Derelict airfields, drained swimming pools, encroaching sand dunes, mangled cars, drowned cities - if these images remain in collective memory, as ciphers for what it was like to be alive in the closing decades of the 20th century, it will be the utterly individual vision of J G Ballard that put them there. Ballard's work fits comfortably into no known genre. A more prolific and consistently inspired short story writer than H G Wells, a novelist more unblinking in his insight into solitude and the flimsiness of character than Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene, an "experimental" writer more unsettling and often funnier than William Burroughs, Ballard has taken up the familiar genres of literature and anti- literature as experimental devices in a lifelong effort to communicate a particular view of the world.
It is a view of things that goes flatly against the pieties of the age. It takes a certain nihilism as given. Ballard regards with suspicion all schemes - liberal, environmentalist - that aim to make the world over. Such schemes repose a faith in human society that Ballard plainly lacks. In Ballard's view, societies are composed of fictions, whose lack of substance is brought home in extreme situations. Much of his work concerns solitary, marooned individuals who see society not as a source of support but as an encumbering irrelevance. There is nothing in Ballard of the moralising humanist insistence that every disaster can somehow be transcended. Yet, if Ballard's stories have a message, it is in no way tragic. On the contrary, Ballard should be recognised as one of the most lyrical of 20th-century prose writers.
In Crash, Iain Sinclair has given us the most intelligent guide yet to Ballard's work - and what may be the subtlest meditation on film and fiction since David Thomson's neglected Borgesian masterpiece, Suspects. Yet the juxtaposition of J G Ballard and Iain Sinclair is far from obvious. Their views on the political and cultural scene from which they are equally estranged are quite different, even opposed. Sinclair's writings are a work of salvage and retrieval, a stand taken against the loss of cultural memory. In his psychogeography of contemporary life, the present is only the visible surface of history. Sinclair's London is about as far removed from Ballard's Shanghai as it is possible for two cities to be - a palimpsest of memories, in which the living and the dead, the unremembered and the reforgotten, are jumbled together. All in all, it is a much too cluttered, claustrophobic and Dickensian landscape for Ballard's purposes. Indeed, London appears in Ballard's writings only as the exotic backdrop of his first and perhaps best novel of catastrophe, The Drowned World. It is Shanghai around the time of the second world war, a quintessentially American city without the burden of a history or a future planted incongruously on Chinese soil, that is the recurring presence.
That much of Ballard's work is fuelled by memories of his childhood in Shanghai is obvious. The Hobbesian world of the internment camp, in which he was confined as a boy, recurs in novels as different as The Drought and High-Rise. The intolerable sense of loss he appears to have suffered when his wife died suddenly in the early 1960s is a muted theme in some of his short stories that emerges explicitly in his quasi-autobiographical book, The Kindness of Women. Yet it is not Ballard's memories of childhood or bereavement that are the leitmotiv of his writings. It is the struggle with memory itself. All of Ballard's writings are an experiment with time. The obsessively repeated surreal images in which they abound are attempts to do in words what Dali, de Chirico and Delvaux did in many of their paintings - to transform the meaningless and sometimes unbearable dross of ordinary experience into images of beauty and fulfilment.
Nearly all of Ballard's most successful stories concern individuals who seek to escape from the tyranny of passing time. When their search is successful, the personal and cultural past that they carry with them is dissolved in the deep time of archaic, pre-human history and the present. For Ballard, as perhaps for Conrad, personal identity, with all its weight of memory and regret, is among the social fictions that, in extreme situations, are tested and found wanting. In contrast with Conrad, however, the dissolution of personal memory and identity that often occurs in Ballard's stories is experienced not as a disaster but a liberation.
Because it concerns life as it is lived when the fictions that sustain society have broken down, Ballard's work thwarts the nagging demand for a political message. Even so, in comparison with the projections of more politically engaged writers, the picture of society that Ballard's work contains has proved to be clairvoyant. His disparagers are quick to point out that his novels and short stories contain little of plot or character. True, the tired parochial themes of so much postwar English fiction - class, ambition, divorce - appear hardly at all in his writings. That absence, however, makes his work so much of the present. The postwar novel takes its subject matter from institutions and conventions - marriage and career, for example - whose redundancy in the lives that most people find themselves actually living is palpable. It is difficult to read the novels of Angus Wilson or Iris Murdoch, say, without a distracting sense of anachronism. Much of the time one might as well be reading Jane Austen. What is astonishing about Ballard's work, on the other hand, is the exactitude of its prescience. As early as the 1960s, in the beautiful stories collected in Vermilion Sands (1971), he anticipated a society in which entertainment would be the dominant industry, consumption the core of the economy and boredom the principal evil.
What is so striking about Crash is its publication date. In 1973, the eroticisation of technology, the reinvention of war and politics as branches of the media, the emergence of paparazzi as proxies for a public of voyeuristic stalkers, were barely perceptible trends. Ballard was one of the few observers for whom the Kennedy assassination was not a chapter in the dated genre of conspiracy but the start of a new politics in which power would be exercised by the dissemination of images. The hysterical reception of Cronenberg's film - a polished rendition of the death of affect from which the characters of Crash are trying to escape - demonstrated that Ballard's vision has lost none of its capacity to shock. His "trajectory of fate" - the hidden path he sees linking the spectacle of power with television images of fame and death - was still too disturbing to be understood. It is not so much that Ballard foresaw events such as the death of Princess Diana. Worse, his diagnosis implies that they have become inevitable.
What proved unacceptable in Cronenberg's film was not its sexual vignettes, which are oblique and restrained. It was the film's suggestion, which faithfully reflects Ballard's intent in the book, that in societies in which scarcity has been overcome, what is most threatening is the loss of desire. Contemporary economies stand on the insatiability of our wants. Because they are so quickly sated, the economy soon comes to depend on the manufacture of transgressive desires. Ever since Mandeville's Fable of the Bees we have known that the creation of wealth requires the mobilisation of passions that morality represses. Ballard goes one step further and suggests that the health of late 20th-century economies depends on mass psychopathology. It is not entirely fanciful to see in Crash a premonitory glimpse of the world that is being shaped in the Bluewater shopping centre.
Still, to view Ballard as a political moralist would be a complete misreading. He is not a Ralph Nader or Herbert Marcuse, railing against the emptiness of a society based on consumption. Nor is he a Dali of the free-market, "a demented melt-down of Thatcher and Aleister Crowley", in Sinclair's amusing hyperbole. Ballard's achievement is not to have staked out any kind of political position. Rather it is to have communicated a vision of what individual fulfilment might mean in a time of nihilism. Ballard seems never to have harboured illusions about the country to which he came after his adventures in Shanghai. Perhaps he is not surprised that his work is so little understood. But it is a comment on the pettiness of British culture that it does not recognise its most gifted and original living writer.
John Gray's most recent book is "False Dawn: the delusions of global capitalism" (Granta, £8.99)