Fiction of the week

The Complete Short Stories

J G Ballard <em>Flamingo, 1,200pp, £25</em>

ISBN 0007124058

If "Ballardian" were to enter the English language, as it one day must, what would it stand for? The poetry of technology? A visionary science-fiction style? Or perhaps prescience? Perhaps all of the above. J G Ballard has made futurology seem almost respectable. His novel High Rise (1975) anticipated the present disenchantment with living and working in tall buildings. His short story "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" predicted that the ex-film star would one day run for the White House. "The profound anality of the presidential contender may be expected to dominate the US in the coming years," wrote Ballard in 1968. Not for nothing was he dubbed the "Seer of Shepperton".

Fictional conceits in his work that once seemed far-fetched have become commonplace, such as 24-hour shopping and four televisions per household. His short stories "Thirteen to Centaurus" and "Manhole 69" featured Big Brother-type scenarios (the goldfish bowl as social experiment) long before Nasty Nick was even conceived. Commercial breaks in toll-free telephone conversations can be only a matter of time.

There are two striking things about The Complete Short Stories. The first is its size: 96 stories spanning 1,200 pages. The second is the consistent quality over nearly half a century. There is no falling off. If anything, the stories grow bolder and more experimental. In "Answers to a Questionnaire", he leaves the reader to deduce the questions. "The Index" is a fiendishly clever work reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges at his most playful. The "index" is all that is left of a lost autobiography of the remarkable Henry Rhodes Hamilton, who, we are told, knew everyone from Adolf Hitler to Ernest Hemingway. It's such a detailed index that the book itself is superfluous.

Ballard is one of the few postwar British authors to have created a fictional landscape that is as instantly recognisable as, say, Greeneland. When he began writing, in the mid-1950s, he entirely redefined the sci-fi genre. His early credo was to explore inner space rather than outer space, and he examined the impact of technology on human desire with a forensic imagination. His stories are not set in the future, but in a sort of reimagined present. The future is here and now. But it is misleading and reductive to describe Ballard as a science-fiction writer (a label he has always disliked), because he owes as much to surrealism as he does to sci-fi. He paints images with words. A characteristic story from his early collection Vermilion Sands, and the high water mark of his fiction, features an enigmatic Madonna figure and various other props from the surrealist panoply, such as sonic flowers, cloud sculptures, singing statues and sand rays. He is living proof, too, of Graham Greene's maxim that childhood is the credit balance of a writer's life. If his recurrent motifs - empty swimming pools, abandoned hotels, deserted airfields - are displaced memories of his Shanghai upbringing, as he claims, then his ideas are also childlike in their simplicity. In "The Thousand Dreams of Stella Vista", houses change colour according to the mood swings of the occupants. In "The Greatest Television Show on Earth", time travel allows camera crews to broadcast live footage of the battle of Waterloo and the Sermon on the Mount. And in "Now: Zero", the narrator with the power of performative utterance issues a death sentence on the reader. In essence, his stories are fairy tales for grown-ups, which perhaps is why they have lasted so well, despite the odd reference to gramophone records or a trip from Earth to Murak costing £3,000 (nothing dates in literature like currency).

The lexicon of his imagination can sometimes seem deliberately repetitive; at other times, it is just plain repetitive. It may be heretical to say this, but many of his novels, no matter how well executed, strike me as overextended conceits. He is more impressive in the narrow orbit of the short story.

But to be fair, Ballard sees himself primarily as an imaginative writer. "It's the images I produce and the ideas enshrined in the images that are the key things," he has said. "Their translation into words is the least important part of the enterprise."

Years ago, he envisaged novels being written by computer and poems regurgitated by a verse transcriber. Cynics might say we have reached that stage already. Who, after all, can recall a single line by the poet laureate? Buy this book if you want an antidote to banality.

Sebastian Shakespeare is editor of the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And now the trouble really begins

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.