:: Article

Millennium man

By Richard Kovitch.
Extreme Metaphors – Interviews with J.G Ballard 1967 – 2008, Edited By Simon Sellars & Dan O’Hara, Fourth Estate 2012

Ballardian: (adj) 1. of James Graham Ballard (born 1930), the British novelist, or his works (2) resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels and stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.

“J.G Ballard is a great writer who has never written a great novel.” So observed Germaine Greer, making a criticism that even some of Ballard’s die-hard admirers have on occasion conceded. Her charge draws focus upon a fascinating paradox that flows through the main artery of Ballard’s career, namely that his greatness hinges less on his talent as a stylist, more upon the potency of his ideas. Too often the prose feels clunky, the novels weighed down by 2D characterisations, their plotting reminiscent of the Boy’s Own comics he devoured as a child. Yet across eighteen novels, 95+ short stories and numerous essays, the visions continued to manifest themselves, eventually earning him the moniker ‘the seer of Shepperton’. Martin Amis nailed the contradictions in Ballard’s work in his review of The Day Of Creation (1987), observing that the text was ‘occasionally boring and frequently ridiculous’ and yet it would ‘still come and haunt you’. Amis concluded ‘Ballard’s novels go to work on you after you’ve finished.’ And go to work they did. Ballard’s influence remains inescapable, energising the post-war imagination in a way few of his contemporaries can claim. Beginning with the explosion of creativity he experienced in the late-1960s (The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash, High Rise, Concrete Island) Ballard established a sphere of influence that has impacted upon culture enormously, be it music (Punk, New Wave, Dubstep) literature (Will Self, Martin Amis, John Gray), filmmaking (David Cronenberg, Brad Anderson), as well as reframing how the 21st Century media landscape is latterly understood. In 2005 he was finally admitted into that exclusive group of artists whose surnames enter the language as adjectives, ‘Ballardian’ now taking its place in the Collin’s Dictionary alongside ‘Kafkaesque’, ‘Pinteresque’ and ‘Lynchian’.
Simon Sellars tackles these paradoxes head-on in his introduction to Extreme Metaphors – Interviews with J.G Ballard 1967 – 2008, 49 interviews with J.G Ballard collated from as disparate sources as BBC Radio 4’s Book Club to underground Punk fanzines. Recalling his early impressions of Ballard’s work, Sellars writes: “Back then, naive and inexperienced, I convinced myself that Ballard’s interviews were superior to his novels. Sacrilege today, of course, but there was a case to be made —” (xvii); while his co-editor Dan O’Hara celebrates Ballard’s ‘clinically precise’ prose as a final reminder of where their sympathies lie. It’s ironic then that the book they’ve assembled makes such a strong case for the ideas, ultimately revealing ‘Ballard The Philosopher’ with forensic devotion. No angle is left unexplored, no significant detail omitted. Over 40 years, Ballard is presented at his enigmatic best – congenial, irreverent and often combative – but always stimulating company.
There have been collections of Ballard’s interviews before (notably published by V. Vale as part of the Re/Search series) as well as a highly recommended collection of Ballard’s essays entitled The Users Guide To The Millennium (now out of print). But still Extreme Metaphors feels long overdue if Ballard’s work and ideas are to be properly contextualised. Despite the absence of a decent biography – John Baxter’s The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard falls well short – Ballard’s formative years are well-documented, largely due to his autobiography Miracles Of Life (2007). Extreme Metaphors takes us closer though, allows us glimpses of the complete man, replete with contradictions and evasions. It’s well documented Ballard’s worldview was shaped by the drained swimming pools and dehumanised streets of the wartime occupation of the Shanghai International Settlement, but less attention has been afforded to the role of the Surrealists on his imagination. The luminous beaches, electric light and marooned citizens found in the art of René Magritte, Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí captivated Ballard right at the moment he found himself adrift in the drab nothingness of post-war Britain. ‘There’s something about surrealism which touched the whole Puritan conscience,’ he tells the artist Eduardo Paolozzi in 1971; Ballard celebrates its radicalism as a call to arms against a Britain that then – as now  – is deeply afflicted by class war and protestant restraint.

