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Why we are living in JG Ballard’s world

The visionary English novelist’s dystopian imagination, defined by cataclysmic events, quarantines and technological isolation, has never felt so prescient.

There are certain writers who, once you’ve read them, forever take possession of some part of your experience of the world. If you’re enduring sustained exposure to a confoundingly complex bureaucracy? That’s Kafka. Going anywhere or doing anything or talking to anyone in Dublin? Joyce. Feeling bored and sort of fancily anxious and also for some reason harassed by the wind in Southern California? That would be Joan Didion, obviously. But the writer who owns the largest part of the world right now is JG Ballard. He might not be as great a writer as those just mentioned, but much of our present reality now falls within the jurisdiction of Ballard’s imagination.

Especially now that life is presided over by a lethal viral pandemic, it’s hard to even glance at the news without coming across a story that could be the result of some kind of Ballard-inspired role-playing exercise. A luxury cruiseliner quarantined in San Francisco bay, its well-heeled passengers confined to their cabins for weeks on end. Holidaymakers on lockdown at a quarantined hotel in Tenerife after an Italian doctor comes down with coronavirus. A world of isolated individuals rarely leaving their homes, keeping a wary distance from one another in public, communicating with their friends and loved ones via exclusively technological means. These situations are so Ballardian as to be in the realm of copyright infringement.

Ballard’s oeuvre is filled with enforced quarantines and self-isolations, with riots breaking out among the bored middle classes. His 1982 short story “Having a Wonderful Time” is narrated in the form of brief postcards from a young woman on holiday in the Canary Islands with her husband. As the cards progress over time, stretching out eventually over months, it becomes clear the Canaries have been converted by the governments of Western Europe into a kind of mass detention camp, where members of the managerial classes, for some unspecified reason no longer employable, are to live out their days in a state of suspended leisure. It’s hard to think about this story now without immediately picturing quarantined cruise ships and all those holidaymakers confined to their resorts, lounging by the pools in protective face masks.

His 1977 story “The Intensive Care Unit” takes place in a world where humans live their entire lives in contented isolation,  interacting with others, even their own immediate families, solely via cameras and screens. It delineates a way of life that is both intolerable to consider and uncomfortably close to our present reality. The narrator has never encountered another human being in the flesh, living out his days in a kind of lavish and sophisticated  Skinner Box. (“My own upbringing, my education and medical practice, my courtship of Margaret and our happy marriage, all  occurred within the generous rectangle of the television screen.”)

The roots of this condition of maximal social distancing – this “archaic interdiction against meeting another human being” – are never clearly identified, but the narrator gestures at a context in which people have come to fear intimacy for reasons both psychological and, presumably, microbial. “As a child,” he tells us, “I had been brought up in the hospital crèche, and thus spared all the psychological dangers of a physically intimate family life (not to mention the hazards, aesthetic and otherwise, of a shared domestic hygiene).” He is, however, quick to forestall any suggestion that such a condition might be one of sadness or alienation. “On television I was never alone. In my nursery I played hours of happy games with my parents, who watched me from the comfort of their homes, feeding on to my screen a host of video games, animated cartoons, wildlife films and family serials which together opened the world to me.”

The story would have had obvious resonances with our contemporary culture even without the sudden catastrophic intervention of coronavirus, which has radically intensified the most alienating aspects of contemporary life. But now, at what seems like the dawn of a new age of human interaction, it feels almost unbearably prescient. There is a chilling moment halfway through when the narrator and his wife take the rash decision of meeting in real life, and she travels 30 miles across the city to visit his home. Needless to say, it all goes horribly wrong. Without the make-up everyone wears on camera all the time – a detail which anticipates the video chat masks people wear in David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest, as well as the present phenomenon of Instagram-specific make-up techniques – the couple seem to each other strange and wrong, and physically repulsive.

Once the whole family is brought together, the story devolves into an orgy of psychopathic violence. This was customary in Ballard’s work; in a sense, it was his great theme. His vision of the world was cheerfully bleak, and relentlessly anti-human: society as a thin and brittle construct that would always give way to a cruel and animalistic human nature. He was, as the Irish writer Rob Doyle puts it, “at heart a surrealist comedian and a perverse optimist: he wanted us to immerse in the destructive element, give free rein to the boundless psychopathology provoked by media technology.”

