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Review: JG Ballard Conversations & Quotes

Author: • Oct 13th, 2005 •

Category: Ballardosphere, photography, politics, reviews, terrorism, William Burroughs

Reviewed by Andrea Simonis

Review of JG Ballard: Conversations (ed. V Vale, 2005) and JG Ballard: Quotes (selected and edited by V Vale & Mike Ryan, 2004).
Published by RE/Search Publications

Ballardian: The World of JG Ballard V Vale has been an underground publishing icon in San Francisco for quite some time, kicking off with late-70s ‘punk tabloid’ Search and Destroy (America’s equivalent of Sniffin’ Glue, the legendary British punkzine) and founding RE/Search Publications from there. RE/Search is quite the exotic beast, with a backlist of large-format books covering William Burroughs, Brazilian psychedelic lounge music, piercing and scarification, ‘angry’ female performance artists, ‘industrial culture’, and reprints of memoirs of sideshow freaks and sado-masochistic rituals.

In the 1980s RE/Search was also responsible for two lovingly detailed volumes on JG Ballard; for many admirers of Ballard’s work, the RE/Search editions have long been the ultimate reference. The first volume, simply entitled JG Ballard, was refreshingly free of the academic jargon that renders inscrutable most other works on the writer; instead, Vale and his RE/Search team compiled a portrait of Ballard that located him within a steaming cauldron of pop-culture references and real-world applications, detecting the Ballardian effect in music, film, politics and mythology. But the real goldmine was the 40-odd pages of interviews, in which Vale and people like industrial musician Graeme Revell quizzed Ballard on all this and more.

All parties clearly enjoyed each other’s company; there was a palpable sense of Ballard letting his hair down and relaxing before the critical gaze of a new and unknown source – an American audience – for Ballard was considered pretty much a cult author in the US before RE/Search came along. Vale upped the ante with RE/Search’s subsequent publication of The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard’s then-out-of-print classic collection of experimental short stories, first assembled in the 1960s. The RE/Search reprint added a few new ‘Atrocity’ pieces, enlisted Phoebe Gloeckner to provide some surreal, provocative illustrations of internal organs and medical processes, and topped it off with annotations by Ballard himself…it still holds up as a beautiful piece of independent publishing, 15 years on.


Ballardian: The World of JG Ballard Left: photography by Tim Chapman, from JG Ballard: Conversations

In 2005 things are very different. The world has cottoned on to Ballard: he’s critically accepted; films have been made of his books; he’s won awards; he’s quoted in major newspapers; he’s about as ‘cult’ and as ‘underground’ as Sir Michael Phillip Jagger. But unlike Jagger, Ballard’s worldview is still sublime, still relevant, and still has the capacity to jiggle the old grey matter. Back in the 1960s, if you’d asked most science fiction ‘heads’ which writer’s vision would reign supreme in the early 21st century – Ballard’s or Arthur C Clarke’s – it’s unlikely the majority would have picked the ‘difficult’ and ‘experimental’ Jimmy Ballard. But think of the death of Princess Di; September 11; reality TV; the London bombings; the breakdown of civilisation after Hurricane Katrina…if you know Ballard then you understand this is his world.

And that’s probably why Vale has decided to revive the seemingly dormant RE/Search empire with the publication of two new Ballard books: JG Ballard: Quotes and JG Ballard: Conversations. It’s a great opportunity to evaluate how this maverick futurist has stood the test of time. JG Ballard: Conversations consists of lengthy interviews with Ballard, conducted by the RE/Search crew and derived from all the untranscribed recordings RE/Search made with Ballard from 1983 to the present. Now, when writers begin to pontificate and interpret their own work, there is a risk that they will ruin everything. Samuel Beckett, for example, was wise enough to keep his mouth shut. Thomas Pynchon just refuses to even come out, wherever he’s hiding. Their work has benefited from this, retaining a certain aura of mystery that opens it to various readings and reinterpretations. But Ballard’s interviews and occasional essays are often as devious and slippery as his fiction. They have offered a fascinating complement to his work, and a glimpse into his creative process.

With Conversations, though, you need to bear in mind that these really are ‘conversations’, rather than interviews. They read like straight transcripts, with all the meanderings of real conversations, and that is both a strength and a weakness: it’s a lovely indicator of the character, warmth and empathy of the man, but it doesn’t really throw any new light on Ballard’s previous utterances. Although the future (our present, that is) has become Ballardian in many ways, it would be unfair to judge Ballard’s work in terms of how accurately he predicted things; that was never the point. Nonetheless, some of the man’s judgments are a little naive. For example, he states that George Bush is not a media manipulator, that there’s no media image of Bush, and that he doesn’t engage our emotions (p. 204-5); the most sophisticated thing Ballard has to say about the War on Terror is that the media is manipulating you. Elsewhere, the writer admits he doesn’t follow politics, saying that when the papers called him wanting to know his thoughts on 9/11, he didn’t have any thoughts (p. 53). These are quibbles, though; Ballard is always immensely readable, whether in conversation or in his writing, and at all times he comes across as the ideal quirky, weird uncle we would all love to have (in the dark hidden folds of our reptilian sub-cortex, of course).

