PRINT October 2009

Clark Coolidge

From his balcony Mallory watched
the ancient biplane circle the
rusty gantries of Cape Kennedy.
—J. G. Ballard, “Memories of the Space Age” (1982)

I FIRST ENCOUNTERED J. G. BALLARD in the epigraph to an essay by Robert Smithson. “Quasi-Infinities and the Waning of Space,” which appeared in the November 1966 issue of Arts Magazine, begins with a brief but intriguing quote from “The Overloaded Man,” a story in Ballard’s 1962 collection The Voices of Time: “Without a time sense consciousness is difficult to visualize.” Such titles weren’t easy to find in the San Francisco area of the late ’60s, but I did manage to track down a tattered copy along with the novels of his early elemental-cataclysm tetralogy: The Wind from Nowhere (1962), The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964), and The Crystal World (1966). These works would open realms I had never come across in fiction.

I had spent my junior high school years in the early ’50s devouring hundreds of science-fiction stories. Starting with the Robert Heinlein juveniles (Red Planet [1949], Farmer in the Sky [1950], etc.), I soon moved on through the gamut of originators: Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Isaac Asimov, Henry Kuttner, et al. But by the middle of that decade the genre had lost its juice and I switched to the Modern Novel syllabus—though I do recall the lucid confusion of first coming across Franz Kafka (The Metamorphosis) in a sci-fi anthology! I couldn’t have realized at the time that my interest in sci-fi was flagging just as the great first wave of American sci-fi writers was running out of steam. By the ’60s they seemed to have been replaced—on bookstore shelves at least—by Conan-style sword & sorcery and the dynastic sagas of Dune, fantasies that had very little to do with the initial sci-fi impulse. Then Ballard snapped on the floods, almost single-handedly reviving both the genre and my interest in it.

Over a seventy-eight-year life span, Ballard published eighteen novels, more than a hundred short stories in twenty-odd collections, numerous essays (ninety of them collected in A User’s Guide to the Millennium [1996]), a book of self-quotations, a book of conversations, and a straight-talking terminal autobiography, Miracles of Life (2008). His last four books have yet to find an American publisher.

Unlike the work of his sci-fi precursors, Ballard’s fiction takes place not in the future but in what he liked to call a sort of “visionary present,” and it paints the quotidian world in the spectra of unease, if not disease. Through the direct gaze of simple syntax and a few hard nouns, Ballard seems a stranger in a familiar landscape, tingeing things with the rainbows of a just- navigable hallucination. The early transition from his pubertal liberation in a Japanese prison camp outside Shanghai (“two and a half largely happy years,” as he describes them in his memoirs) to the ruined cities and ruined psyches of a “victorious” England must have felt like a descent into the atmosphere of an uncharted planet. Yet his works project an obsessive clarity by way of a narrative that serves an accumulation of vivid images that imprint strongly on the reader’s memory tissue. As master, and victim, of this clear enigma, he elevated the pulp sci-fi genre to high art, though a Ballard hero is often little more than eyes, a name, and some abbreviated experience. All the analogies seem broken into wayward substances—via the infinite series of mirrored surfaces clotting the image receptors in Crash (1973), or literally so in The Crystal World, where time itself becomes a fluid that is drying up, precipitating out matter previously held in suspension.

Ballard’s first four novels were written in the third person. Then, beginning with Crash, he turned increasingly to the first person, his last four novels—Cocaine Nights (1996), Super-Cannes (2000), Millenium People (2003), and Kingdom Come (2006)—employing that voice. It’s interesting to note, however, that he wrote Empire of the Sun (1984), his great autobiographical novel, in the third person. I have long felt that the fictional third-person protagonist is by nature hallucinatory in its sometimes glaring distancing effect: You see your body enter a room, embrace a lover, even give up the ghost, as in astral projection or some near-death experiences. Ballard animates, populates, then fully inhabits this realm. Even his first-person-past settings can have a similar effect.

Some high points, if forced to pick: The Crystal World, culmination and apotheosis of his early dystopian period, like an eerie variant on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which Marlow never does find Kurtz but wanders lost in the closing lattices of our draining time pool. Crash, his masterpiece of obsessive focus, which had been building up throughout the stories in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), suddenly masochistically erotic with its gyres of hurtling metal reflection and swollen flesh. I got an erection reading Crash in the bathtub and thought, Hey, this is not exactly my thrill of choice—or is it?! He does make you feel the tug. Empire of the Sun, his most purely autobiographical novel, the memory of all that finally emerging in full prismatic bloom. And I thought it revealing of Steven Spielberg’s limitations that he left out of his otherwise worthy take on Empire, which Ballard evidently approved of, the fact that the boy hero increasingly falls in love with death in all its seductive attributes. Of the short stories, I should probably point to “The Terminal Beach,” “Cage of Sand,” and “Memories of the Space Age” as the essence of his rusty-gantry (like some “fossil of the future”) and empty-swimming-pool mode (“I’m never happier than when I can write about drained swimming pools and abandoned hotels”)—not forgetting the explosive miniatures of The Atrocity Exhibition.

I believe in the death of tomorrow, in the exhaustion of time, in our search for a new time within the smiles of auto-route waitresses and the tired eyes of air-traffic controllers at out-of-season airports. —J. G. Ballard, “What I Believe” (1984)

I SHUT MY EYES and Ballard keeps coming at me with his ultramoderne rooms and jagged shards of airfoil. From the deserted hotel of The Drowned World to the collapsed plazas of the Metro-Centre mall in Kingdom Come, the Ballard hero finds himself once again abandoned in the overlit decor and stray apparatus of a diminished civilization. Most of the others are now elsewhere as he roams and reports from those spectral bleaks, holding fast to a wan normalcy. He leaves us with a strange but habitable world, just a few suburban fences over from our own backyard. Who or what has he almost glimpsed? Could it be that at last even the future has passed him by?

Clark Coolidge is a poet living in Petaluma, CA.