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‘This most astonishing penumbra': Will Self on J.G. Ballard

Author: • Feb 2nd, 2008 •

Category: archival, dystopia, interviews, science fiction, Shanghai, Shepperton, urban decay, Will Self, William Burroughs, WWII

Ballardian: Will Self

Original photography by Steve Double (Ballard) and Jerry Bauer (Self).

The indefatigable Mike Bonsall has kindly transcribed the Will Self segment on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book program; listen to the entire program on the Open Book website. Mike says: “Interesting to note the ‘quote’ from Millennium People at the start (and probably the second one), isn’t taken directly from the text but I’m guessing is a slice from an adaptation which ran some time ago as a short serial on Radio 4.”

Note, too, that Self passes over Ballard’s vast reservoir of short fiction, whereas an analysis of the shorts would explain and link together the ‘thematic breaks’ Self talks about in Ballard’s career. But aside from that function, those stories are just plain wonderful, the best of them as innovative and as jaw-dropping as any of Ballard’s work. They deserve as much recognition as his long-form fiction.

The interviewer is Mariella Frostrup, the regular presenter of Open Book.


Reader: Outside Broadcasting House the demonstrators pressed closer to the entrance. A smoke bomb shot a gust of black vapour into the air. A startled security guard tripped over one of the barriers and fell to the ground. The protesters seized their chance and surged past him, forcing their way through the doors, led by one of the BBC producers who had come over to our side. They planned to invade the new studio and broadcast the manifesto of middle-class rebellion to the listening nation, mouths agape over their muesli.

Not the staff response to Mark Thompson’s recent BBC cuts, but JG Ballard’s vividly imagined revolt of the middle-classes in Millennium People. Will Self will be telling me about that book, and his passion for the work of JG Ballard…

Mariella Frostrup: …there’s a new book … from the novelist JG Ballard, but this is non-fiction. An autobiography dealing with his childhood in Shanghai, the trauma of World War Two, his family’s internment by the Japanese, his eventual move to Britain and a productive life spent writing in Shepperton. Much of this Shanghai story was included in the Booker nominated novel Empire of the Sun. But alongside more autobiographical work, he’s also renowned for his Science Fiction novels and more recently a string of very engaging books about the malevolent influence of a technologically obsessed society, the moral vacuum at the heart of modern life, and a middle-class who are, quite literally revolting. Well, to offer a reader’s guide to Ballard, and to help me pick my way through his work, I’m joined by one of his best-known fans, the novelist Will Self. Will — welcome. Ballard has produced a lot of work though; seventeen novels, and many many more short stories, so where would you invite somebody to start?

Will Self: I’ll declare my colours, I think he’s probably the most significant and influential — or among a handful of the most significant and influential — writers of the English language since the second war. So, why not read them in order? You could do that and get the full development. Perhaps an easier way in, and there’s nothing wrong with sometimes taking things easy, is a kind of autobiographical way into it. I mean many people — when Empire of the Sun came out and then a second sort of quasi-autobiographical novel, The Kindness of Women, which came out in 1991 — felt that these works recapitulated and explained a lot of the themes, the motifs, the kind of currents that ran through his more, in a sense attention-grabbing, fictional work, they saw what the genesis was. So you could start with those two novels and then work into the fiction from them.

MF: Because the books that preceded Empire of the Sun had mainly been what we might call, for shorthand, science fiction, hadn’t they? And they had been sort of post-cataclysmic novels about dystopian futures.

WS: Mmm, they are kind of apocalyptic. I mean he kicks off, Ballard, with this book The Drowned World which is astonishingly prescient like a lot of his science fiction. I mean Ballard, to get this straight, has always viewed his sort of science fiction as being concerned with inner, rather than outer space. He’s not death-rays or weird aliens or anything like that at all, he’s very much writing about parallel worlds that mutate out of our own or are latent within our own. And in the Drowned World, which really showcases this preoccupation, you have a strange journey, through a very recognisably drowned Britain really — so very astonishing prescient about global warming.

MF: And I think published in about 1962?

WS: ’62 is The Drowned World, and then you have The Burning World (or The Drought), The Crystal World, and then you get to another kind of thematic break in Ballard’s work, when he publishes The Atrocity Exhibition, which doesn’t have a conventional narrative, it contains some of his most extreme imagery of, kind of, physical discorporation. It maps out the territory of what Ballard has described as the Death of Affect, this kind of — I think like a writer who he was friendly with in the 60s and who he knew fairly well, William Burroughs — Ballard’s view was that in the post-Hiroshima era there had been this kind of death of feeling in western culture, and a lot of his shock-tactics and his extreme imagery, are aimed at mapping this landscape. Contained in the Atrocity Exhibition, is the kernel, the germ, of perhaps one of his most famous novels, Crash — there is a section of the Atrocity Exhibition entitled Crash — and then he goes on to publish Crash in 1973.

MF: Described by one critic as ‘the most repulsive book I’ve ever read’!

