Review of Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard

A stirring first-hand account by one of the most daring authors out there. 

 I often suffer from Ballard fatigue, which is a syndrome wherein I suddenly hate Ballard after reading two or three of his books in a row. This illness has recurred at least four times. But this fictionalized account of Ballard’s childhood is a good cure. He describes it as an eyewitness account, so I am labeling it nonfiction. I got so used to picturing Ballard as a Perrier-sipping, stiff-upper-lipped bloke of the well-heeled variety, best chums with Martin Amis, and utterly polite father figure who just happened to lead an imaginary second life as a Hollywood-film-star-worshipping, popular mechanics sniffing deviant, that I almost forgot that he spent years in an internment camp in Shanghai, where he was born. He was away from his parents as a child, picking up bits and pieces of Latin and other languages, self-teaching his spongey brain out of smuggled copies of Reader’s Digest, scraping weevils out of sweet potatoes and shoveling them into his mouth for added protein. Exactly how fictionalized the account is is hard for me to say without reading a proper biography of the author, but the Lunghua internment camp where he was kept during the WW II after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor up until he saw the flash of the Nagasaki bomb light up the sea with his own eyes, is vividly portrayed with a desperate intimacy and nonchalance characteristic of his more distant, dystopian works. You will see hints and suggestions of Crash in the young main character’s fascination with cars and fighter planes. Then you have prototype scenes from Concrete Island and High-Rise along with the future science fiction and imagistic stories wherein jaded exiles wander blasted landscapes, scraping soda crackers and cocktail sauce out of prolapsed refrigerators. The young boy named Jim, our protagonist, had to get by on scrounging abandoned suburban homes in Shanghai, dodging air raids, until finally voluntarily surrendering to the Japanese occupiers in a desperate attempt to find his parents—he has already forgotten what they look like.

In the camp, we get treated to a day-to-day drudgery reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn. The conditions are as horrible as you’d suspect. And I can’t help thinking that the ceaseless optimism of Jim is all an act, hiding a seething anger and nascent pseudo-sociopathic interest/relationship with dehumanized violence. In summation, it’s a provocative and alluring addition to the author’s impressive oeuvre. I may read the sequel? (The Kindness of Women) and the track down the film at some point.

Review of The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard

Should be read after Crash. 

Human as landscape, industrial wasteland as superorganism. The mathematical formulae of asexual coitus. Fiction as abstract art. Pale, sapped, inhuman dreamscapes. Traffic jams. Meteor-scored faces, etched in ghostly moonlight. A skeletal William S. Burroughs mannikin was strung up in Ballard’s closet, dressed as Marilyn Monroe, strapped with a prosthetic something or other, dangling a clownish Ronald Reagan mask from its vampiric jaws.

Review of Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard

I’m convinced that Ballard didn’t care what people thought.

Of course he did, though. His sentences are polished enough that he ironed most of them out like a fussy tailor. He shines best in his short novels, when he just takes one simple idea and draws it out to the extreme of absurdity. His landscapes retain a corny sort of Twilight Zone quality. Concrete Island is a representative work for him, I think, because it shows what he can do with a couple satirical characters in a nightmarish situation. Even more than High-Rise, I think this book epitomizes what he was going for. One puts oneself in the character’s shoes, wondering if it would be possible to live under such circumstances. Next time you pass a freeway island you’ll wonder, imagine yourself erecting a lean-to on the side of the road.
The main problem one will encounter while reading Ballard’s novels is interchangeability. They all feel the same. You get a natural disaster or something happens to tear holes in the fabric of society, and his characters are still sipping Perrier from crystal snifters as their mansions burn. They are like obnoxious sitcom characters. But Ballard’s satire is often effective enough to cause a chuckle. If you can’t decide where to start, this novel is a good appetizer.
Many of his stories lack these easily dismissed character cliches and rely so much on imagery that they can muddle your memory of them. He did write many brilliant stories, but there are some that I find a major slog. For this reason I think Bradbury is a superior writer, though Bradbury always worked in the safe territory, colored inside the lines, and Ballard laughed at the lines, deliberately avoided them, and danced around the borders. He was a bold writer, got to give him that, but would you really be able to hand one of his books to your mother and say, look here, you might enjoy this? Probably not. Bradbury on the other hand, can sit right alongside any other book on the shelf without getting dirty looks from the other books (strained metaphor).

Review of Crash by J.G. Ballard

ISBN 0312420331 (ISBN13: 9780312420338)

A 2008 interview with Vice quoted infamous mangaka, Shintaro Kago, saying: “Shit and sex are merely the starting points, and unless you can tick those off you can’t even begin thinking about a narrative.”