Ballard’s enthusiasm for the Surrealists dominates the first half of Extreme Metaphors and quickly reveals him to be less a literary man and more a visual one – indeed, his novel The Unlimited Dream Company (1982) is essentially a Dalí painting in book form. It’s in this repeated celebration of visual art that the paradox running through Ballard’s career is first exposed. He admits to James Goddard and David Pringle in 1975 he ‘always was a frustrated painter’, and that ‘they are all paintings, really, my novels and stories’, confessions that reveal why his books can still ‘come and haunt you’ even as they shirk more traditional literary responsibilities. Ballard envies the immediacy of visual art, relishing the way artists such as Salvador Dalí and Francis Bacon produced work that possessed ‘a reek of semen that quickened the blood’. It is the attempt to harbour the same immediacy in novel-form that compels him.
Moreover, Ballard’s enthusiasm for Hollywood, advertising and television knows no limits, reminding us he came of age in the 1960s, a period he celebrates as an explosion of commerce and media, less for its radical politics. JFK’s assassination is the key event that obsesses him. He celebrates the Zapruder footage as ‘a catalyst’ for ‘a world of multiplying confusions’ and dwells frequently upon the violent news footage from Vietnam, Biafra and the Middle East that flooded Western living rooms in the same period. He sees the ‘counter culture’ in terms of an engagement with ‘inner space’, the ‘sex, drugs, meditation, and mysticism’ a means of ‘rediscovering the tactile existence’. Yet all the time Ballard’s frustrations with the limits of the novel mount, often ironically in the middle of his most celebrated period. He tells Lynn Barber in 1970 that the writer ‘is obsolete in the traditional sense of the storyteller’ whilst publishing is ‘so out of date, it hardly has a technology’. In 1971 he claims the fine arts underwent ‘a major revolution about 1860’ but in the field of literature ‘there hasn’t been one yet’. Ballard feels so limited by his medium he even experiments with reducing the novel to a single page, presenting his narratives in the form of an advert and paying to place the results in magazines. Not insignificantly he pre-dates Crash (1973) – arguably his most significant work – with both a notorious installation called Crashed Cars at the New Arts Laboratory (1970) and a BBC film directed by Harley Cokliss (1971). Indeed, the moving image so transfixes Ballard throughout his career you wonder if he’d have been far happier as a film director. In a pertinent interview with Will Self in 1995 he reiterates his life-long obsessions: ‘Movies and TV, and the car – it has changed the way we see the world.’ The only literature he felt had any legitimacy was either produced by a handful of S/F writers such as Ray Bradbury (‘A ton of Proust isn’t worth an ounce of Ray Bradbury’ he declares in 1968) or his intermittent associate William Burroughs (‘he’s close to Hieronymus Bosch and Bruegel’).

