PRINT October 2009

Robert Weil

 J. G. Ballard, Los Angeles, December 10, 1987. Photo: Corbis.

WHEN J. G. BALLARD passed away at the age of seventy-eight on April 19, in London, after a lengthy battle with cancer, the reading world, admittedly a diminishing lot in an increasingly image-obsessed society, lost one of its greatest yet curiously most underappreciated geniuses. No writer, certainly no fiction writer, examined the deleterious effects of technology on mass and literary culture more prophetically than Ballard, whose first published short story, “Prima Belladonna,” appeared in the British science-fiction magazine Science Fantasy in 1956 and opens The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard, a tome of ninety-eight short stories that finally made its way to America last month (in slightly augmented form), eight years after its publication in England.

“Prima Belladonna,” a bizarre yet strikingly tender love story about a doomed relationship between a music-store owner and a nightclub chanteuse that goes awry when the singing orchids in his store cannot bear to hear her sing, is set in a fictionalized version of Palm Springs, which is no accident. Although Ballard called the city Vermilion Sands, the California desert resort is unmistakable in appearance, and it reflects, even at this early stage, Ballard’s fascination with America and his love-hate relationship with the nation that liberated his family from Lunghua, the Japanese-run prison camp in China where he and his family were interned from 1943 to 1945 and which provided a good bit of the material for his semiautobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984).

American Ballard fans familiar with his scathing satires of American political assassinations and conspiracy plots may be surprised to learn from his memoir, Miracles of Life, published in England in 2008, of his once deep affection for the US, epitomized in his feelings toward the thirty imprisoned American merchant seamen he encountered in Lunghua. “I liked them immensely, for their good humor, verbal inventiveness and enormously laid-back style,” he was to recall, and he devoured their copies of Life, Time, Popular Mechanics, and Collier’s, feeding his adolescent imagination while imbuing it with a distinctly American sensibility. Coming from a writer whose subsequent fiction would be filled with often scabrous accounts of fatuous American politicians or tales of weapons technology gone awry, Ballard’s approval of America’s use of atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki might seem contradictory, but it suggests a complicated relationship to the United States—to its ethically ambiguous technological prowess and military might—by a man who had, significantly, first experienced American troops as saviors. Unlike Harold Pinter, whose anti-Americanism was axiomatic, Ballard was very much alive to the great contradictions inherent in American culture and in the American character. His memoir’s moving depiction of the Americans at Lunghua echoes more the nostalgic tone of James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize–winning first novel, Tales of the South Pacific (1947), than it does another first, war novel, Norman Mailer’s psychologically piercing and gritty The Naked and the Dead (1948). Recalling the airborne arrival of the Americans in China, Ballard wrote, “The sight of these advanced American aircraft gave me a new focus of adolescent veneration. . . . They embodied the same consumer ethos as the streamlined Cadillacs and Lincoln Zephyrs, the refrigerators and radios. In a way the Mustangs and Lightnings were themselves advertisements, 400-mile-an-hour commercials that advertised the American dream and American power.”

Although Ballard left China at the end of 1945 bound for England, he never forgot his euphoric interactions with these American seamen and buoyant liberators, and he believed then that America, with its consumerist abundance and optimistic spirit, was “a future that had already arrived.” Never having lived in England, Ballard was struck by the pervasive gloom of postwar Britain, where, still on wartime rations, the people “behaved like a defeated population.” In a country where “everything was dirty, and the interiors of railway carriages and buses were black with grime,” the only hope, he perceived, came from Hollywood films, whose themes and cinematic twists he studied avidly, particularly film noirs and hard-edged thrillers, which would profoundly influence his own writing. Austerity pervaded Clement Attlee’s postwar England: Ballard complained that the Leys School, the boarding school he attended from 1946 to 1949, reminded him of Lunghua (“though the food was worse”), while the ethos of King’s College, Cambridge, was “homosexual, and a heterosexual like myself who brought in his girlfriends . . . was viewed as letting the side down, as well as having made a curious choice in the first place.”

Given his preoccupation with postwar American film culture and his fascination with American society in general, it is not surprising that so many of Ballard’s early short stories take place in disguised American settings. David Pringle, a British Ballard authority who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of his stories and novels, points out that in the late ’50s, Ballard, then a deputy editor and part-time writer for Chemistry & Industry, was eager for recognition beyond the two English science-fiction magazines that had published him, and deliberately chose themes and settings that would be familiar to American readers, especially to science-fiction editors. Yet the American society that Ballard confronted then as a prescient young writer had already lost the triumphalist glow he had glimpsed after World War II. A “consumer society,” governed by “invisible persuaders” who were “manipulating politics and the consumer market, affecting habits and assumptions in ways that few people fully realised,” had sprung up, both in America and England, and its themes would emerge in Ballard’s early stories.

