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Dystopia Now

  Like him or loathe him, the curious J.G. Ballard is a writer who cannot be ignored

Photograph: David Levenson/Rex Features    CATCH a train from London's Waterloo Station and the world quickly changes.    Especially if you head southwest, where in 40 minutes you're transported from the glitz    'n' spritz of Excitement City into the quasi-rural dormitory suburbs skirting the Heathrow    airport catchment zone. It's a Tardis time slip from the happening now of those who    appear in Hello! into the how now of those who read the magazine and whose life is    more to do with supermarket catalogues, fast food and bungalow aspirations.


   Welcome to Shepperton, I think as I disembark on to a bleakly deserted station; if it were    America, I'd be dodging tumbleweed. Nevertheless this town was famous in the 1950s    and '60s for its film studios, and it's famous today -- in certain literary circles at least -- as    the home of novelist J.G. Ballard.


   Not many writers' names become adjectives but the Collins English Dictionary defines Ballardian as ``suggestive of the conditions described in J.G. Ballard's novels and stories, especially dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes and the psychological effects of technological, social and environmental developments''. This is the same J.G. Ballard whose manuscript once attracted a publishing house reader's report: ``This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish.''


And there you have the two degrees of separation re Mr B: some revere him, others revile. While those who admire his almost-autobiographical Empire of the Sun (1984) and those who praise his sexually seditious Crash (1973) are not necessarily mutually exclusive subsets, they usually are. And while those who tuned in to his often surreal sf short stories from the '50s haven't necessarily stayed on line for this week's release of his latest and 20th novel, the slightly satirical Kingdom Come (Fourth Estate, $33), some have.


Think eccentric, disturbing, iconoclastic, searching, genre-busting, poetic, idealistic, humorous and bleak: all fit Ballard's work. He's someone whose every utterance is seized on by fans and analysed for significance. He's both cult figure and (now) a respected man of letters. Yet the man who welcomes me into his study with grandfatherly gusto looks more like an absent-minded university professor than a don of subversion. He has been publishing for half a century and been high profile for half that time, but he's also shy and chary of interviews. He's obviously psyched himself up for my intrusion, however, as he's all arch affability as he potters about pouring a wine, and settling us in the chaos that is his workplace.


Ballard's own story has been so much the raw material of his creative outpouring that it's useful to have a potted version of where he has come from to appreciate from where his writing is coming. Born in Shanghai, where his father ran a textile firm, and raised in an international enclave, James Graham Ballard was seven when the Japanese invaded China. Carnage and cruelty became part of his observed life. When he was 12, his family was interned, post-Pearl Harbor, in a camp set in mosquito-ridden swamps outside the city. ``The camp was truly like a huge slum,'' he says, ``and in any slum it's the teenage boys who run wild having a good time, thieving, tracking down every little rumour. I shared a tiny room with my young sister and parents, and when we slept I was within arm's length of them. That was a great feeling for me because in Shanghai before the war, [ours] was a very formal and starchy world and I was brought up by Chinese servants who never spoke to me, never looked at me.''


He saw brutality and bloodshed and experienced deprivation in the camp, he says, yet while ``I never thought we were on holiday at Acapulco, it was such a change from the world I'd known before ... it was a sort of liberation.''


After the war he went to Cambridge to live, signing up in 1949 for medical studies, ``a big mistake because Cambridge with its gothic and fake gothic buildings epitomised all the gown-wearing attitudes that have grown from an ethos of crossing small monasteries and public schools''. Still, he smiles, ``dissecting cadavers is an education in its own right, and that two years of anatomy, physiology and pathology was a wonderful education''. Less wonderful was the year of English literature study, from which he was asked to depart, although not before winning a university magazine crime short story prize that encouraged him to think about a career in writing. A year of not being published persuaded him into the RAF and into ``Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where all NATO training was being done then. I arrived in October and it was snowing and I left in March and it was still snowing, horizontally. And because of the mass of ice crystals suspended in the sky, we used to see three suns at times: very, very odd.'' Odd in other ways, as well: ``I mean Time magazine was almost unobtainable, it was regarded as incredibly highbrow, the newspapers were full of photographs of curling teams.'' All he could find to read were sf magazines. ``And that's really where I started to become a writer.''


