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Review: JG Ballard Conversations & QuotesAuthor: Andrea Simonis • Oct 13th, 2005 •
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
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.
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).
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.
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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