Grotesque literature has its paramours, and Ballard sits in the ranks of William S. Burroughs and Georges Bataille. Examining Ballard’s literary output, you have to wonder what this unbashful bloke was thinking behind those puffy, doughy features. His innocuous, austere sci-fi worlds glisten with post-human despair. His crystal alligators frozen in time are reminiscent of hard-edged fantasy, and the dozen novels about urban ennui amid thinly veiled warlike conditions read like historical poetry from the amber-thick mind of a slathering autocrat.

In Crash, Ballard occupies the headspace of an obsessive narrator, inconsequentially, also named James Ballard. This is not an autobiography, neither is it autofiction. It is a novel about automobiles having sex with people, or is it the other way around?

In a gallery of fractured dreams, Ballard immortalizes the destruction of innocence, the disharmony of vehicular manslaughter recast as moral epiphany, the elegance of chrome fixtures reflecting dark insecurities, the cruel inhumanity of inflatable HOV-lane partners, the fallacy of the crosswalk’s imagined, scintillating security blanket, the tragicomic splendor of careening into a parked ice-cream vendor with your head jutting from the window, jowls jostling like a jolly St. Bernard, the salacious out-of-body experience of Cro-magnon-level rutting in apocalyptic parking lot Twilight zones, the tabloid-fumes wafting through the hot, sticky ventilator, the secret pock-marked underbelly of the depraved masses spasming toward the perfect societal thousand-car-pile-up of a newly evolved symphonic mutilation of the planet.

I was reminded of two unassuming short stories, one by Vonnegut, the other by Bradbury. The first depicts Earth as a world inhabited by cars. People are mere organs within these mechanical beasts as they roam endlessly and without purpose, toward their ultimate disintegration. The second tells of car-crash enthusiasts, gathering around the bloody craters of crash-sites, always the same eerie faces, staring down, gaping into the maw of the twisted, excruciating pleasures of death. The group gathers innately, like an atmospheric anomaly.

The “formula of death” prescribed by Ballard in what some have called his greatest work is a pure expression of mankind’s technological dependencies, which taps into our mental gas-holes to inject them with sugary, straight-faced dementia. It is an examination of the fascinating nature of accidents, the unexplainable collision of particles, the spontaneous idol-worship that occurs on the side of the freeway four to eight times per day along your routine commute. What you think about on your daily drive, the perverse morbidity that comes bubbling out of your psyche as you stroke the worn leather of the grease-imbued steering wheel. There is of course an obsession with wounds, as separate from the death fixation, but involved with the involuntary compulsion lurking in every passenger’s mind, that sick daydream crash that always happens between meaningless conversations, if only subconsciously. Not to mention the animalistic instincts, the macabre voyeurism of driving by those apartment complexes at night, slowing down, turning off the headlights, sinking deeply into the well-stained driver’s seat…

Love, in this novel, is ungendered. Vaughn’s masculinity is supplanted by other factors – the presence of forehead grease for one, or the sickly sweet odors secreted by the human body, and much, much more. He is the accomplice lover, a being composed of concrete, asphalt, tar, heat and smoke, grit and slime, the personification of the machineries of joy, connoisseur of the soul-enlivening destruction of binge-frolics in the multi-story car-parks, the seedy airport terminals, erecting frozen testaments to forbidden pleasures, tweaking out psychotic musings mid-sentence, obscene snapshots tumbling out of his day-planner, erotic tenderness oozing from his pores. Get ready for discomfiting juxtapositions, deliberate, depraved behavior, and a flaunting of the artistry of fate. Ballard’s creepy poetic sensibilities have their roots in Nabokovian lyricism. He paints a “lacework of blood,” mosaics of shattered bone, all while preserving an awkward confessional quality. What could be misplaced desires leads to rehearsals of death, strange coagulations of reality and imagination, superimpositions, mythic ur-lusts, unparalleled vanity, palimpsest upon palimpsest, dripping with blood and sex, and endlessly beguiling repetition. What are the correct symbols of violence? Could not a surgery be a warzone? What clinical thrills go unacknowledged amid the reeking bedpans and crusty sheets? Sociopathic neuroses manifest like tummy aches. The savors of slo-mo, heart-stopping artistic doom punctuate this egotistical monstrosity.