WS: It’s a book that carries with it this most astonishing penumbra. I know that one early editor that read it sort of suggested that Ballard sought psychiatric help. As many people will know, it’s a book about the relationship between sexual excitation and car accidents. It begins with this incredible description of how this man who pursues sexual kicks through car crashes, achieves his aim:

Reader: Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash. During our friendship he had rehearsed his death in many crashes, but this was his only true accident. Driven on a collision course towards the limousine of the film actress, his car jumped the rails of the London Airport flyover and plunged through the roof of a bus filled with airline passengers. The crushed bodies of package tourists, like a haemorrhage of the sun, still lay across the vinyl seats when I pushed my way through the police engineers an hour later. Holding the arm of her chauffeur, the film actress Elizabeth Taylor, with whom Vaughan had dreamed of dying for so many months, stood alone under the revolving ambulance lights. As I knelt over Vaughan’s body she placed a gloved hand to her throat.

WS: Now, around this time another major theme I think begins to develop in Ballard’s work, which is this idea of a kind of dystopian critique of contemporary society and it begins with a novel called High-Rise. In High-Rise a war develops between the kind of lower-class tenants of the building and the upper-class tenants on the top. And this kind of social, almost political critique, Ballard develops through a series of books and it kind of goes on into the later kind of — tetrarchy, trilogy, I don’t know what – quartet, of novels which begins with Cocaine Nights in 1996 and is still running; it’s gone through Millennium People, Super-Cannes, and now on to Kingdom Come. That kind of social critique is another thing.

MF: One of my favourites, I have to say, is Millennium People and the notion of this kind of disenfranchised middle-class who decide finally that enough is enough. We’ve got a reading from that as well, maybe we’ll play it then I’d love to hear your thoughts on that book.

Reader: The residents of Chelsea Marina had launched a small crime wave on the surrounding neighbourhood, as executives and middle-managers gave up their jobs; there was an outbreak of petty thieving from delis and off-licences. Every parking meter in Chelsea Marina was vandalised and the council street-cleaners, traditional working-class to the core, refused to enter the estate, put off by the menacing middle-class air. Removed from their expensive schools, bored teenagers haunted Slone Square and the King’s Road, trying their hands at drug-dealing and car theft.

MF: It’s enough to have you setting your four-by-four alight isn’t it Will?

WS: Yes, it’s difficult to tell with Ballard exactly how far his tongue is in his cheek, or whether it’s wrapped right the way round the back of his head. I think the interesting thing about Millennium People perhaps, as opposed to the two precursor books, Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes — which are kind of a piece — is that it’s very funny. It’s very, very sly and very, very funny. And he himself has been absolutely unashamed in professing his contempt and hatred for the metropolitan bourgeoisie, he’s always had this thing that he lives out at Shepperton.

MF: I can’t let you go — seeing as his new book, coming out in February, is an autobiography — without talking a bit more about the autobiographical work. Was that very straightforward in comparison? I mean Empire of the Sun — a pretty classic novel in most aspects?

WS: I think the thing about Empire of the Sun is that it is relatively straightforward; it seems to be a naturalistic novel. But in a way I’d sort of urge people coming fresh to Ballard perhaps not to leap in with Empire of the Sun. Read a couple of the other ones first, because it’s fascinating to come to Empire of the Sun and see that this is the crucible of his perspective of the world. His father worked in Shanghai; they lived in the kind of English canton there in a kind of wealthy upper-middle-class atmosphere in the late 1930s, and then the cataclysm of the collapse of Chinese society, of the invasion of the Japanese from the north. And he, you know he would see people dead on the streets on his way to school, the dead and dying, and then of course the internment by the Japanese. And so all of these images of, kind of, dystopian, run down, fractured societies and indeed his imagery of hyper-shiny technological futures comes out of the war. So all of that imagery is there once you’ve read some of the other books to kind of see what its genesis is in Empire of the Sun.

The companion book to Empire of the Sun is Kindness of Women. And many people feel that Ballard is perhaps a bit too heavy for their taste, a little too disturbing, a little too warped. Kindness of Women is all of those things and it’s also an extremely affecting book about love and about the impact of love on somebody’s life. This is a novel that actually kind of made me cry and that’s not something that I can say about many things apart from people treading hard on my feet.

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17 Responses »

  1. I would have thought that the short stories would be the ideal place to start reading ballard. It’s where I started (as a teeneager I discovered an old copy of ‘The Fourth Dimensional Nightmare’ at my grandparents-it had presumably belonged to my father at some stage-and I never looked back). I mean anyone reading something like ‘The man who walked on the moon’ would get an immediate sense of what a great writer he is…Perhaps Self knew that time was limited and so deliberately stuck to the novels.

  2. Good man, Self – always an interesting and articulate defender of Ballard ( and Burroughs’ work too). His apt description of Ballard’s work, “he’s very much writing about parallel worlds that mutate out of our own or are latent with our own”, is as good a comment on his own fiction as any I’ve read. I know Ballard is on record as an admirer of his work … does anyone else out there like his stuff? ‘Great Apes’, for example, is positively Swiftian.

  3. Self is misguiding when he says it is hard to know when Ballard is writing tongue-in-cheek. I would not want to know, even if it were possible to tell – I just have to look a phrase like “..an immense pathos surrounded the throttle..” straight in the eye and agree. Othwerwise it will beat me up. Sorry, Will, it’s all or nothing, mate.