Compounding Ballard’s problems is the fact that by the 1960s the avant-garde is all but finished as a credible, reactionary force. André Breton dies in 1966 whilst Salvador Dali has already begun channeling his energy into pure celebrity, perversely appearing on a US game show in 1954. As for the Surrealist’s work, it is now just another chapter in the history of art, increasingly measured by its monetary value alone (a point duly noted in the work of Andy Warhol, another huge influence on Ballard). In an era when Walt Disney and Hollywood were as likely to provide the ‘shock of the new’ as visual artists such as Chris Burden and Edward Kienholz, Ballard finds himself trying to capture the Zeitgeist via a medium he suspects is no longer suited to it. No wonder his early 70s novels tremble with hermetically sealed, middle class angst.
These then are the ambitions and tensions that pre-occupy Ballard in his most crucial years as a writer; when coupled with the knowledge he studied medicine at Cambridge, we quickly understand why his approach to the novel was as part surgeon, part painter, his protagonists anaesthetised and reduced to the role of white mice in each new investigation. In a 1982 interview with the Paris Review, Ballard even described writing ‘as a brand of neurology’, stressing his books are hypotheses that push ‘the scope of his ideas to their absolute logical conclusion – primarily to see what may lay beyond.’ In the French introduction to Crash (1974), Ballard would diagnose the condition that obsessed him as the ‘Death of Affect’, a concept that conveyed – approximately – the impossibilities of feeling when dominated by a 24/7 media onslaught. Much discussion exists around this notion, even if the period that gave rise to the idea now feels less a less convincing example of it than the decades that were to follow. After all, news footage of both the Vietnam War and Civil Rights clashes helped incite an effective civil war between both young and old, left and right, as well as engendering what Eric Hobsbawm has described as “a great awakening to a world on the brink of revolution”. In the US, tensions were so exacerbated that two Presidents ultimately resigned (LBJ 1968, Nixon 1974) in this period. The late 1960s were many contradictory things, but a time of mass indifference they were not.
But there is another angle to Ballard’s ‘Death of Affect’ that is worth noting; an autobiographical dimension that suggests less the ‘Death of Emotion’, more the ‘Suppression of Ballard’s Emotions’. Extreme Metaphors first hints at this in a key interview with V. Vale in 1982 when Ballard raises the spectre of his late wife, Mary Ballard, who died suddenly from galloping pneumonia in 1964 leaving him to raise three children as a single parent in remote Shepperton. Indeed, it’s not until 2008 that Ballard confirms to James Naughtie the appalling toll this tragedy took on him, revealing that Crash was in fact a novel born of grief. “It’s a cry of anguish,” he admits. “It took me a long time to get over my wife’s death.” Suddenly, the mystery deepens. Crash then is more than a mere ‘hypotheses’ about the relationship between sex and technology, as Ballard spent so long insisting. The protagonist isn’t called James Ballard simply to break down the fourth wall between reader and writer; rather Ballard is mainlining raw emotions from the depths of his psyche. That the character Catherine Ballard was based upon his then girlfriend Claire Walsh, and that Mary’s ghost even haunts later novels (e.g. the hospital in Millennium People is called St. Mary’s) reveals a crucial element to Ballard’s work, too rarely acknowledged. As Matt Poacher has noted, this knowledge puts his isolated males encountering unmapped terrain – usually devoid of the feminine touch – into sharp, emotional context. Consider this fragment from The Atrocity Exhibition (1965) in this light, written in the year immediately following Mary’s death:

He remembered these pleasures: the conjunction of her exposed pubis with the polished contours of the bidet; the white cube of the bathroom quantifying her left breast as she bent over the hand basin….

It’s an explicit example of the writer’s imagination utilised as coping strategy. Suddenly, Ballard’s ‘cold’ novels are awash with emotion, so much at times it’s often overwhelming.
That Crash came to dominate Ballard’s work to the degree it did isn’t a surprise. It’s the novel where all his ambitions – Surrealism, medicine, technology and personal anguish – collide with maximum impact. Given he spent so long trying to deflect moral objections to the book it was ironic that Playboy later declared it ‘the fifth sexiest novel of all time’, and that hindsight has confirmed it now ranks as one of Ballard’s most prophetic moments, anticipating the 21st Century’s fetish for both violent videogames and the rising body count of Hollywood movies. Indeed, when it comes to the future, Extreme Metaphors functions as a greatest hits package of Ballard’s predictions. It’s why Will Self notes, ‘other writers describe. Ballard anticipates’; in this area, Ballard was always a trailblazer. Twitter, YouTube, celebrity, Ronald Regan, the fictions of advertising, Second Life, the dead end of space travel – Ballard predicts them all well in advance of their realisation. As early as 1974 he rejects the threat of nuclear war, predicting the theft of personal data is far more likely to afflict the individual. There are inevitably moments when he misfires -‘sex won’t take place in the bed, necessarily – it’ll take place in the head’, an intriguing idea not entirely born out by a steady post-war population boom that currently estimates there are approximately 7 billion people on earth, compared to just 3 billion in 1960. But mostly, he identifies the nature of tomorrow with unique insight.

