<%-- Page Title--%> Book Review <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 149 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

April 9, 2004

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The Ballard of Shanghai Jail


The poetry of disaster gleams among the anti-utopian's collected short stories in JG Ballard's The Complete Stories


The Complete Stories
JG Ballard
Flamingo £25, pp1,189

When I worked at the Times, a couple of years ago, a shout used to echo through the newsroom at moments of great national trauma, the death of Princess Diana, say, or a terrorist outrage - 'Call JG Ballard'. Strangely, at such moments, JG Ballard seldom seemed to be at home or was, at least, sensibly not answering the phone.

Yet the news editor, for all his harassed panic, was right to think that Ballard might have something to contribute at a time of crisis, because no other contemporary British writer possesses his prescience and perspicacity, his instinct for catastrophe. No other writer foresaw, in quite the same way, how televised images of fame and death were to become all-powerful in our culture.

Reading this book of collected stories, spanning more than 1,000 pages and 40 years, is a peculiarly enriching experience. Every sentence Ballard writes is absolutely characteristic. Ever since he began publishing stories in the mid-1950s, in low-circulation science-fiction magazines such as New Worlds and Science Fantasy, he sought to find new ways of writing about our emerging consumer society, not as other sci-fi writers did-- through speculating about space travel or the far future--but through constructing his own cool, detached psychopathology of post-industrial society.

Through his interest in medicine, science and psychoanalysis, Ballard understands how powerfully we are driven by irrational and unconscious forces, that we are often no more than mysteries to ourselves.

In 'Motel Architecture' a man called Pangborn retreats from the world, spending his days alone in a solarium, amusing himself by endlessly replaying the shower sequence from Psycho on a bank of television screens (this story was written in 1978, before the age of video and digitised surveillance cameras). One day, he discovers that there is an intruder in the solarium, eating his food and sharing his private space. Sometimes he catches glimpses of the intruder, his spectral presence and shifting shadows. Then a cleaning woman is found murdered in the solarium, lying in the 'familiar postures he had analysed in a thousand blow-ups'. Pangborn is terrified until, in a moment of blazing self-revelation, he realises he has always been alone in the solarium, that he is his own intruder, a stranger to himself and perhaps now a murderer, too.

'I've always thought that life was a kind of disaster area,' says Ransome, the narrator of his third novel, The Drought. In Ballard's fiction society is always close to or actually breaking down, and civility is threatened with extinction.

In many stories, he constructs closed, artificial communities - a tropical island paradise, an internment camp, a luxury high-rise apartment block, a hi-tech business park, a seaside leisure resort - then watches as they collapse under the strain of their own internal contradictions. 'Is this the promised end?' asks Kent in King Lear. 'Or,' replies Edgar, 'image of that horror?'

Through reading Ballard, we have lived vicariously with a sense of an ending, simultaneously embracing what we most fear and perhaps most desire - the ruin of cities, the collapse of communities, the wilful embracing of deviance and obscenity.

As a detainee, between the ages of 12 and 15, in the Lunghua prison camp in Shanghai, Ballard watched as Chinese soldiers were decapitated, as the streets of Shanghai were bombed by low-flying aircraft and as his fellow internees were harassed and brutalised. In Empire he writes of returning to the International Settlement where his parents lived in colonial seclusion to find the houses inexplicably deserted, and of watching the distant glow of the atom bomb explosion in Hiroshima, 'that spectral mushroom cloud'.

In 'Dead Time', the young narrator, liberated from an internment camp, hides for hours under a pile of corpses to avoid detection from the Japanese, and later journeys across a ravaged landscape in search of his missing parents, a search that Ballard enacts again and again in his fiction, as if seeking to return to that Edenic first moment, the world of tranquillity that was destroyed the day the Japanese arrived in Shanghai and took him away from home.

If Ballard is an anti-utopian writer, a pessimist of human nature, it is because by the time he returned to England, as a young adult after the war, he had seen and experienced the worst of the world and of man's potential for depravity. He was without hope or illusion, his imagination forever after to be shadowed by the ruined towns, abandoned aircraft, crashed cars and arbitrary disappearances and injustices of his childhood. And so, as the political philosopher John Gray has written, Ballard's fictional achievement is to have communicated a vision of what fulfilment might mean in a time of nihilism. And who would argue that ours is not a time of nihilism and that Ballard is not the ideal chronicler of our disturbed modernity?

This review was first published in the British daily The Observer.




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