The novelist J.G. Ballard created language so unique that, according to renowned poet and novelist Jeremy Reed, he was like “a tourist from the future whose themes were too far ahead of British fiction for their exhaust trail to be sighted.” Reed offers his remembrances of his friend and colleague for PKM’s readers, and re-examines Ballard’s still revolutionary novels of the 1970s.
By Jeremy Reed
When I was in my late teens, writing and reading on quartz-glittering deserted beaches in Jersey Channel Islands, I’d chanced in a bookstore on a paperback copy of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. I was grabbed by the cover image of what looked like a bandaged humanoid with only the eyes and mouth showing through what resembled a surgically constructed burka, with the implied alien’s bandaged right hand holding a glass of blood. It wasn’t just the humanoid visual that fascinated me. Nor was it just the author’s subversive exploitation of contemporary icons like Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, John F. Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald and Ronald Reagan. It was the explosively original language, a mix of tech, neural, biomedical, pathological, advertising, NASA rocket science and automotive. It was so original that I decided then that these constituents of language should be made available to the poetry I was attempting to write—a controversial feature that continues to characterise my work as a confirmed Ballardian.
Ballard disowned the label “sci-fi” when applied to his work, which is invariably Earthbound and human-based. When he does write about astronauts returned from moon missions, Ballard is more interested in the altered mental states encountered by the off-world tourists. He believed that the future rushes towards us – we don’t go to meet it, other than through our imagination. He always wrote to me that his work occupied a space he called “the visionary present,” which he felt provided the architecture of the future.
Ballard’s 1960s’ novels, like The Drought, The Drowned World and The Crystal World—all of which predicted the catastrophic ecological imbalances we are currently undergoing as a species—were necessary pathways toward his documentation of 1970s’ urban dystopias. The increasingly disruptive design of novels, starting with The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), Crash (1973), Concrete Island (1974) and High Rise (1975), which I read as epic prose poems, are in themselves more forward-looking than any of his contemporaries in British poetry would have dared or had the facilities to manage.
Reading William Burroughs’ cut-up, kinetic, disarranged, dopamine-neuron saturated novels like Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded presaged Ballard’s radical 1970s experimentation. As a similar literary outlaw, in fact, Ballard periodically visited Burroughs at his Duke Street flat in St James’ Piccadilly, London. Ballard insisted that he and Burroughs rarely talked about literature. On one occasion, Ballard said, Burroughs extracted a chicken from the freezer and repeatedly stabbed it with a kitchen knife to demonstrate methods of self-defence if you were randomly attacked on the subway.
Both writers shared an early training in medicine—Ballard read medicine at King’s College Cambridge in the 1950s and Burroughs in Vienna in the 1930s. Their consequent realisation that fiction is a mutable organism, rather like on a Healthcheck app on which a transparent figure with colour-coded organs pops up on the screen, provided not only the origins of a medical application for fiction but a corresponding terminology. Burroughs, as a habitual intravenous heroin user, and Ballard in describing mutilated body parts in Crash with the forensic precision of an autopsy surgeon, both manifest a biological knowledge of medicine new to the novel. In the Author’s Notes to a later reissue of Crash, Ballard states, “We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality.”
He believed that the future rushes towards us – we don’t go to meet it, other than through our imagination.
The dystopian modernity of Ballard’s 1970s is all part of his deviant motivations. The anti-hero of Crash is co-partnered in extreme psychopatholgies by Robert Vaughan’s obsessions with photographing and fetishising the injuries of car crash victims into a sexually violent modality of symphorophilia. Relentlessly orbiting the Westway—an elevated dual carriageway connecting the London Inner Ring Road to the west London suburbs—in a battered Lincoln Continental, its seats smeared with cum from sex with airport prostitutes, Vaughan is the epitome of lawless highway terrorism with a predatory polysexual incentive. When Ballard relates Vaughan’s psychopathic characteristics, fiction takes on a new pathology: symphorophilia.
“I began to understand the real excitement of the car-crash after my first meeting with Vaughan,” writes Ballard. “Propelled on a pair of scarred and uneven legs repeatedly injured in one or other vehicle collisions, the harsh and unsettling figure of this hoodlum scientist came into my life at a time when his obsessions were self-evidently those of a madman.”