This theme of bourgeois psychopathy is most fully and effectively worked out in the 1975 novel High-Rise. The book is a coolly surreal depiction of a luxury apartment complex as it descends into surrealist chaos; the upper-middle-class residents gradually abdicate all connection to the outside world as they commit themselves to an ongoing orgy of destruction and violence. Its infamous first line tells you most of what you need to know about Ballard’s Freudian obsession with the violence and depravity lurking beneath the veneer of civilisation: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous months.” (Say what you like about Ballard’s skills as a prose stylist, he knew how to write an opening sentence.)

He wrote a series of more straight- forward sci-fi novels early in his career – The Wind from Nowhere; The Drowned World; The Burning World; The Crystal World – in which his apocalyptic mind produced various forms of imagined catastrophe. But the theme of civilisational collapse, of mass regression to barbarism, reverberated through his entire oeuvre. (In Kingdom Come, the last novel he published before his death in 2009, a hyper-consumerist modern Britain slides inexorably towards fascism – a fictional scenario that you could barely  describe as “speculative” today.)

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This dystopian imagination has its source in the author’s strange and turbulent early life. James Graham Ballard was born and raised in the Shanghai International Settlement, and during the Japanese occupation of the Settlement in the Second World War he spent two years of his early teens living with his family in an internment camp for Allied civilians. His autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun (1984), based loosely on this experience, goes some way towards illuminating the origins of his obsessive themes and motifs. Martin Amis – a founding member of the cult of Ballard – put it as follows: “While sharing in the general reverence for Empire of the Sun, the true cultist also felt minutely betrayed by it. Not because the novel won a wide audience and punctured the cult’s closed circle. No: we felt betrayed by it because Empire showed us where Ballard’s imagination had come from. The shaman had revealed the source of all his fever and magic.”

The book is filled with moments where artefacts of a ruined upper middle-class life are surreally set against a background of total collapse. In one bleakly funny scene, Ballard’s fictional avatar Jim observes the weird abundance of leisure items the mostly British internees have seen fit to take with them to the camp. “Recreation,” he remarks, “had clearly come high on the prisoners’ list of priorities while they packed their suitcases before being interned. Having spent the years of peace on the tennis courts and cricket fields of the Far East, they confidently expected to pass the years of war in the same way. Dozens of tennis racquets hung from the suitcase handles; there were cricket bats and fishing rods, and even a set of golf clubs…” (A quarter-of-a-million punters crammed, as they were recently, into the stands at Cheltenham, while a viral contagion of unprecedented force and scale threatens to cause millions of deaths and plunge the global economy into the abyss?  Ballard levels off the charts.)

Of all the images of a leisure class in steep decline in Ballard’s work, the presiding symbol is that of the drained swimming pool. In Hello America, drained swimming pools “seemed to cover the entire continent”. In High-Rise, the sloping floor of a drained pool is described as “covered with the skulls, bones and dismembered limbs of dozens of corpses”. In Cocaine Nights (1996), there is  a deserted sports club, “its tennis courts dusty in the sun, its swimming pool drained and forgotten”. In Empire of the Sun,  Jim’s parents drain their pool after leaving for the camp; when he returns later in  the novel, he jumps into it and cuts his knee, and a fly descends to feed on the residue of fresh blood he leaves behind on its surface.

In his 2008 memoir, Miracles of Life, Ballard writes about his lifelong preoccupation with this symbol, and its origins in an interlude in Shanghai after the outbreak of war. “Curiously,” he recalls,

the house we moved to had a drained swimming pool in its garden. It must have been the first drained pool I had seen, and it struck me as strangely significant in a way I have never fully grasped. My parents decided not to fill the pool, and it lay in the garden like a mysterious empty presence… In the coming years I would see a great many drained and half-drained pools, as British residents left Shanghai for Australia and Canada, or the assumed “safety” of Hong Kong and Singapore, and they all seemed as mysterious as that first pool in the French Concession. I was unaware of the obvious symbolism that British power was ebbing away, because no one thought so at the time, and faith in the British empire was at its jingoistic height.