Not surprisingly, Ballard’s first books were published in America, when Damon Knight, a science-fiction writer and an adviser to Berkley Books in New York, urged his boss to sign up four titles, the novels The Wind from Nowhere and The Drowned World and two short-story collections, The Voices of Time and Billennium. The books, all published in 1962, were ignored by the mainstream press but garnered good reviews in science-fiction magazines of the day. Far more positive was the reception of The Drowned World in England the following year, when Kingsley Amis, the celebrated author of Lucky Jim, wrote a glowing review of this apocalyptic masterpiece in The Observer. Appearing the same year as Rachel Carson’s nonfiction book Silent Spring, The Drowned World was in its own way an environmental thriller, an eerily prophetic, pre–Hurricane Katrina account of how a period of “geophysical upheavals” and unprecedented solar storms had caused the flooding of the major cities of America and Europe, turning them into tropical lagoons. With its deep Freudian overtones, the novel established Ballard as a writer to watch.

Despite the British embrace of The Drowned World and the American publication of two other novels (The Burning World in 1964 and The Crystal World in 1966), success and recognition eluded Ballard in the United States, where he found it increasingly difficult to secure a publisher. Given the violence and nihilism of many of Ballard’s short stories from the mid-’60s, a time when gruesome images of burning Vietnamese children sprayed with napalm replaced those of American troops rescuing emaciated concentration-camp victims, this is not at all surprising. Increasingly fascinated by themes of urban violence, corporate excess, and rampant consumerism, he was convinced that America was the epicenter of this moral decay. As an outsider, not having visited the US since the early ’50s, Ballard was nonetheless obsessed with American politicians, particularly the Kennedys after the 1963 assassination of the thirty-fifth president, as well as with the new breed of right-wing politicians ascendant in the American West. “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” a provocative title even today, was particularly incendiary when it appeared in 1968. Recalling, in 1990, the origins of the story, Ballard wrote that

the then-novelty of a Hollywood film star entering politics and becoming governor of California gave Reagan considerable air-time on British TV. Watching his right-wing speeches, in which he castigated in sneering tones the profligate, welfare-spending, bureaucrat-infested state government, I saw a more crude and ambitious figure, far closer to the brutal crime boss he played in the 1964 movie The Killers, his last Hollywood role. In his commercials Reagan used the smooth, teleprompter-perfect tones of the TV auto-salesman to project a political message that was absolutely the reverse of bland and reassuring. A complete discontinuity existed between Reagan’s manner and body language, on the one hand, and his scarily simplistic far-right message on the other.

No less shocking was Ballard’s “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy,” published in 1967 in the British literary magazine Ambit, which caused a public row in England when Randolph Churchill, the son of Winston, called the story outrageous and demanded that the Arts Council of Great Britain withdraw its support for the magazine. It is hard for those who weren’t alive at the time to fully appreciate the violent mood of the ’60s, a time when student revolts, urban riots, and social protest spread from Berkeley to Liverpool, from Hamburg to Paris. So theatrical and incendiary was the rhetoric of the time—radical groups like the Yippies, the Black Panthers, and Weatherman were, mind you, urging anarchy in the streets—that a satire about the sexual powers of the former first lady and the media manipulation of her image should hardly have seemed aberrant, but apparently it did seem so in establishment circles in England and the US. Ballard’s short stories of the time, perhaps more overtly political than those produced at any other point in his career, echoed the chaos of the era.

The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) was Ballard’s attempt “to make sense of the sixties,” a time when the Kennedy assassinations, race riots, and the Vietnam War came to dominate the airwaves despite “the determined effort by the entertainment culture to infantilise us.” (A full quarter century before the spread of the Internet, Ballard presciently perceived that, as he would later put it, the “print-dominated past had given way to an electronic present, a realm where instantaneity ruled.”) The chapter titles—which included “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” “Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy,” and “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race,” among others—proved too much for the venerable firm of Doubleday, which had acquired the American rights but ultimately destroyed the entire printing before the book could be distributed. Book cancellations always arouse great interest in the press and in literary circles, and various stories have been floated over the decades as to what caused the publisher to trash the first printing. Writing in his 2008 memoir, Ballard speculated that Nelson Doubleday, a “close friend” of the California governor, had chanced on the Ronald Reagan story, and “within minutes the order had gone out to pulp the entire edition.” Not until 1972 did these provocative, often sexually sensational stories finally see light in the United States, when they were published by Grove Press under the title Love & Napalm: Export USA, drawing a caustic rebuke in the New York Times Book Review from Paul Theroux, who charged that the “novelist does more than botanize on the graves of mutilated peasants and famous victims—he blackmails us with our sentiment and outrages our compassion; it is the novel as a form of abuse, the dead-end of feeling.”

