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‘This most astonishing penumbra’: Will Self on J.G. BallardAuthor: Ballardian • Feb 2nd, 2008 •
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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