According to historian Eric Hobsbawm the twentieth century really began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in his car in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914. It was a century dominated by assassinations, cars, aeroplanes, wars, mass production and American pop culture. For me the novelist who perhaps best captured the obsessions and imagery of the twentieth century was the Shanghai-born English novelist J G Ballard. Pigeon holed early as a science fiction writer, for a long time Ballard was not noticed by critics. He had his champions, of course, such as Martin Amis, but in general his books seldom broke through into the popular consciousness until the publication of Empire of the Sun in 1984.
Ballard’s early apocalyptic novels from the 1960's such as The Drowned World and The Crystal World cut against the mainstream science fiction of the time with their concern for the effects of disaster on protagonists’ psychological states. In 1973 Ballard’s most remarkable period as a novelist began with the publication of Crash, a book famously rejected by one London publisher’s reader with the phrase “This author is beyond psychiatric help - DO NOT PUBLISH.” Crash is the story of Vaughan, a television psychologist who is fixated by the sexual power of the car crash and who wishes to die in an auto-erotic accident with Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine. A damning indictment of, and also a love letter to, American celebrity culture, Crash reads as fresh, subversive and lively today as it did forty years ago. It prefigures the deaths of Princess Diana and Grace Kelly and recapitulates the deaths of Franz Ferdinand, JFK and screen siren Jayne Mansfield who was decapitated in the 1967 crash of her Buick Electra 225.
Ballard’s follow up to Crash was a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story, Concrete Island, about a man who crashes his car and is trapped in it at the junction of many motorway flyovers and sliproads, living desperately on his concrete island and finally dying unseen by the thousands of commuters passing by on their way to work. High Rise (1975) is a funny, perverse and oddly believable novel about the collapse of civilisation’s norms within an apartment building. Satires on the English sense of decorum seldom get this ribald or excoriating.
For me, though, the climax of this period in Ballard’s evolution is the willfully strange, surrealistic novel The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) about a man who hijacks a small plane and crashes it into the Thames in the sleepy suburb of Shepparton. It’s never clear whether the pilot died in the crash or not but certainly some kind of apotheosis takes place and throughout the novel London is transformed into a seething, primordial, tropical city (similar in many ways to the London of The Drowned World) rich with sexual and avian imagery. The Anglo-Saxon world has generally been uncomfortable with the erotic and surreal in serious fiction but Dream Company is a book which treats both these tropes with the gravity they deserve and it may be Ballard’s finest work.
Empire of the Sun (1984) is a novelistic retelling of the young Jim Ballard’s imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp from 1942 - 1945. Although the story is told in conventional matter-of-fact prose the book throbs with Ballard’s usual obsessions: war, repressed sexual desire, cruelty, ruined cities, America, cars, flight. As a novel of people in extremis it is a psychological masterpiece as well as being probably the last great novel to come out of the direct experience of World War Two.
In the 1990's and early 2000's Ballard wrote more volumes of memoir and interesting novels about the growth of advertisement speak, business parks, motorways, urbanisation and the spread of pop culture into all walks of life. In 2009 Ballard died of prostate cancer and the British obituaries were respectful but somewhat restrained in their praise. Ballard had been hard to categorise and he was never completely embraced by the British establishment even after his success in Hollywood. It’s a shame because many of Ballard’s contemporaries have dated rather badly and their books read like peculiar period pieces, but Ballard has hardly dated at all. Like Philip K Dick his voice is that of the clear sighted Cassandra warning us of the perils and strange joys ahead. Ballard agreed with the poet Horace who famously said that “they change their skies but not their souls, those who run across the sea,” which is true even when the seas are black with pollution and the sky is a radioactive hell.