There are a few occasions though when Ballard doesn’t just misfire, but descends into full-blown banality. Fixated with so-called ‘pointless crimes’ such as the Hungerford massacre (1987) and the Jill Dando murder (1999), Ballard speculates they might simply be products of ‘boredom’. We sense he enjoys the decadence of this suggestion, thriving on its anti-humanist sentiments, yet his position fails to stand up to serious intellectual scrutiny (e.g. Hungerford, Michael Ryan was later diagnosed as suffering from acute Schizophrenia). Given Ballard’s understanding of psychopathology, primitivism and tribalism, it’s disappointing he doesn’t acknowledge these dimensions when diagnosing. When he suggests to Toby Litt that even Nazism emerged ‘out of boredom’ it’s difficult not to cringe, whilst his pronouncement “the tabloid press represents the unconscious mind of the British people, and you can see what its real obsessions are” fails to take into account the vast number of the UK public who actively loathe the tabloids, as reflected by the current Leveson Inquiry. By his own admission, Ballard’s Britain was distinctly middle class, which is why none of the UK’s vibrant multiculturalism, Bohemia and political tensions are detectable in either his books or his worldview. As with Jean Baudrillard’s America – a text Ballard adored – we are often left with powerful impressions that too readily betray the mongrel reality from which they have been abstracted. 
Far more penetrative is Ballard’s repeated analysis of the future, not as some retched dystopia (which calls into account the Collins definition of Ballardian) but a private playground bustling with infinite possibilities. Ballard’s sci fi was not one of space travel. He quickly noted how bored the public had become with that and by 1975 had announced ‘the space age is over’. Rather he turned his attention to ‘inner space’, a state incubated by the increasing personal isolation afforded to individuals in an urbanised world. “People want to be alone. They want to be alone and watch television,” he proclaimed in 1974, anticipating the ‘new remoteness’ of Zygmunt Baumann’s Liquid Modernity (2000) by 35 years.
Ballard’s future consisted of “a billion balconies facing the sun” (Cocaine Nights 1996) and “endless re-runs of The Rockford Files.” Though drawn from his experiences holidaying in the Mediterranean, this vision has found its full expression in the new geographies of Doha and Abu Dhabi. Here was a man who loved concrete (“a beautiful material”) and relished London’s Westway for its futurism, criticising its detractors for remaining enslaved to the past. It is not surprising then to hear him confess he “always had a thing for Margaret Thatcher”, championing her attempts to ‘American-ise’ the UK and sweep away Britain’s post-war, ‘sick man’ status. Ballard rejected Marxist interpretations of history early on (notably Godard’s use of the car crash as a metaphor for the wounds inflicted by American capitalism in Weekend, 1967) claiming ‘there is no conspiracy’; yet by the end of his life he had ‘drifted to the left’. In this respect, Ballard’s politics mirror John Grays’ (who interviews him here), both men former Thatcherites who later stood in opposition to Tony Blair, Iraq and the class divisions incubated by 1970s and 80s neo-liberal economics. Ballard even turned down his CBE in 2003 to underline the point. “We have gone beyond politics into a new and potentially much more dangerous realm where non-political factors will pull the levers of power.” he observes in 1998, anticipating a ‘credit card Buddha’ from ‘the desert’ that can’t help evoke Steve Jobs and the 00s über-cult of Apple.

Ballard’s political mutability evokes the paradoxes that run through his life – a man who fears the ‘suburbanization of the soul’ whilst living in suburbia, who celebrates technology as a great liberator yet never owns a computer – and returns us to our central debate. Are the interviews ‘superior’ or is to claim them as such, ‘sacrilege’? In an astute later interview, Iain Sinclair surmises this predicament, presenting his conviction to Ballard “all your work is one book.” Ballard agrees; ‘Well, yes, of course it is.” It’s a neat conclusion and illuminates why Extreme Metaphors is such an immense achievement, finally liberating Ballard’s ideas for those frustrated with his novels, whilst simultaneously deepening the mystery of his fiction with new revelations and contexts. To label it ‘definitive’ is problematic given the infinite possibilities engendered in Ballard’s work, but Extreme Metaphors is certainly the indispensable guide to one of the late 20th Century’s most original thinkers, reveling in his imagination, tracing the obsessions and ideas that characterise his work as meticulously as a surgeon undertaking a post-mortem. Germaine Greer may be correct in claiming Ballard never wrote a ‘great novel’, but Extreme Metaphors certainly makes the case he was ‘a great novelist’.

Richard Kovitch is a writer and director based in London whose work has won awards in Europe and the US. He has been published by Clinicality Press and is currently developing several screenplays and a photography project.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 6th, 2012.