Imagine what this character would say in the confessional. Would any number of Hail Marys absolve his behavior? Instead we are given a sodium-lit romance of twisted steel, Polaroid pornography, freaks courting disaster, children lost in the wild foreplay of undiscovered vistas of lust and ecstasy, head-on, roll-over, whiplash, pulsing horrid, motorized phalanxes distilled from the marriage of sexuality and a satirical hellscape. The sweet tingle of tinkling glass, the glorification of scars as status symbols, those quiet gas puddle rainbows gleaming in the driveway. What are our bodily fluids but gas driving us toward the various fender-benders of fate?

We are desensitized crash test dummies, which objects, Ballard believes, were originally designed as sex toys. Our recalibrated brains are nightmare-machines, our lives are described as serene sculptures in motion, awaiting the beautification of death, corpse-painted traffic lines, jewel-studded windshield-powder pavements are the backdrops of our carefully controlled environments. The petrol-explosions, the geometric, weaponized pleasure, the psychological horror of transcendental spectatorship, the poetry of excess, the charnel-house back room discussions, the taboo fatuations of inveterate recluses, the relentless rhythm of our boring-as-parked-cars lives, all add up to a pulsing hamburger meat roadkill-fest, a maiming mad scientist, Ballard deploys the stylized assassinations of propriety and our hallowed securities beneath the insensate heavy mass of molded plastic that is our cloistered civilization, with cinematic exuberance, and not sparing us the intricate descriptions of vomit clotted between the seats – in this, Ballard has not been equalled.

Lastly I am reminded of the odd film by Shin’ya Tsukamoto titled Tetsuo, The Iron Man, which I watched at 1 AM one night years ago on a fuzzy, miniature television – I never bothered with the Cronenberg adaptation. This transgressive s-f may be an untapped literary grove. This is not Grimdark, it can only be called Kago or Ballard. Even Burroughs never fully concentrated his literary pretensions. These works speak of our aimless destinations as a surrogate for our purposeless existences and the unrestrained attractions and misconstrued emotions inherent in our lives lived in cars, between places, the car as a second body and the total prosthetic, our true bodies in which our souls are no more tangible than the wings of angels. This book is a celebration of human frailty, a lucid rite of passage, haunted by the pressures of our impending demise, a cathedral composed of smegma and mucosa, the ultimate expression of anthropomorphic literature, which reveals the true purpose of car magazines. Even with its ceaseless, Sysiphean copulation, its hollywoodized disregard for sacred human rights and logic, its anarchism and religious imagery, the fossilized rictuses of weird WASP botox-faces, the absurd accumulation of details, and the immense stark, uncompromising vision all combine to provide a salacious and enigmatic masterwork.

I appreciated the parallels with bullfighting, probably misinterpreted the ritualized cruelty, the executions, but feasted on the meditation these pages offered, pervaded by euphoria, a pervasive unease, and improvisational streamlined distortions of reality, immense cerebral dislocation, immeasurable cognitive dissonance, found in the Darwinian confidence of these theatric method actors. Is it possible to go too far in consumerist desecration, in recording the private, unspeakable thoughts bred in solo exertion of literotic muscular spasms, in partaking in arousal prolonged to torturous heights, in self-immolating furies, in feverish, palpitating prose-serenades, in gory frenzies of flesh-toned bumper cars? As all this percolates uncomfortably into your brain, ask yourself if this soiled purity, these syphoned veins, this chaotic exhausting manifold transliteration of homo erectus prutid journalism is what you actually wish to read.

Will you share in the gross weight of secret knowledge, will you also come to regard car dealerships as brothels? A collide-o-scope of horror, for the most jaded literary enthusiasts, who don’t mind a page-by-page instant replay of the suggestions of coitus in the mere act of driving with the main character’s automobile mistresses. Anatomical contortions, lacerations, toxic relationships, the significance of partnership, illicit amatory forceful enemas, viscerally uncouth seduction, trance-like precision, squealing tyres, infinite corruption, mannequin-like waxy uncanny valley characters all sliding down the greased slope of post-modern wingeing, toward a pallid, comatose climax. If you were not bothered by Burroughs’ fictive suicidal asphyxiations, witness the driver’s seat become Ballard’s orgone accumulator. I have not used the word ‘fetishistic,’ but don’t forget ‘brave, bold, and un-subtle.’ It is a waterfall of metamorphic imagery, a scatological haunted house pantomime, a pareidoliac encyclopedia of orifices and mechanical architecture. Reckless but not wreckless. Also, the fictions imposed on reality by television should not go without mentioning, and cinema’s effect on our perception of reality seeps into the thin plot. The synthetic narrative distance it provides is paramount to nurturing the transgressive nature of the animals we have become. If the vivid vortex of exterior description is not too repetitive for you, the melancholy people in their nakedness will leave your tank on E.