Once, over one summer, I read five JG Ballard novels back to back.
"JG Ballard Autoeroticizes Liz Taylor" by David Russell Talbott
The summer was hot as an infection -- a sweltering nightmare of road exhaust, girls in clinging cotton dresses traveling in packs to salsa bars to dance all night long alone and with each other, reptiles in dreadlocks striving to end the war in Iraq by selling weed in coffee shops, and me still refusing to drive a car or ride a bicycle, walking everywhere, walking all around Austin for hours on end, thinking about food and sex and shelter, thinking about beauty and time, but mostly thinking about you people. Readers.
Trying not to hate you.
I found a copy of Ballard's "The Unlimited Dream Company" in a bin at a used bookstore. It was a strange copy of the book: it had a cellophane cover, as if some librarian got ahold of it first and taped it up to preserve it from grubby, children's fingers. Or so you could wipe the semen off with a wet rag if you needed to.
I bought it for the title, along with a copy of Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano." After I finished "The Unlimited Dream Company," I went on a Ballard hunt all over town, searching for more, finding only a few titles in all of Austin's anemic little bookshops.
I went on a Ballard binge because his books clipped me like a train's cowcatcher, and I felt myself swept to the side, useless to art, extraneous to his project, "a hated reader," and I didn't want to feel that way. His books made me want to grow into something else other than a consumer of literature. Reading Ballard was like reading a book written by a horde of insects. His conceits carried the same view of humanity: as food, as mechanism, as fear, need, and blood.
His books put me into a fever-state. While reading Ballard, I found myself frequently sporting a massive and uncomfortable erection, even though you couldn't really call his books porn, and I could not pinpoint a single sexually exciting paragraph or section, nor could I get behind any of his clear perversions.
But here was a pervert who opened up possibilities for thought and fantasy. If he could, you could. He was a granter of evil permissions.
He stripped sex into mechanical components, into fuel, grotesquerie, and pain. Nothing about his work was appealing, except for the careful precision of the prose, the strength of the rage behind the catalog of horrors, and the bold power of his apocalyptic allegory.
He was talking about modern life, using direct sentences to convey oblique and dangerous metaphors in a way that simultaneously captured the vagaries of existence as a demented hot-blooded sex-fiend and as a cold-hearted, hate-filled iconoclast.
If you were well-adjusted, his books made you feel like an alien. If you were an alien, his books made you feel like an alien from hell. If you were an alien from hell, you probably had souls to torture, and didn't have time to read. Success! You were where you were supposed to be in Ballard's universe. He was putting words down on a page with the economy and thrift of a war surgeon, and he wrote entire novels to carve new space in your mind, new holes for new worms.
It would be neat to call Ballard a science fiction writer so that we could raise up science fiction somehow, or place him somewhere in the "speculative canon." But Ballard was not playing the genre game, nor the literature game. In fact, was he even writing fiction?
More like, he was using fiction as a tool to write something else; some kind of extended parable about how dead matter is animated by corruption and mutant seed. He was experimenting, but not to be liked or to impress people with how intelligent or peculiar he was. He was experimenting with the inseminating power of the printed word, injecting concrete, pistons, and dead landscapes with the seed of human evil. In order to understand the modern world, he made the modern world into a tragic tyrant -- an ultimately pathetic sadist that claimed lives and sanity as tribute, a sadist who could be mocked, feared, and loved at the same time.
Anyway, now Ballard is dead.
You should read "High-Rise" and "Concrete Island" because they are tough nuggets of fiction-gristle that will wake you up to the possibilities of story-as-object. He establishes a concept and he carries through with it, deliberately ignoring every narrative choice that a humanist would make.
I especially like "Concrete Island": a man lives like a castaway on a highway median after a car-wreck strands him there and no one notices. Here is a perfect concept. Yet, Ballard's execution is all fucking wrong: it is brutal, efficient, and numbing where it should be deadpan and pithy.
You should read "Crash," too.
You won't like it. How can you actually like a work of fiction that is trying to hurt you?
You won't find any happy, sensible people clutching "Crash" to their hearts with their favorite pages lovingly dog-eared. Instead, "Crash" -- a story about a man who becomes sexually obsessed with another man who is sexually obsessed with killing Elizabeth Taylor in a head-on collision -- will jolt you and make you pause and consider: do I want to write stories so that people will like me? Or do I want to express myself no matter what the cost?
If you read "Crash," you will see what the cost can be. You will either become a braver writer or an angrier one.
If you locked Brett Easton Ellis, William Burroughs, and James Ballard in a single stone prison cell with nothing but a blanket and a bucket for waste, you would come back in a year to find Burroughs has hung himself with the blanket, Ellis has gone mad, and Ballard is standing there calmly, smiling at you, drawing still-life portraits on the wall with Ellis' feces and Burroughs' snapped-off femur.
Ballard, for all his faults as a storyteller, had motherfucking eggs. If he's in hell now, he'll be fine.
Ballard's got lots of other books, too, besides his controversial ones. I've never read "Empire of the Sun" and I've never seen the movie, but supposedly it is autobiographical, and it must be in some way heartwarming because Spielberg made a movie out of it in the eighties.
Ballard also published many, many short stories, some of which I guess must have been "science fiction," since that's how everybody seems to know him: as a transgressive speculative fiction writer. Instead, he seems more like a brain-stem-accident victim who taught himself to think again using "science fiction" books who then proceeded to write romance novels. Somebody with a cut corpus collosum who has a contract to write Sweet Valley High books.
