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Freewheeling Andy

JG Ballard is dead

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http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8007331.stm

 

In some ways, I think he was possibly Britain's greatest post-war author. He didn't focus too hard on character, and was certainly not a traditionalist, which is why he never won the prizes. The fact he started writing for SF magazines, and the focus on sex and the breakdown of society, on trying to sabotage the conventions of dreary post-war Britain (either within his books, like the plane crash in Shepperton leading to the creation of a god who transformed the suburban landscape in The Unlimited Dream Company; or by using his books/stories with something like The Atrocity Exhibition or Crash to shock) probably led to him not being adopted by the mainstream.

 

But it was precisely this visionary stuff - seeing the sexual implications of car crashes; or picturing the hell of modern living and how people get isolated and how easy it is for society to break down, in books like High Rise or Cocaine Nights - that made him so brilliant. All of it, it seems, informed by his childhood spent in hyperactive pre-War Shanghai and in the Japanese camp; and by his shock at how dreadful the Britain he returned to was in comparison.

 

The autobiography, which I read recently, is fascinating and brilliant and explains the central thesis to his work well, and how much of it comes from that early experience.

 

I'm sure there's an empty swimming pool with some broken sunglasses at the bottom and a 1950s nuclear bomber flying overhead, today.

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It plays with the idea of people getting aroused by car crashes, by the impact of destruction and technology. Fascinating and deeply disturbing. In the autobiog he talks about how he set up an exhibition in relation to it, of crashed cars, and had topless models serving drinks; and of the astonishing reaction it had, of people either getting physically violent, or, even more oddly, getting it on.

 

He was focussed on the psychological implications of the modern world and how people interacted and dealt with it. Utterly fascinating.

 

Crash is the novel that focuses on sex-and-car-crashes. Very graphic and violent, and not for the faint-hearted.

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Empire of the Sun is one of my favourite books of all time. I confess to only reading one other of his - Millenium People which I enjoyed. Wasn't it shortlisted for the Booker? Or longlisted?

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Empire of the Sun is a brilliant book. But it's one of those odd books which despite being brilliant is very different from the rest of the oeuvre of the author (a bit like, say, Norwegian Wood). It might give people a slightly odd impression of what the rest of his writing was like.

 

That said, the breakdown of society in a closed compound, and how it reorders and restructures itself, and the emergecnce of authority figures and peoples' desires to fall in behind those authority figures and go along with their weird suggestions or orders, which does feature in Empire of the Sun, features across lots of other novels, too.

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It may only be of interest to a Ballard obsessive like me, but there's a very good piece by Simon Reynolds here

 

http://www.salon.com/books/feature/2009/04/23/ballard/index.html

 

about the great man, and his influence, and his style.

 

There are a couple of things I have issues with in all the writing about Ballard I've seen in recent days, mind you. I think it's lazy journalism to go over the Joy Division/Comsat Angels music link. And I think it's pretty lazy journalism to do the "Hey! He had an adjective!" line, too.

 

I'm also of the impression he had much more of an influence on British literature than some suggest, as he was at the forefront of that desire to sabotage and subvert comfortable middle-class England with shocking images transposed into that environment - a precursor, really, to the Martin Amis and particular Will Selfs.

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Empire of the Sun is a brilliant book. But it's one of those odd books which despite being brilliant is very different from the rest of the oeuvre of the author (a bit like, say, Norwegian Wood). It might give people a slightly odd impression of what the rest of his writing was like.

 

 

I'm currently reading Empire of the Sun at the moment and must confess that I'm finding it tough going..I've never read any of his other work but maybe I would find theae completely different to Empire of the Sun....

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I think if you struggle with Empire of the Sun, you would probably struggle with the rest of his work, which is more hallucinatory; more inclined to push reality to its limits.

 

Ballard, by the way, was probably the author who did most to drag me out of my SF reading teens and more into the mainstream. He was SF in his own way, but his books were always more interesting, deeper, and more concerned with the very near future and extrapolation of modern society, than most SF was. And I found it more fascinating that modern life was being examined in these weird ways than I found reading space-opera stuff.

 

The focus on what would happen if weird-stuff occurred in modern suburban Britain made for a very interesting kind of SF, designed to subvert apparently very ordinary communities. It's why the lead characters, the ring-leader types, were so often fairly mundane home-counties professionals who got elevated somehow, sometimes entirely unwillingly like the pilot in The Unlimited Dream Company who becomes a demi-god in a small area of Shepperton.

 

The fetishising/emblematising of certain things, whether it's celebrity like Marylin Monroe or Ronald Reagan; or nuclear testing; or the gated communities of southern France and Spain; or motor vehicles and car crashes; I find reflects the concerns of society by pushing them way beyond their limits. Something that no other author I really know has managed to do. It's that which I would think should be "Ballardian", rather than decaying space-era rockets, empty swimming pools and broken sunglasses.

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