Singer-songwriter Nev Cottee gives us the lowdown on the writer J.G. Ballard. Some of the themes seem strangely appropriate in our modern-day, hopefully, temporary dystopia.
Report From An Obscure Planet
No other writer seems to understand the strange circumstances in which we now find ourselves more than J.G. Ballard. His prescience – an ability to have somehow gauged our inner space during this crisis – is alarming. We need to read him more than ever. The same thing was said in 1966 upon the completion of his quartet of disaster novels. Ever was it thus.
Like the majority of people experiencing societal lockdown, I was dithering… curiously bored and I found myself drawn back into Ballard’s world – in particular his short stories. Written over a forty-year period they are an extraordinary body of work. No tailing off, no missteps, the quality is high, constant and relentless. There followed a brief exchange with a few mates on a WhatsApp group (surely another Ballardian prophecy) regarding his best books.
Inspired by this conversational thread I decided to draw up an ‘Introduction to the work of J.G. Ballard Top Ten’. It is, of course, extremely subjective. Feel free to refuse, accuse and abuse the list or, if it serves your purpose better, point your cursor and curse at me. I can take it. I think…
Wealthy architect Robert Maitland goes lockdown under the Westway – an elevated carriageway section of the A40 trunk road in West London. Maitland learns to survive by scavenging discarded food from littering motorists, salvages car parts for bizarre shamanic rituals and eventually comes to think of the island as his true home.
We’re building prisons all over the world and calling them luxury condos. Religions emerged too early in human evolution – they should have come later when the human race begins to near its end. Crime is the only spur that can rouse us – that ‘other world’ where everything is possible. You can soar over our heads, dream amphetamine dreams, come off the beach in the evening and lead everyone into the cocaine night.
The Atrocity Exhibition (pic – top)
Mass media landscape invades and splinters the private mind of the individual. Attempt to make sense of the assassination of JFK. Adopts the cut up and pasted techniques of the Dadaists and later Burroughs. Inner/outer landscapes merge. ‘Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Regan’. Linked Stories. Condensed Novels. Originally appeared as stories in magazines. The ‘book’ attempts to decode… is an experiment in… Personally cancelled the publication of the book fearing legal action from celebrities depicted. No clear beginning or end.
The Unlimited Dream Company
Suburban psychedelia. A man named Blake crashes a stolen aircraft into the Thames on the outskirts of London. He survives the crash, to become a supernatural messiah for the small town, or does he actually drown? Unlimited opportunities await the person who dares to seek. I’ll grow orchids from your hands, roses from your breasts. You can have magnolias in your hair. In your womb, I’ll set a fly-trap.
In the hills above the Cote d’Azur, a European elite has gathered in the business-park Eden-Olympia, a gated community that offers its privileged residents luxury homes, private doctors, their own psychiatrists and other conveniences required by the modern businessman. Why then, are all the residents – these well-established architects, and producers – all suffering heavily from stress and insomnia?
The twentieth century ended with its dreams in ruins. The notion of the community as a voluntary association of enlightened citizens has died forever. The suburbanization of the soul has overrun our planet like the plague. People no longer need enemies – in this millennium their great dream is to become victims.
‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating his dog, Dr Robert Liang reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the three previous months.’ Thus opens Ballard’s brutalist babel. Lockdown ground zero and the only way is down.
The Drowned World
Set in 2145 in a post-apocalyptic London… The brief span of an individual life is misleading. Each one of us is as old as the entire biological kingdom, and our bloodstreams are tributaries of the great sea of its total memory. The uterine odyssey of the growing foetus recapitulates the entire evolutionary past, and its central nervous system is a coded time scale, each nexus of neurones and each spinal level marking a symbolic station, a unit of neuronic time.
Empire Of The Sun
Reality is a stage set that can be dismantled at any moment. No matter how magnificent anything appears, it can be swept aside into the debris of the past.
The novel recounts the story of a young British boy who lives with his parents in Shanghai. After the Pearl Harbor attack, Japan occupies Shanghai and in the following chaos, Jim becomes separated from his parents.
Abandoned airports, deserted hotels, drained swimming pools, the banality of death, the constant static and garble of radio signals, the atomic age.
The ancient unconscious drives, including a taste for cruelty and the perverse, are always working away somewhere beneath the veneer of social convention, ready for any opportunity to come flaring to the surface.
I wanted to rub the human race in its own vomit, and force it to look in the mirror.
Two and two equals five. Why our obsession with the car crash, celebrity death and vulva shaped wing mirrors?
We live in a world ruled by fictions of every kind – mass merchandising, advertising, politics conducted as a branch of advertising, the instant translation of science and technology into popular imagery, the increasing blurring and intermingling of identities within the realm of consumer goods, the preempting of any free or original imaginative response to experience by the television screen.
The Complete Short Stories
Starting in 1956 with ‘Prima Belladonna’ Ballard sets out his map to the stars – a users guide to the strange visionary present we find ourselves in.
Titles include Passport to Eternity, The Voices Of Time, News From The Sun, The Day Of Forever, The Comsat Angels. The Greatest Television Show On Earth, The Enormous Space…
The lights may still be on, but a new Dark Age is drawing us towards its shadows, and we turn to Ballard as our best guide to the underworld.
Book summaries contain quotes from various sources including interviews with Ballard, online reviews and the books themselves.