I'm going to end with one of Ballard's most famous short stories, one that is not "science fiction" at all. He wrote this one in 1967, when a young actor from California named Ronald Reagan was trying to get the Republican nomination for President. Some "situationists" got ahold of it and distributed the story (in pamphlet form) at the Republican National Convention. The myth is that many of the people who ended up with a copy decided that it was an actual scientific study, and so maybe it helped a certain political candidate out when he ran again in 1980.
What I am suggesting is that Ballard is accidentally responsible for the election of Ronald Reagan, the subsequent rise of the Christian right in America, the end of the Cold War, and the rise of the telegenic fascist. It probably took him an afternoon.
WHY I WANT TO FUCK RONALD REAGAN  by JG Ballard
RONALD REAGAN AND THE CONCEPTUAL AUTO DISASTER. Numerous studies have been conducted upon patients in terminal paresis (GPI), placing Reagan in a series of simulated auto crashes, e.g. multiple pileups, head-on collisions, motorcade attacks (fantasies of Presidential assassinations remained a continuing preoccupation, subject showing a marked polymorphic fixation on windshields and rear trunk assemblies). Powerful erotic fantasies of an anal-sadistic surrounded the image of the Presidential contender.
Subjects were required to construct the optimum auto disaster victim by placing a replica of Reagan's head on the unretouched photographs of crash fatalities.
In 82% of cases massive rear-end collisions were selected with a preference for expressed fecal matter and rectal hemorrhages. Further tests were conducted to define the optimum model-year. These indicate that a three year model lapse with child victims provide the maximum audience excitation (confirmed by manufacturers' studies of the optimum auto disaster). It is hoped to construct a rectal modulous of Reagan and the auto disaster of maximized audience arousal.
Motion picture studies of Ronald Reagan reveal characteristic patterns of facial tones and musculature associated with homoerotic behavior. The continuing tension of buccal sphincters and the recessive tongue role tally with earlier studies of facial rigidity (cf., Adolf Hitler, Nixon). Slow-motion cine films of campaign speeches exercised a marked erotic effect upon an audience of spastic children. Even with mature adults the verbal material was found to have a minimal effect, as demonstrated by substitution of an edited tape giving diametrically opposed opinions...
INCIDENCE OF ORGASMS IN FANTASIES OF SEXUAL INTERCOURSE WITH RONALD REAGAN. Patients were provided with assembly kit photographs of sexual partners during intercourse. In each case Reagan's face was super imposed upon the original partner. Vaginal intercourse with "Reagan" proved uniformly disappointing, producing orgasm in 2% of subjects.
Axillary, buccal, navel, aural, and orbital modes produced proximal erections. The preferred mode of entry overwhelmingly proved to be the rectal. After a preliminary course in anatomy it was found that the caecum and transverse colon also provided excellent sites for excitation. In an extreme 12% of cases, the simulated anus of post-costolomy surgery generated spontaneous orgasm in 98% of penetrations. Multiple-track cine-films were constructed of "Reagan" in intercourse during (a) campaign speeches, (b) rear-end auto collisions with one and three year model changes, (c) with rear exhaust assemblies...
SEXUAL FANTASIES IN CONNECTION WITH RONALD REAGAN. The genitalia of the Presidential contender exercised a continuing fascination. A series of imaginary genitalia were constructed using (a) the mouth parts of Jacqueline Kennedy, (b) a Cadillac, (c) the assembly kit prepuce of President Johnson...In 89% of cases, the constructed genitalia generated a high incidence of self-induced orgasm. Tests indicate the masturbatory nature of the Presidential contender's posture. Dolls consisting of plastic models of Reagan's alternate genitalia were found to have a disturbing effect on deprived children.
REAGAN'S HAIRSTYLE. Studies were conducted on the marked fascination exercised by the Presidential contender's hairstyle. 65% of male subjects made positive connections between the hairstyle and their own pubic hair. A series of optimum hairstyles were constructed.
THE CONCEPTUAL ROLE OF REAGAN. Fragments of Reagan's cinetized postures were used in the construction of model psychodramas in which the Reagan-figure played the role of husband, doctor, insurance salesman, marriage counselor, etc.
The failure of these roles to express any meaning reveals the nonfunctional character of Reagan. Reagan's success therefore indicates society's periodic need to re-conceptualize its political leaders. Reagan thus appears as a series of posture concepts, basic equations which reformulate the roles of aggression and anality. Reagan's personality. The profound anality of the Presidential contender may be expected to dominate the United States in the coming years. By contrast the late JFK remained the prototype of the oral subject, usually conceived in pre-pubertal terms. In further studies sadistic psychopaths were given the task of devising sex fantasies involving Reagan. Results confirm the probability of Presidential figures being perceived primarily in genital terms; the face of LB Johnson is clearly genital in significant appearance -- the nasal prepuce, scrotal jaw, etc. Faces were seen as either circumcised (JFK, Khrushchev) or uncircumcised (LBJ, Adenauer). In assembly-kit tests Reagan's face was uniformly perceived as a penile erection. Patients were encouraged to devise the optimum sex-death of Ronald Reagan.
See how the man worked?
Ballard was the problem and the cure. He's a bad, ugly drug with hooks, and you should take him.
Posted by miracle on Tue, 21 Apr 2009 00:06:03 -0400 -- permanent link