That symphorophilia – an obsession with car sex and mechanophilia (in that Vaughan is sexually attracted to the car’s mechanistics) as the physical extension of himself are to a heightened degree the infrastructural psychologies of the novel. It sets the book apart as morally intransigent, something accentuated by Ballard’s avoidance of the literary scene, and his reputation as an untameable rogue gene opposed to integration into any literary genre. And nor was he a freak phenomenon of 1960s counterculture activism, but more dangerously a tourist from the future whose themes were too far ahead of British fiction for their exhaust trail to be sighted. Ballard’s loner status combined with his visions of urban apocalypse helped make him into a cult amongst the disaffected finding affiliation with alternative rather than existing realities. Unlike most sci-fi, Ballard’s futures were habitable, no matter how deranged their economies of madness might have appeared.
As stated at the top of this piece, I began by reading Ballard on foggy, hazed-out beaches, the offshore lighthouse miraged by an illusory green halo, before coming to live in London in the early 1980s. My first contact with Ballard was in 1990. I’d written a novel called Isidore, a fictionalised account of Isidore Ducasse (alias the Comte de Lautreamont), the author of the notorious Les Chants de Maldoror (1869), a book of such hallucinated, uncompromising intensity that it is often regarded as the seminal precursor of surrealism. Knowing of the importance of surrealism, both as an art and literary expression, together with its iconoclastic prototypes to Ballard, I impulsively sent the manuscript to him care of his publishers. I presumed that it would never be forwarded to him or that I would ever hear from him.
On the contrary, I received a handwritten letter back from Ballard within days, calling the book “a masterpiece of subversive vision,” and offering to supply a generous quote for its contracted publisher, Peter Owen. In the same letter, Ballard added that both he and his partner, Claire Walsh, were confirmed fans of my poetry, thus opening a pathway for a correspondence that continued right up to the months preceding his death. Selflessly, after his diagnosis with aggressive prostate cancer, he chose to write an introduction to a collection of my poems, West End Survival Kit, additionally sending me his original hand-corrected typescript, as one of his last literary undertakings.
One could argue that Pistols’ anthems like “Holidays in the Sun,” and “Anarchy in the UK” contain the same condensed insurgent message as Ballard at his most provocatively subversive
It’s still impossible to normalise Ballard’s novels of the 1970s, due to their time-slipped forwardness being always ahead of the present. The Atrocity Exhibition (1972) reads like a post-apocalyptic sequencing of end times in which the positions of life and death are often inverted. Invariably in Ballard’s novels there are medicos: psychiatrists, off-duty doctors, neurosurgeons, lecturers. What alerts the reader to the new in The Atrocity Exhibition is its infusion of medical terminology as a new language for fiction, replacing the habitual bank of literary clichés.
And because the book allows you to dip in at random, I pick out accidentally The Unidentified Female Orifice: “These leg stances preoccupied Talbot – Karen Novotney (1) stepping from the car driving seat of the Pontiac, median surface of thighs exposed, (2) squatting on the bathroom floor, knees laterally displaced, fingers searching for the diaphragm lip, (3) in the atergo posture, thighs pressing against Talbot (4) collision: crushed right fibia against the instrument console, left patelia impacted by the handbrake.”
Meetings with Ballard for me were always distinctly unliterary events, and usually only when he came into the West End for book launches, signings and readings, occasions he disliked. He preferred to remain anonymous, insulated in his suburban bubble of Shepperton where he presciently received news from the universe. We’d usually meet at Café Boheme on Soho’s Old Compton Street, in an amalgam of eclectic personality types where he’d sink a few large scotches before meeting his public. Casually dressed, open neck pastel shirts, blazers and slacks, he really could have been an off-duty psychiatrist previewing society as an analytic collective to which his novels supplied not a resolution, but an exploratory mapping of potential end times under a giant neon red sun.
Ballard wasn’t by nature shy, but more inwardly preoccupied, searching always for that seamless dissolve between inner and outer realities, a space that is exempt from moral judgement. This space is occupied in Ballard’s fiction by his stereotypical psychopath waiting for the synchronised moment in which to break boundaries and act as Robert Vaughan does as the highway terrorist of Crash. Vaughan as the protagonist of Crash shunts unsuspecting drivers into head-on collisions with the slicing open of bodies into deviated sexual goods pulverised into voyeuristic notations of necrophilia. That Ballard himself was involved in flipping his car over after colliding with the central reservation [the media strip] just prior to writing Crash was an added incentive.
What Ballard does repeatedly in his fiction is to coolly expose the thin tissue dividing human civility from the barbaric atrocities of which it is capable when the boundaries between the two collapse.
Ballard was fond of relating an anecdote about the reader’s report on Crash at Jonathan Cape, the book’s publisher. The reader suggested that the author was sick and in need of psychiatric help.