If you’ve read even a small amount of Ballard – a writer of whom you really only need to read a small amount to get the gist – you will be incapable of seeing an empty swimming pool without doffing your cap in his direction. A while back, as research for a book I was writing about the apocalyptic mood of our time, I spent two days on a guided tour of the Chernobyl exclusion zone in Ukraine. In the abandoned city of Pripyat, as I stood at the edge of an empty Olympic-sized swimming pool, piles of dead leaves gathered at the lower ends of its sloped floor, I couldn’t help but think of Ballard, and of how much he would have relished the spectacle.


Dog days: Jeremy Irons as architect Anthony Royal in Ben Wheatley’s 2016 film of High-Rise 

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Twenty-first century life was already Ballardian. The rapid transition, under the new viral order, into further extremes of technological alienation has only made it more so. Western Europe is now a vast quarantined sprawl of empty streets and deserted motorways. People are confined to their homes, communicating almost exclusively via electronic means. Face-masked shoppers in the aisles of Marks & Spencer keep a wary distance from one another while stockpiling halloumi and organic wines against the coming tribulations. There is widely shared video footage of a pampered little showdog being walked through abandoned streets by aerial drones, operated by a pet owner too fearful of contagion to leave the house. All of it is unadulterated Ballard.

He is often spoken of as an experimental writer. This description is certainly justified by an exercise in Burroughsian narrative disjuncture like the The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), with its condensed descriptions of the Kennedy assassination as a sporting event. But in most of his work, Ballard seemed uninterested in the endless possibilities of the novel form, or in the sentence as a realm of artistic endeavour.

His characters are all more or less interchangeable pasteboard figures designed to move among the flat-pack constructions of his imagined scenarios. Committed Ballardians tend to dismiss this criticism as beside the point. They see vivid characters and interesting sentences as essentially bourgeois preoccupations; if that’s the sort of thing you’re after, they say, you can move along the shelf to Barnes, Julian.

The cultural critic Mark Fisher, in a 2003 essay about Ballard, acknowledged that the protagonist of Millennium People was “little more than a spokesperson for the author’s theories”, but went on to clarify that this “is fine, of course: we need more ‘well-drawn characters’ like we need more ‘well-wrought sentences’. The UEA Eng Lit mafia are as ripe for immolation as are any of the other cosily depressing targets of Ballard’s pyromaniac prose.”

I’ve never found this argument particularly persuasive, not least because Ballard’s prose is anything but pyromaniac; it is, at the level of language, mostly devoid of trickery or experiment or any sense of aesthetic play. A less softball comparison than the poor old UEA mafia – Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian  McEwan – would, I think, be the contemporary Hungarian novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai, a writer as obsessively concerned as Ballard with civilisational entropy, but whose work manages to be both formally radical and filled with fascinating characters and sentences of force and precision.

“Prosperous suburbia was one of the end states of history,” Ballard wrote with customary didacticism in Millennium People. “Once achieved, only plague, flood, or nuclear war could threaten its grip.”

Several times over the last few weeks, between bouts of millenarian melancholy and unease, I have found myself regretting that the old boy is not around to see all this. Perhaps it’s not quite right to say he would have loved it – because who could love the world right now, in its drastically reduced circumstances – but it is surely true to say that he would have recognised it. He would have felt at home in this strange new existence.

The lives he wrote about were insular, self-contained, contentedly devoid of real interpersonal relationships. The forms of human connection they yearned for are the fundamentally Freudian ones: sex and violence. And so there is an area of our current experience that remains outside the jurisdiction of his cataclysmic imagination. What the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated is that we don’t want to be isolated, communicating only at a technological remove. Suddenly thrust into this state of Ballardian suspension, what most of us want, most of the time, is to be out there, in the world of friends and strangers, together. Right now, we all live in Ballard’s world, but we are not all Ballard’s people.

Mark O'Connell is the author of To Be a Machine (2017), and Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back (2020). He writes for the Guardian, Slate and the New York Times.

This article appears in the 03 April 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special