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Review: JG Ballard by Andrzej Gasiorek

Author: • Sep 18th, 2006 •

Category: academia, reviews

Ballardian: JG Ballard by Gasiorek
J.G. BALLARD by Andrzej Gasiorek
(Manchester University Press, 2005, pp. 228).

review by Umberto Rossi

This serious, well-documented academic book-length essay on James Graham Ballard and his oeuvre is nearly exhaustive, given that Gasiorek hasn’t paid sufficient attention to Ballard’s short stories (even though the Man is — more than anything else — a master of the short form who also writes very good novels).

But even so, it’s an excellent starting point, definitely better than Luckhurst, who sometimes gets entangled in a web of academic querelles and almost forgets what Ballard actually wrote, and Delville, who offers a very good introduction to the writer, yet not the wealth of information and insights and interpretations that you may find in Gasiorek.

Gasiorek’s Introduction is a general survey of JGB as a writer, and deals with his connections to surrealism, technology, sexuality and apocalyptic imagery — the “hot” issues in the interpretation of such masterpieces as Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, and so on. Gasiorek’s language is academic and “technical”. His reasoning is always sound, and though people with no academic background might find some terms unfamiliar (but could easily find them in a good dictionary or on Wikipedia), they won’t get lost in discussions that have only a tangential relevance to Ballard (something which unfortunately often happens in Luckhurst). Basically Gasiorek is always on target, and when he introduces surrealist painters and French philosophers it’s always because the text itself asks for them.

The first chapter, Cryptic Alphabets, deals with Ballard’s apocalyptical novels, from The Wind from Nowhere to The Crystal World. The first, purely SF part of the Man’s career is carefully analysed – it’s not the typical academic journal article written by a PhD student who has only read Crash.

The second chapter, Deviant Logics, describes Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, and offers a better analysis of Atrocity than Luckhurst, and a more detailed one than Delville. Gasiorek’s reference to the mass-media and surrealism are illuminating; and when he “uses” Deleuze and Debord, he explains Ballard — he doesn’t unduly complicate him.

The third chapter, Uneasy Pleasures, discusses the rest of Ballard’s production in the 70s: High-Rise and Concrete Island first and foremost, plus his neglected masterpiece ‘The Ultimate City’ (Ballard’s postmodernist rewriting of The Tempest) and The Unlimited Dream Company. Here the main issue is urban spaces and the horrors of modernist city planning (or urbanism) — the destiny of metropolises all around the world. Gasiorek finds interesting connections among these works, and clearly outlines the growing importance of Shepperton as Ballard’s stage for the urban tragicomedies he will later write.

The fourth chapter, The Destructive Element, focuses on Ballard in the 80s — from Empire of the Sun to Running Wild — the transition from Ballard’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece to his current Shepperton-centered fiction. Unfortunately Gasiorek skips The Day of Creation, one of Ballard’s (deservedly? undeservedly?) forgotten novels. Yet he has much to say about Empire and The Kindness of Women, and his reading of Running Wild through the lens of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish is absolutely brilliant.

This leads us to the last chapter, Exhausted Futures, devoted to Ballard’s most recent works: Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes and Millennium People (but not Kingdom Come, obviously), with the — I reckon — deliberate omission of Rushing to Paradise. Here Gasiorek delves deep into the field of globalisation and late capitalism, drawing from Marx and (lo and behold!) a veteran cold warrior like Eddie Luttwak. He also resorts to Nietzsche, but he never gets unfocused or redundant: his remarks and comments are always aimed at understanding what is really behind, or in between the pages, of these “quasi detective” novels. Gasiorek is particularly precious here because he deals with recent works by Ballard that haven’t been explored yet by academic criticism, thus opening inroads that will be valuable to future commentators and readers alike.

Then there is a coda, Violence and Psychopathology, which meditates on the key concepts in Ballard’s oeuvre and takes it all back to Uncle Conrad — always a good idea.

All in all, this is a necessary book for those who want something more than the pure pleasure of reading Ballard — it’s a very good starting point for serious, professional, and well-written Ballard criticism. Again, the only shortcoming is the occasional attention paid to Ballard’s short stories; but it should be clear that this is not such a shortcoming as to annihilate what good Gasiorek has achieved in his essay, which is definitely a lot. The book is endowed with a bibliography of Ballard’s book-length works (be they novels or collections) and a rich critical bibliography.

This is the book any Ballard critic needs to have on the shelf above his or her desk. It’s the book any student who wishes to write a paper or a dissertation on Ballard should read first.

Umberto Rossi

+ J.G. Ballard Andrzej Gasiorek
+ The Angle Between Two Walls: The Fiction of J.G. Ballard Roger Luckhurst
+ J.G. Ballard Michel Delville

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