Monday, April 20, 2009

J. G. Ballard

[UPDATE: Geez! Step away from the computer for a weekend so you can coach some little league teams, and, whammo! People descend from everywhere to mark a stylistic infelicity caused by splicing up one start with another. Ouch! Below is the revised. If you want to see the original error, tough.]

On a Tuesday in 1982 I was in the Monmouth County Library in Shrewsbury, NJ. I know it was a Tuesday because, as a treat, my dad took my brother and I there every Tuesday. In the metal rack of paperback science fiction books, I noticed a beat-up copy of Chronopolis. On the way home I started to read it and was completely hooked, powering through the entire book that night and reading it several times again before returning it the following week. I had never read anything like it, and the best stories from the volume, "The Voices of Time," "Deep End," "The Cage of Sand," and especially, "The Terminal Beach" have been part of my interior world ever since.

My students find it hard to conceive of "life before Amazon," not to mention "life before the internet" and "life before Barnes and Noble superstores," so they don't understand how it's possible to love a writer but be limited to the one or two volumes in the local library and the bits and pieces that you found in random bookstores. But that was the way I encountered Ballard, a new novel here, a short story there, a paperback tucked away in the science fiction section of a college bookstore. I never engaged with Ballard's work systematically, the way I did with "The Big H" writers that were so important when I was in high school: Hemingway, Heinlein and Herbert. Ballard was different, but that made his books more powerful to me: found treasures.

In college The Day of Creation came out, and for a while it was easier to find other novels. I devoured The Drowned World and obsessively re-read The Crystal World and collections of short stories, The Venus Hunters, Myths of the Near Future, Vermillion Sands. The story that got me into the Iowa Writer's Workshop, I am almost certain, was my attempt to write a reverse version of The Drowned World, and I often argued for the literary value of Science Fiction by using illustrations from Ballard's work (unfortunately none of the other students in Carnegie Mellon creative writing classes had read Ballard).

But it was only in 1990-91, when I was doing my M.A. at Stanford, that I really investigated Ballard and his intellectual world: I found, but did not really enjoy, the books for which he gained so much fame: Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, The Concrete Island, High Rise. Much more important to me was surrealism, which I discovered through Ballard. I spent hours and hours at Stanford's art library, pouring over major and minor works, and I tried to write surrealist SF myself. Simultaneously I went though a bad period of horrible insomnia (it didn't help that I lived in East Palo Alto, which that year was one of the crime capitals of California, so there were frequent shots fired in the distance and sirens, cracked-out people knocking on the door at 3 a.m., etc.) and for a while thought I was entering into a Ballard story or a Paul Delvaux painting. Somehow this all made Ballard even more powerful and personal.

Ballard was most widely acclaimed for his non-surrealist, non-SF novel, Empire of the Sun, and he was notorious for the experimental, weird books like Crash. But those books, interesting and accomplished as they are, don't do much for me. I am instead fascinated by the visual surrealism of the shorts stories and the books from the 60's and 70's. London half-submerged under warm salt water, a bird encased in crystal, a giant beach of red Mars sand, jeweled insects, sculptured clouds, flocks of sand-rays flying through the desert, the concrete blocks of Eniwetok. Ballard managed to write visually beautiful things, images that, once read, never leave you.

J. G. Ballard died of cancer on April 19th.

1 comment:

jeniffercox said...

This is a beautiful eulogy (probably not the right word since it's not a speech, but the best I can come up with right now). I look forward to picking up some of your suggestions. Thank you.