J. G. Ballard 1930—2009
by Mike Mosher
It's time I read J.G. Ballard's Crash again, for I'm surrounded by the fetishization of car ownership, of behemoth SUVs and oversized pickup trucks, in the part of the United States that, until recently, produced them. The movie by David Cronenberg failed to capture the book's clinico-mechanical gaze and its metallic amassed detail. Every time I drive I feel I'm doing something unpleasantly, shamefully transgressive, and it's not only Critical Mass friends and Al Gore pricking my conscience, but Ballard as well. I can't help but see him as a very political novelist. Not just for his follies like "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan" (then Governor of California) or "Plan for the Assasination of Jacqueline Kennedy". His a wry pop art, where Andy Warhol meets Charlie Manson in texts that might be found on Jon Stewart's night table.
We had gradually moved out of San Francisco's low-rise street level Mission, then as now a soulful and genuine neighborhood, to multistory apartments at the southern edge of the city that allowed me easy access to employment down the peninsula. There I read Ballard's haunting novel High Rise, where the residents of given floors of an urban London tower begin tribal wars, complete with raiding parties, against their rivals a story above or below. From his house in suburban Shepparton, England (home of film studios), he tapped an underlying hostility inherent in life lived in cubicles. High Rise should be required reading in architecture and urban planning classes. Ballard held a cold and shiny polished mirror to a high modernist, science-dominated world, for it to see--and gulp in strangled horror at--the irrationality roiling beneath the surface until its moment of eruption.
Ballard appears in a copy of Science Fiction Studies #55, November 1991. Vivian Sobchak, film historian at UC Santa Cruz, criticizes Ballard's medical erotics much as she did the Berkeley cyberpunks of Mondo 2000 magazine who dismissed "meat"--the body--as supposedly rendered irrelevant by virtual reality. Sobchak, who had recently undergone surgery, reminds the reader of pain suffered by surgery upon her middle-aged mortal body. In that journal is a short essay by Jean Baudrillard on Crash, and the novel's author responds. Ballard praises Baudrillard's writing on America as Swiftian satire, but responds with exasperation at the idea of the reading of science fiction genre being considered a "discipline" "God help us!" He rails at postmodernism's approving view of SF as being a "doubly sinister...bourgeoisification of the form by over-specialized academia...You are killing us! Stay your hand! Leave us be!" He calls on the US to thrive in the spirit of Wright brothers, not (a dig at Baudrillard) European intellectuals"trapped inside your dismal jargon".
But there's jargon and then there's jargon. Whereas Joyce was poetic in his erotics, Ballard was clinical. He had worked in technical editing, and told interviewers V.Vale and Andrea Juno (for their excellent RE/Search #8/9 book-sized Ballard anthology) that he subscribed to various magazines for their deadpan prose and odd technologies. His educated, befuddled heroes were often men of science--Cape Canaveral, Florida was often a favorite setting for his disrupted lives and environments. One recalls John Berger's interest in scientists, engineers and aviators as the new "classless" men in Edwardian Britain. His later novel Cocaine Nights had a bit o' the old ultraparanoia, but generally felt trivial. Though Douglas Coupland's 1995 Microserfs may have been one attempt, a contemporary Ballardian might wrest disturbed, disturbing ballads or fictions from the boom-and-bust employment fluidity of contemporary Sunnyvale, Pontiac, Bangalore or Shanghai.
Mike Mosher has uncompleted novels.