off, with the inhabitants of all the other towns in the valley of the
Thames, and in the world beyond. This time we would merge with the trees and the
flowers, with the dust and the stones, with the whole of the mineral world,
happily dissolving ourselves in the sea of light that formed the universe, itself
reborn from the souls of the living who have happily returned themselves to its
heart. Already I saw us rising into the air, fathers, mothers and their children,
our ascending flights swaying across the surface of the earth, benign tornadoes
hanging from the canopy of the universe, celebrating the last marriage of the
animate and inanimate, of the living and the dead.
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