Remembering J.G. Ballard, 1930-2009

The visionary writer has passed away at age 78. This entry from "The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" takes us on a tour of his best and bravest work.

Published April 19, 2009 7:38PM (EDT)

Across four decades, fifteen novels and several dozen short stories, James Graham Ballard has established himself as one of  the most singular -- and single-minded -- visionaries of twentieth-century literature. Pursuing his acknowledged obsessions, Ballard tells essentially the same story over and over again: A lonely, neurotic male protagonist, mesmerized by a threatening environment which he understands as powerful and fertile, gradually slides into a blissful dementia, convinced that union with the hostile landscape will bring psychological or spiritual fulfillment, even (or especially) at the cost of self-obliteration. Ballard's settings vary from the lush forests of equatorial Africa to irradiated atolls in the South Pacific to the barren motorways of suburban London, but all his landscapes are really interiors. The automobile junkyards, drained seas, abandoned resorts and overgrown airfields are projections, emblematic fields of psychic desolation where images of media celebrities and nuclear explosions have replaced human emotion.

Ballard's early short stories, published in the 1950s and early 1960s, placed him squarely in what was then known as the British New Wave of science fiction, a group of young writers more concerned with psychological and sociological critique than with rocket voyages to other planets. As he put it, "the alien planet is Earth." But the distinctive, seductive nature of Ballard's vision emerged in the quartet of apocalyptic novels culminating with "The Crystal World" (1966),  in which the entire planet is imagined as metamorphosing into a beautiful but lifeless mineral sculpture. With the stories in "Vermilion Sands" (1971),  it remains among the author's most haunting and lyrical depictions of destruction.

In the 1970s, Ballard shifted to savage tales of urban anomie, incorporating a growing fixation with automobile culture, televised violence and pornography. The collection "The Atrocity Exhibition" (1970) -- including such infamous stories as "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Race" and "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" -- written in a collage style dense with deliberately obscure technical language, may now seem like an arid postmodern gambit. Nonetheless, it engendered "Crash" (1970),  undoubtedly Ballard's most notorious and influential novel. This book, in which a protagonist named James Ballard is drawn into a suicidal subculture of car-crash enthusiasts, was understood by many of the author's fans as a paean to technological nihilism. In retrospect, it reads clearly as a satiric cry of protest, a portrait of a man so starved for human contact he will risk his own mutilation or death to achieve it.

As Ballard eventually proved in the heart-rending, semi-autobiographical novel "Empire of the Sun" (1984) -- largely based on his own extraordinary childhood experiences in a Japanese internment camp in occupied China during World War II -- he is capable of standing outside his own obsessions and viewing them with a bemused, sympathetic eye. All the lurid, hypnotic strangeness of Ballard's other fiction is present -- as is the unmistakable sense that the non-Ballard characters are not quite real -- but it becomes clear for the first time that his obsessions with death and desolation are the result of profound personal trauma, not intellectual conceit.

If "Empire" is the apotheosis of Ballard's work, "The Kindness of Women" (1991) is his ultimate act of transcendence and redemption. Another half-fictional memoir, it follows the narrator's troubled and tragic romantic career from Shanghai through the "craze years" of England in the 1960s, when his beloved wife dies in a freak accident.  It leaves him in the end a widower, a single suburban dad and a famous writer, grateful to the strong women who have helped him survive his remarkable life and the dreamlike, unforgettable  fictions it has called forth.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Fiction R.i.p. Science Fiction And Fantasy