Ballardian: The World of JG Ballard Although it’s fair enough that RE/Search wouldn’t want to commission new interviews, a slightly frustrating aspect of Conversations is the fact that the questions are coming from the usual suspects: Vale, Revell, Mark Pauline – the same voices heard in RE/Search’s original Ballard volume. It would have been interesting to read the fruits of contemporary writers and artists grappling with Ballard, although a bonus is the conversation with David Pringle, the writer’s longtime ‘archivist’ and Number One Fan.

For the ultimate Ballardian experience, the Quotes volume is the pick, being a concentrated compendium of Ballard’s observations and admonishments, mixing quotes from interviews and excerpts from his fiction: dense, poetic, and oblique aphorisms that don’t stray too far from familiar Ballardian territory: flight, art, the Space Age, gated communities, car crashes, airports, photography. These are the subjects Ballard feels most comfortable with, and his observations are truly insightful. ‘One wonders,’ Ballard muses, ‘if photography is the Cyclops eye of the late 20th century, recording everything but seeing nothing’. Quotes is fantastic for dipping into: on the toilet, on the bus, at the office, in bed, on a plane – anytime you need a fix – and both Quotes and Conversations are in a handy, slightly-less-than-A5 format, perfect for slipping into your handbag and whipping out as required. Vale calls Quotes a ‘handbook for deciphering the future’, and that’s pretty accurate. JG Ballard’s imagination can still kick you in the guts and is perhaps best read in compressed chunks like these; Atrocity Exhibition, after all, was the ultimate example of packing dense meaning into tiny frames.

All up, Vale and RE/Search have done a fine job with these publications. They’re shot through with striking urban and industrial-landscape photography and some interesting cover choices: garish and colourful, evoking old-skool 50s sci fi (for such a forward-thinking, prescient writer, these covers are perhaps a little odd). But all you really need to know is that both books are infused with that unmistakable Vale touch: unpretentious, eclectic, smart. Over the years, Ballard has had a fine shadow in Vale; let’s hope it’s not so long before RE/Search is activated again.

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JG Ballard: Conversations (ed. V Vale, 2005)
JG Ballard: Quotes (selected and edited by V Vale & Mike Ryan, 2004)
Available from RE/Search Publications

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10 Responses »

  1. Dear Simon Sellars,

    Thanks immensely for sending us the review which we easily could have missed.

    Respectfully, i must offer an opinion counterpointing the review by Andrea Simonis. I focus on the paragraphs critiquing “J.G. Ballard Conversations.”

    Andrea Simonis refers to Ballard’s “naive political” judgements, citing Ballard’s characterization of “Bush” as a politician who “doesn’t engage our emotions” with no “media image.” But Simonis has missed the context of that statement entirely. First of all, the interview was conducted in 1990, so the reference is to **George Bush Sr.** (G.W.’s dad) and the point is brought up by Ballard for the sole purpose of contrasting the then-new President to his predecessor Ronald Reagan (a favorite target of Ballard for decades). So, Ballard was referring to the dad, not the son now in office.

    If you are interested in Ballard’s appraisal of the NEW Bush administration and the neo-cons in power, go to the very beginning of the book. In the very first interview conducted by Vale in 2004, the first question posed to Ballard is, “I wanted to get your take on the neo-cons and Bush, and your perspective on what happened in the last election…” Ballard gives just that over the next dozen or so pages of the book, elucidating his opinion of just how Bush uses the media to create an image of himself as a war president and religious zealot.

    Bush may be perceived by his supporting electorate as a **religious leader.** While this opinion of Bush is not completely original–it is obvious after all–in the political climate of 2004. However, it holds a good deal of meaning for those familiar with Ballard’s stories. The collection “War Fever” immediately comes to mind, particularly the stories “A Secret History of World War Three” and “The Object of the Attack.” Both are stories about politics as media manipulation and the uses of religion, celebrity, technology and militaristic fanaticism as means for manufacturing deceptive new dictators and false prophets. Almost all of these stories were written in the early to mid-eighties, even though the book wasn’t published until 1990. Ballard is entirely aware of George W. Bush’s status as this kind of dangerous and slippery character.