  4. “…parallel words that mutate out of our own or are latent with our own.’ just had to repeat that. it’s soooo good.

    i tried to read will self a couple of times and couldn’t get into him. flawless taste tho. i’d try something else, if anyone has any rec that they think approach the level of the ballard or burroughs

  5. As something of a Self-defender, I’d recommend his short-stories over most of his longform stuff. He’s a bit anti-narrative development really and his novels tend to swiftly (no pun intended) run out of steam. They’re basically extended short stories, pitching in with a great concept at the start and devolving into repetition and thesaurus abuse.

    His collection ‘Quantity Theory of Insanity’ is especially strong, whilst ‘tough tough toys for tough tough buys’ features some very Burroughsian drug skits. In terms of novels, ‘How the dead live’ is, to my mind, the most emotionally grounded and coherent.

    Self interviews Ballard to some length in the ‘Junk Mail’ collection and is obviously a well-versed fan, so I wonder if his not mentioning ‘the wind from Nowhere’ is in accordance with Ballard’s tendency to strike that one from the record…

  6. Self once said there are ‘no jokes in [Ballard's] books at all, or at least not intentionally any jokes’, which I found to be a bit of a hoot in itself. Anyone who describes the action of a woman masturbating as if she was ‘rolling a ball of snot’ (as Ballard did in Crash) is pulling your leg, plain and simple.

  7. Will Self–I stopped after ‘How the Dead Live’, which was hilarious in parts but somewhat laboured. (A much better book in the same vein would be Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’). I enjoyed ‘My Idea of Fun’ immensely, quite possibly because at the time I was dossing on a couch in Exmouth, which is the mirror image of the dead town, with its endless arrays of caravans facing the sea, that Self describes. ‘Grey Areas’ was a solid enough collection of short stories, although stopping short of the true Ballardian crystal. But the latest novel just looks like too much hard work. It emanates a certain Martin Amis-ness… Guess I’ll dig up the Boy-Toy collection sometime.

  8. Wonder if The Wind from Nowhere will be discussed in Miracles of Life?

  9. ‘The Book Of Dave’ as Self’s ‘The Drowned World’? Like Ballard, Self aways gives good value for money in interview situations – lots of nicely mordant wit and startling conceptual shifts thrown out casually.

  10. i did read, my idea of fun, or most of it, and i thought it was pretty good. i remember one story about working in a psych word that was excellent. but then i tried the novels, and as bosse de nage stated i too found them just too much hard work (you could say that that’s my problem and not self’s, and i wouldn’t argue with you). and there’s his intro to burroughs’ junky which i find long winded and problematic. he really loses me when he claims that dolophine was named after hitler. just a tad of research would have shown him that this is a myth, but maybe he didn’t care, and liked the sensational quality.
    http://will-self.com/2006/01/11/junky-by-william-s-burroughs-preface-to-the-penguin-2002-edition/

  11. Self is pretentious and annoying and throws polysyllabic 50-cent words around to cover up literary and intellectual insecurity, but he does do a great interview with Ballard in Junk Mail that I would recommend anybody read. But read the British version, cos the American version (the only reason I bought the book was for this interview, and Self’s musings on Burroughs) is intolerably hacked to hell and back.

    G.

  12. i take it back. the book i read, or mostly read was: the quantity theory of insanity.

  13. I love Will Self’s short stories and journalism. The Feeding Frenzy colelciton is an excellent and accesible starting point. As for his novels, like some of the other posters, I tend to find them a bit heavy going.

  14. Point covered already I know but the execution alone of Will Self’s novel Great Apes warrants its singling out. Simply put is his most readable novel – and very fucking funny to boot.

  15. I thoroughly enjoyed The Sweet Smell of Psychosis, though it’s nearly a short story at around 90 pages. Hilarious and disturbing. I also got a copy of Great Apes, looking forward to reading that.

    The first Ballard novel I ever read was Crash, I don’t think I would recommend people start there. If you must start with a novel, then Concrete Island would be my advice. Otherwise, start with earlier short stories, possibly Vermilion Sands.

  16. [...] Will Self offers a tribute to his “mentor” J. G. Ballard Also, an interview with Will Self about Ballard. [...]

  17. I tried Ballard’s Crash and could not fully immerse myself in it. i do intend to attack it again. I like Burroughs very much naked Lunch is fantastic but my personal favorite is Junky, which is a compelling and wonderfully written account of addiction. I am very fond of Will Self, just finished My Idea of Fun which is a great novel and would not hesitite in advising to anyone. Great Apes is a very very funny book, the writing is dazzling throughout. The Butt is another novel that is funny and disturbing in equal measure and is one of his most compelling novels. In contrast to other posters here I am less keen on the short stories, which often seem to me to have the air of unfinished fragments, having said that tough tough toys for tough tough boys is more plus than minus. If I had to point someone in the direction of only one Will Self book it would be Cock and Bull, its perfectly pitched towards his strengths being in the form of two novellas and is wickedly funny, it resonates in its excellence.

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