The best of the sf writers were interested in change, he says, ``in the way the world was being dominated by advertising corporations, the way we were moving into a kind of entertainment culture, fears of nuclear war, ecological topics, psychological research; this was all in 1950s sf''. Most of all, the writing had vitality, ``the full-frontal imaginative bull rush that appeals particularly to young men'', whereas a lot of English literature of the time ``was very inbred, involved in a sort of static E.M. Forster world where not very much happened but enormous significance was placed on small shifts''.


He left the RAF after two years and soon after married. In the next few years, his wife had three children and he worked as assistant editor on a scientific journal while writing and being a pop artist in his spare time.


He was 30 when he moved his family into a single-storey semi-detached house five minutes' walk from Shepperton's station and high street. That was in 1960, two years before his first novel (written during a two-week ``holiday'') was published, encouraging him to write full time. Today the house remains, as estate agents would put it, in original condition: it looks to have its original linoleum, its original formica table, possibly those packing cartons in the front room are original: but who says Home Sweet Home has to be home beautiful? Not Ballard.


In the past, he has dismissed those who questioned why he hasn't moved. Today he is gently self-mocking. ``It's something of a mystery, all right, even to me. [But] this part of the world has been a significant inspiration for me. I came here initially because of the film studios, thinking I might get some work. We didn't have any money and there were cheap houses here.''
When his wife died of pneumonia in 1964, ``I didn't want to go back to London; the children were in school here, their friends were here. Inertial forces kept me here and I've just continued to hang around.'' He laughs quietly. ``Terrible thing to say. Still, it's a great place to work, it's so quiet.''


Besides, he says, ``I've always had a kind of third ear tuned to change and it's a curious thing that in England significant social change has tended to come from suburbs: the first great uptake of TV sets was in the suburbs because people there have spending power. But also things like car ownership, package holidays, the takeaway culture, supermarkets, malls. That little bit of extra disposable income married with opportunity produces change.''


And change, I straightman, is the catalyst you look for. ``It is the thing that has always intrigued me,'' he agrees, ``it tends to reveal what's really going on. And all of my writing is a single quest to find what the hell is really going on.''


Reality is a sort of stage set, he segues. ``That's definitely a lesson taught to me during the war: it can be cleared away just like that. So what's behind the stage set, let's look around the other side, what's going on? You know, one minute the guards are here, the next B29s are bombing the shit out of the Japanese airbase next door, the next day the guards are gone. What do we do now? There are no food trucks, the kids are straight into the sweet potatoes, the adults just sit around watching low-flying mustangs in dogfights. Two days later, different guards are back, phew, thank God for that. Because out there are bands of starving and armed Chinese soldiers roaming around in tattered uniforms who'd love to get their hands on the camp.''


He smiles ruefully, then leans forward in emphasis: ``What's going on? I've seen so many changes, and it's always the same question: what's going on?''


Although he denies it is a personal trait, Ballard is obsessive as a writer. His novels generally share structures: a man enters an unfamiliar locale and is drawn into its strange reality; whether rural or urban, the setting seems to enunciate an instinctive truth about him. At other times, a familiar world is transformed by a cataclysmic event. What's the source of this? I ask.


``As you were spelling all that out,'' he laughs, ``I was thinking, `My God, it sounds like the story of my life'. Coming to England was not just a shock, it was also a huge challenge. England in 1946 was a dark, shabby, exhausted place; there was rationing, people were tired to death. I felt `Things aren't quite right here' because already I could see people retreating into a fantasy of the old empire.


``And maybe, as you were implying, there was something about myself that I needed to reveal. I'd learned to love the war and in a sense I wanted it to go on. The need to live out the paradox and track it down to its source is a very important part of my psychology, and it underpins the novels. And then people do say that we've all got only the one novel inside of us,'' he offers, not very convincingly.


Messianic figures also feature in his work but their character has altered: in the earlier books, the individual was menacingly attractive, someone who might hold the key to the madness around him; in the later novels he has become delusional, almost pathetic. Why the shift?