    As for Ballard’s thoughts on 9/11, his perspective is acute. I felt that there was a great deal of irony in Ballard’s initial response. When queried by the media for his thoughts, he claims “he didn’t have any” which implies for one that it was an event so unprecedented that it sends the mind reeling, and the only sincere way to respond is with baffled silence.

    Also, considering Ballard’s status as a subversive eccentric, having the media call up at such a time can be a little like being baited for a witch hunt–which happened when the media asked Stockhausen for his opinion on 9/11. Nevertheless, Ballard’s opinions are abundant, and he goes on to explain 9/11 and terrorist acts as “the End of the Enlightenment” and sees them through the lens of Freud’s concept of the death drive (see pages 53-55). This opinion is truly and deeply pessimistic, because Ballard is insisting that what drives us to such extremes may be something that is fundamentally part of all human subjectivity. To wit, that a blame cannot merely be cast on the oppressors of the world, because the oppressed suffer from the same mechanism; that when humans appear driven to these extremes of collective pathological behavior, the death drive offers perhaps the only clear explanation.

    There may be a frighteningly symbiotic relationship between a dictator and [his] subjects–just as deadly as between any enemies, to put it bluntly–so that when things get this bad, we may fatalistically rejoice in our own destruction as much as the destruction of others…

    The problem of writing any review, under a deadline, is that it is difficult to find the time to “peruse” a book–in the original sense of paying attention to the extreme details. In this case, it is possible that the reviewer is young enough to not clearly distinguish the difference between the careers of George Bush Senior and his son, “G.W.” In this age of information overload, where the average U.S. high school student does not know who Eisenhower is, such an error is readily explainable. Our position is: we appreciate any review. And contrary to the assertion of reviewer Simonis, we are positive that the average person in America has never heard of J.G. Ballard; often, even among “well-read” demographic-types, Ballard’s name is barely recognized by Americans. He does not do “live” U.S.A. book tours, appear on Oprah, et al — and Americans simply do not read his articles and quotations which pepper the outpourings of the official British fifth estate in papers such as the Guardian. Ballard as famous as Mick Jagger–not.

    Nevertheless, we want to end this by thanking Andrea Simonis for obviously devoting a considerable amount of time and energy into penning the first review received in the U.K. to date of the RE/Search non-identical twin volumes: J.G. Ballard Quotes and J.G. Ballard Conversations books…
    –Leslie Hodgkins for the RE/Search staff

  2. To Leslie and all the RE/Search staff,

    Thank you for taking the time to write. We really appreciate feedback, but I hope you don’t mind me saying that I find your response to this review a little puzzling; you’re acting like Andrea has given RE/Search a bad review when all she’s done is made an observation about Ballard. As to implying that she may be a little ‘young’ to understand the politics of the Bush family, is 34 old enough to be well informed?

    And while I don’t want to jump the gun and pre-empt Andrea’s response (I believe she will reply in due course), it seems to me that the observation she makes about Ballard and ‘Bush’ implies no misunderstanding on her part about whether it’s Bush snr or Bush jnr under discussion. Perhaps the fault lies in my editing; I took out quite a bit of context before publishing this review as it was some way over the word limit. Nevertheless, I’m no expert on American politics, but it does seem equally naive of Ballard to imply that any Bush has no media image; Bush snr certainly had a lot of skeletons in the closet that he skilfully downplayed to portray a folksy, All-American image.

    In any case, this is such a small aspect of the review. It just seems a bit of a quibble to highlight it, as there’s so much more there that is really positive about the work you and RE/Search have done, and indeed about Ballard himself. Take your assertion that the average person in America still has not heard of Ballard. What you’ve done here is turn a positive aspect of the review — Andrea’s highlighting of the work RE/Search has done to raise Ballard’s profile, followed by a discussion of how Ballard is still supremely relevant today — and turned it into a negative! “No, you’re wrong Andrea, Ballard is not as famous as Mick Jagger, but we’ll take any review we can get”. Very strange!

    I believe Andrea was speaking generally; given that Ballard was nominated for a Booker Prize and so on, you would have to agree that he is no longer ‘cult’ or ‘undergound’…in any case, the comparison with Jagger was clearly tongue in cheek. By the way, we’re based in Australia, not the UK as you state, a country where Ballard is possibly less read than the US.

    Anyway, I hope you enjoyed the rest of the review. I feel we here at Ballardian have been pretty supportive of RE/Search on this occasion (and always, actually).

    Again, many thanks for taking the time to write.

    All the best from Australia,
    Simon
    http://www.ballardian.com

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