While a few pieces in The Complete Stories from the years after the publication of The Atrocity Exhibition are based in the United States, American settings become less prominent in Ballard’s fiction overall, although references to Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Warren Beatty, and Tom Cruise would still appear in “A Guide to Virtual Death,” a 1992 story in which premium-television viewers are invited to have a “tele-orgasm” with their favorite Hollywood star. Even Ballard’s fascination with conservative American politicians grew less intense, although a fictionalized Dan Quayle does make a surprising appearance in “The Message from Mars,” published in 1992 and one of the final stories in the collection. Eager to demonstrate America’s renewed space superiority, President Quayle, already in his third term (we have to believe that the Republicans were successful at overturning the amendment banning a president from serving more than two terms), convenes a group of foreign heads of state to celebrate America’s triumphant landing on Mars in 2008, a signature event that, we are told, restores America’s vaunted supremacy in outer space. The landing, more sensational than Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, is jubilantly celebrated, so much so that NASA announces that “three major Hollywood studios would collaborate on the most expensive film of all time,” in which the astronauts would be cast as themselves. The crowd cheers wildly, surging forward, yet the pomp is short-lived when the astronauts refuse to leave the spacecraft and turn off the intrusive television cameras, “rejecting the world with a brief wave before closing the shutter for the last time,” never to leave their spacecraft again. The embarrassment to President Quayle is immense, and he becomes a laughingstock—this time not because of his inability to spell. In the hands of Ballard, hubris has been punished, almost in the manner of a Greek tragedy, and the sequence of Kafkaesque events that follows only serves to reinforce Ballard’s contention that the human will, no matter what, is both unpredictable and indomitable. One can only imagine what Ballard might have done with another vice president, Dick Cheney, an American politician who would have been catnip for the author’s transforming imagination, had Ballard still been writing short stories during the George W. Bush years.

Even after the success of Steven Spielberg’s 1987 film adaptation of Empire of the Sun, Ballard didn’t frequently visit America, although he was published, often quite passionately, by a handful of venerable American editors and publishers, including Roger Straus (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), V. Vale (Re/Search Publications), Gordon Van Gelder (St. Martin’s Press), and, last, the British-born Frances Coady (Picador). Despite the fame that books and movies such as Empire of the Sun and Crash (published in 1973) brought Ballard, he was saddened in the last few decades of his life that many of his books received less than favorable reviews in the United States and that, somehow, the broader American public did not regard him as the literary pioneer and prophet he was. His reputation never wavered among devoted American science-fiction readers, but he felt he was “interested in the real future that I could see approaching, and less in the invented future that science fiction preferred.”

As strident as some of his stories could be in their portrayal of America, there remains at times a curious ambivalence, reflected, for example, in his depiction (in “The Man Who Walked on the Moon”) of Commander Scranton, an impostor astronaut who cadges drinks and small amounts of money from gullible American tourists on Copacabana Avenue in Rio de Janeiro. The narrator of this 1985 story is a British freelance journalist, who might be taken as Ballard’s alter ego. Rather than expose the astronaut for the fraud that he is, the narrator becomes quite fond of his quarry and ends up embracing him, tending to him as he lies dying. In the end, the narrator becomes the very subject he hoped to mock and expose, telling yet a new generation of tourists that he is the astronaut who walked on the moon. The transformation here is stunning, and the ending redemptive; I’m led to think that the fictional Commander Scranton’s personality is somehow drawn from one of those merchant marines who entertained Ballard as a boy in the camp at Lunghua.

Don Siegel, The Killers, 1964, still from a color film in 35 mm, 93 minutes. Jack Browning (Ronald Reagan) and Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson).

THE APPEARANCE OF THE NEW COLLECTION is important for several reasons. The presentation of these ninety-eight tales in one volume reflects Ballard’s faith in the power of the short story despite his fear that its form was no longer valued. Commenting in his 2001 introduction to the earlier, British edition, he noted that the ’50s were still a time when “short stories were immensely popular with readers,” observing that it was common for newspapers then to publish a short story every day. He lamented that “people at present have lost the knack of reading short stories, a response perhaps to the baggy and long-winded narratives of television serials.” Arguing that many tedious novels today would have worked far better as short stories, Ballard observed, “Curiously, there are many perfect short stories, but no perfect novels.”

The obituaries that followed Ballard’s death have been considerable, and perhaps this is an indication that he will get the reconsideration here in the United States he has long deserved, and that many of his out-of-print novels will again come to light in new American editions. His work certainly merits serious attention from the academy, and one can only hope he will be increasingly read in high school and college classrooms for his insights into our own computerized and technologically dependent urban sprawl, a world that often seems to have sprung sui generis from Ballard’s head many years ago.

It is worth noting that, according to the Pew Research Center, “in blogs and social media” during the week following Ballard’s death the writer was the third-hottest topic on the Internet, with only torture interrogation techniques and gay marriage the subjects of a greater volume of activity. The absurdity of this would not have gone unappreciated by Ballard himself. In death, his clairvoyance seems to be gaining favor.

Robert Weil, executive editor at W. W. Norton & Company, edited The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (Norton, 2009).