J. G. Ballard Ballard, J(ames) G(raham) (Vol. 6) - Essay

Ballard, J(ames) G(raham) (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ballard, J(ames) G(raham) 1930–

An English novelist and short story writer born and reared in Shanghai, Ballard, according to Brian Aldiss, represents "one of the few stimulating forces in contemporary sf." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

After The Drowned World and The Crystal World helped make his name as a topographer of post-cataclysmic landscapes, J. G. Ballard became preoccupied with the iconography of the 1960s. In The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash he produced a compendium of twentieth-century pathological imagery which earned him the disparaging reputation of being the intellectual of avant-garde science fiction. Vermilion Sands marks a return to familiar territory….

Of the nine stories in the book none feels very different from the next. One may revolve round a futuristic art-form—a musical sculpture made of iron which grows like a clanging weed, maybe, or a computer which writes sonnets—and the next may be constructed round biofabric clothing or psychotropic houses, both of which react to human emotion. Yet although these sound like the kernels of plots, in Mr. Ballard's hands they merely become adjuncts. The real theme is Vermilion Sands: the place and the wealthy eccentrics whose decayed life-style takes such baubles for granted. So obtrusive is his vision that it suggests, despite his reputation as an "intellectual", that Mr. Ballard is little interested in plots. He is, however, one of the most accomplished creators of evocative landscapes in modern fiction. We recognize his old obsessions—with jewels for example, or with statuesque women. There is also the sea, or its absence: it is always somewhere in the background beyond the dunes, having receded in primordial times and being likely to return in the future to drown his world. To some extent his desert floor is also a seabed, his stories less encapsulated events than aspects of marine monotony.

Mr. Ballard achieves his effect partly by painting his desert in the manner of Dali, a mixture of appalling clarity and the exotic. Indeed, it often leads to his main stylistic fault: "Her eyes gazed at me like dark magnolias. Lifted by the wind, her opal hair, like antique silver, made a chasuble of the air." This is nearer to Wilde than to a wilderness; yet that very opulence helps achieve the other part of his effect, that of recession. His landscape is in a state of continually being deserted. It is always out of season in the colony at Vermilion Sands. People leave and abandon their rich pleasure domes on the endless beach, full of jewelry and ceramics, to be lived in by scorpions or engulfed by the dunes. What is left when the people have receded are their mineral deposits and a sort of fossil languor which lives on long after the last banging shutter has been torn from its hinges by the wind. They also leave their violence hanging in the air like a gradually dispersing cloud of dust. It is the violence of richesse, of the heartless and the vapid and the indolent. It is that which gives Mr. Ballard's landscape such force, being a small fragment of the end of our world. In his personal patch of Californian surreal the last dune buggies have attacked and gone; even the sea has deserted. The aftermath of atrocity is beach-fatigue on a shore at the end of time, just before the waters again cover the earth.

"Dusty Answer," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 30, 1973, p. 1466.

Ballard's novels are marked by … inconsistencies and repetitions. Essentially, his fiction does not propound, it embodies; the prose is simply the rhetoric of an obsession, as dense, one-colour and arbitrary as the obsession requires it to be, and it's no use squaring such a writer with standard fictional procedures….

Ballard's … early novels are ostensibly cataclysmic science-fiction stories in the routine Wyndham mode; gradually, though, as the texture of the prose thickens and Ballard's stare hardens on the bizarre landscape he has precipitated, the cataclysm ceases to be of much importance. In The Crystal World, for instance, the opulent refractions of the imagery become virtually self-generating, causing the end of the world to seem a rather footling affair by comparison. Although all these novels incorporate their own theoretical time-schemes—which are very complicated and (between ourselves) not very interesting—they are, broadly speaking, speculative and futuristic. More recently, Ballard has applied the imaginative habits of a lush, numinous fantasist to the present day, imposing an over-conceptualized, over-poeticized vision on the metal and concrete furniture of a technologized society. In the jangling, piecemeal Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard sets himself up as the apologist of deviance, breakdown and psychopathology. Its successor, Crash, a novel born of quite immeasurable perversity, posits an 'alternative sexuality', a sexuality emotionless, stylized and unerotic which is offered as the appropriate response to a dehumanizing technocracy…. While one is inevitably sickened and appalled by Ballard's glib whimsicality, Crash remains a mournful and hypnotic tour de force, possibly the most extreme example in modern fiction of how beautifully and lovingly someone can write 70,000 words of vicious nonsense.

For Ballard is the rarest kind of writer—an unselfconscious stylist: it is the measure of his creative narcissism that he has his eye on no audience. Equally, Ballard's characterization is hardly more than a gesture—his men are morose and fixated, his women spectral nonentities, his minor figures perfunctory grotesques. He has nothing coherent to 'say', and his plots are merely the gateways to exotic locales. Concrete Island is by far his most realistic novel to date and, patently, a writer with little nous, wit or concern for individuals has no business being realistic; the book is slight not because the obsession fails to engage us but because it demonstrably fails to engage Ballard. His raison, after all, is his awesome visual imagination and the complementary verbal intensity with which to realize it. Ballard's vision is, simply, too occult for the observable world; it needs some grand perversity to give it the altitude which good writing alone can sustain.

Martin Amis, "Hard Shoulder," in The New Review (© The New Review Ltd.), May, 1974, p. 92.

J. G. Ballard has concerned himself in much of his work with problems of time and identity, and in Concrete Island, a modern Robinson Crusoe, he shows the effect of one upon the other, the ways in which we think we control time and know ourselves and the sudden crumbling away of that power and knowledge when we are confronted with a situation in which a true understanding of time and identity is the only tool for survival….

Ballard's talent, as a novelist writing in the last third of the 20th century, is to show us what we refuse to see—the extraordinary mixture of old ideas and modern architecture, the self-contradictory expectation of 'human' responses in a landscape constructed to submerge all traces of identity—and to prove that it is only by knowing ourselves that we can understand the technology we have created….

It's often said that the modern urban landscape lacks identity. But maybe that's because we lack knowledge of our own. If we complain about the speed of change and an architecture which seems to allow us little individuality, it is into ourselves that we must look for the reasons. Ballard, psychoanalyst of the high-rise and prophet of the six-lane, proves in this brilliant novel that although 'to know what one knows is frightening', it is not, in the end, as frightening as not knowing can be.

Emma Tennant, "Accident," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), May 10, 1974, p. 669.

To describe J. G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands as a collection of short stories written over 17 years is likely unfairly to suggest something of a rag-bag, but it does form a coherent whole: if the symphony, as a form, might be considered analogous to a novel, then Vermilion Sands could be called an elegant set of variations on a theme. The narrator's character remains unaltered although his name and occupation change from story to story; a beautiful, egocentric woman also appears in different guises; and the book has throughout a distinct atmosphere—hot, and leisured without being languid.

The 'variations' in the stories are in their descriptions of forms of art conceivable, but technically unachievable, today: cloud-sculptures; singing plants that have to be tended carefully if they are to be kept in key; sonic statues, the picture that paints itself. Gone are the apocalyptic visions of The Crystal World and The Drought, although echoes remain: this is the author's 'guess at what the future will actually be like', a future that he would like to inhabit, where 'work is the ultimate play and play the ultimate work'.

Diana Reed, "Well-Developed Visions," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of Diana Reed), May 23, 1974, p. 672.