Prior to the publication of his first commercial success, Empire of the Sun (1983), Ballard remained a “cult” writer. He appealed as much to rock and pop enthusiasts as he did alternative cultures in a repressed impoverished Britain advancing towards the anarchy of punk spearheaded by the Sex Pistols, as the expression of its cultural aggro. One could argue that Pistols’ anthems like “Holidays in the Sun,” and “Anarchy in the UK” contain the same condensed insurgent message as Ballard at his most provocatively subversive.
Can you bounce the pieces of a novel down to a brawling three-chord 2.50? The answer in theory is yes, minus of course the literary aesthetic. The anti-Thatcher rage at her militantly cultureless regime that fed British punk is also present in Ballard’s novels with their synaptic response to corporate psychopathy, fake ideologies; the crumbling façade of the social consensus, and the whole veneer coating societal corruption.
Nowhere is this better documented than in his late 1970s novel High Rise in which internal warfare impacting in a giant apartment block with in-house commercial facilities, and inhabited only by top-end professionals, devolves into brutal warfare and dissolution over hierarchies conducted from the top to the bottom – the prestige high levels declaring war on the inferior low heights.
And who else but Ballard would open the novel with the sentence “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.” The act of cooking and eating a dog as a measure against starvation is so understated as if to appear normal, as though any form of aberrant behaviour can be assimilated into society as acceptable.
Ballard makes it clear that Dr Laing (a figure possibly modelled on the pioneering anti-psychiatrist RD Laing) has travelled forward 50 years in time in the transitioning move from his Chelsea house to what is in effect an urban village in the sky – a time capsule segregated both from his communal neighbours as well as the surrounding smog-shrouded city. And as Ballard rarely writes about any other class than professionals, the project forms a virtually homogenised collection of educated, standardised, moneyed individuals collectively resident in isolation. Any notion of community is quickly shattered by the loud aggressive partying and violent aggravation of those living on higher levels to those below. The breakdown of services, the discovery of a drowned Afghan hound in the swimming pool, and the unattended littering of garbage on the stairs or hurled from windows leads to full-scale hostilities between residents interned in their own apartments. The elites occupying the top levels of the 44 floors ruthlessly abuse the building’s facilities: murder, rape, the rampant pillaging of apartments are normalised while many of the professionals still go off to their jobs in denial of domestic tyranny within the building.
What Ballard does repeatedly in his fiction is to coolly expose the thin tissue dividing human civility from the barbaric atrocities of which it is capable when the boundaries between the two collapse. Emphasising right from the start that the only alien planet is Earth, and that the writer’s purpose is to be an astronaut of inner rather than outer space, Ballard’s essentially filmic prose distils into poetry. When I first discovered his work, I would copy out clusters of imagery from his novels and short stories in an attempt to learn a way of adapting his neural language to my own poetry. Nobody wrote like him, and I was never able to encounter the same excitement with language again until discovering William Gibson’s cyberpunk recreation of techy metaphors as unconditionally modern.
Ballard once told me he felt sorry for most British poets because they were so bad, not only in the obvious sense of typographically chopping ordinary prose into the apparent form of poetry, but in what he saw as the complete redundancy of language, as though there was some sort of fixed absolute considered to be poetic diction. It’s for those reasons I almost exclusively only read American poetry for its dynamic incorporation of every aspect of modern as natural metabolism to poetry.
From the moody chromatics of dazzling island beaches often rolled by thunderstorms to the manic hub of London’s polluted concrete arteries, Ballard’s writings have remained the inspirational signpost to what I’ve tried out in my own way. That his own books adopted a more commercial directive after the success of Empire of the Sun in the 1980s never diminished the subversive in him. Ballard’s unstoppable genius, as much at home with the short story as the novel, dominated 1960s and 1970s. That he lacked contemporaries worked to his advantage. It liberated a fiction that lacked precedents and was inimitably his own. The novel would never be the same again after his rogue messing with its otherwise preconceived linear condition.
From Crash: “The accident below the flyover, in a position almost symmetrically opposite to my own, and the thudding of the rollers had pre-empted my responses. The possibilities of a new violence, even more exciting for only touching my mind rather than my nerve endings, was reflected in the deformed sheen of the chromium window pillar beside my wrist, the dented panels of the Lincoln’s hood smeared by a red sunset.”
In reading Ballard one is situated inside the prose rather than outside it. The reader becomes the participant rather than the observer. To me, that’s the way prose should travel rather than its opposite.
There’s no way of overtaking Ballard on his own chosen highway. Those of us who try will always live in his exhaust plume, glad even to have sighted his searing getaway into the limitless future.