``Tricky to answer,'' he responds, squirming to get comfortable on his unpadded chair. ``What you call messianic figures were probably in the early novels part of me; and maybe as I've grown older and a little bit wiser, one hopes, I've begun to distance myself from that side. Some sort of reconciliation, Jung's process of individuation we're all supposed to go through in middle age where we reconcile ourselves to our weaknesses and strengths of who we are.


``Or maybe I'm conscious we face different dangers now. When I started out, the main threats were nuclear war and that Europe would be overrun by the Russians. Now the threats are more internal and the pathology of everyday life is what interests me. It's an entertainment and consumer society and you can see that it's a new dark age. There's a kind of inner darkness and this consumer and entertainment landscape, which I have been touching on for 30 years really, well elements of this pathology are beginning to assert themselves in everyday life.''


That's another favoured Ballard theme, the rise of new psychopathologies as a result of our alienating social and technological circumstances. These are becoming part of mainstream society, he asserts, ``and that's really worrying. As well, elements of psychopathology are normalised: a strong dose of violence, more car crashes, will make a film more exciting. And that applies not just to disaster movies but one sees it in conventional advertising, everything really.''


Take CSI (he's a self-confessed fan of the US TV series): ``I see it as a symptom of this, the degree of anatomical explicitness, but not just that. The motivations of some characters who become involved in some of the bizarre criminal acts the CSI team investigates are well into the area of deep psychopathology. The difference is that in CSI you don't have a sort of gibbering Wes Craven, blood dripping from every fang, kind of Hammer film Dracula kissing his dead bride before disembowelling her, it's all domesticated into suburban Vegas, into the tract homes. When you think about it, the underlying message is that your suburban tract home may house a complete psycho. That's worrying but that's the way it's going. And psychopathology helps to keep the commercial wheels turning.''


Which brings us to consumerism, ``the glue holding the whole damn society together''. It's the message underlying Kingdom Come, which is set in a town bordering the M25, part of the new England that has been built in the past 20 to 30 years, he says, of housing estates, business parks, industrial complexes. But they're a kind of wilderness because they have no churches, no libraries, no civic life to hold anything together. As one character says in the book, the cultural high spot is the local Indian takeaway.


``People are very happy there,'' Ballard says, ``because they are reasonably prosperous but once they become bored, and they will because consumerism teaches them to become a little bit bored, there's a danger that only needs the arrival of someone who promises more excitement in your life -- a guru of some kind -- and visualise consumerism turning into fascism, a fascism lite, a suburban fascism, no jackboots, no ranting fuhrers but a fascism that latches on to the other great suburban activity, commercialised sport. In my book, the great soccer contests that are taking place are really political rallies but nobody
notices this, the fuhrer is an afternoon TV chat showhost ...''


That's not far fetched when you see the enormous power given to the Oprah Winfreys of this world, he says. ``If such a person were manipulative, they could easily enlist the public's needs and adoration towards something riskier, cross the boundary between sanity and psychopathology and get a whole exciting new field, fascism by the backdoor.''


His book is set in the near future and elemental to it is the presence of the Cross of St George as a rallying banner. It is both the flag of England and to his mind a symbol of the country's worrying slide into xenophobia. The idea ``came to me one day when I was looking down this quiet street here in Bungalowville and I noticed two houses on opposite sides of the road with flagpoles and the Cross of St George fluttering from the mast. And I thought, wow! because I knew of the fascist undertones of some of the groups that carry that flag as the symbol of their hatred of Europe, and of wanting to become England alone.


``To see these flags flying in my street sent a shiver down my spine and I could just imagine that it would take only a little tweaking of the whole social machinery running this country and something nasty could happen.''


His books, he stresses, are not prophesies but ``as I've said before, they are warnings: a man who stands at the side of a road putting out a sign saying `Dangerous bends ahead, slow down' is not a pessimist.''


He sighs, and smiles in a haunted way. And I realise it has been an intrusive afternoon. His gaze alights then upon a shelf stacked with movie videos. You're a bit of a fan, I offer lamely, nodding towards them. ``I am,'' he agrees politely, ``I watch a lot of movies. There's something about them that seems truer in the way we think and dream than in novels. Although I shouldn't be saying that, should I? Would you like some more wine? Let's have a drop.''

 


This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian,  09 SEP 2006. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren


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